Photos by Steve Momot
The Desert and the Deep Blue Sea
The Cali-based, father-son team of Mike and Barrett Howarth jump from building center consoles to sportfishermen with the Mag Bay 42.
Every time I run into Barrett Howarth, he’s good for a story or two. And boy, are they worth it. Like the time he got punched in the face by a disgruntled casino-goer in Australia. That one’s a doozy. Or the time at the Fred Hall Show where they raffled off the individual braids on his head, flouting scissors in favor of a dull fillet knife. As the story goes, they raised so much money, and hacked off so much hair, that he was left with a long, flowing mullet that he proudly showed off during his final semester at the University of San Diego. Then there’s the seemingly endless off-roading excursions into the Mojave Desert around Lake Havasu, unloading semi-automatics in the dead of night, and fast times on the lake itself. I might have even been privy to one or two of those.
Back in November, he told me he gave his six-week notice. This was eye-opening, as the company he threatened to quit was his own: the family-run, center-console builder Mag Bay. In no uncertain terms, Barrett told me he wanted to “clock his dad in the head.” His dad, of course, being Mike Howarth, one of the original founders of Cabo. I was floored. Most of all because the father-and-son team were hard at work on a 42-foot sportfish, finally breaking into a segment they had been cast out of 14 years ago with the sale of Cabo. This was supposed to be their comeback. Was trouble brewing in the desert?
Gallery: Mag Bay 42
When I came across Mag Bay at the Miami boat show, I was relieved to find that whatever dust storm had kicked up between father and son had settled—at least for the moment. And there, as promised, was the finished 42 looking boat-show-ready, its Bausch tuna tower gleaming in the morning sun. The thirtysomething Barrett, on the other hand, looked spent. That had something to do with overseeing the boat’s journey east. After loading it onto a semi and transporting it more than 2,500 miles from the Mag Bay facility in California’s High Desert to South Florida, Barrett met the boat in Stuart to get everything ready.
“I’ve threatened to quit plenty of times,” he explained. But a fierce loyalty to his team of craftsmen kept him from following through. The spat with his father, as far as I could tell, was over a difference in design philosophy. But their squabble was most likely exacerbated by the move to a new facility, and the inevitable production delay. None of that even begins to describe the natural friction that must occur from working with your old man. They had planned to commemorate the launch of the 42 with a companywide barbecue and a mariachi band. Instead, they barely had enough time to take a picture with the team before it hit the road.
“I told my dad, ‘This is going to change or I’m going to quit,’” said Barrett. “And it didn’t change, but I couldn’t quit on my guys.”
We were standing in the cockpit as the boat show crowd picked up. Plans were tossed around to test the 42 just after sunrise. Mike agreed to accompany us. (Later, I would find out that this would be Mike’s inaugural voyage behind the wheel.) As I was getting ready to depart, a Volvo Penta rep in a checkered shirt stopped by the display.
“Get any sleep?” he asked.
“No, what is that?” Barrett deadpanned, revealing a weary grin. “I don’t think I’ve gotten more than four hours of sleep a night in the last month.”
But the real news was the resolution he gave himself effective immediately: Until hull number one was sold, Barrett was going to abstain from drinking alcohol. “I told you that, right? I’m not drinking ‘til I sell this boat. I’m a hard-headed, stubborn son of a bitch. This fishbox is filled with beer in anticipation.” He pointed. I lifted the hatch: Inside were enough Modelos for a celebration, whenever that day happened to arrive.
Barrett remembers the fateful day like it was yesterday. Not only the day, but the time. February 15, 2006, at 10:17 a.m. He was a 17-year-old junior in high school when he got the message. It was a text, and all it said was, “It’s done.” Just like that, Cabo Yachts was sold to Brunswick. “I broke down in tears in the middle of class. I just walked out,” Barrett recalls. “My parents were crying. The whole thing sucked.”
A sale would usually be a time to rejoice, but not for the Howarths. Cabo was founded by Mike Howarth and Henry Mohrschladt in the early 90s, after building sailboats for years with Pacific Seacraft, another company they started from scratch. The partners correctly read the market, seeing a growing trend toward diesel-powered sportfishing boats. Together they would go on to build a series of express and flybridge sportfishermen from 31 to 52 feet that quickly garnered attention from the offshore crowd.
