Not too long ago a popular indoor sport from Park to Worth Avenue and from Nob Hill to Bryn Mawr was a game called Cook-Stealing. It was played in deadly earnest. No subterfuge was too outrageous; no trick was out of bounds. The game is still being played today but in another form. In 1963 the big status symbol is not one's cook but one's sport-fishing captain. Never, in its brightest moments, did Cook-Stealing reach the heights, or depths, of skulduggery that Captain-Stealing has now attained.
In the small and select world of the deepwater sport fisherman, boat captains are being bribed to abandon ship (for another, of course) by promises of new sports cars, split-level homes, radar de-
vices worthy of the U.S. Navy and other inducements ranging from private Medicare to public matrimony. One captain in West Palm Beach drives to work in a Cadillac Eldorado (his own); another is driven around by a liveried chauffeur (his boss's). In Brielle, N.J. there is a captain who boasts that seven different hand-tailored dinner jackets hang in his closet; another claims twice that many closets in his newly built Bahamian hideaway. One fisherwoman went so far as to offer herself in marriage in order to snag a captain. The only difficulty was that the captain-turned-husband then lost interest in running the boat.
This sudden lionizing of fishing captains is a direct consequence of the rapidly growing feminine interest in angling. As more and more women take to blue water, more and more captains become involved in the game of musical fighting chairs.
Around the smart clubs at Cat Cay and Bimini, Marathon and Nassau these days there is a drumfire of gossipy speculation on who is trolling for whose captain—and what extra-sporting methods are being used this time. The accents may be Shipley or Miss Hewitt's, but the descriptions are often deckhand-graphic.
September 1, 1963
Some of the gossip is true, as one jet-setter proved to the satisfaction of the courts this winter. His wife wound up with the captain, but the husband walked off with the boat as well as the cook, the cars and the kids. The majority of tales that circulate, however, are simply fish stories, based to a large extent on the unique relationship a boat captain has with his employer.
The men piloting the multimillion-dollar sport-fishing fleet that patrols the big-game waters from New Zealand to Nova Scotia are the heart of one of the most demanding—and expensive—of all sports. In most cases, these captains were born to the sea; in all cases they have married it. They are a 20th century version of the men of Hatteras and New Bedford. But instead of whales, they pursue sailfish and marlin, broadbill and bluefin. To land these trophies, no effort is too great: the sleekest and speediest boats with the newest and best equipment are used, and the fish are hunted with an educated, precise knowledge of their habits and habitats.
But the captain does not pursue these fish for himself. He fishes for an employer. At the end of the week or month, he is paid a salary. More often than not, part of it goes toward the mortgage on a neat little ranch house in a neat little community not far from the sea.
Despite his wage-for-personal-service situation, the sport-fishing captain is not a servant. Neither is he socially on a level with his boss. Yet, depending upon the time and the situation, he may be expected to be both, sometimes simultaneously. One day he may be asked to mix the Martinis, the next day to help drink them.
"Some sportsmen are looking as much for companionship in a captain as they are for a fish guide," says Sonny Barr, captain of F. W. Roebling's 42-foot Blue Fin IV. "They want someone they can take out to dinner who won't embarrass them in a good restaurant. And they want somebody they can trust. Take Jackie Harmes, who used to work for Bob Maytag. Jackie spent more time on land than at sea. Maytag never went anywhere in the islands without taking Jackie along. He liked yakking and drinking with him. That was part of it. But he also knew he'd get back to the boat eventually with his wallet still in his pocket."
The strong, protective arm of a responsible boat captain is valued even more by women anglers who frequently travel the tournament circuit alone. "When I'm staying in one of those island marinas," says platinum-haired Mrs. James (Billie) Lynch, owner of the Toss Up out of Hillsboro, Fla., "I want my captain in the room next door. I don't care who talks about it. There are enough problems at a fishing tournament without my having to fend off drunks hammering on my door all night." Besides relying on his strong right arm after hours, Billie Lynch is quick to credit Captain Frederick E. Stone, better known as Punch, for a big part of her success in the major tournaments, where she has collected a shelf full of silverware.
"Everything depends on the captain," Billie admits. "Anyone who argues otherwise just hasn't fished. The captain is especially important in light-tackle fishing where the fad today is to use line that isn't much stronger than hair. Just remember that most of the record fish that have been taken on light tackle lately would probably still be swimming around if it hadn't been for some darned fancy work on the part of the fellow running the boat.
