Rybovich -the classically designed sportfishermen.


Courtesy of Flamingo magazine.

Before 1940, yards like Rybovich & Sons had begun to convert cabin cruisers, made by other manufacturers, into offshore fishing machines by building flybridges and cockpits onto existing vessels. Famous clients like Ernest Hemingway wanted to both cruise and do some serious fishing; Rybovich & Sons transformed his boat, Pilar, into a sportfishing craft with their angling add-ons. (This boat is on display at The Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigia in Cuba.)



Covered in hardware and cleats that snagged lines, the converted boats were heavy and not ideal for maneuvering while fighting acrobatic billfish and deep-diving bluefin tunas the size of Volkswagens. Fishermen needed something better. John Jr., Tommy, and Emil, sons of the company’s founding boatbuilder, John Rybovich, had the solution.

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Built-in 1947 by Rybovich, Miss Chevy II had an integrated flybridge, fighting chair, and outriggers (photo from IGFA)

Brimming with ideas after serving in World War II, they used modern-day materials like aluminum, acrylics, and advanced adhesive technology to create the world’s first big-game fishing boat for General Motors dealer Charles Johnson of Ohio. Launched in 1947 and costing $30,000, Johnson’s Miss Chevy II was revolutionary.

“My uncles were the first to design and build a boat specifically for fishing in style, using concepts that have carried over,” Rybovich says. Instead of the typical dark, unpainted cedar plank hull, the boat had a high-gloss finish you could see your face in. Compound curves, a flared bow, an integrated flybridge with steering and controls, stiff aluminum outriggers for pulling large baits, and fighting chairs with ball bearings became signature Rybovich features.

In 1952, Johnson commissioned his second Rybovich, Miss Chevy IV. The boat’s broken sheer (the abrupt rise in the top of the hull, just ahead of the cockpit), fluid lines (clean continuous flow to the look of the boat), and raised foredeck eliminated the traditional trunk structure and clunky bump-out housing the interior salon and staterooms. Soon it became a prototype for the modern convertible or combination fishing and cruising boat. Being on this first sleek fishing boat, capable of a speed of 20 knots or 23 mph—quicker than most other crafts at the time—felt like a ride to the moon. It also had the first transom tuna door, allowing crews to slide fish in through the back rather than hoist them over the side, and one of the first integrated aluminum towers above the flybridge for spotting giant tuna from far away. This high-in-the-sky navigation perch spawned Florida’s multimillion-dollar marine metal fabrication industry.

Creating a Cult Classic

Although Merritt’s family-owned boatyard had turned out a couple of boats since it opened, it was known chiefly as a repair facility. That changed in 1957 when Captain Buddy Merritt (who had admired Miss Chevy IV, but thought he could do better) launched his ideal tuna-fishing boat. With his brother Allen at the helm, Merritt’s 37-foot Caliban would go on to win the International Cat Cay Tuna Tournament in the Bahamas eight times in 10 years.

“Can you believe a 59-year-old boat like that was in fishing tournaments as recently as last year when it hit something and sank off Cabo San Lucas?” asks Allen Merritt, who at 94 still reports to work at Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works.

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In 2013, the restored first and second Merritt hulls met at a dock in the Florida Keys. On the right, “Cheesecake,” the yard’s first boat built in 1956. On the left, “First Look,” owned by Capt. Larry Wren of Islamorada. (photo by Capt. Larry Wren)

Though Buddy died in 1971, the remaining iconic, utilitarian 37-foot Merritts are still raising fish. The 37s had no shower, galley (kitchen), or enclosed salon like the 36-foot Rybovich. Stripped down to a large open deckhouse (with no bulkhead and door aft) and skinnier configuration with rack and pinion steering, the boats were—and remain—fast and nimble.

“They’ll turn on a dime and give you five cents change,” says Captain Gary Stuve of Jupiter, who ran a 37 for Jack Nicklaus in the 1970s. “Merritts started as an alternative for guys who wanted a Rybovich but couldn’t afford one. But with Roy as the boatbuilder, they’ve come out with a string of great boats like the 43s, 46s, 58s, 72s, and 86s that earn loyalty from many captains.”

Giving a friendly nod to the competition, Roy Merritt says, “Rybovich was the first boat with good-looking lines. That influenced every builder, including us. Tommy Rybovich built works of art. We built a fishing boat that was light and performed better than others. That was the difference between Rybovich and Merritt for a long time. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that looks count.”

Captain Allen Merritt wrestles a bluefin tuna through the transom door in the Cat Cay International Tuna Tournament

Captain Allen Merritt wrestles a bluefin tuna through the transom door in the Cat Cay International Tuna Tournament (photo by IGFA)


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