The Ryboviches all agree that boats built for racing are fine for racing—but not for fishing. "As soon as you install a tuna tower or fishing equipment on those boats," says John, "they bog down and become wet pigs. Some builders are forced into racing to sell boats. We don't have to sell boats so we stay away from it." Nevertheless, Rybovich hulls are not noted for their tardiness, as anyone who has roared across the Gulf Stream in one at 30 knots will attest.
Obviously, other boatbuilders have done their best to imitate the Rybo style and quality. Some have copied the offset cabin that is original with the Rybos, others, the transom door for hauling fish aboard. A few copies, built in Cuba during the Batista regime, are so exact that only the Ryboviches can spot them. They are, naturally, known as Cubaviches. But the street runs two ways, and the Ryboviches frankly profit from others' experiences and mistakes. Since they also do a solid business maintaining and repairing boats built by rivals, they see, close up, what works and what does not work. "If we see something we like about one builder's boat, we incorporate it in our boats. By the same token, if we see another builder's mistake, we're careful to see we never make the same mistake," says Emil. "There are still a few mysteries about the boat-building business," he adds, "but on the whole we make fewer mistakes than most."
One mistake they made was costly indeed, but it led to an unusually strong yet lightweight form of construction that is unique with Rybo. It began when the Ryboviches decided that conventional carvel construction—planks laid edge to edge and caulked with cotton wadding to keep the water out—was dispensable. Why not, they asked, glue the planks together edge to edge? Why not, indeed? Well, for one thing, because wood is porous. It swells when it is wet and shrinks when it gets dry. Were it not for the breathing space allowed by caulking, the planks would crack and split every time the boat went into or out of the water. The Ryboviches theorized that if they let the Florida sun suck every drop of moisture from the planks, then glued them edge to edge and sealed them tight in fiber glass, they would have a stronger, lighter hull that would stay glued regardless of the water. They decided to build two boats using this method and every day for weeks wheeled the mahogany planks out into the sun in the morning and back again into a dry shed at night. Finally, the planks seemed dry enough, and the two hulls were built.
One night, after the hulls were finished, a cold northwester settled into Palm Beach, lowering the humidity to 30%. "We were working on the cabins of the two boats the next day," recalls John wryly, "when suddenly we started hearing these little pops like a .22 rifle going off." The northwester had dried some leftover moisture out of the planks, the planks had shrunk and the glued joints had pulled apart. Rybovich had a shed full of problems and two shattered hulls on its hands.
After consulting every lumber and engineering expert they could find for six months without avail, the Ryboviches got themselves a 1-ton air conditioner and dehumidifier and put it in an airtight room. This accomplished what the Florida sun could not: it drained the planks of every trace of moisture, and Rybovich hasn't heard a single crack, from plank or boat owner, since.
Today John Rybovich Sr., or "Pop," as the boys call him, is semiretired and probably as well off as many of his customers across the waterway in Palm Beach. But Pop has never been much for fashion or status. He wanders around his yard dressed in plaid shirts and denims, looking practically the same as he did when he arrived in the U.S. 50-odd years ago. A journeyman carpenter by trade, John set up shop as a cabinetmaker in the early 1920s, right in the middle of Palm Beach. But it turned out that the local millionaires, no doubt suffering from prohibition hangovers, had a zoning law that discouraged hammering and sawing, so poor John had to scratch a living by catching fish. Gradually he began to pick up an extra buck here and there repairing the boats of other fishermen, until at last he decided to make boat repair his full-time work.
To keep out of trouble he moved across the water to West Palm Beach, where they didn't mind the noise, and with his three boys to help he went to work. The business boomed. But it wasn't until after World War II that the Ryboviches actually began building boats from scratch. Their first sport-fisherman was a 34-footer built for C. F. Johnson, a Chevy dealer from Palm Beach. When Johnson gave the order he told John Rybovich, "I want a sport-fisherman so long. The rest is up to you." Miss Chevy II, as the boat was named, proved an instant success, and orders for other Ryboviches followed fast in her wake. "We built C.F. a damn good boat," says Emil in explanation.
Besides building their customers damn good boats the Ryboviches provide a follow-up service unequaled in the trade. Whenever a Rybo burns up an engine, runs aground or bends a propeller shaft, the owner has only to shout and Emil Rybovich will fly to the scene in his Beechcraft to put things right. This roadside service fits in neatly with Emil's love of flying. "Flying around for the hell of it is for the birds," he says. "Flying with a purpose is fun. We tell our customers, if you need anything, call us.' " Most trips take Emil and his plane to the Bahamas, but a recent one took him to North Carolina to rescue Volador. Running up the Alligator River, Volador's professional captain accidentally tangled with a submerged tree stump. Out jerked the propeller shaft, crumple went the rudder. "The captain called us on Friday," says Emil. "I told him, 'O.K., George. Meet me at Washington [North Carolina] on Sunday morning at 10 a.m.' " By Sunday night Volador was on her way once more, complete with new shaft, propeller and unbent rudder. "A man's time is valuable," says Emil. "Every hour his boat's broken down is a dead loss. That's why we're in such a hurry." One Rybo owner can't resist tinkering with his boat's engines, usually with catastrophic results. Emil mounted a plaque over his engine compartment that reads, "When all else fails, call this number." The number is, of course, that of the Rybovich yard.
If the Rybovich boats and Rybovich service approach immaculate perfection, the yard where they originate is no less impressive. Everything at Rybo is as clean as a hospital corridor, from the white shirts and blue pants of the workmen to the finger piers where the boats are tied up. On a vacant lot nearby are stacks of tuna towers looking for all the world like the sterilized bones of some beached marine monster. Pop Rybovich's own neat little house is at the yard's front gate, while John Jr. lives across the road in an equally unpretentious house, and Emil and Tommy live within a mile of the yard. (There are two daughters as well. The husband of one works at the yard, the husband of the other owns a marina not far away.) The sons share a compact, light, wood-paneled office almost in the middle of the yard's main slipway. Drifting through its windows are the sound of lapping water and the smell of fresh bottom paint.
While John takes care of the business and sales end of the yard, Emil worries over the engines and Tommy does the designing. Innocent of formal training in yacht design, Tommy Rybovich, a World War II pilot with an Air Medal, operates with an artist's flair, yet his designs turn out as functional as they are beautiful. The long, sweeping sheers and the delicately flared bows are perfect spray deflectors. The cockpits, unobstructed by cleats, are as comfortable as they are unbeatable as fishing platforms. The galleys, the showers, the finely proportioned flying bridges and the bottoms that give minimum resistance to the passage of water and maximum support to the weight above are all compounded of grace plus efficiency. "Tommy's really a creator more than a designer," says Emil. "Of course, he likes practical items, but what he really likes is to make boats beautiful."