Like Blockbuster, the fax machine and The Tonight Show, the great American tuna tower has become obsolete. And like those examples, technology has been the nail in the coffin.
Obsolete? Why? Because the tower is simultaneously lower, higher, slower, less practical, costlier and less mobile than what’s replacing it: drones.
The origins of today’s mighty towers are humble, like most things and people who evolve into greatness over decades only to be cast aside by the “next big thing.” While the first tuna tower as we know it today didn’t appear until 1952, the genesis of the tower traces its roots to the day in 1935 when sportfishing pioneer Ernest Hemingway brought his 38-foot Wheeler Pilar to the Rybovich yard in Palm Beach. Sportfishing was in its infancy, and the Rybovich brothers were earning a reputation as innovators who did quality work.
Johnny, Tommy and Emil Rybovich modified existing cruising powerboats for fishing until they were called to serve in the armed forces in WWII. All three made it home after some considerable heroics by Tommy, and by 1946 they were presented with the opportunity to construct the first purpose-built Rybovich sportfishing boat. Palm Beach Chevrolet dealer Charley Johnson hired the yard to build the boat, Miss Chevy, which launched a year later.
Rybovich became synonymous with innovation in the fledgling sportfishing circles, and innovate they did. By the time Charley Johnson commissioned his second Rybo in 1952 the brothers were ready to add the first tuna tower to their eighth boat, Miss Chevy II.
But it took some getting used to aesthetically. Even the tower’s creator, Tommy Rybovich, called it “a necessary eyesore” in a 1957 Saturday Evening Post interview. The tower was actually mounted forward of the flybridge, adding undue awkwardness.
For those who don’t know, the purpose of a tower is to get a better angle on the water from a greater height to spot big-game fish. Fast forward to 2021 and we have fishing-friendly drones coming out of our ears. Drones can fly higher than a tower stands and soar considerable distances away from the boat for fish-spotting ability that’s superior to one guy on a fixed perch.
And when the time comes to wait for a bridge on the ICW, a boat with four drones and no tower can usually slip under without delay.
Towers add significant aerodynamic drag to a fast battlewagon, and the drag penalty only increases as we produce faster and faster boats. A tower on an old 60-foot Hatteras from 1980 wasn’t slowing that 17-knot boat down too much, but today’s taller, beefier towers on 42-knot 60-footers will whistle at that velocity. Drones produce zero drag, allowing for more great ‘Murican speed.
And then there’s cost. The best drones cost less than $20,000. There are so many available with amazing cameras for so much cheaper, so you can afford a lifetime’s worth of drones for less than the cost of one tower. And when you buy a bigger boat, the drones can come with you.
While stabilizers have reduced the pain of slinging around under the tower’s buggy top for hours, it’s still a wild ride up there whether you’re in the mood for one or not.
So drones do a tower’s job better than a tower does. The drone can get a better angle on the water for spotting fish. And the drone is not tethered to the boat, dramatically increasing its usefulness over one guy in a fixed tower with a combination of salt spray and guacamole smeared on his sunglasses.
All this makes a compelling case for killing the tower. But while Rybovich may have called the tuna tower “a necessary eyesore,” that was before PipeWelders and Palm Beach Towers spent decades refining the details. So today, every convertible owner knows one thing: Towers look cool. Okay, they can stay.