Hurricane Irma sunk the famed Sea Lion II, but that was not the end of this beloved Whiticar. After a massive, four-year refit, the boat is better than ever.
Half sunk, the once-great Sea Lion II hung from her dock lines like a boxer trying to pull himself up by the ropes, the fight still raging within. She was down, quite literally sitting on rock bottom, and the salvagers’ chainsaws were circling like hungry vultures.
In the winds of Hurricane Irma, which slammed into Florida’s east coast in September 2017, the Sea Lion II repeatedly rocked into a set of pilings along her dock in Jensen Beach. The pounding punched three large holes into the port side. She fell below the waterline, the darkened waters of the Indian River up to the deck of the flybridge—a sad sight for anyone who remembered her as the crown jewel of the early Palm Beach fishing scene, her time in Montauk as a giant tuna hunter or most likely, as the star of the dock in Walkers Cay.
As the photos of her beatdown circulated through the boating world, men hung their heads, remembering her greatness. It appeared another extraordinary vessel would be lost forever. But Charles Orr, a Houston-based boat nut with a penchant for refitting sportfishing vessels, just couldn’t let the Sea Lion II’s legacy end like that. He stepped in just minutes before the order to destroy was issued and purchased the boat for a whopping $5. The 54-foot vessel was granted clemency, but her long journey back to the pinnacle of greatness had only begun. To reach the finish line, the project lead, Capt. Jeff Frank, would have to navigate through the shutdowns and supply crunch caused by the pandemic and a personal battle with cancer.
The boat was originally commissioned by O.H. “Hank” Ingram, an oilman who had a home in Jupiter, Florida, but died unexpectedly in April of 1963 at the age of 58. As a tall man well over 6 feet, Ingram requested extra head room and got it in spades. Designed and built under the watchful eye of Curt Whiticar, the 54-footer was the company’s 30th hull, and the largest boat to come out of the Stuart, Florida yard at the time. Constructed with plank mahogany, the vessel was a blend of everything the custom builder and captain liked about boats. She had a sharp forefoot, tapered transom and Whiticar’s signature double salon windows on the side of the house.
Other than styling, the traditional Whiticar boat had several features, many of which revolved around limited horsepower, our local fishing conditions, our shallow inlet and trips to the Bahamas,” says John Whiticar, who took over operations of Whiticar Boat Works from his father, who passed at away at 106 years old in 2017. “Whiticar hulls were known for being solid and seaworthy. They had a sharper entry than most and were considered one of the most comfortable head-sea boats. The boats also had a very shallow deadrise at the transom for better operation in shallow water and our notoriously bad inlet at the time.”
Upon Ingram’s passing, Ed Crawford stepped in and became the boat’s first owner. He named the boat Release, and she was a stunner. Powered with a pair of V-8 (71-cubic-inch) GM diesels, she ran 27.6 knots at full speed with a 22- to 24-knot cruise, quick enough to run laps around most of the fleet in the early ’60s. And with air-conditioning, three staterooms and an electric stove and refrigerator, she was comfortable, too.
Crawford was well known among the Palm Beach elite. The son of David Crawford, an industrialist and president of the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company, the nation’s largest manufacturer of railroad cars until it was broken up by the government after World War II, Ed was a thrill seeker with the means to spend the bulk of his time racing cars and running boats. When he wasn’t turning corners for the Porsche racing team at Le Mans, Ed Crawford was cruising and fishing South Florida and the Bahamas.
“I remember having three bunks—David, Eddie, Billy—one on top of the other,” says Ed’s son Bill Crawford, recollecting the stateroom he shared with his two older brothers. “Grandma had a dock on Lake Worth, and that’s where Dad kept the boat, right across the lake from Rybovich. The boat was a fish-catcher. Put me on a wood boat and I will catch you the first fish of the tournament.”
In 1968, the boat changed hands, purchased by Bob Abplanalp, the inventor of an aerosol can spray valve who owned Walkers Cay, a sportfishing mecca in the northern Bahamas.
“She was and is a great vessel,” says Bob’s son, John Abplanalp, who spent his formative years fishing off the boat, which the family renamed the Sea Lion II. “Talking about it, I can feel the goosebumps coming up on my body. There’s a lot of love for that ship.”
The Sea Lion II’s stardom really shined in the years it was owned by Abplanalp. The boat appeared on Curt Gowdy’s “American Sportsman,” and a shot of her running through the azure waters of the Bahamas appeared on the opening credits of the “Walkers Cay Chronicles,” which ran on ESPN for 15 years. But perhaps her most famous passenger was Richard Nixon, a close friend of Bob Abplanalp. Nixon wasn’t much of an angler but liked to ride in the Sea Lion II’s tuna tower. When the news of Watergate broke, Nixon was actually staying on Big Grand Cay, another island Abplanalp owned not far from Walkers.