"Quite a few of them have been taken by women, too," Billie adds, "because women have learned to listen to the captain instead of assuming they know it all. Have you ever met a man who could afford a sport fisherman who would listen to anyone's advice on anything, especially on how to fight a fish? With the girls, it's a different story. They have been listening to men all their lives, so why stop now? The result is that women have been outfishing men, and the poor guys still don't have a clue as to why."
The captains, to the chagrin of some of their male employers, are the first to agree with Billie. With few exceptions, they claim that women are easier to teach, usually remain calmer when a big fish is on and are more likely to follow directions. The last point is a key one with fishing-boat captains, who are proud to the point of being defensive about their knowledge and experience. Nothing irks them more than an owner—especially an inexperienced one—who insists on playing captain every time he is aboard.
"Every owner has hired the man he thinks is the best captain to run his boat," says C. C. Anderson, who has been running George Bass's Sambo for 13 years. "But each evening he will come in and ask everyone on the dock what is the tight way to do something that the captain has been doing the right way for years. You should see some of the Rube Goldbergs they rig up.
"I remember being on a boat when the owner was told that the only way to catch fish was with a 30-foot wire leader. Nothing would do but that we rig 30 feet of piano wire onto the line. The next thing we knew we were into a school of tuna. Sure enough, one hit that wire, and two of us spent the next 25 minutes trying to pull it into the boat. Coils of wire were winding in every direction. Man, what a mess. We had bruised knees, cut hands and the cockpit was covered with blood. But the worst part was that we finally had to cut the crazy wire and let the fish go."
Humoring the boss is naturally part of the job, but the real business of being a captain is many times more complex. The captain is 100% responsible not only for running his boat but also for its upkeep and equipment. An average 36-foot sport fisherman costs about $40,000 absolutely bare. Beyond this, the necessities for a topflight tournament boat—radar, electronic depth finders, Loran, RDF, automatic scanners, transceivers and other complex devices—can cost another $20,000 to $30,000. Tack on about $10,000 for fishing tackle, and the total price of a fully equipped sport fisherman is more like $80,000. The showcase boats built by the Rybovich brothers in West Palm Beach cost well over that figure.
A man who owns this kind of goldplater expects, justifiably, to find it in first-class condition all the time, even if he does not use it more than 10 times in a year. Furthermore, a captain who consistently and carefully maintains a boat can cut its annual repair bills by 50%. To accomplish this the captain, whose salary ranges from $7,500 to $12,000 a year, must be an expert in a couple of dozen fields from diesel engineering to interior decorating. He has to know how to strip down a motor, take apart a reel, rewrap and varnish a rod, replace a fitting, connect a fuel line, remove a spot from the upholstery, scrape a bottom, filet a fish and freeze bait. When he hires a repairman or makes a purchase, he must be a combination foreman-comparison shopper who can decide whether the service is actually necessary, whether the price is right, whether the quality of the work is up to standard.
"A couple of years ago," recalls Bobby Haines, captain on George Schulmerich's Sailfish, "we broke a shaft in Nassau. The local boatyard told me they wouldn't be able to haul the boat for at least three months. I was due to meet my boss on one of the out islands in a week. I figured the only choice was to try to do the job myself. I called John Rybovich on the mainland, told him the problem, and he flew over a new shaft. Then I bought myself a mask and snorkel, went over the side and replaced the shaft. They called me frogman for months."
It is also the captain's job to keep the voluminous records, logs and accounts that are required on all boats. Each year the Internal Revenue people are making this chore more complicated. Expenditures must be broken down in detail; everyone who has been aboard, regardless of the reason, must be listed; records must be kept of weather, miles traveled, water fished, catches made, fish released.
When his head is not deep in facts and figures, the captain may also be called upon to double as chef and, frequently, as ship's doctor. One captain estimates that 25% of his passengers suffer from mal de mer, and it has long been a question of who suffers most—the victim or the person who follows with a bucket. While other captains set the percentage somewhat lower, all agree they can spot a potential customer for the rail on the basis of build (chubby), age (under 12 or over 45) and personality (loud refusal to take any kind of anti-seasick pill). But none has figured out a surefire method of aiming the victims downwind at the critical moment.
No matter how well he does all his chores of maintenance and nursemaiding, the captain ultimately makes—or loses—his reputation on two points: how often he finds fish and how skillfully he sees that they are caught.
