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Wings & Water: Rugged Good Looks

Michael Schulze

A sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) does not hide its emotions well: When it grows excited, its large dorsal fin (from which it derives its name) turns neon purple. Nothing—except sex, one presumes—arouses a sailfish more than food, so a purple flash in the water makes a savvy fisherman exhibit signs of excitement of his own. This burst of color signifies that a sailfish is chasing the fisherman’s bait, which, in the vicinity of the Atlantic Coast town of Stuart, Fla., is likely to be a ballyhoo (Hemiramphus brasiliensis).

Thanks to captain’s mate Kevin Gaylord, the yacht’s bait box holds an ample supply of ballyhoo, silver animals about 10 inches long that resemble needlefish. About two miles from Stuart, in choppy waters beneath a low, unsettled sky, we barely have dropped our ballyhoo in the ocean when we spot the purple flash. One of the reels begins singing, and at the yacht’s helm, Capt. Jeff Donahue roars.

Winter is sailfish season in Florida, and on this January morning, three tournaments are taking place in the area. We are not participating in any of the contests but find ourselves trolling among some of the contenders. Our yacht, Safari, is the first Hatteras 77 Convertible, which was launched last October. Today, Captain Jeff is taking a break from preparing the craft for its owner, a North Carolina pharmaceutical entrepreneur, who will take command of the boat in Key Largo in about two weeks.

 

Like all Hatteras yachts, the 77 Con­vertible takes full advantage of its width (22 feet) and its length (76 feet, 10 inches): It contains four staterooms, each with a head with stand-up shower, as well as crew quarters. Safari’s salon features a large L-shaped sofa, a 50-inch high-definition plasma TV, and, tucked beneath a winding interior stairway that leads to the bridge, a stand-alone day head. Upstairs, the helm has five flat-screen displays, including one that monitors all boat functions. The fuel tanks, which occupy the very bottom of the hull to save space, hold 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to send the boat about 575 miles at full throttle. Twin, 2,400 hp MTU engines give the yacht a cruising speed of 35 mph and drive it to a top speed of 39 mph.

The 77-footer is one of six fiberglass Convertible models made by Hatteras. Each is a sportfishing vessel that is just as suitable for pleasure cruising, hence the name convertible. The company also builds 54-, 60- (which debuted in February), 64- (a Robb Report Best of the Best honoree in 2006), 68-, 86-, and 90-footers,  the latter of which are made by giving the 86 a larger cockpit. They are all rugged, roomy, well-appointed vessels that handle extraordinarily well on rough water, an important consideration for sportsmen who must motor far out to sea to reach a fishing ground.

Safari’sseaworthiness is certainly something we appreciate now, as the wind blows at about 20 mph and the waves swell to 6 feet or more. David Ritchie, a director at Hatteras, has grabbed the pole and is edging toward the fighting chair. “OK,” Captain Jeff shouts. “Hook the sonofabitch!”

 

The sportfishing boat(also known as a sportfisherman or a battlewagon) is thought to have been invented in the late 1940s, when John Rybovich of Palm Beach, Fla., and his sons refitted cabin cruisers to take tourists fishing. Rybovich is credited with designing the flying bridge, which allows skippers to watch both the sea and their fishing parties simultaneously, as well as the tuna tower, so called because when perched in it, a crew member could more easily spot schools of bluefin tuna. In 1947, when car dealer Charlie Johnson commissioned Rybovich and instructed him to let his imagination run free, the boatbuilder created what is widely regarded as the first true sportfisherman. That vessel, Miss Chevy II, featured the first pedestal fish-fighting chair and the first aluminum outriggers, long poles attached to the side of a boat that slant back away from it to keep the lines free for trolling.

Since then, Palm Beach and its environs have become a premier area for boatbuilding. Stuart, located about 40 miles to the north, contains at least six major custom shops: American Cus­tom Yachts, Espinosa Yacht Design (see “Mega Maestro”), Garlington, Jim Smith Boats, Whittaker Boat Works, and Willis Marine. This particular patch of coast attracts boatbuilders because the Gulf Stream passes within a few miles of the shore, allowing fishermen to travel a relatively short distance to reach big game. Along the entire East Coast, the Gulf Stream comes this close to land in only one other place: at Cape Hatteras, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Cape Hatteras pokes into the Atlan­tic Ocean where the southbound Lab­rador Current and the northbound Gulf Stream collide, blending frigid and warm waters to produce one of the best fishing grounds on the planet. It is a stormy, tumultuous place where waves regularly reach 10 feet or more. Many early wooden sportfishermen met their ends in these violent waters.

