It was the second day of the Stone Harbor Yacht Club White Marlin Invitational, and I was with Pat Healey aboard a Viking 72C, fresh out of the company’s facility on the Bass River in New Gretna, New Jersey. The morning began with a 120-mile run to Tom’s Canyon from Cape May Inlet, with Capt. Ryan Higgins at the helm while the rest of us slept in air-conditioned comfort. Most of the action took place midmorning, when the team hooked and released a white marlin followed by a wild blue that the older of Healey’s two sons subdued. A couple more whites, and the action died.
At lines out, we were 115 miles from the inlet. The cockpit was cleaned, the tackle stowed for what might have been a long ride back if we hadn’t been aboard a boat that cruises at 40 knots. Healey took the helm, giving Higgins some bunk time. As we drew closer to the inlet, a new 68-foot custom Carolina boat, reputed to be the fastest in Cape May, started moving up alongside. Healey pushed the throttles up a few rpm, and our speed increased to 42 knots, but the challenger crept back alongside, threatening to pass. Healey wound up the MTU diesels a few more notches, and we shot to 45 knots as a smile overshadowed his game face. The Carolina boat started falling back, then slowly regained ground. Healey gave the 72C its head — 48 knots — as the competition fell behind for the last time.
Within hours, the Viking’s undeniable performance was the talk of the docks.
Healey, who is president and CEO of Viking Yachts, is a perfectionist: fiercely competitive and rightfully proud of the yachts his team turns out at a production pace. He is equally competitive when Viking’s fishing team, composed of employees, is on the billfish circuit as part of Viking’s demo-boat program. Tournaments are key to testing and refining Viking models, while expanding customer outreach, all because as a kid, Healey couldn’t get enough of fishing.
“When I was 5, we lived two blocks from the beach on Windsor Avenue in Cape May,” Healey recalls. “There was a jetty at the end of the street where you could catch all the little [northern] kingfish you could ever want, but it took me four days of trying before I caught one. I remember my sinkers constantly getting stuck in the rocks, losing one rig after another. But I was determined, and when I finally caught that fish, I put it in my beach pail and ran home to show everyone. It was the first fish I ever caught by myself.”
His father, Bill Healey, was proud of his son but had little interest in fishing. He was a boatbuilder with a post-World War II work ethic, squeezing as many hours as possible into each of the six days a week he spent at the fledgling company he’d purchased in 1964 with his brother, Bob. The company was building wooden boats aimed at the growing cruising market, and little thought was given to shifting production to fishboats. Even so, Bill Healey encouraged his young son to pursue his newfound love of fishing.
“We lived on the second floor of a duplex with my Uncle Chappy and his family downstairs,” Healey says. “It was my uncle who started taking me on headboats when I was 6. I remember getting our rental rods, gold cans and cut squid for bait. It was mostly bottom fishing for sea bass, tog and flounder, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”
After school, Healey would sweep the yard floors and putter around the shops, getting to know the shipwrights who worked for his father. Employee Roy Zeritt was among those who befriended him; today, at more than 80 years of age, he still works at Viking. “Roy and I would fish for white perch in the brackish rivers and creeks,” Healey says. “We would whack ’em pretty good.” One of those rivers is visible from the window in Healey’s office at Viking Yachts.
“Then I got to know Kenny Wilson, who also worked here and lived on the property in a double-wide trailer,” Healey says. “He would take me bass fishing. I was about 8, and we fished a lot together for a few years.”
Throughout his school years, Healey’s interest in fishing grew. “I could never get enough of it.”
In 1976, the summer he graduated from high school, he got a job as a deckhand on the headboats out of Wildwood Crest. He made more than 100 trips aboard Capt. Jimmy Cicchitti’s Starlight, and another 10 or more on the Captain Blake. Jack Blake was a crusty old skipper who had run the same boat for 25 or 30 years by the time Healey met him. “This was back before the boats had an anchor windlass,” Healey says, “and the skippers would laugh their asses off as all 140 pounds of me would try to pull the 40-pound anchor by hand, getting bounced around the foredeck in a sea. They would get on the P.A. and razz me in front of a boat full of customers, but it was good-natured fun.”
That season on headboats taught him what it was like to work long, hard days. The boats ran three trips a day, two half-day runs for fluke followed by a night bluefish trip with chum that left the boat a mess. “Every day, whether the boats ran or not, we worked,” he says. “I remember the first time the forecast called for a couple days of rain and wind, thinking, Great, no work today. But we were told to be at the boat to wash, scrub and detail it anyway. The captain told us, ‘Don’t you boys know the dirt comes off easier in the rain than it does in the hot sun?’ It was tough work, but it was fishing, and I loved it.”
Healey was about 15 when his father gave him a 16-foot Thunderbird, built in the early ’60s with fins like the cars of the era. “It was just the skin of a boat, really,” Healey says. “The windshield was gone, the seats, too. Just a fiberglass shell with no engine, no controls and junk wiring, but I put it in the garage and went to work on it over the winter.”
