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Flyer: The 26m Merritt sportfisher that's a real trophy

When a superyacht owner decides to build a sportfisher, only the best and rarest will do, says Marilyn Mower...

At the prize-giving for this year’s Bermuda Big Game Classic, the tournament director couldn’t resist introducing the third-place finisher, team Flyer, by saying: “There are not many people who start off in sportfishing with an 26 metre Merritt.”

Yet here was Flyer’s owner, trophy held high, at his first international game fishing tournament, the $132,300 prize check firmly in his captain’s hand. Add to this the jackpot trophy for the largest fish of the tournament, an 871lb blue marlin, which turned out to be the largest fish of the 2017 Bermuda billfish season. Not bad for a rookie.

New to sportfishing but an experienced yachtsman, Flyer’s American owner is a former World Superyacht Awards judge and a winner of the Voyager’s Award for cruising adventures with his wife aboard 37.8 metre Delta Marama. He’s also owned the famous sailboat Windward Passage and has logged more than 300,000 bluewater miles.

He was looking for a way to satisfy his competitive spirit when sportfishing caught his attention. “Building the best offshore tournament fishing boat would a be new challenge for me,” he says. Extensive research led him to the “Mount Everest” of sportfishing boat builders, Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works, whose boatyard in Pompano Beach, Florida, is just minutes as the crow flies from his Palm Beach home. He sought a specialised boat capable of the speed and manoeuvrability needed to win tournaments and the comfort and self-sufficiency required for long range – things at opposite ends of the spectrum. With Flyer, the owner and builder have put these things on the same page.

Roy Merritt, the third generation to lead the yard, is not prone to hyperbole. He will go so far as to say his business plan is to “build a high quality product.” From the original carvel planked hulls developed by his uncle, Buddy Merritt, Roy progressed the company through the cold moulded construction process of the 1970s, making boats lighter and more responsive, to adding exotic materials such as Kevlar to make the hulls impact resistant.

Since 2012 all of the structural parts have been hand laid in moulds, allowing the yard to perfect its vacuum-bagged sandwich construction with Kevlar, Corecell foam, E-glass, epoxy resin and, increasingly, carbon fibre. He innovates quietly and it takes prompting to get him to tell about inventing the fibreglass bucket harness (1970s), the rocket launcher (1980s) and the first mezzanine deck (1990s). When the mezzanine debuted on a 70ft Merritt in 1994, there were a lot of wrinkled noses. “People don’t like new things,” he says matter of factly. Today you can’t find a large sportfisher without a mezzanine deck.

Which takes us to Flyer, the landmark 100th Merritt and hull No 5 of the 26 metre line. It sports the largest mezzanine deck Merritt’s builds and the unbroken, graceful and aggressive sheer line that has dominated the look for 62 years.

Even though Merritt’s builds models in fixed lengths – current models are 21.9 metre, 24.4 metre and 26 metre – they are all custom projects built to order. Flyer’s owner pushed custom as far as he could. “I’d tell [Roy] what I had in mind and he’d tell me if he could do it or not,” he says. He analysed all the missions he might want to achieve with the boat and figured all the equipment needed. “This boat is not a marina hopper. I wanted a true long range, bluewater sportfisher, with a 2,200 mile range at 10 knots.

“When I built Marama, now Flyer’s mothership, my requirement was for [a] 10,000 mile range and self-sufficiency for five months. Obviously an 26 metre sportfisher is a totally different game but Flyer does have the range to travel from Palm Beach to Panama or Bermuda to Azores non-stop.

“In Bermuda, fueling Flyer from Marama saved us almost $15,000 because fuel is so expensive there. While the mothership concept is not new, it generated a great deal of discussion by other owners and crews who are searching for ways to extend their operational footprint,” he says.

Although Flyer’s owner hired build captain Greg Thomas to represent him at the yard, “most of the time it was just the owner and us hammering out the details,” says Merritt. “He’s very hands-on, knowledgeable and clearly knows what he wants and why.”

For example, the owner says: “I can’t stand to see buckets of oil stored in engine rooms. Every 200 hours you have to change the oil so that means you have to tie to a dock. Flyer has internal tanks for new and waste oil.” And there are other items. “A big part of my challenge was to think of ways to miniaturise superyacht systems that just hadn’t been applied to sportfishing boats, such as the high-speed fuel polisher.”

Flyer has expanded tankage for fresh, gray, and black water and, at 4,050 gallons, the most fuel capacity of any Merritt. A pair of 2,600hp MTU engines make sure the extra weight of the tanks and contents is “no problem.” New boat construction manager John Skubal says: “We pre-engineer for extra load carrying knowing that we build to the customer’s wishes. All we had to do for Flyer’s increased tankage was to move one bulkhead slightly.”

Most Merritt owners opt for traditional teak joinery and Flyer is no exception. Its satin-finished teak is the foil for carpet, fabrics, wall coverings, stone, light fixtures and hardware chosen by the owners themselves. “They took on the role of interior designers with our in-house team,” says Skubal, even designing the sofa in the saloon. The saloon is the typical open plan lounge, dining, galley combination. The emphasis is on comfort and practicality. “Not a superyacht interior,” but “no camping either,” say the owners. The palette is neutral and relaxing and perhaps a bit less masculine than some Merritt boats before her.

Forward of the galley, steps offset to starboard descend to the accommodation with a spacious master, a VIP and a guest bunk cabin, each with a private en suite featuring custom stone counters and tiles. The crew have a larger bunk space aft between the fishing gear locker and the engine room.

Flyer’s owner chose to forego enclosing the flybridge, saving weight and preserving visibility. It’s a safe and comfortable space for guests, while the anglers spend 90 per cent of their time in the cockpit or cooling off in the shade of the large mezzanine.

The cockpit can easily accommodate a 1,000lb blue or black marlin, says the owner, based on his experience at the Bermuda Triple Crown. The award-winning 871lb blue marlin was the largest fish that Flyer’s experienced captain, Bryce Garvey, and mate, Bryan Vaughan, have ever caught.

Of course, tournament trophies are nothing new for Merritt’s and neither are famous clients such as NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and country music stars George Strait and Alan Jackson, who has owned three Merritt boats, one of which featured in the video for his Billboard-topping song It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.

Next year Merritt’s will retire its 21.9 metre in favour of a 23.5 metre that allows room for bigger engines and gyro stabilisers. High-speed guru Michael Peters had a hand in its design. “There is no plan to go larger than 26 metre and hull nine of that series is currently in build,” says Merritt. “It’s the right size for us and it’s the right size, period. You can still fish our 26 metre because it’s nimble. You get over 27.4 metres and the boats are not the same.”

First published in the October 2017 US edition of Boat International.

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