By Elliott Stark
When sitting down to write the profile of a man like Captain Billy Borer, you had better pack a lunch. Borer’s professionalism and perception jump through the phone clearly enough that when he says he’s been at the helm for more than 40 years and captained a mothership operation that nearly circumnavigated the globe, you are somehow not surprised. His stories and lessons are delivered with an understatement and an ease that belies the fact that he’d prefer not to be the center of attention.
Borer grew up in Newport, Rhode Island.
“My dad was a Navy man. We always had boats and always lived near the water. I was fishing and hunting with my dad from an early age.” As Borer grew, he got a job working for a company in Newport. His tasks were varied—working on a head boat, working on tenders for ships and servicing the America’s Cup boats when they were in Newport.
Captain Billy attended college at the University of Rhode Island. “I didn’t like college much. I started in a liberal arts program. My first class was a philosophy class. The guy (professor) came in riding a bike, wearing a cape. I decided this wasn’t for me.”
“I changed to a two-year commercial fishing program. They taught things like technology, navigation, and net building,” Borer recalls. This program suited him much better than philosophy. “I did the two-year program. At the end, NOAA asked some of the guys in the program to work on a research ship in Alaska. We did a baseline study on the Bering Sea at the start of the Magnuson (Stevens) Act. We were dragging, gill netting, and doing all kinds of oceanographic operations.”
After the Alaskan research cruise, Borer returned to URI to get his bachelor’s degree. It was there that his sportfishing career began in earnest. “I met a guy that was going to Florida and wanted a sportfishing boat. He bought a 38’ Hatteras and we started chartering out of Stuart at Pirate’s Cove in the late 70s. We didn’t know shit…we learned a bunch.”
Borer worked hard and kept the boat nice. It was not long before others took notice. “ Ed Duda asked me if I wanted to run his Topaz. We charter fished in Stuart, Hatteras, the Bahamas and the Keys. It was quite a learning curve,” Borer recalls. “I worked for the Dudas for six years.”
The next development in Borer’s career was an incredible opportunity. “A friend of mine was hired to run the mothership for the El Zorro operation. He asked me if I wanted to run the game boat. It was hard to leave the Dudas,” Borer says. “They flew me to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and I started from there. I was the game boat captain for a year when the mothership captain quit. I told the owner that I could run both boats,” Borer recollects. “We scaled the crew down from nine to six” “From Mauritius, we traveled through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and on to the Canaries and to the Ivory Coast. From there, we crossed the Atlantic to Brazil and then headed to Venezuela and St. Thomas.
“Jim (the owner of the operation) loved St. Thomas. He bought a house there and invested in American Yacht Harbour. They put up the first building in 1991-1992,” Borer says. “When the Shimano Beast Masters came out there was nothing to rival Fin-nor. I could take them apart because Shimano was our sponsor on the El Zorro. Another boat brought me their reels to service and fix,” Borer begins. “Once their reels were ready, I told them we’d pass them across to them in the water on the Drop.”
While the plan involved placing the reels in a bag and floating them from boat to boat, Borer had something else in mind. “We replaced the bags of reels with bags full of rocks. We passed the bag of rocks over to them and right before they grabbed it, the bag sank. They were freaking out, thinking that they’d lost all of their reels.” A couple minutes later Borer and crew floated over the actual bag of reels.
“The El Zorro deal ended in 1997. I left them in 1998 after 12 years.”
For the past 14 years, Borer has worked for Rod Winsley, owner of Gulf Coast Hatteras, now Gulf Coast Yacht Group. “We’re based in St. Thomas and still fish a bit,” Billy says. “I’ve had five boat jobs in 45 years of running boats,” Borer says. “I’ve been real fortunate. I’ve worked for some great owners, that’s been the best thing for me. I’ve had the chance to travel and fish.”
Captain Billy views the career at the helm as a series of interconnected experiences. “You’re always learning and evolving. Now it seems like you have to have sonar, a tower guy and giant dredges,” Borer reflects. “It seems that way, but it’s not true. If you fish in good places, you are bound to catch a few.”
Captain Billy is more than generous in his gratitude for those who have influenced his career. “Early on, the guys at Whitakers in Stuart were great—Jack Whitaker, Kim Phillips, and Boogie Warren. There was Chip Shaeffer in Fort Pierce. I have huge respect for him for being as good as he is. He has an instinct for it—really first class. There are so many great captains from the Outer Banks.”
“I learned a lot in Venezuela…I had 10-plus good years there. There was Ronnie Hamlin and all that he did with the circle hook, and Oscar Benitez, and Paul Ivey, and Dave Noling,” Borer recalls. “Venezuela was such a tremendous fishery. You had to do a bit of everything. Many of the spreads and techniques that evolved there are really commonplace everywhere now.”
“In St. Thomas there was Mike Lemon, Frank Branch, Red Bailey, and Eddie Herbert for sure. In Puerto Rico, Mike Benitez. You just take a little bit from everybody to see what works for you.”
Borer is also generous when it comes to sharing lessons with younger guys. “Work ethic is a big thing. Some guys who have worked for me have come back later to thank me for pushing them to do a better job,” Borer says.
“Working hard and keeping the boat clean is expected. There are no sloppy decks or bait boxes, most new guys are really good these days,” Billy explains. “Character counts a lot! Be reliable, be on time and do what you say you are going to do. All personalities are different, so learn to get along with people—be flexible and open.”
Borer also recommends a dose of gratitude. “Guys should realize how good they have it. It’s humbling to be paid to do what you love. Guys need to appreciate jobs for great owners. It’s not always really greener on the other side,” says the veteran captain. “I’m about to turn 65. I don’t feel like it. People outside of the business always ask me, ‘Are you gonna retire?’ Hell no. I’m going to do this as long as I am physically able.”
Captain Billy Borer’s Mates Through the Years
“Young guys need to be well-rounded. They need to be able to help with oil changes, fix pumps, cook and be good with guests,” recommends Captain Billy. He has been blessed with a stream of great mates through his career. “I’ve had some good ones,” he says. Here they are: Squeaky Kelly, Charlie Bartholomew, Dan Patrick, Randy Yates, Rob Moore, Fly Navarro, Eric Anderson, Jeff Garrison, Troy Kent, Juan Garcia, Westy Marshall and his current mate, Glenn Helton.
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