By Capt. Jen Copeland
The sportfishing industry is full of nicknames. Early in your career, it takes only one screw-up, big day or head-turning detail to get you one. We all have one, and Captain Robert Helms is no exception. We call him Ruby, or Red, and only occasionally Robert; but that is a story for another time.
Meet Captain Ruby Helms. The leader of the 70-foot American team Que Mas, Ruby reached the one-year-mark of his first driving job in 2017. Following in the footsteps of 20-plus year veteran skipper Travis Butters, Helms has had big shoes to fill. Considering Red’s nine-year tenure as first mate, owner Wally Whitley never interviewed another captain when Butters retired from the Que Mas. The job naturally fell to Red.
At age 17, during the summers and breaks in the school year, Robert Helms learned the fishing basics from the likes of Captains Charlie Scoble, Alex Alder, Paul Ross, and just about every other “B&M University” fish head in Islamorada. He mentions them all. It was here, on Scoble’s How ‘Bout It, that Ruby’s determination, love and loyalty for everything fishing shined through—and it did not go unnoticed.
Just six months out of college, Helms was drafted by Butters to live the “dream job,” literally. In these, the Que Mas’ golden years, Ruby was an integral part of a tour of the Pacific, multiple tournament seasons in Bermuda and the Bahamas, as well as traversing every inch of the Florida Keys and her backcountry. The 70 American team was unstoppable. Ruby feels lucky to have been a part of the Que Mas Tournament Domination Era of 2008, which ultimately earned Butters the 2008 title of InTheBite Captain of the Year. “Without Travis’ push of excellence, motivation, and sharp eye for detail, I would not be here today,” says Helms.
As Travis Butters endorsed Whitley’s decision to promote Helms, learning how the boat handled was imperative. Ruby practiced docking the boat in many different slips and conditions but doing it for the first time as “the responsible skipper” definitely amped up his anxiety level. With almost a year at the wheel, and safely navigating the reefs, cuts, and marinas of Bermuda and the Bahamas, Ruby keeps it all in perspective. “I try and live by the well-known rule: only go as fast as you want to hit something.”
“You must stay focused when you are held accountable for such an expensive piece of machinery,” he says, “and my biggest concern is losing an engine.” No doubt the prospect of a boat of this size on one engine and no bow thruster could easily ruffle anyone’s feathers, but
Ruby stays calm and collected. “When I’m pulling in an unfamiliar marina, or if I feel I’m getting flustered, I try to find the most logical and effective way to handle it, and I never rush uncertainty.”
Even as a new skipper, Red understands the importance of attitude. “Good attitude is key. Anyone can get frustrated, and that’s understandable, but frustration can easily lead to negativity if not kept in check,” he continues. “Sometimes we just need to stop and take a deep breath, look at all the beautiful places we get to visit, and appreciate the experiences others will never have a chance to experience.” By keeping this good energy vibe pulsing through the Que Mas, Helms ensures the boss, his family and his guests are having fun. In Ruby’s mind, this “is the perfect recipe for more bites, positive energy, and laughter – tournament fishing or not.”
“This job has so many requirements – catch fish, cook dinner, clean, fix and repair, rig bait, wax – the list goes forever,” says Ruby. Trying to stay a step ahead of it all can be exhausting. Helms’ ability to tackle any situation as it creeps up on him is a trait that encompasses his job: “Anything can happen next, so I’m always thinking about possible situations or circumstances, and in the back of my mind, I have a plan of attack.”
Constantly thinking about “what if” scenarios is also a part of this “dream job.” Captains who take the time and energy to consider them are much better off in the long run. Luckily for Captain Ruby, he is fortunate enough to be able to surround himself with a crew he trusts to step in and ease the load.
Captain Robert Helms has one of the better handles on this private boat gig that I’ve heard. His philosophies and interpretations of the business are generally mature and spot-on. This perspective covers everything from how he operates the vessel to entertaining the boss and his guests, to getting bites and trusting your gut, all the while having fun.
With humility and focus, his tight relationship with Mr. Wally and his family is likely to span another decade or two. They continue to travel, explore and see things not everyone is lucky enough to see. There is only way to ensure your employment in a business as volatile as sportfishing, and that is to listen, says Helms. “You want to be part of the conversation when learning from your mentors, not the topic.” Ruby’s unassuming nature can be summed up in an answer to one of my many questions: “you can’t hear what the seasoned guys are saying if you’re always the one talking.”