At its height, Cabo employed over 500 skilled craftsmen, many of Latino descent, from the surrounding areas outside of Los Angeles. Mike never wanted to sell the company; he was outvoted by his partners. “It wasn’t a fun time. I watched my dad age more in the year and a half of them trying to sell that business than he ever had,” Barrett says. “And it took a toll on his health; he was diagnosed with diabetes and had prostate issues. It really took a toll on him.”
Mike wasn’t the only one whose identity was tied to the business. If you ask him when he knew that his son was going to be a boatbuilder, he’ll hold up two fingers. (Barrett’s crib was a custom boat.) Even though the facility in the High Desert is 80 miles north of their home in Newport Beach, Barrett grew up at the Cabo facility. His earliest memories all take place there. That includes riding his Honda 50 dirt bike on an open dirt lot that eventually became the mold shop, and stealing screws and throwing them at the tooling guys. It’s also, quite literally, where his love for boatbuilding took shape.
Barrett can remember building his first boat at 11 years old. While most DIY projects suffer from a lack of experience, with the help of the guys in the shop, the 8-foot runabout was so overbuilt they had to cut it up and start over. Barely a teenager, he built two more runabouts in his parents’ garage in Newport and sold them to local kids. “We had to go and apologize to the neighbors for the smell of resin,” Barrett says. “Those were the first boats I built for someone else.”
Around the time Cabo was sold, Barrett moved on to rehabbing a 1962 Whaler Nauset and a 1984 Chris Craft Seahawk 216. He stripped them down to the stringers, rebuilt the transoms, customized the consoles and repowered. But what ultimately laid the groundwork for Mag Bay was a 13-foot Boston Whaler he rehabbed for a friend’s son. At the time, he was hanging cabinets in homes. He quit that job and threw himself into the project. A few months later, he completed “the most custom 13-foot Whaler on the planet.” Initially against the idea, Mike would try, unsuccessfully, to deter his son’s ambitions away from boatbuilding, touting how tough the business could be. But he couldn’t help but look at the finished Whaler with pride. He asked Barrett, “Is this really what you want to do?” He didn’t really have to ask. The next day they called yacht designer Michael Peters and started a new line of boats. In 2014, operations were up and running again at the facility in the desert, only this time building a stepped-hull 33-foot center console.
Brunswick had reduced the Cabo workforce from 500 craftsmen to around 40 before up and moving operations to North Carolina. In the interim, many of their former craftsmen sought employment with Duffy Electric Boats. But they returned. A point of pride between father and son is that all their current employees, numbering around 30, were Cabo guys. In fact, they currently employ someone who used to change Barrett’s diapers. Their success and subsequent growth in the short-term would mean hiring more of their former workforce.
“It was always a big family to us. When we had Cabo, regardless of the size, everyone had a name, everybody was appreciated,” says Barrett. “That was one big thing that was lost after the company was sold, because everyone went from having a name to having a number. With Mag Bay, everybody has a name. You treat your guys right, and in turn they work hard. We’re very fortunate to have some incredible guys. They’re craftsmen; they care as much about doing a good job and producing a quality part as we do.”
Six years and 35 center consoles later, the Howarths were finally ready to pivot toward building express-style sportfishing boats. But the company wasn’t the only thing that changed. The legalization of marijuana created an economic boom in the High Desert. In a few years’ time the scene “went from beat-up old Honda Civics to Bentleys,” Barrett says. On behalf of a marijuana grower, Snoop Dogg himself, puffing on a fat cigar, came by the old Mag Bay facility to inquire if it was for sale. Nearby, post-apocalyptic airplane and Volkswagen graveyards, like something out of a Mad Max fever dream, remained.
The desert might seem like a strange place to build a boat, but the climate is perfect—dry, low humidity—for working with fiberglass. Though isolation comes with a price: Every night Barrett goes to sleep with a 9-mm pistol under his pillow. He used to rest his head on a cot (like his dad) after working long days and weekends, but at the new facility, they finally upgraded to queen-sized beds. Some things never change, however; they still have the same Mickey Mouse bedspread Barrett used as a kid. Maybe it’s hard to forget those heady days, when Cabo was a powerhouse and anything seemed possible. Maybe he doesn’t want to forget. As far as I can tell, those days are a big part of who he is.
