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Men have gone to sea for thousands of years. During that span of time, indigenous tribes, naval architects, boatbuilders and stylists have experimented with everything imaginable regarding the outward appearance of boats. The idea that some person or corporation owns the right to specific design elements is hard to defend, but occasionally a formidable threat when coupled with spite and money. We have first-hand experience with this from events that took place a few years after I left the old yard and struck out on my own.

Much has been written regarding my family’s influence in sportfishing boats. Uncle John once humbly said that “we were in the right place at the right time, and with a few tools, you could make something.” Our first seven boats, launched between 1947-52, were built with the conventional straight sheer line of the times. Merritt still builds all of their boats with a similar sheer line today, and I applaud their family for sticking with that design and making it their own. On the sportfishing docks, it is now generally recognized as the Merritt sheer—simple, clean and elegant. When Charlie Johnson ordered his second boat from our yard in 1952, a modification to the straight sheer line changed the look of our boats forever. The truth is, we were influenced by others as well, not the least of which was Chris-Craft.

Chris-Craft was arguably the greatest production boatbuilding company the world has ever known. The diversity in their product line and their innovations in wooden boatbuilding were such that at one point, they were running through more than one million board feet of mahogany per year on numerous, distinct assembly lines. Consider that for a moment: mass production wooden boatbuilding a la Henry Ford. According to archival records, it actually took Chris-Craft less time to build cruisers out of Philippine mahogany than it would out of fiberglass in later years. Within the pages of Jeff Rodengen’s book, The Legend of Chris-Craft, image after image of design evolution is presented in an incredible display of diverse creativity. I’ll bet most of our readers have a story or at least a distant memory of cruising on a Chris-Craft runabout, Constellation or Commander at some point in their life. My father had a 47 Commander when we were kids, and those Abaco summer memories with my late brother, Tommy, are still fresh and among the best of my adolescence. Several of those Chris-Craft design elements were incorporated into our designs over the years and became synonymous with our product. We did not “invent” them.

In the early 1950s, my uncle Tommy was experimenting with different sketches of raised-deck ideas for a cleaner look and to help keep the profile of the boats lower. In our early boats, a trunk was necessary to get headroom below. The deckhouse sat on top of the trunk and the bridge was perched on top of the deckhouse. His sketches involved developing a raised deck forward and eliminating the trunk, with an abrupt change in sheer height aft of amidship. One afternoon in the mold loft, collaboration between my two uncles, Tommy and Johnny, resulted in a convex “broken sheer” being applied to the new sketches. This simple modification to the line would echo through the sportfishing world for decades to come. It was based on a design element borrowed from Chris-Craft that had been featured on some of their models at least 10 years earlier. The iconic “double handrail” which caps the bridge sides on most of our boats, beginning with Hull No. 2 in 1949, was another feature borrowed from Chris-Craft. It remains an easily recognizable aesthetic element on Rybovich boats today. Robert Graves had his own version of it on a few of his boats in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Chris-Craft never patented or registered either of these features, and neither did we. Lord have mercy, look at all the sportfishing boats with convex broken sheer lines today. Who could legitimately claim ownership of that design? And yet, that is exactly what happened a little over 30 years ago.

In the summer of 1984, I left the old yard and set up shop in a small warehouse on 28th Street in an old industrial section of West Palm Beach with my dad and my brother Marty. Full of piss and vinegar and an obsession with hull design, I was still young and dumb enough to want to prove to the world that I could build better boats on my own. Dad had been given written permission from the customer who purchased the yard from us to use the Rybovich name in business when he resigned in 1980. We were grateful for that and hung an ambitious sign on the building that read: “Rybovich International” and went to work. We trucked in numerous refit projects to make ends meet and built five boats from 24 to 34 feet with straight sheer lines in the first five years. Meanwhile, in 1986, the industrialist who had purchased our old yard had become disillusioned with his attempt to run a boatyard for profit (a novel approach) and sold the place, again, to another yard customer.

In early 1990, in our little shop, we shook hands on a deal to build Hull No. 6, a 38-foot dayboat similar to the 36s and 37s that had been the bread-and-butter of our family boatbuilding operation in the 1950s and ‘60s. I drew the boat up and lofted her with a broken sheer. Later that year, about the time Marty and I got the deckhouse on the boat, here come the lawyers, claiming design right infringement along with all sorts of other ghastly, concocted offenses. The design right infringements primarily referenced the use of the broken sheer and the double handrail. The use of our last name was another thorn, and the long-established written permission we had been given to use our name became a central issue. At that time, there were no less than 15 other custom boatbuilders employing the broken sheer, but we were a small, financially embryonic, local target. Chris-Craft was flattered when our family incorporated the broken sheer and the double handrail into our designs. The third owner of the old yard was anything but. A parasitic battery of seasoned maritime attorneys descended upon our small shop with cameras and enough mumbo-jumbo to scare us into submission. We attempted a logical and fact-based defense, but punted on fourth and long when the projected legal expenditure exceeded the national debt and the plaintiff actually threatened destruction of the offending vessel. Just before what would be a tough Christmas, we changed our business name to Ryco Marine and went back to the straight sheer and single cap rail by way of a consent agreement, obediently abiding by that agreement for the next 15 years. During that time, I never once heard the Merritts complain that we had infringed upon their design rights. No, that sort of thing is the stuff of stuffed shirts, and they are not that.

In the midst of this beautiful season for giving thanks, we have many blessings to count. One of these blessings is particularly important to our family as a whole. In 2005, the owner of our old yard at the time, Wayne Huizenga Jr., recognized the absurdity of a consent agreement forced upon us alone and rendered it null and void. I will forever be indebted to him for being such a gentleman and understanding it from our side. Although we never actually slew the Philistine 15 years prior, we persevered and survived. Today we are still standing, and we are tougher for it. “Who is gonna make it? We’ll find out in the long run.” Damn right, Mr. Henley.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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