For more than 30 years, the Abplanaps fished aboard the Sea Lion II, the majority of which Capt. Jim Carey manned the helm, chasing giant tuna off Montauk, throwing flies to striped bass along Cape Cod and running south to the Bahamas in the winter. In 1977, Larry Thompson caught a 1,071-pound bluefin tuna on the boat, a U.S. record that stood for five years. As much as the boat was known for raising fish, it also attracted fishermen.
“We would sit around the dock at the end of the day and start telling stories,” remembers John Abplanap, who is now 64. “The beers would come out and we’d bring up the fly-tying table and start to put stuff together. We referred to the Sea Lion II as the ‘black hole,’ meaning once people started coming down to the boat, no one would leave. People would come to get us, to tell us to go home, and they wouldn’t leave!”
After Bob Abplanap passed away in 2003 and a series of hurricanes slammed Walkers, the family made the tough decision to part with the Sea Lion II. She was purchased by business partners Bob Greene and Phillip Anson, who actually had the boat listed for sale when Irma struck her down.
“After Irma, someone sent me a photo of the boat, and I was literally in tears,” Abplanalp says.
From the Bottom Up
Jeff Frank and Charles Orr had actually sea-trialed the Sea Lion II before Irma formed. After the Category 4 hurricane blew through and conditions subsided, Frank, who rode the storm out on a 55-foot Hatteras he had just finished rehabbing, made his way to the Sea Lion II’s dock. “I called Charlie and he said, ‘Goddamn this makes me sad. That boat deserves a better ending than this. Can we fix it?’ I said anything can be fixed,” Frank recalls. Initially they figured on a $1 million budget, but first they had to get the boat off the bottom.
A piling that had split in the storm pinned the boat to the bottom. They used a hydraulic chainsaw to cut her free from the piling, but the holes in the port side were so large that the airbags used to float her up slid right out of the openings. The crew from Sea Tow managed to screw sheets of plywood over the holes to keep the airbags in and surfaced the boat. After sitting in the water for 48 hours, she was beyond pungent, and they still weren’t sure if they were going to take the project on because they couldn’t find a yard willing to attempt such a massive rebuild. But the stars aligned; several crewmen from Willis Custom Yachts were in between builds and had the time and skill to address the port side damage.
“We hired Jody Randolph, who’s been with Mark Willis on every build and worked with Richard Garlington,” Frank says. “Jody’s been through plank-on-frame, strip planking and cold molding all the way to composites. We needed a guy like that to guide us through the structural portion.”
The job began by ripping out all of the hull damage and turning the three holes into one massive opening. While the boat was cold-molded in 2000, it was originally built out of Honduran mahogany, a hard wood no longer available. To fix the hull, they decided to strip-plank her using one-inch strips of African mahogany. They applied epoxy and used bronze nails to hold the tension while the epoxy dried.
They planned to get the boat running and keep the systems simple so a captain and mate could maintain the boat without having to fly in tech support every time something broke. They talked about setting out on three-year tours to the world’s top fishing destinations. But after two months, the scope of the project changed. As they tore into the vessel, peeling away the layers down to the frame, Frank knew they’d never have this kind of access again. It quickly became a complete overhaul. A passion project, but a worthy one because of the boat’s unique shape. The boat has a 15-foot beam at its widest point but is only 11.5 feet at the transom.
“This is the only game boat ever built that has a bow that can take a head sea,” Frank says. “This boat has a bow of a 60 Hatteras or a 54 Bertram and the cleanest prop wash I’ve ever seen, probably because the ass end is so narrow. It’s got more rocker in the bottom than any boat I’ve ever seen. The bottom is the shape of a smiley face. I can’t give it enough throttle in reverse to make her dig. She tries to jump on plane. No one does that anymore because it complicates the bilge system as all the water wants to run to the center of the boat, so we blocked it off and got seven bilge pumps and three zones to force water to the transom. Plank-on-frame boats would leak through the linen; they weren’t built to be dry like people expect today. We built this to have a dry bilge.”
In a 1979 refit, the bridge was reconfigured and the boat was repowered with 903 Cummins diesels. The boat then went through a couple sets of V10 MANs, but the engine vents weren’t big enough for the horsepower and the engines sucked salty air in from underneath the cockpit, which isn’t exactly a good thing for the rod bearings. The old powerplants were removed and replaced with inline six-cylinder 800-hp MANs, considerably smaller engines and much lighter.
