By Dave Ferrell and Elliott Stark
A lot of people dream of owning a big, beautiful sport fishing boat and traveling the world chasing billfish in exotic destinations. Few people have the financial backing to coax that dream to life…fewer have the required passion and/or grit to keep it going. No matter how much passion and commitment a new owner brings to the table, there will be a learning as he or she transitions from novice to tournament contender. Central to this transition is the guidance of a skilled captain and crew.
When an owner hires a captain to take care of his vessel and run a traveling fishing operation, he’s quite literally entrusting him with a small – some would say large – fortune! The captains and mates spend hours on end performing routine maintenance, enduring long crossings and inclement weather to get the boat from place to place just for chance to fish in these events against the best of the best.
In the case of a new boat owner— beyond the maintenance, rigging, and travel, mates and captains are hired for their expertise in imparting knowledge and skill to the anglers on the boat (including those who sign their paychecks).
An Experienced Captain Can Ease the Transition
Captain Ralph Griffin, of Pirates Cove, North Carolina has run sportfishing boats for 20 plus years. Ralph met his current owner, Owen Andrews of New Bern, North Carolina just a couple of years ago. Like a lot of captains, Griffin met Andrews during the sale of a boat.
“My brother is a surveyor and he invited me along to run the boat and go for a boat ride during the survey on the Reel Easy. I really didn’t think anything of it. The one thing I remember telling Owen that day was that if he got his wife and family involved in having fun on the boat that he’d get to keep it longer. I still think that’s a pretty good philosophy.” Andrews must have taken that advice to heart, because when he went through with the purchase a month later, he called Griffin and a couple months later, Griffin was working on the Reel Easy full time.
Before any trips were planned or fishing reels were purchased, Griffin says that both parties needed to sit down and go over the expectations that each of them had about the job. “I found out right away that Owen is one of those guys who likes everything to be clean and polished and he was looking for somebody to take care of his boat in the way he wants it taken care of. We already have another boat being built now, and one of the reasons is he likes things to be shiny and new.” Andrews’ new ride is a 62-foot Paul Mann built in 2005. After the refit, she will be the Fin Print.
And while the captain and crew must meet the expectations of the owner, certain crews have expectations of their own that need to be hashed out well before the season begins. First of all, most crews don’t like sitting on the dock. “If the owner wants to take a booze cruise every Friday night you need to know those kinds of things ahead of time. It often comes down to the personalities involved,” says Griffin.
“Everybody is different and if you aren’t aware of the personality differences upfront, it can lead to frustrations. I like to think I can get along with anybody. Owen is a super nice guy. Also, I’m not the kind of guy who jumps from boat to boat, I like to stay loyal and stick around. I am who I am, but I feel that I can change and adapt. I feel like I can go anywhere in the world and catch a blue marlin. That’s the confidence I have in myself.”
“I don’t know if most people getting into the sport fishing game grasp what it takes monetarily and mentally. I also understand that they are very smart and successful people who go out and spend millions of dollars on these boats and use them. But sometimes I don’t think every new owner really understands all of the logistics and angling skills needed to be successful. They will read an article in Marlin Magazine and think, well there isn’t anything to it! The articles are great, but to some extent, they sensationalize these places to the point where people think fishing there is going to be easy…catching eight to ten billfish a day. But you have to get there first and you have to learn to crawl before you can walk when it comes to catching them as well.”
Captain and Mates – Angling Consultants
Captain Ralph Griffin’s perspective is a wise one. He views an experienced captain and crew as a paid source of advice who a new owner hires not only for their ability to put the boat on fish, but to teach him to be a better angler.
Asked about the most important considerations for a would-be new owner, “Listen to what the people you pay are telling you. Crew are experts, listen to their guidance. You could put me in the board room of a business and it would take me a while to learn everything. The situation is the same on the boat, only in reverse. There is no reason for a new owner to be embarrassed or feel inferior or any other way about taking information from the crew,” he says.
A captain, crew and owner are quite literally on the same team. It’s in the best interest of crew (and their bank accounts) to help the new owner improve as an angler quickly. “You’re paying people a lot of money so that you can have a good time. A new owner should hire someone he trusts can put him in a situation to succeed. That said, in my opinion, you must be able to listen in order to be able to improve.”
Understanding Your Limitations and Creating Realistic Expectations
“It’s also important to know your limitations and have realistic goals and expectations,” Griffin says. Many of the top tournament teams – captains, crews and anglers – have been fishing together for years. Some of them fish together for 50 or 100 or more days every year. Even in the most ideal of scenarios, there will be a learning curve and you can’t expect to always win every tournament. “You can’t expect to compete if you’re not willing to do what is necessary to compete.”
Everyone likes to have a good time on the boat, but when tournament time comes around you need to make sure everyone is focused and feelings don’t get hurt in the heat of battle. “All captains will raise their voice at some point. We raise our voice because the cockpit is a loud place, and with the few opportunities you get when marlin fishing, you have to take advantage of every chance you get.
You can’t do that if no one is paying attention or the music is so loud down below that they can’t hear what I’m saying. If the mate can’t hear me then we are going backwards. Anybody can polish metal, anybody can call Hilton or ROFFS to find out where to start, but if the owner and captain agree on what is expected of each other, then success will follow.”
