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Birth of the Battlewagon

A 2004 survey conducted by Fernandina Beach, Florida-based research group Southwick Associates found saltwater anglers in the United States spent an astounding $11.3 billion on their hobby in 2003. The statistics are not broken down by category, but the largest chunk of the $11 billion is undoubtedly spent on the piece de resistance for serious saltwater anglers: a flying bridge-equipped sportfisherman. Individuals applying homespun, battleground-tested innovations have been the driving force for improvement in the boatbuilding field. Those individuals and technological advances ranging from construction techniques to engines and electronics have allowed these battlewagons to put anglers on top of more fish.

One such innovator is longtime Ocean Yachts naval architect Dave Martin. Martin grew up as the son of a boatbuilder in New Jersey, hard by the Atlantic Ocean, and recalls a feature on the first boats his father built for the big-game fishing. “The earliest boats I can remember had tuna masts—you walked up on steel [pegs] to climb up the mast,” he recalls.

This was in the 1920’s, and as engines got more powerful, Martin says his father was able to build vessels that could make faster trips to the canyon, more than 50 miles off of New Jersey, and soon after he added shelter. “In 1929 my father built a 33-foot sportfisherman with a pilothouse for a local businessman,” Martin says. Powered by a Liberty airplane engine, she was capable of 45 mph and had slanted pilothouse windows that the owner requested so he could see the birds working.

The 1930’s saw boats from Wheeler, Sparkman & Stephens, and Elco commissioned by adventurous anglers along the East Coast to design and/or build boats exclusively for fishing. In 1934 Wheeler built a 38-footer that would become one of the 20th century’s most famous vessels, Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar. Later in the decade the builder would finish the 42-footer Sport II for a Florida charter captain. Images of both models show fish-friendly features, such as a spartan, pipe-frame flying bridge for spotting tuna, swordfish, and marlin and cockpits with fighting chairs bolted into the soles. Both Sport II and Parrot, a Sparkman & Stephens-designed 60-footer that worked the waters off Montauk, New York, were also equipped with outriggers. It was a productive decade for design innovations; World War II interrupted things, but after the war the builders and their technologies returned in force.

Indeed, Elco applied what it had learned building more than 380 PT boats for the Navy while Wheeler continued to build on what it had gleaned from Pilar. Carlos M. de la Cruz, Sr., an avid angler and owner of Yellowbird, a modern 72-foot American Custom Yacht, recalls spending time aboard his family’s Wheeler off southern Florida in the early 1950’s. While Martin remembers that New Jersey builders such as John Leek had started to add flying bridges to its boats in the 1940’s, de la Cruz says his family retrofitted their Wheeler with a flying bridge they built themselves. “The Wheeler was a day boat, and while she raised a lot of fish, she was slow, topping out at 13, 14 knots. Later, in the late 1950’s, my uncle bought a Rybovich that was much faster, powered by twin Chrysler Hemi engines,” says de la Cruz.

Rybovich, a West Palm Beach, Florida-based builder, spent the 1940’s and 1950’s earning its reputation as an innovator in the field of sportfishing. The three Rybovich brothers—John, Tommy, and Emil—are credited with a number of firsts, including the first fighting chair, all-aluminum outriggers, and transom doors, and in the 1950’s they added cold-molded construction techniques. And the company was reportedly the first to combine these features in a boat with a raised foredeck that allowed for accommodations beneath and a large cockpit, both common elements on sportfishermen today.

Merritt, another South Florida yard, incorporated many Rybovich features into its own boats. But the transplanted Long Islanders also came up with their own innovation: Buddy Merritt mounted a 20-foot mast to the flying bridge of a 37-footer and added throttles, clutches, and a crossbar to sit on, with a long rope connected to the wheel on the flying bridge—reportedly the first functional tuna tower.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.