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Rybovich – The Stradivarius of Sportfishing Boats

John Rybovich came to Ellis Island from what we now call Yugoslavia in 1910. An experienced carpenter, he heard about Florida, the warmer part of the country where the rich went in the winter. He thought he could make a living building houses in Palm Beach, but a trip there convinced him that the city building ordinances were too restrictive to work through the winter season. However, surrounded by water with year-round fishing potential, he could see himself becoming a commercial fisherman. He headed back to New York to find a wife and a year later returned to Florida with his new bride, Anna. They rented an apartment and started their family and a commercial fishing business.

A few years and three children later (John, Jr., Ethel and Tommy), John and Anna needed more space for the family and the business. In 1919 they bought their first house on the shore of Lake Worth. By 1925 the Rybovich family had two more children, Emil and Mary, and John was kept busy fishing, repairing his boats and repairing and modifying other local fishermen’s boats. He found working on other boats more lucrative than his fishing business and spent more time in the yard than on the water. John Jr. started working alongside his father when he was ten, and quit school at sixteen to work at the yard full time. What started as a commercial fishing business had evolved into the Rybovich and Sons Boat Works. Several major hurricanes damaged the family home and boatyard, but the Rybovich boys and their father always rebuilt both to be bigger and stronger after each storm.

In 1931 senior Rybovich took a 26 foot carvel planked boat the Phipps family had used as a yacht tender as payment for a yard bill. He turned the boat over to Johnny, who loved to fish. As Johnny did the repair work the boat needed, he also set the boat up as he thought it would work best for someone going out sport fishing. He built the first fighting chair and outriggers, fish box and tuna door. The refrigerated fish box, remote controlled fighting chair, popup TV and stove all originated at Rybovich. Johnny applied every new idea he had that worked for him to customers’ boats.

Although the war took the Rybovich boys away from the business, they each became proficient through their military service in areas that would help them build and sell boats. First Tommy went, then Emil and in 1943, Johnny served as a procurement officer for the Army. His military service provided him with business skills. Emil learned about performance standards and engineering, working on the fleet of boats that were his responsibility. Tommy flew B-17 bombers and learned about aircraft construction and aerodynamics. Back home in Florida, senior Rybovich and his remaining employees converted civilian pleasure boats to military use and repaired and maintained military patrol boats. When the war ended, the pleasure craft had to be converted back to their original use. Senior Rybovich turned the business over to his three sons when they returned. All three boys had a strong interest in building a boat that would be a pure sportfishing boat and discussed it at length.

When car dealer Charlie Johnson came to them in 1946 asking them to build him a 34 foot boat for tuna fishing, the Rybovich boys were ready. Johnny had the fishing experience. With his real world background, he was able to provide the concept for the boat. Emil put the power in place with aircraft steering, twin Chrysler gas engines and dual station controls. Tommy put the package together in his own artistic design, incorporating large areas of brightwork and high gloss paint – not how most people of that era envisioned a boat made expressly for finding and catching big fish, but a design that provided a good ride – fast, stable and dry.The flared bow and elegant curves caught the attention of other sportfishermen who saw it perform.

Over the years the perfect proportions of the Rybovich boats, the originators of sportfishing boats, invited cloning. In 1956 at the Hemingway Fishing Tournament in Cuba, Bob Gill, owner of a 36 foot Rybovich, was invited to an evening event that kept him away from his boat long enough for Cuban brothers Luis and Pepin Aizorba to spirit his boat away. They hauled it, measured it, photographed it, made templates of the hull and returned it to his slip. No one knew until the next year when Johnny Rybovich returned to Havana and was taken to see the semi-completed Cuban Rybovich now known as a Cubavich. He was upset but, as a businessman, he saw an opportunity and sold them the fighting chairs and outriggers they needed to complete the boats.

Around the same time Chris Craft copied much of the design of the Rybovich, incorporating the graceful broken shear line and other features into their line of 33 foot and 40 foot sportfishing boats. A lawsuit followed and Chris Craft closed their Wisconsin operation where the boats were made and started the new line in Pompano Beach, Florida. The new line of boats looked the same on the outside but had new interiors, different from the first thirteen boats built by Chris Craft. The Chris Crafts in that series were known as Chrisovich boats.