From “New Owner” to Tournament Winner – Lessons Along the Way
“Some guys are just never going to be any good at (fishing),” says Tony Huerta, owner of the Lo Que Sea in Stuart, Florida. “Especially if they only fish ten to 20 days a year during tournament season. It’s a lot like golf…some guys can practice and practice, but if you aren’t coordinated it’s going to be tough for you. I was lucky because I just fell in love with it. If I’m doing something then I go all in. I put in my time. I fish a lot. I ask a ton of questions. I go over what happened at the end of every day and try to figure out what we did right and what we did wrong.”
“Circle hook fishing for billfish is different than any other type of fishing and it’s hard to break people of bad habits. I was very fortunate that I learned from some of the best in business…but more importantly, I was eager and willing to let them teach me. Guys like Glenn Cameron, Mike Fulgham and KP (Kevin Paul) were pretty innovative back in the day and they got a lot of the stuff going that is commonplace today.”
As Huerta describes of his transition from novice to expert tournament angler, he credits those who helped him along the way. There were two parts to this equation: the captains who gave the advice, and the new owner who heeded it. Huerta’s insistence in taking the advice and incorporating it into his approach to angling were just as important to the outcome as the captains who gave the advice.
In order to take advice from someone, you must be able to relate with them. Respect helps, too. “One thing I do know is that it’s important that you hire a person with the right attitude that matches yours,” says Huerta. “And don’t look at your crew as your friends. You can be friends, but some owners also demand that the crew is their buddy. I think that irritates them sometimes. After long days in tight quarters people get tired of each other. Don’t drag your crew around with you if you think they might want to some time on their own. Nobody likes being told what to do 24 hours a day. Tension on the boat is a killer…when you wake up in the morning you can feel it. Avoid it at all costs,” says Huerta.
Making the decision to purchase a sportfisher takes a lot of courage for the first-time big boat owner, even if they’ve bent their backs on their own center consoles for years prior. Tournament big game fishing on a true sportfisher with a professional captain and crew, is truly stepping up into the big leagues.
The owner is the general manager of the team. The captain is the boss of the boat and the captain of the team; the mates execute the game plan; and hopefully the anglers make the play and catch the fish. When done at the highest level, it’s not as easy as some would assume. Sustained success does not happen by accident.
The Importance of Listening
When it comes to turning beginning anglers into competent ones, how much importance does Captain Ralph Griffin place on the ability to listen? “If I were to pull up to a school of dolphin with people who had never fished before, give me four 13-year old girls over six grown men. I’ll catch more dolphin with the girls, even though the men have two extra hooks in the water. Why? Because the girls will listen.”
The Journey from New Owner to Tournament Contender
Matt Weber understands the journey from new boat owner to tournament contender first hand. Husband and wife team Matt and Kelly are three years into the transition. Here is their story as related by Matt himself.
“We bought the boat three years ago,” Weber said in 2018. “A few years prior to the purchase, some friends of ours told us we should charter a boat. Because we were around the tournament scene in Ocean City, we charted for the White Marlin Open. We didn’t really learn to fish on the charters, we just observed and reeled in fish. Charters really just got us interested in fishing.”
“We had our eyes on Spencers for a few years – we’d met Paul and Daniel and really liked them,” Weber recalls. “We planned on buying something in the 55-60’ range, but looked at the 66’ Spencer, the Birdie Time. We fell in love with it and made an offer the next day. A 66’ is our first boat, some people thought we were ahead of ourselves. But we got the boat we loved and have no desire to go bigger.”
When asked about the lessons they’ve learned in their first years of boat ownership, Weber is reflective. “We came into it with our eyes open. We knew that it would be a huge commitment,” Matt explains. “We didn’t realize how important it would be to have not just a captain, but also a mate who was committed to the program. We needed a mate who was not just a great fisherman, but also one who was committed to teaching us how to fish. Austin (Robins) was the first mate that we hired.”
“The first six to nine months was a settling process. Austin started teaching us the basics. We embraced the process as he was teaching us how to hook fish,” Weber recalls. “The best thing that happened to us – a year in, Austin took my wife and I to Costa Rica. We chartered a friend of ours’ boat. In three days, we caught 94 sails. It was there that Austin really taught us.”
“After that everything changed. We went back to Ocean City and did everything ourselves. We found ourselves getting better and better. Without Costa Rica that wouldn’t have happened – it’s all about repetition. What we did in three days would have taken us years on the East Coast.”
“From there, we started doing stuff ourselves. As we got more comfortable in the cockpit, our program expanded. We fished more and more tournaments because we were contributing to the team,” Weber states, describing the transformation. “We took more and more trips to Costa Rica. Now we’ve brought our boat – this is the first winter there. We never dreamed we’d be in the Triple Crown – we’re loving it. We finished near the bottom, but we’re comfortable and know that we’re improving. Austin started as our mate and became our captain. This (the Second Leg) was his first tournament as captain.”
Do you have any comments or questions for us? We’d love to hear from you.