"Any good yacht captain can run a sport-fishing boat," says Jack Lance, captain of Ross Siragusa's Suzi III. "After all, no one is going to trust a $100,000 yacht to a gas-station attendant. But to find a yacht captain who is also a first-class fish guide is another thing. A well-rounded fish guide can fish anywhere, and if there are fish around, he'll find them and figure a way to catch them."
This is why the top captains are on the top boats today. An owner who goes out only 10 days a year wants to catch fish every one of those days, and he will settle for nothing less. Considering that each day may cost him somewhere in the vicinity of $5,000, this is understandable. But from the captain's point of view, it can also be a nightmare.
"My boss called me from Detroit one day," C. C. Anderson recalls, "and he said that a very important business associate was going to be in Palm Beach for a couple of days with his two sons. None of them had ever fished before. My boss said, 'It is imperative, I repeat imperative, that you take them out and catch them a sailfish.' The weather was wild. Wind howling, seas rolling. But it was the only day the fellow could fish, so out we went. The two kids got sick in the first half hour. We turned around and took them home. I had to hand it to the fellow. He was a gray-green color, but out we went again—waves breaking into the cockpit and all. Believe it or not, he caught five sailfish. That was one happy man when we hung them at the dock."
Many owners, like George Bass, maintain their sport fishermen as much for the use of friends and business contacts as for themselves. They not only enjoy showing off the quality and seaworthiness of their boats, but they also take an almost fatherly pride in their captains. Most owners are remarkably open-handed about offering the services of both. And most legitimate fishing tournaments would have trouble ever getting away from the docks were it not for the generosity of these same owners, who contribute boats, captains, fuel and often the tackle.
With few exceptions, these captains are poised, gregarious, likable men who are easy to talk to and easy to be with. Most are in their middle 30s; some, like Bobby Haines's brother Dicky, captain of P. C. Barney's Wallaby, are as young as 24; and a few are in their 50s and 60s.
Only a handful of the older captains stayed in school past the primary grades but, among the younger ones, the majority are high school graduates. Several, like C. C. Anderson, Sonny Barr and Alfred Nathan, are college men. Regardless of formal education, the good sport-fishing captains, like good professional hunters, are well-read and articulate. They have to be, in order to converse easily with the varied personalities who come on board. Besides, when the boss doesn't want company, reading is a good way to pass the long, lone leisure hours aboard the boat when it is docked at a strange port.
These long hours are one of the two major complaints of the fishing-boat captain or, perhaps more accurately, of his wife. "There never was a wife who could put up with the hours a captain has to keep," says Bill Staros of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Staros' wife nevertheless does, in spite of the 14 hours a day her husband averages aboard the Wind-song, even when the boat is at home. Most other wives—the majority of captains, like Staros, are married and have children—put up with it, too, but the hours and the periods away from home do not necessarily promote marital bliss. "This kind of work is a real hardship on wives," says Jack Lance, who missed the birth of one of his three children when he was doing a 15-week stint in the Bahamas several years ago. In 1951 Lance spent five straight months in the Pacific on the George Vanderbilt Equatorial Expedition. These trips are not without danger. A few years ago, off the coast of Peru, Captain Clarence Fine and his son disappeared, along with the boat. Only a few scraps of wreckage were found. However, the vast majority of deepwater battles with thousand-pound gamefish are remarkably free of lethal accidents, and captains like Bobby Haines and C. C. Anderson have ranged without serious mishap from Florida to Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Chile to Nova Scotia.
"That's the trouble with the privates," growls Frank Ardine, one of the few skilled captains who works for no one but himself. "The privates ain't never home. Me, I got a nice home. I like to live in it."
Ardine is a grizzled, wiry little man of 55 who speaks Brooklynese and brandishes a bosomy mermaid on his right biceps. He is one independent captain who still manages to make a good living. But when he started in the business 26 years ago, most of the best captains owned their own boats and were their own bosses. Today, it is the rare one who is successful on his own.
The exorbitant initial cost of buying and equipping a sport fisherman is only part of the problem. Just keeping it at a dock is expensive. Each of the boats moored at the Rybovich docks in West Palm Beach pays $1,200 a year for the privilege of being part of the "Rybovich navy." To dock a boat at Hillsboro Inlet, farther south along the Florida coast, costs only $385 a year. But on top of this is an additional annual charge of $50 by the Hillsboro AIA Charter Fleet Association (which pays for local dock advertising, billboards, the dock phone and electricity); other similar charges bring the annual total to about $500.
