Photography by Tom Spencer
Against the Grain
If you love the lines of a sportfisherman but think mass-produced boats are nothing special, you may find a custom wooden yacht like this Merritt 46 to be your path to fulfillment.
The late afternoon light arced at right angles across the dock in front of me, a dock lined on both sides with large sportfishing yachts of every stripe. The light splashed into the cockpits of the battlewagons tied stern-to on one side of the dock, electrifying the gold and black grain of deeply varnished, teak-planked transoms. Imagine, if you will, a long row of blazing transoms side by side—it was a mesmerizing sight, particularly for anyone new to the thrill of sportfishing yachts.
I wondered out loud how many of the boats tied up here for the tournament were made of wood. A more experienced colleague walking the docks with me stopped and pointed at two, identifying one as a fiberglass design of some renown, and the other as a cold-molded Merritt Custom 46. The exterior finish on both was impeccable, with nary a black streak from some corroded fitting or sooty bloom from a poorly maintained engine.
I remember seeing that particular Merritt at the check-in and weighing station as its experienced owner deftly backed into a slip next to the scales and crane. Standing on the after edge of the flybridge, his back turned to the steering console, he slipped the shifters in and out of gear with precision; the corners of the cockpit followed the motion of his shoulders in a powerful, yet controlled, approach as dozens of onlookers watched. Judging wind and current, he backed in quickly and then stopped, the boat unmoving and suspended off the dock by maybe a foot. I remember thinking, I want to do that! And I wasn’t the only one.
This all came back to me as I considered the Mollie Whopper, a Merritt Custom 46 located in Beaufort, North Carolina, and offered in brokerage sales by Tom Harris at Harris Marine in nearby Morehead City. Since he sold fishing boats both small and large, in fiberglass and wood, I asked him which type would be right for me, if I wanted to take up big-game fishing seriously.
An open cockpit allows a team of anglers to work the deck.
You’ll find slight variations to this space on other custom 46s.
“Not to knock production fiberglass sportfishing boats—you’ll get much more room inside one—but when it comes to ride and efficiency, you’re not going to beat a custom-built boat,” said Harris. He grew up in the marine business, working on boats of all kinds and working in retail boat sales for his father’s company after college. In January 2009, he started his own company, specializing in brokerage yacht sales, transportation, and captain services.
“You can buy a production fiberglass boat, have it delivered in a few months, take it to Palm Beach for a tower, and join the club of numerous owners who have similar models,” Harris said. “[By comparison] there are certainly a number of Merritt Custom 46 designs out there, but they are all unique. And that applies to boats from every custom builder. That’s what makes them desirable.”
At the end of the day, many custom sportfishing boats, like those from Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works, are wooden—either traditional plank-on-frame construction or cold-molded. As such, they require a certain level of care, and potential owners need to acknowledge this up front.
“I routinely ask my customers how they’re going to use the sportfishing boat they’re considering, and what they owned before,” Harris said. “It helps tremendously to know what kind of maintenance and operating costs a customer is comfortable with, as well as how committed he is to traveling along the coast to different tournaments, and what his seamanship experience is.”
The meat of what Harris was getting at was that if you do not take care of your boat, it will not take care of you—especially a custom wooden yacht. Maintenance of a wooden yacht is time-consuming, particularly for a design with lots of varnish over exterior wood. As a potential owner, you may see this as a downside, but the labor you invest will also be viewed as a statement of your appreciation for the boat’s beauty and craftsmanship, and maybe an acknowledgement that you have the pride and the resources to keep a custom sportfishing design in the manner it deserves.
The engine room may be crouching height, but access to service points on the CATs is excellent.
“I meet a lot of my customers at tournaments,” Harris said. “They are deeply engaged in the sportfishing community, and many have traveled extensively with their boats and known one another for years. I also have a boat which I charter, and I occasionally captain another boat on the tournament circuit. Having common ground with a diverse range of dedicated owners and potential owners helps me understand what they will need in a sportfishing boat in the future.”
For Harris, the good thing about working with brokerage yachts from custom builders is that each brand offers a niche, a specialty it’s known for. There are builders respected for bare-bones, fishing-first designs, and others that specialize in the biggest head-turning yachts on the docks.
“On any given day on the docks, you can find one 60-footer built for $1 million, another built for $6 million, or anything in between,” Harris said. “Knowing their capabilities—their strengths and weaknesses—is key. Mollie Whopper would be right at home based out of Florida, running for the Bahamas or Mexico, fishing light tackle for sportfish of all kinds, or heavy tackle for swordfish and blue marlin. In fact, this boat took a 500-pound blue marlin last year. She is a great size for an owner to handle personally—incredibly nimble, safe offshore, and an all-around great fishing platform.”
Close the covers at the helm and you have a clear view of the open ocean—and the compass.
Judging by the list of improvements made and maintenance performed over the past years, the former owner of the Merritt shown here took good care of her. Improvements made in 2015 include the installation of Garmin 8212 and 7610 displays on the bridge, a new Garmin 5008 at the tuna tower helm, rebedding of all windows, and the addition of outlets for electric reels in the cockpit. In late spring of 2016 he added new ZF wheels, Blue Ocean LED underwater lights, new macerator pumps for the fish box, and new teak-and-holly flooring in the galley. As you might expect, he also had fresh bottom paint applied every year. Her twin CAT C-9s have had regular care, including the recommended 1,000-hour service.
So, what’s the next step if you want to make a custom wooden sportfishing yacht like Mollie Whopper your own? First, find a knowledgeable surveyor. “We use local and regional professionals to survey the boats we sell, those who are experienced in the building processes and the attributes of custom wooden boats,” Harris said. “Some may have more experience with cold-molding, others may have more knowledge of stick-built, plank-on-frame construction.”
Given all the custom wooden boatbuilding that has happened for decades in the Carolinas, chances are good you’ll find more than one surveyor—and more than one fabulous sportfishing yacht—in that area to satisfy your needs. And I’m more than sure there’s a sun-drenched dock nearby, too, with gleaming transoms brightening the scene in the late afternoon.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.