It takes an entire family to totally transform a sport.
A 27-year-old carpenter sifted the Florida sands through his toes and stared out past the incoming surf. He’d married Anna just a few months before. Like him, she was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who’d endured the hardships first of Ellis Island and then of New York City’s teeming tenements. Now, a year after meeting, he and his new bride were living in a rented home in Palm Beach, Florida, the playground of American wealth. But the carpenter was hardly a rich man, and with the prospect of a family on the horizon, it was time for him to find employment in a field more stable than the seasonal home-building industry. He’d decided that the best way to stake out a future in his adopted country was to become a commercial fisherman, a year-round occupation in which success depended primarily on hard work, plus a little luck.
In 1923, 12 years after he’d exchanged a hammer for his own fishing boat, John and Anna Rybovich and their five children were living in a waterfront home he’d purchased in nearby Lake Worth. He’d built a service yard behind the house, and while fishing was his mainstay, he supplemented it by using his carpentry skills to repair boats. Fascinated by his dad’s business, his eldest boy, Johnny, began working in the yard at the tender age of ten.
But it was more than the yard that grabbed Johnny: it was the whole fishing lifestyle. During the next 20 years, when he wasn’t working at the yard, he’d be participating in the fledgling South Florida sportfishing community, even fishing in tournaments in the Bahamas aboard a 26-footer his father had taken as payment for a repair job. But when a letter from the government arrived in 1943, Johnny joined his two brothers, Tommy and Emil, who were already fighting in Europe.
What all three brothers learned from their time in the service became the cornerstones of their successful family business. Johnny honed his managerial skills as a procurement officer in the Army while Emil, who had volunteered two years prior, cut his engineering teeth aboard air-sea rescue boats. Tommy, the first brother to ship out, became an Army Air Corps pilot. It was on flak-filled missions in the skies over Europe, such as the one where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for limping home a badly damaged B-17 and saving his injured crew, that his admiration for solid aerodynamics and sleek forms found a fertile foothold. And it was that drive and hard-headed persistence that would keep the yard in business until Tommy’s untimely death at 52, fewer than 30 years later.
In 1946, the brothers returned to a postwar boom, and the yard, which John “Pop” Sr. and his daughters had run while his sons were away, began to prosper. In these incipient moments of what would become the Rybovich legend, a man named Charlie Johnson, a former service-yard customer and avid angler, asked the Rybovichs to build him a boat, a first for the yard. He gave the boys only one specification: it could not exceed 34 feet in length. Using the diverse skills each brother had developed in the service, the family set to work. Johnny outlined the necessities of a good fishing boat while Tommy concentrated on the shape of the hull and superstructure and Emil focused on the engineering. In 1947, the first custom Rybovich sportfisherman, Miss Chevy II, launched. She drew instant attention from the sportfishing community not only for her top speed of more than 20 knots, but for two features not previously seen in tournament waters: a modern fighting chair and aluminum outriggers.
By 1951, John “Pop” Sr. had passed the yard’s day-to-day operations to his sons, with Johnny at the company’s helm. Due to Miss Chevy II’s success, orders for more custom-built boats began to flow in. But the notoriety of the Rybovich yard had just begun to blossom. It was that year that Johnny, while inspecting one of Tommy’s drawings for Mr. Johnson’s new boat, Miss Chevy IV, penciled in a rise in the sheerline just aft of the wheelhouse. This broken sheer, influenced by those on earlier Chris-Craft designs, would become a Rybovich trademark. Miss Chevy IV also sported other new features such as a tuna door, a mahogany hull, and an aluminum tuna tower.
Although most of the attention-getting innovations came from Johnny, it was Tommy’s designs and dedication that really set the tone and drove the company forward. On dewy Florida nights, it was a common sight to see a light on in the yard’s drafting room or the boatbuilding shed. His hands-on approach, from grinding to varnishing, made him irreplaceable—no one knew how to build a boat like Tommy.
The next big step forward for the yard occurred in 1958, when a fellow named George Molle placed an order for a new boat to be constructed with epoxy resin instead of the more common resorcinol glue. While it would make Molle’s plank-on-frame vessel stronger, Tommy correctly reckoned that he could make an even more durable hull if he used the same adhesive with a cold-molded project. So in early 1960, the first of the legendary cold-molded Rybovichs, a 30-footer named Frisky, hit the water.
The 60’s saw the height of yard’s success. Orders poured in and boats kept getting bigger and more expensive. Buyers were willing to be waitlisted for years just to have the chance to own a Rybo-vich. Emil, in his zealous dedication to customer service, had the company purchase a seaplane so the yard could guarantee service to its customers no matter where they were fishing. Johnny began spending more time with his conservation fishing organizations, but Tommy had no focus but building boats alongside his hand-selected team of craftsmen, and this is perhaps why his death in 1972 was so devastating to the company. (Pop had passed away just two years before, and at his funeral, no one knew of the cancer that was already at work in Tommy’s body.)
By 1975, without two cornerstones of the family, Johnny and Emil were forced to sell the business. But, as the twists of fate would have it, they wouldn’t be the last family members to run the yard. In 1984 Emil’s son Michael, who was working at the yard during the sale, broke away and started Rybovich International and subsequently, Ryco Marine. Emil eventually joined him, as did many other former Rybovich employees. As the original yard switched owners four times, Michael’s company steadily flourished, launching new sportfishermen on a regular basis, until Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, wiping out Ryco’s buildings but thankfully leaving the three hulls in build untouched. The year before the storm, wealthy entrepreneur and real estate developer Wayne Huizenga Jr. had purchased the original Rybovich yard and had been looking for a management team to run it. Now with the two companies’ interests aligned, they reunited beneath one roof to form Rybovich & Sons. Some 30 years after the sale of the yard, the family was once again working on its own boats.
The newest Rybovich, the 78-foot Persistence, has nine decades of boatbuilding experience behind her. Launched in June 2009, her fighting chair, tuna door, broken sheer, and aluminum tuna tower and outriggers are now all familiar characteristics of modern sportfishermen. To them she adds the trademark Rybovich cold-molded hull and a reported 50-mph top speed.
The hard work and persistence of John Sr. and his family forever changed the face of sportfishing. “My grandfather would probably see it the same way I do,” Michael surmises. “The company will continue to build high-end, state-of-the-art sportfishermen and care for its customers. The future is the same as its been.”
For more on the Rybovich family and their boats, read Our History by Michael Rybovich, which was a main source for this article.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.