He sanded and painted, found seats and had them upholstered, installed steering gear and new wiring. A Viking employee found a 40-hp Johnson that was 8 years old and had never been started. “That green-and-white motor smoked like a son of a bitch, but we fished it all over Great Bay, catching weakfish with my buddies,” Healey recalls. “Eventually, I got a trailer and my driver’s license, and I’d take it to Cape May to catch tiderunners in Delaware Bay during their heyday in the mid-’70s. We’d fill garbage cans with them as long as we could get shedder crab to put on the Upperman bucktails they favored.”
Soon, Healey and a few co-conspirators at Viking started encouraging his father to build a factory demo boat to use in tournaments. The company had dipped its toe into the fishboat market in 1972 with a 37-foot convertible offered in two configurations. One had a small cockpit and larger saloon, and the second had smaller accommodations and a larger cockpit for fishing. Viking called it the 37 Sportfish, and Healey remembers fishing a few offshore tournaments on one that Viking employee Bill Cross owned. Healey was still in high school at the time, and his earliest experiences offshore left a lasting impression. Around that time, a new 35-foot Viking fishing model caught the eye of Tom Hall, a salesman for Giles and Ransome, a distributor that supplied engines to Viking. Powered by a pair of Caterpillar 3208 diesels, the boat was fast for its time. Hall outfitted it for offshore fishing, named it Tomcat and entered a few billfish tournaments, bringing young Healey along as crew. And the hook for offshore fishing was set for life.
“Our first real demo was a 1980 41-foot flybridge dad built with a forward-angled radar arch and Bimini top,” Healey says. “We would fold down the top so we could get sun while running the boat. Back then, sun was good for you — not like today, when we’re supposed to wear sunscreen, gloves, long-sleeve shirts and buffs to protect us from it. We fished that boat in some billfish tournaments, and although we weren’t very good at it, at least we were there showing it off.
“We didn’t have a mentor or knowledgeable captain back then; we all shared duties, taking turns at the helm, in the cockpit, rigging baits,” he adds. “We did it all and learned along the way. We were young; we fished hard and gained a lot of respect from other boats because we had fun doing it. It wasn’t until 1985, when Drew McDowell came on the scene, that the demo program and tournament fishing got serious. Drew had just gotten his six-pack license, so we put him at the helm and hired a really good mate by the name of Craig Hurt.”
They rigged a new 48-foot convertible with tackle and electronics, and it was a fast boat. They’d make the 100-mile run from Cape May to the Washington Canyon in three hours, just to get in on a hot bite. They were becoming a team, making the mistakes required to improve and constantly getting more competitive. Along the way, Healey realized his best fit was in the cockpit turning the reel handle, as opposed to turning the steering wheel. The helm became McDowell’s domain, and he went on to become one of the top billfish captains on the Mid-Atlantic coast. Between tournaments, he delivered new Vikings.
In 1985, the team made 20 trips offshore; in 1987, it was 30 and climbing. They were competing in billfish tournaments throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, and Viking was selling more and more fishboats. In 1987, Healey and his team won top boat in the White Marlin Open along with weighing-in the second-place blue marlin. They went on to take second at the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina, releasing three blue marlin, missing out on first place by minutes, not number of fish caught.
“We won the 19th annual Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament the next year,” Healey says. “The tournament was blown out on Friday, so we fished Saturday and Sunday. We got back to the dock at 6, ran to the awards dinner, then hopped in a car to drive all night to be at Viking the next morning. I dragged myself into work around 9 o’clock, saw my dad and told him, ‘You’re not going to believe it. We won the tournament.’
“With that, the veins in his neck popped out, and he reamed me out six ways to Sunday for coming in to work late,” Healey says. “I was so flabbergasted, I turned around and went home, leaving a few choice words in my wake. Fishing became a point of contention between us after that. He’d call my Uncle Bob and tell him, ‘You’ve gotta slow him down on this fishing thing, these tournaments. He’s gotta build boats.’ Years later, we would look back on that day and laugh, and he would tell me, ‘You called it right on this fishboat stuff. That’s where the market was going.’ ”
While Healey was battling with his father over fishing, a Viking fan who believed in fishing tournaments stepped in to support him. “The demo program almost died with the introduction of the luxury tax in 1991 and the resulting drop in yacht sales that followed,” Healey says. “We couldn’t afford to have a factory tournament boat. I was approached by a great customer by the name of John Vidinghoff who said he would buy a 45, then a 50, 53 and 55 and bring us along to campaign the boats on the tournament circuit on Viking’s behalf. He was as good as his word, and I fished with him for almost 10 years; the boats were all called the Fishinhoff.”
Build a Better Boat
After the luxury tax was repealed, Viking created a host of new models that redefined sportfishing yachts. Healey reignited the demo program, which now campaigns two boats on the East Coast, fishing a circuit of tournaments from Cape May to the Florida Keys. They also participate in events on both coasts of Mexico and in Central America.
