Legend has it that one of the first sportfishing boats was built in California. Crete was built with a “deep cockpit, a special chair to fish from and leather rod holders.” That boat was used in California for about a year and then shipped to Hawaii by a Capt. Mardon, where it was expected to pay for its keep by taking Haleiwa tourists fishing. The date? 1915.
I was born and raised in Florida, where I swept the chips from wooden boats, beginning in the late ’50s, so I may have a different perspective on the history and development of sportfishing boats. Many folks, all Floridians I suspect, insist that although that California boat may have started things rolling, it was not long before the epicenter of the sportfish world was South Florida — more specifically, Miami. Perfectly situated in relatively protected water with immediate access to the Gulf Stream, it is difficult to imagine a better location for the sport’s offshore genesis.
In the beginning decades of the 1900s most of the boats that were tasked with catching fish for fun or sport were converted for the job from boats that already made a living on the water catching fish for sale. Boatbuilders and yards were swamped with making hasty modifications to pleasure yachts and workboats.
It was pretty straightforward. Anglers could not fight big fish, with the gear available at the time, while standing. They needed a place to sit — old office chairs, wicker loungers, whatever worked.
By 1915, Miami Capt. Bill Hatch had discovered the technique of dropping a bait back for billfish hookups, and shortly afterward Capt. Tommy Gifford invented outriggers to get the job done. Boats sprouted bamboo outriggers overnight. An eclectic fleet with patched-together gear was pressed into service to take out the flood of tourists flocking south to catch the big one. Consensus was building, and purpose-built boats soon were gaining popularity.
My own mentor was Raleigh Stapleton, a well-known Miami boatbuilder who passed away a few years back at nearly 90. Raleigh was like a father to me and taught me the craft that he learned from Bernell Sawyer, another Miami builder, who was noted for a range of boats — rumrunners, yachts, skiffs and, yes, sportfish boats.
The Miami News gave press to a new boat Sawyer launched in 1929 for Capt. C. Laurie Munro, which was immediately leaving for a two-week “fishing cruise” to the Florida Keys. Sawyer’s boat was 35 feet with a 10-foot beam, and it was expected to cruise at 15 mph with its 80-hp engine.
Builders and designers made those engines work quite nicely by coupling them with easily driven hulls. Most boats like Sawyer’s were relatively narrow, with soft chines and very clean lines. And although 15 mph is slow by today’s sportfish standards, back then it was flying.
In the early days of fishing out of Miami it typically wasn’t necessary to run long distances to catch trophy fish. The Gulf Stream washes the edges of Florida less than 10 miles off the beach. From Pier Five, Miami’s famous charter docks, it was less than an hour until the lines were in.
As captains became emboldened by the development of better tackle and the ability to land big fish, they began to understand the requirements of their sport more clearly. What was working and what wasn’t became evident, and the successful skippers gravitated toward proven gear and boats.
Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar probably represents the most famous sportfish boat of that era. She is a 38-foot Wheeler built in New York in 1934. Powered by a 75-hp Chrysler, she reportedly would do 18 mph. Hemingway cruised Pilar between Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas.
She was equipped with a fighting chair, outriggers, a flybridge — a rudimentary collection of pipe, but it did have full controls — and a big roller across the transom installed as an aid to land large fish. Pilar wasn’t delivered from the factory rigged the way she is best known; she evolved over the years as Hemingway fished her.
Her flybridge, fighting chair and outriggers were derived from the experience of years aboard the boat. Having been aboard Pilar in Cuba, I can say that even though she is Spartan (much like the man), I’d happily fish her today. Her gear is professional-quality and well made. She didn’t have much in the way of speed or creature comforts, but it was enough to get the job done. Pilar fished into the late ’50s and is now on display at Hemingway’s old home outside Havana. She is one of the most significant privately owned American vessels in existence.
Like many private boats, Pilar spent the war years patrolling coastal waters to help keep America safe from German U-boats. As a result of the war effort, there were tremendous advancements in building materials and engines. Gasoline engines reached the pinnacle of their development, with the Merlin aircraft engine producing 1,600 hp from a design with four valves per cylinder, dual superchargers and fuel injection.
Aircraft were being built using a new technique, pioneered by Howard Hughes on the Spruce Goose, in which multiple layers of wood were glued together to achieve great strength. Eventually, fiberglass arrived with the manufacture of radomes for aircraft. The sportfishing business was about to change.
The war effort had created more technology at a faster pace than at any other time in history. And the economy was heating up — fortunes had been made in the war years by individuals who were now looking for some much-deserved relaxation. South Florida became a magnet for the wealthy and a hot spot for returning veterans.
The Rybovich family moved to West Palm Beach in 1910. They survived on the commercial side of the fishing and boatbuilding industry and finally saw the stars align. With skills gained over decades and honed by the war effort, the Rybovich yard built Miss Chevy II, a boat credited with being the breakthrough that spawned the modern sportfishing boat.
Miss Chevy IV, built just a few years later, would probably strike most readers as a more recognizable sportfish, thanks to the removal of the coach roof, or “dog house,” that had given headroom below for so many decades. The coach was replaced with a raised sheer forward and a break in the sheer as it came aft. This arrangement gave owners headroom forward in the cabin, but lowered cockpit freeboard to get big fish aboard more easily. Though this sheer had been around for 30 years, Rybovich changed the transition between the foredeck and the cockpit from a concave to a convex curve. The “Rybovich sheer” is still around today.
Other builders also began to flourish: The Merritts in Pompano, Whiticar in Stuart, Forrest Johnson in Miami, and others built quality boats and claimed their share of postwar sportfishing history. Builders embraced either wood cold-molding or the emerging fiberglass technology to develop the strongest, lightest boats — a race that continues today in the big sportfish category. Bigger engines were readily available, and relatively lightweight diesels became the norm. The availability of big horsepower and cheap fuel drove designers toward ever bigger, faster boats.
Today, sportfish boats run up to 90 feet with thousands of horsepower, burning hundreds of gallons an hour. Yet the formula is pretty much the same; although some boats have more or less flair, tumblehome or deadrise, they share the basic aesthetic of Miss Chevy IV from 60 years ago.
We are now writing a new history. Outboard-powered center consoles dominate the market. For the classic sportfishing boat to survive, I think we will see average size shrink and weight-to-length ratios drop.
Smaller and more efficient engines will power more easily driven hulls. The reality has always been that sportfish boats played a dual role for owners, providing a comfortable platform for cruising or even dockside entertaining while being suited to chasing the big ones. The sales manager of a large U.S. sportfishing builder recently confided in me that the majority of its owners do not fish but simply love the style.
I recently completed a 32-foot sportfish for a customer who owns a 65 Viking. The Viking tows the smaller boat to the canyons, where the real fishing is done out of the 32 because the potential for landing big fish is better out of the smaller, more maneuverable boat.
This much I’m sure of: When we look back on the sportfishing boats of yesteryear it will be with some nostalgia and a chuckle, like remembering those big Cadillacs with their huge tail fins. Sportfishing is not going away, but the way we do it certainly will continue to change.