Photos by Billy Black
A promising career on land wasn’t in the cards for Mike Murray. His passion led him back to the wheelhouse and he hasn’t looked back.
As the South Florida day turned into early evening, the man noted the garish, artificial incandescence of the halogen-lit space and pined for the halcyon days of blue water and dappled sunlight. He sighed and continued his work behind the high counter with care and precision. The career path he’d chosen was solid, lucrative, but something was amiss.
After earning a B.A. in Biology from Florida Atlantic University, Capt. Mike Murray was on his way to entering a graduate program and becoming a pharmacist. But he was having second thoughts. He sought the advice of a veteran in the profession. “If he could go back,” Murray asked, “Would he stick with the solid career choice or follow his passion into another occupation?”
Murray didn’t have to wait long for a reply. “He immediately told me he’d do it all over in a second,” he told me, “and he encouraged me to pursue what [I] love.” Shortly after that conversation, Murray traded his lab coat for his old Grundéns bibs—his prescriptions would now be written in the blood from his quarry.
Murray spent his teenage summers in Lewes, Delaware where he cut his teeth as a full-time mate. With the support of his parents, Murray was “pretty much living on my own, fishing while in high school.” He had a solid work ethic, and the crew were kept busy. “We fished a lot and my captain was a hardass, so I never had time to screw around,” he recalled. “But it did allow for a real nice tackle budget since I had no bills at the time.”
It also helped that on his first day on the job, the boat landed an estimated 750-pound bluefin tuna. “Hard to not be in love with it all after that day,” Murray said.
He was hooked long before that. His family had always fished, spending time at their Florida home (he was raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) where they targeted big game on charter boats. It was not a surprise that after four years of undergraduate education, his parents were supportive about his 180-degree turn. “They know my passion is fishing and boats.”
They’d help him land a new gig as well. A few doors down from the family’s South Florida vacation home was a seasoned captain who agreed to take Murray on for an apprenticeship; it would last nearly three years. While the work focused on managing a fleet of high-performance, go-fast boats, the intangibles that he learned on the job proved to be invaluable. “I learned how to think and make a living,” said Murray, earning his captain’s license in the process. “I also learned that [as a business owner] you never get to turn it off.”
I met Murray a few years back when he served as mate to Capt.
Danny Ford on an early winter fishing trip off Florida’s west coast. We hit it off immediately: Murray was gregarious, genuinely interested in the day-to-day life of a marine journalist—much more than just a helpful dude who expertly cut bait and retied lines. As Ford ran the boat from one wreck to another, I stood in the salon and watched as Murray effortlessly put together a delicious lunch for the crew; his solid knife skills pay dividends in the galley as well as in the cockpit. Along with photographer Billy Black, our conversation covered the gamut, from photography to geography to a range of shared culinary favorites. Murray explained how to prep sashimi to best preserve its flavor and texture, and after Black asked, showed us photos of a recent trip to the Bahamas where he dove for lobster. The cockpit was full, clients smiling ear to ear. Seems Murray is a seasoned spear fisherman as well.
The morning following our wreck fishing excursion, I was on the flybridge with Ford and was surprised to learn that Murray is a captain with his own growing business, managing multiple boats in South Florida. Later, I reached out to Ford—in his 30 years as a captain, he’s fished in places ranging from Ascension Island to the South Pacific and Nova Scotia—to find out why Murray is one of his first calls for a mate when tournament fishing, delivering a boat or any other job that needs to get done.
“It is always a pleasure to have Mike on board as my mate,” Ford told me. “[He’s] a great all-around waterman [with] a well-rounded knowledge of offshore, inshore and bottom fishing in South Florida and the Bahamas. He’s also easy to get along with and mechanically inclined, which makes him an extremely valuable asset as a crewman.”
For a busy man who runs his own business—Murray Marine Works—and oversees Ocean Outlaw, a concierge service and corporate leasing-type program split between a big center console and a 53-foot Hatteras (member trips cover locations all over Florida and the Bahamas), I wondered how he found the time to freelance for Ford and others. His answer was succinct and spoke to his work ethic: “You don’t turn down work. It [leads] to more phone calls later.”
I caught up with him on a recent weekday morning after he was just coming off a multi-day fishing trip and a sobering supply run to the hurricane-devastated Abaco Islands. “Harrowing. Hope Town is decimated. If not for the striped lighthouse, I wouldn’t know where I was,” he said of the islands that he visits more than a dozen times a year. He was grateful to be part of the Jupiter/West Palm sportfishing community that has been helping the Bahamians get back on their feet.
He was also glad to have his favorite copilot—Hunter, his 3-and-a-half-year-old son—riding along. “I have the flexibility to make up for [being away] when I’m home,” Murray said.
The variety of his day-to-day and building his business is what keeps him going. “I’m not a good person for monotony,” he quipped. Since he left the pharmacy five years back, he’s been at it six to seven days a week. On this day, he was making the rounds of several facilities, checking in on clients’ vessels and chasing down engine parts. “No two days are the same. I could go from boatyard work to managing replacing a turbo on a large diesel to detailing to a multi-day fishing trip,” Murray told me.
With his knowledge of fleet management, maintenance and detailing (“Learning all aspects of mechanical maintenance and cosmetic upkeep are your first priorities; the boat is a direct reflection upon yourself,” Ford had said) Murray continues to build his business on references and just by showing up.
“I’m one of those mates and captains who doesn’t mind the less glorious work,” he told me, then put the phone down to assure that the turbo kit contained all the parts he needed for the replacement. I could hear him asking for and receiving the gaskets that should’ve been in the kit.
It’s this attention to detail and willingness to do the grunt work that keeps his phone ringing. Murray understands that putting the work in between trips is what leads to success. “The fishing side of it is just a bonus,” Ford reminded me. It all goes back to that first day off Lewes: “Any day can be the day,” Murray recalled.
He’ll be ready the next time the outrigger pings and hundreds of feet of line peel off the big Penn in an eyeblink.