“With the V-10s you couldn’t get outboard of the motor. Now we have 360-degree access,” Frank says. The engine compartment is accessed through a hatch in the center of the salon floor, and two larger hatches under the sofas provide enough room to conduct any serious wrenching. The new i6 engines weigh 1,400 pounds less per motor, but a lot of that weight was added back with larger fuel tanks. The boat originally held 700 gallons, and now carries 1,050. And she’s going to be quick. “It’s going to be faster than it was ever designed to be,” Frank says. “We think she’s going to cruise at 33 knots with a range of 750 miles. You can basically cruise from Marsh Harbour to Bermuda with the onboard fuel. That’s unheard of.”
When I met up with Frank in late October, the Sea Lion II was back home at Whiticar Boat Works. She had made the full circle, and she looked incredible. Her trunk cabin windows were glassed over and the salon windows given a very dark tint. The boat’s classic lines hold true to form, but the subtle changes gave her a bit more attitude. She reminded me of an old Chevelle that was transformed into a muscle car. The paint job shined bright in the cloudless daylight. I took a lap around her, trying to find any hint of the holes that ruptured her planks, but I couldn’t. I tapped on the port side. I tapped on the starboard side. They sounded exactly the same. If I’d never seen that photo of her after Irma, I’d never know she sank.
One thing I did notice, however, was the missing keel. “The boat had 41 inches of keel under it,” Frank says, before the team decided to lop it off. Many builders used a keel in the early days of sportfishing boats, but because the keels were made of wood, they added buoyancy, not necessarily stability, and often became a liability in a following sea, occasionally causing the boat to come off plane. “This keel was made of old cypress so it wasn’t real floaty wood, but we found that when we don’t have that keel under the boat, it actually makes the boat more stable.”
Stepping onto the cockpit felt like gracing hallowed ground. Thoughts of tuna fights in the 1960s along the famed Tuna Alley off Bimini and Cat Cay flooded my mind. Images from Saturday mornings watching Flip Pallot use Walkers as a stopping-off point as he headed off on some fishy adventure flashed through my brain matter. I ran my hand down the covering board, wondering how many fish had come over this gunwale, but stepping out of my own daydream, I was surprised at the small stature of the cockpit. Fishing styles have changed greatly, and so has the gear. We now need more room for dredges and livewells, but somehow Frank managed to install everything a modern-day angler may want in this space without cluttering it. The mezzanine has a drop-in freezer, drink box, grill, wing station controls and even quick access to fuel valves to switch tanks without going into the engine room. He found a vintage Murray Brothers fighting chair that’s being refinished and will hopefully tangle with big blue marlin from the deck of the boat. They designed removable tuna tubes that fit in the corners by the salon bulkhead.
The boat will be comfortable, classic and functionable. Most of the interior’s original woodwork remains, accented by vintage hardware. They kept the galley-down configuration but did away with the
dinette, opting for a tackle room with a single bunk. They reused some of the old mahogany to build the counters. They installed a proper master forward with an island berth, something the boat never had, opting for a more fisherman-friendly twin-bunk setup. The floors are vertical-cut bamboo with mahogany trim. Although you’re in an older boat, every modern comfort you could want is there.
The flybridge also feels small for a 54-footer but the visibility is impeccable. In a prior refit at Merritt’s, workers extended the bridge aft and glassed the hull, but the helm was placed fairly far forward. Frank created a new bridge layout with bench seats port and starboard, and extended the console to the brow for storage space. There’s a single helm chair on center with a pop-up electronics box holding two 12-inch MFDs, which again seem tiny compared to
today’s glass helms. But it wasn’t long ago that screens of this size were massive, and they can run all of the modern systems needed. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, I guess.
Just over a year into the build, Frank, who is now 56, was diagnosed with leukemia. “I didn’t know if I was going to live this long,” he told me as we moved to a shady spot to cool off. Thanks to the quality of the men he hired, the job progressed despite his cancer treatments. Using Zoom and FaceTime, Frank could keep up with the build. And then Covid reared its ugly head, slowing down their ability to find parts, and shutting down the job on more than one occasion as various contractors relayed news that they had contracted the virus. Frank, who was now immunocompromised, could not afford to get sick. Through it all, the work progressed, Frank’s health improved, and he went into remission for a spell.
“We started out with different dreams. We had ambitions of fishing the Azores and doing all this crazy stuff. That kind of went away when I got sick,” Frank says. “I had envisioned I would get to ride into Walkers and have a three-boat tournament with Carl Allen’s Frigate, Billy Black’s Duchess and the Sea Lion II. That would be badass.”
I could feel the ease and pride in Frank’s words as the project neared the finish line, just waiting on a few odds and ends before the final sea trials. Despite all of the challenges, he never walked away from the Sea Lion II, even when the budget ballooned to $2.4 million. “I’m in love with this boat,” he says.
While the future of the Sea Lion II is a bit murky for now, she will ride again and look incredible doing it, that much is certain.
“There is a lot of pride to see the ol’ girl come back at our yard,” John Whiticar says. “Her renovations are top notch—the boat looks better than ever.”