Boatbuilding is an expensive gambit, and it’s rare to come across young blood at the helm of their own company, let alone making their mark. Maybe the price of admission keeps many away—a family legacy (and disposable income) is a borderline requirement to play in this sandbox. Still, a few exist. The successful ones tend to have a unique combination of business acumen, moxie and grit. They are equally as comfortable with their hands covered in resin as they are on the docks surrounded by the boat-owning gentry. Barrett is one of them.
Barrett isn’t the only Howarth with stories. Mike has a couple, too. The next morning, as we undid the lines and made our way to blue water, Barrett warned me his father has two modes: “He’s either dead quiet or he’ll talk your ear off.” Lucky for me, he was feeling chatty. We were stationed around the helm deck, with Mike ignoring a helm seat in favor of propping himself up on the fiberglass.
Talk, naturally, shifted to Cabo—which Mike pronounces with an emphasis on the “bow.” A point of pride for him is that down in Cabo San Lucas, the company’s namesake, Picante Sportfishing runs a fleet of older Cabos that fish almost every day. Mike said some of the boats have over 40,000 hours on them. That includes Picante Pride, a 35 Flybridge, which had 47,000 hours on the hull when it was sold, and had gone through four or five different engines. “All the nonskid on the deck had completely worn off from all the people stepping on it,” Barrett added. “The thing still went.”
On the 42, some of the Cabo influences are obvious. That includes the lift-up helm deck. First seen on the 1994 Cabo 35 Express, the entire helm deck lifts, providing easier access to the engine room (an idea that Mike claims to have thought up, which has since been copied). Open up the 42’s helm deck, and you’ll find an oversized engine room that accommodates twin 1,000-hp Volvo Penta diesels, two A/C units, a 13.5-kW Onan generator and a Seakeeper 6. They even took the idea one step further, adding a lift-up helm console, with all the main electricals organized and within reach.
The 42’s running surface was designed by Michael Peters. It’s got larger prop tunnels than its Cabo predecessors to accommodate bigger wheels and rudders. The keel was removed for more agility and the transom was angled to provide better maneuvering. The boat’s displacement is 43,000 pounds, in the middle-weight class for its size. Mike said that was intentional. “I don’t like to build a super lightweight boat, especially when you’ve got 1,000-hp motors in there. I’d rather have an extra layer of fiberglass.” With the 42, they laid up the entire hull in vinylester. “Most people will do a skin coat; we do the whole damn thing,” he said. “It costs twice as much. That’s why people don’t use it.” He favors the added weight because the secondary bonding characteristics make for a stronger, more stable ride.
With both partners in front of me, I did my best Dr. Phil impression and asked how their conflict resolution had been going.
“I think I’ve been fired … five times?” Barrett said.
“He takes after his mom,” Mike said.
“I’m stubborn. I’m extremely stubborn. And truthfully, I—”
“At the end of the day, you work things out. There’s been things that I’ve been totally wrong about, and he’s been right about, and vice versa.” Mike alluded to how he used to resolve disputes with Harry back in the day. “It didn’t matter who came up with the idea. If that was the best, that’s what we were going to do. Our goal is to build the best.”
It’s safe to assume Mag Bay will live or die on that passion, and on the success of the 42. “That’s why we’re so hell-bent on really trying to make this thing standout and be special,” Barrett said.
With Mike installed behind the wheel, Barrett gave his dad some pointers. “Aim for the bridge and slam it all the way. Don’t go slow, slam it.” Mike punched it, and you could feel the torque of the 1,000-hp Volvo Penta D13s bring us quickly onto plane.
At just 13 years old, Barrett was entrusted to run the factory Cabo 35 Picoso in a tournament. He had earned that confidence over the years, learning the intricacies of boat handling from his father. Now the roles were reversed. We reached the 42’s top speed north of 40 knots as we hurtled towards the causeway.
It would be tough to forget the obstacles they had overcome, and the ones barely visible on the horizon. And yet, at least for a moment, none of that seemed to matter. Before me was a father and son sharing a moment together on the water. The roles had reversed, and will undoubtedly reverse again in time. But the water, being the great equalizer, made the uncertainty of the future melt away.
And that was alright.
Mag Bay 42 Test Report
Mag Bay 42 Specifications:
Displ.: 43,000 lbs.
Fuel: 665 gal.
Water: 130 gal.
Standard Power: 2/1,000-hp Volvo Penta D13
Optional Power: 2/1,105-hp CAT C18; 2/1200-hp MAN
Base Price: $1.25 million