Fishing became the staple for Viking Yachts as Healey took on more responsibility for boat design and marketing. Under his direction as vice president and, later, president, the boats got bigger and more refined in both performance and creature comforts. He built a team of naval architects, engineers and production specialists, and expanded the manufacturing facilities. “Regardless of the pressure from my dad, I was truly self-motivated,” he says. “I love fishing and building fishboats. Being on the tournament circuit helped us better identify our market, our customers and what they wanted, and we’d respond accordingly. And I got to do what I enjoyed most: fish for marlin and sailfish.”
In 1964, John Rybovich came up with the concept for an angler-centric billfish tournament that became known as The Masters. Competing anglers fish a different boat each of the three or four days, and the boats are picked by lottery. It’s one angler to a boat with two rods in the water, and only the angler can touch the rods. Once a fish is hooked, the angler fights the fish unaided by the boat. No backing down. The captain can only spin the boat to square it to the fish.
“Of all the tournaments I have fished, I am most proud of my involvement in The Masters,” Healey says. “It’s a different concept. You’re no longer fishing as a team but as a lone angler head-to-head against a field of great fishermen. I started fishing the event in the ’90s, after it had been moved from Palm Beach to Cancun because the fishing slowed so much in Florida. I really loved the concept and the competition. When I started fishing it, I was the youngest guy in competition; now I’m one of the more senior anglers. I won it twice, finished second once and third two more times. I recently stepped down after a 10-year stint on the board, and one of my goals was, and remains, bringing younger anglers into the event.”
Healey says he is fortunate to have accumulated so much offshore experience. “I didn’t become a marlin fisherman over a five-year period; it was over 25 years of being on the water,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to go from 20 days a year out of New Jersey in the beginning to 80 days a year chasing marlin and sailfish all over the world.”
When asked about his favorite fishing destination, Healey thought about it for a few minutes and came back with a predictable answer. “Los Sueños in Costa Rica is probably my favorite right now because of the incredible sailfishing in the winter, the spectacular blue marlin fishing on the FADS in the summer, and all the great crews that are there,” he says. “The best of the best. The biggest problem is it’s a thousand miles away, and while I can go and fish for five or six days, I have to fly home and go back to work.”
Then he added a surprising qualification. “The place where I thoroughly enjoy fishing more than anywhere else is right here in the Mid-Atlantic,” he says. “With the right conditions, the right prevailing winds, the marlin fishing is just as good here as anywhere in the world. It’s more consistent than Costa Rica. We can have 20-bite white marlin days here every season. We can catch big blue marlin here and regularly do, every season. And it’s no fuss for me. Fish a few days, jump in the car and drive less than an hour from Cape May, and I can sleep in my own bed.”
Healey enjoys all kinds of fishing as long as it’s light tackle and something is pulling drag. And he’s always had a boat. After the 16-foot Thunderbird came a 17-foot Wellcraft with the bottom broken out of it, which was bought from an insurance company. He fixed the 17-footer and fished it after high school, from age 18 into his 20s, when he went to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
In 1990, he bought a 1966 Alglas Wahoo center console, rejuvenated it and used it to “whack the striped bass” in the inlets near his home on Great Bay, near Atlantic City, New Jersey. “That was the boat I first took my sons, Sean and Justin, fishing on,” Healey says. “We would crush flounder in the bay. I started them at a young age, and it inspired them to become great fishermen in their own right. They are excellent striper fishermen and love fishing the local flounder tournaments.”
The next boat was a 1998 26-foot Regulator that company owners Joan and Owen Maxwell customized for Healey, adding a teak helm pod with single-lever controls, just like those used aboard a Viking. Then came a 31-foot Jupiter that he upgraded at the company marina and, most recently, a 35-foot Contender center console parked behind his houses in South Jersey in the summer and Florida in the winter.
Healey bought his sons their first boat when they were 11 and 12, a tired, old 13-foot Boston Whaler. “It was a wreck, so when I gave them the boat, I gave them each a toolbox along with room at the marina where they could fix it themselves,” Healey says. “We put a 25-hp Yamaha on it and named it Double Trouble.”
Today, the boys have a 25 Contender bay boat and use it to terrorize the fish in the South Jersey estuaries, when they aren’t on one of the Viking demo boats fishing the billfish circuit.
Healey’s wife, Leanne, is also an excellent angler and has caught everything from inshore stripers and flounder to offshore billfish. She also loves taking cocktail cruises around the bay when Healey doesn’t have the boat out fishing. And their daughter, Kaytlin, is in possession of the Whaler, which was renamed Sweet Thing in her honor. “I need to look out my back window and see a boat,” Healey says. “It helps me keep my sanity.”
Sean and Justin are recent college graduates and working at Viking, learning the way their father did, spending time at every level of the operation, having started at the bottom sweeping the floors. Like their father, they are full of ideas for new Vikings. And when it comes to fishing, they just can’t get enough.