"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.