A smaller version of Rybovich cloning was the boat built by Rick McNamee of Bellport, NY. Rick has had Rybovich on his personal radar since he was twelve and saw his first Rybovich at the Deep Sea Club in Montauk. He saw himself building a Rybovich look-alike. While he was in college Rick enrolled in the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, where he learned to draw the three dimensional lines needed to build his 26 foot center console Legend, using the cold-molded process – three layers of mahogany nailed and epoxied.

In the 1950s and 1960s the color pink came to cars and boats. Edgar Kaiser had a racing boat, Pink Lady, a big pink hydroplane. Rybovich built the Timid Tuna, a 1956 36 foot sportfisherman painted Miami Pink by the builder. Caliban, a 37 foot Merritt built in 1962 was painted pink. Now called Sangria, it is still pink.

In 1960 Frisky (hull #43) was the first Rybovich boat built using the cold-molded process and in 1967 the Rybovich yard built Ole (hull #67) the last plank and frame boat. Merritt started using the cold-molded process in 1976. The cold-molded process builds a stronger, lighter weight boat. It was a process waiting for the technology to catch up. When the epoxies of the late 1950s became available to boat builders it meant more speed for the same power or much greater speed for additional power.

The first Rybovich Joe Chioffe had a good look at was at Indian Cove Marina at Hampton Bays, New York. It was the best looking boat he had ever seen. He sold the custom built lapstrake sportfisherman he had built in a New Jersey yard that had been a major disappointment. It was slower and heavier than he thought it would be and on trips to the canyon, it rolled. He spent three years looking at Rybovich boats and went to Florida to see a 44 foot sedan/sportfisherman that had been neglected. Ses-Sha-Moi (hull #25) built in 1957, is carvel planked with ¾” Phillipine Mahogany, Resorcinol glued with Monel fasteners over 1-1/4” x 6” oak main frames on 18” centers and 1-1/2” x 1’ steam bent intermediate frames on alternating 18” centers. It had good bones. He bought it and had the work done. Although Rybovich interiors have been described as “pure alpha male,” dark wood with dark leather uphostery, often dark brown, owners like Joe Chioffe have brightened up their cabins with artwork and white leather upholstery. See interior pictures on www.myrybovichproudlady.com.

In subsequent years as Rybovich added to or changed their new boats, Joe kept Proud Lady current by adding, changing and improving. The last repowering required Rybovich’s innovative “bubble” that opened the hull from the bottom and fiberglassed a bubble around the opening to accommodate the tall diesel power plants of that time. Joe’s upgrades came in 1984, 1996, 2003, 2007 and 2010.

Pat Rybovich, daughter of Tommy Rybovich, said Joe “has gone the extra mile, adding strength to the stringers, giving the hull double layers of fiberglass and repowering with Cummins diesels.” Pat has written a book, “Rybovich,” about growing up with the boat building business in her back yard, including how her sister’s drawing of an angelfish was and still is used on the boats. Part of the book is available to read online at www.rybovichbook.com The book is a 20 pound navy blue leather bound coffee table book that costs upwards of $300.00.

In 1961 Fortune Magazine called Rybovich the “Stradivarius of sportfishing boats.” In the August, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated, the author of the cover article said, “For the man who likes luxury and fresh fish ... nothing that floats compares to the sportfishermen made in Florida by John Rybovich and Sons.” Clean design and old world craftsmanship have made it possible to build and sell boats that only have their name on an electrical plate in an obscure part of the boat.

When Tommy Rybovich died prematurely in 1972, the lifeblood of Rybovich and Sons was gone. There was no family member capable of doing the design and construction part of the building process that Tommy had done. To replace him from outside the family would increase the time and costs of building a Rybovich. The two remaining brothers, Emil and Johnny, finished the started boats and sold the business in 1975. Between 1975 and 2010 four different owners tried to keep the business together but the recession ended it in 2010.

In 1984 Emil’s son Michael, together with Emil and several others, formed Rybovich International. They built a 32 foot walk-around and a 60 foot sport fisherman. Hurricane Wilma destroyed the new buildings, leaving them with several unfinished hulls and no place to work on them. In 2005 they merged with Wayne Huizenga, Jr. and formed Rybovich & Sons. When the recession brought an end to new boat building and Rybovich & Sons narrowed its focus to developing a full service marina, Michael Rybovich left and began his own company.

Today, as Michael Rybovich and Sons, Michael and his Webb Institute trained marine architect son Dusty, offer expert new construction, service, repair and renovation at their full service boatyard on the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach Gardens.

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