These are all minor expenses when compared with heavy annual insurance and boat liability premiums, fuel bills (the engines on a sport-fishing boat run all the time when out), the cost of a mate (average $16 a day) and the miscellaneous but staggering—up to 10% of the boat's value per year—costs of normal maintenance and repair. The $85 to $100 that the average boat earns on a day's paid charter might cover these expenses if the boat went out 365 days a year. It does not. The result is a pyramiding debt structure, which sooner or later may bankrupt anyone dependent solely upon his boat for a living.
"It's a losing battle," says Captain Stone. "Years ago all the wealthy sportsmen chartered to go fishing. Now they own their own boats, and when they are not fishing themselves they often charter them out. The independent captain doesn't have a chance against this kind of competition."
Many of the private boat owners charter not for the cash, but because they need to show tax-deductible reasons for owning their boats. They have no trouble finding customers, who are dazzled not only by the sheer luxury of the super-sport fishermen and the skill of the private captains, but also by the thrill of fishing—if only vicariously—with a famous boat owner. What auto dealer, for example, could resist the chance to tell the folks back home in Prairie City, Iowa about the day he spent on Benson Ford's Onika?.
The increasing popularity of private-boat charters has set up a current of resentment among the captains who are going it on their own. "The privates never live up to the charter boats," claims Frank Ardine, "because they don't do enough fishing. Me, I got to make a living, so I go out every day. And I catch fish." There are, in fact, few captains who catch so many fish, but Ardine's success financially is less certain. More than one dockside wag has suggested that he would be on somebody's payroll, too, if his wife were not a prosperous hairdresser.
Almost as good as having a money-making wife is having an angel. Angels are wingless, wealthy people who for one reason or another do not want it known that they own or have an interest in a sport-fishing boat. Publicly, the boat is owned by the captain, who operates it as a regular charter craft. Privately, it is subsidized by the angel who may fish from it regularly, several weeks a year or, sometimes, not at all.
"Each deal is different," says Bill Staros, "but the trouble is that they are not always good deals. The best deal of all is to work on a boat that is owned by a corporation. Then you have real security. You get a good salary and all the benefits like Blue Cross and insurance. Even a pension plan. But these jobs are getting scarce now because the government is after corporations to get rid of their boats.
"The strictly private deals are a lot harder," Staros adds. "Sooner or later the boss starts wondering what you are doing on the days when he's not fishing. The next thing you know he has you mowing the lawn and painting the screens. Before long you are a combination chauffeur-captain taking the dog to the vet and the kids to dancing school."
"After all," says Mrs. Alfred Nathan, whose husband owns and runs the Wendy II out of Singer Island, Fla., "there really isn't any difference, you know, between driving somebody else's Rolls-Royce and driving his Rybovich." Mrs. Nathan can afford to wrinkle her nose at such a distasteful idea because she is not dependent upon charter fees. Her husband, a graduate of Lawrenceville and the University of Virginia, turned to charter fishing to relieve the boredom of coupon clipping.
For the average captain, however, the best and most logical means of catching his fish and eating, too, is to work for somebody else,. "Sure, I drive the car up to Detroit for the boss each season," says C. C. Anderson, "and I pick up the dog sometimes, too. But the boss also invites the wife and me to dinner and a show every now and then, and they treat us like members of the family. It's like a father-and-son relationship. If we didn't have respect for each other, it would never work out. Certainly there are some fringe disadvantages, but there are plenty of fringe benefits, too."
These fringe benefits can and often do include uniforms, hospitalization, insurance, paid vacations, travel and all expenses when away from home, Christmas and holiday bonuses, financial assistance with mortgages, school and medical bills, car loans and sometimes even the car. On top of such benefits are countless others less tangible but no less impressive: the glamour of an afternoon at the boss's pool, or an evening with the boss's wife at an exclusive island club, or just splitting a beer with the president of the biggest corporation in America, These repeated and sometimes intimate encounters with luxury, wealth and power—with a way of life normally limited to the very rich—are as much a part of the glamour of "going private" as the financial security of the job. It is not surprising that a few of the more impressionable young captains succumb to the unaccustomed grandeur, just as it is not entirely surprising that most of them look more like movie extras than fishing guides. And, after a day on the open sea under a warm tropical sun, it is not really so surprising that a few of the ladies in the fighting chairs find it more fun to angle for the captain—their own or somebody else's—than for the fish. This is all part of the sport.