By the 1950s, the U.S. Navy was experimenting with hulls made from a new material called “glass fiber reinforced plastic”—eventually known, after one of its commercial names, as fiberglass. The material, made from glass slivers fused together with plastic resin and a catalyst, was much stronger than wood but weighed less, and, because a hull could be made in one piece in a mold, it never needed caulking.

In the late 1950s, a North Carolina textile executive named Willis Slane proposed to fellow members of his country club, the Hatteras Marlin Club, that a boat made of fiberglass would be the perfect vessel for the Outer Banks. He thought that such a boat should be about 40 feet long, to accommodate four fishermen, and that it should have a roomy main salon, a complete galley, and two staterooms, allowing it to be used as a family cruiser as well. Hatteras company lore holds that one of the friends scoffed, “You’re crazy, Willis. Fiberglass may be okay for small boats and bathtubs, but you could never build a 40-footer out of the stuff!”

“Wanna bet?” Slane replied.

Slane, then in his late 30s, was a hard-drinking, stocky man with a salty vocabulary (a common trait in sportfishing culture). He knew nothing about boatbuilding but nevertheless persuaded 20 friends to fund the business he intended to launch. He rented a garage in High Point, N.C., recruited a young naval architect named Jack Hargrave as his designer, and opened Hatteras Yachts. “We need a Hatteras boat,” he once said, “for this stinkin’ Hatteras weather.”

Slane was an archetypal good ol’ boy—one of a “rough, tough” bunch, as one of his employees put it, who “fished all day and drank and lied about fishing all night.” He was careless about his appearance and hated to dress up. This bothered other members of his country club, prompting them to pass a rule that men must wear neckties. Slane responded by purchasing a custom-made tie, the front of which expressed his opinion of the club’s new policy with two succinct one-syllable words, the first beginning with F and the second with Y.

Slane’s flamboyance served him well in his role as the new company’s chief salesman, and his hiring of Hargrave proved to be a master stroke. In her book American Classic: The Yachts and Ships of Jack Hargrave (2004, Nautical Media Group), Marilyn Mower (a former editor for ShowBoats International magazine and a frequent contributor to Robb Report) notes that Hargrave had learned his craft as an apprentice to John Rybo­vich. There he caught the attention of the car dealer Charlie Johnson, who in 1957 hired him to design the 89-foot motor yacht Seven Seas. Johnson, a mem­ber of the Hatteras Marlin Club, introduced Har­grave to Slane, who found the designer open to the idea of building a fiberglass fishing boat. By Dec­ember 1959, Har­grave had sketched out a 41-foot craft with a 14-foot beam. Slane, in a nod to both his background in textiles and the jeers of his critics, called the boat Knit Wits. (See The One That Almost Got Away")

The Hatteras 41, as the vessel was designated, proved immensely popular, as did other Convertibles that soon followed. Slane—who coined the term convertible—understood that for a boat to sell well, it would have to please not only men but also their wives. Accordingly, Hargrave designed  a craft that had roomy galleys (with refrigerators, an innovation at the time) and multiple staterooms. The “boating wives,” as the company called them, appreciated the interiors’ high-end fabrics and decorator touches, while the men marveled at the boats’ strength. In those days, Slane and Hargrave tested fiberglass panels by slamming them with bats or by placing them on two pieces of wood and driving a car over them.

Some 40 years later, the company’s boatbuilding methods have become far more sophisticated.

 

On the day before our fishing trip, David Ritchie, standing inside a cav­ernous structure filled with workmen, points to a vast, white fiberglass hull. It is the beginning of another 77 Convertible. “In only two months,” he says, “we’ve received more than a dozen orders for this boat.”  The yacht’s price starts at $4.6 million, but it rises to $5.6 million or more once the company adds sportfishing equipment, a digital entertainment system, and other accessories.

Most Hatteras Convertibles, along with three types of pleasure cruisers called Motor Yachts (64-, 80-, and 92-footers, the latter of which can be extended to 100 feet), are made here, a few miles from the Atlantic, on a 96-acre facility on the banks of the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C. In the site’s half-dozen plants, some 1,100 employees produce about 65 boats per year. The yachts, which take eight to 12 months to build, are sold out through the fall of 2008. Over the next 12 months, Hatteras will expand its Motor Yacht line, adding a 72-footer this October and a 56-footer early next year.

The New Bern facility opened as a boat-launch site in 1967, two years after Willis Slane died of a heart attack at age 44. Thirty years later, the company moved its headquarters and most of its manufacturing operations from High Point to New Bern. In the interim, it went through considerable changes, including a merger with North Amer­ican Rockwell in 1968, a sale to the recreational equipment company AMF in 1972, and acquisition by the high-rolling investor Irwin “The Liquidator” Jacobs in 1985. In 2001 Jacobs sold the company to Brunswick, a conglomerate that also owns Sea Ray, Boston Whaler, Meridian Yachts, and several other boatbuilders.

Ritchie commends the parent company. “They’ve shown a lot of trust in us, and they’ve invested millions in manufacturing improvements,” he says. As an example, he points to a new enclosed painting facility. “We’re one of the few builders of production sportfishermen to paint our yachts—most operations leave an exposed gel coat. Each boat receives six coats of epoxy primer and six coats of top coat, during which it’s sanded five times. I’ve been told we spend $175,000 per year in sandpaper alone.” The result, he explains, is that Hatteras yachts age slowly. “Look at them in a marina a couple years after they’re purchased: They look new.”

Hatteras succeeds partly by spending heavily on R&D. Employees view Bruce Angel, vice president of product design, as one of the outfit’s res­ident geniuses. During his almost 30 years at Hatteras, Angel has produced a number of nautical innovations, in­­clud­ing a quick-disconnect device for hy­draulic systems that has made its way to garden hoses.

In the main administration building, Angel sits down to talk about Hatteras boats. “Take the propellers,” he says. “We pioneered seven- and eight-blade systems, which reduce the impact of water on a hull. We designed a tunnel in the bottom of the hulls for the propellers, improving the draft. Then we invented technology that places an air cushion between the propeller blades and the tunnel,” a feature that he says reduces a boat’s noise by as much as 300 percent.

Down the hallway, Stacey Swecker, manager of yacht interiors, works in a room crammed with fabric swatches, granite samples, boat cross sections, and pencil sketches. A genial, engaging woman, she has been creating Hatteras interiors since 1993. She notes that boats up through 64 feet have 15 standard decor schemes, which can be customized to some extent, while bigger ones are completely customized—at which point, the sky is the limit. “We had one gentleman who wanted a glass sculpture of a nude woman above his bed,” she says. “Another wanted us to mount an animal head in his salon.” She recalls the working organ that a musician desired for his boat, and the starboard side of a salon that she converted into a huge humidor. She also has designed spectacular rod and reel cases, including one that rises up behind a sofa at the push of a button.

“By the way,” Swecker concludes, “when you see Captain Jeff tomorrow, tell him to bite my ass!”

Clearly, Swecker is no stranger to sportfishing culture.
 
When Captain Jeff hears the message from Swecker, he guffaws and delivers an equally ribald response. But the comment manages to express his affection for the designer, just as hers had for him.

The captain and his boat’s owner will meet in Key Largo for the Reef Cup, an invitation-only sailfish tournament sponsored by the Ocean Reef Club. The event is part of a fiercely competitive billfish tournament circuit that lasts the entire year. Following the sailfish season, which runs from January through March, fishermen cruise to the Bahamas, where they vie to catch the largest, or the most, marlin. (As the principle of catch and release gains ground, tournament organizers increasingly are offering prizes for the most fish caught, not the biggest ones, to avoid having to kill a fish to measure it.) The tournament scene then shifts to the East Coast, from South Carolina to New Jersey, and then, in the fall, to the Caribbean. Cash prizes are important at these tournaments, but as with most sporting events, side bets (called “calcuttas” in sportfishing) constitute the greater part of the action.

Not that financial winnings are the top concern for many of the participants. Nor are the prizes. The biggest incentives for these seekers of aquatic big game, one understands, are the thrill of the chase and the camaraderie engendered by a shared challenge. Certainly we are feeling the latter, and a somewhat giddy version of the former, as the sailfish grabs our ballyhoo and races away.

Then Captain Jeff unleashes a torrent of invectives that would do a North Carolina good ol’ boy proud. But he is not trying to be humorous—as we learn, to our dismay, a few seconds later.

The fish has dropped the bait.

Suddenly a sailfish thrashes above the water near a small sportfisherman nearby. It is hooked, and a passenger on the boat is fighting it. Did he catch our fish? As we ponder this question, the fish leaps again, twisting frantically, a white blur against the dark sky. Gaylord, the captain’s mate, estimates that it weighs 40 pounds.

Then he offers a suggestion that, one suspects, Willis Slane might have made, or least welcomed: “How about a beer?”  

Hatteras Yachts, 252.634.4895, www.hatterasyachts.com

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