By Hugh Whall
August 2, 1965
For the man who likes luxury and fresh fish at a few thousand dollars a pound, there is nothing that floats comparable to the sport-fishermen made in Florida by John Rybovich and Sons
With the sun bouncing off its velour lawns and impossible mansions, Palm Beach reclines along Florida's east coast like a dowager on a chaise longue, nose lifted in delicate disdain at run-of-the-mill ostentation. This promontory considers anything less than a Rolls-Royce a bourgeois conveyance and finds nothing remarkable about the local A&P offering caviar instead of peanut butter as its Saturday shoppers' special.
This casual acceptance of wealth extends even to Palm Beach yachts, which seldom qualify as genuine status symbols unless their length is measured in city blocks or they happen to be one of those remarkable sport-fishing boats built just across the inland waterway in—ugh—West Palm Beach by an immigrant Yugoslav cabinetmaker named John Rybovich and his three sons. It is not just that Rybovich boats are the ultimate in functional luxury, which they are, or that they cost a lot of money, which they do. Their greatest distinction is that even a billionaire has to stand in line to get one. John Rybovich has never built more than five boats a year, and at 84 years of age he isn't about to cheapen the product now.
In many ways Rybovich is the last word in snob appeal. A Ferrari has that prancing black stallion to identify it, a Rolls-Royce the famous windblown figure. A Rybovich doesn't even have a nameplate. "A true boatman," says Emil Rybovich, the youngest son, "doesn't need to look at a tag to tell what kind of a boat it is."
One tag that all Ryboviches come equipped with is a price tag, and while the list of those with enough of the ready to buy a Rybo is short (there are only 62 Rybos afloat), their names ring with solvency. There is Jim Kimberly of Kimberly-Clark paper mills (Kleenex and other things), who fishes the Blue Fox. There is Peter A. B. Widener III, who has had three Rybos and heaven knows how many racehorses. Roger S. Firestone, who makes tires, owned two Rybos: a 44-footer that he sold to Gregory McIntosh Jr. and a 42-footer that he gave to the University of Miami. C. Dabney Thomson, a Cincinnati Cadillac dealer, owns the biggest Rybo of all, a 58-footer. Edgar Kaiser of Kaiser Industries has two, a 37 and a 40. The 50-footer Volador (see cover) is owned by two women, Lois Henry and Sharron Riseling, who live happily on money that bubbled up out of Texas oilfields. A Rybovich named Clara Joe was once the proud possession of Tough Tony Accardo of River Forest, Ill. "One of the blessings of our business," says Emil Rybovich, "is, doggone, the nice bunch of gentlemen who own our boats."
The reasons these nice, rich gentlemen and gentlewomen willingly shell out so much money for a motorboat that costs four times as much as any other are roughly those that prompt an art collector to pay $150,000 for a Renoir when he could get a good print at the local art store. A Rybo is a work of art, and art comes high. Kimberly's Blue Fox cost him, conservatively, $150,000, and Dabney Thomson had to sell at least 100 Caddies at retail to pay for his Rhino. Of course, if you want to be chintzy you can buy a Rybo "dayboat" for around $60,000. A dayboat is something under 40 feet. Add to these initial costs yearly maintenance for captain, mate, fuel, dockage, cocktails and other incidentals of about $30,000 and you have a pretty fair idea of the expense involved.
Rybovich owners have little cause to worry about depreciation on their investment. Rybovich sees to that. "Our market is like the diamond market," says the eldest son, John Jr. "If you don't flood the market, the market stays high." And the Ryboviches, accordingly, keep the tide way out. As a result, a Rybovich worth $100,000 new will bring $87,500 five or six years later. So great is the demand, in fact, that one owner, a year after taking delivery of a new 50-footer, was offered $5,000 more than he had paid for it.
Actually, most Rybovich owners couldn't care less about depreciation or appreciation. They do, however, at least pretend to care about initial outlay and, like most bargain hunters, will listen when John Rybovich Jr. tells them where savings can be made. One saving he often recommends is that of building the customer a bigger boat than he originally had in mind. Although this sounds like rookery, it is, as John explains disarmingly, "just common sense."
"Why shouldn't a man be just as comfortable in his boat as he is in his home?" says Emil. "You name what he's got in his house, we've got it in our boat." They have, too—from air conditioning and ice-making machines to radar sets fit for the Queen Elizabeth. But there are some parts of every Rybovich that no house—or even the Queen Elizabeth—can match: the parts devoted to the catching of fish. Whatever else a Rybo may be—and it's a lot else—it is principally the world's finest machine for boating a game fish. "Our boats win a lot of tournaments," says John Rybovich modestly, "but a tournament is a poor measure of a boat. It's not the boat but the angler and boat crew who win." Maybe, but the biggest prize in last month's International People to People Fishing Championships was taken aboard the 44-foot Rybo Nitso. Jane Thomson won the Chub Cay tournament last year aboard her husband's Rhino. David Lake's 44-foot Rybo Olé was the top boat in last year's Master's Tournament at West Palm Beach, and so it goes. "We just build a boat to do a job," says John, "and the ones we build get the job done."
"We've never built two boats alike," says Emil. "An owner will come in and say, 'Gee, I like this boat. I like everything about it. But this is the way I want my boat,' and he names a lot of special things." And what the owner wants he gets—and hang the cost. "Our boats," adds Emil, "are strictly a personal thing. We're very prejudiced about them."
The men who actually build Rybos seem to feel much the same way. They go about everything from screwing on a chrome bottle opener to bolting in the engines as though each boat were their own. A passable boat could be built by any ordinary boatyard with the same load of exotic lumber, nuts, bolts, screws, paint, engines, radars, stoves, bars, outriggers and fighting chairs used by Rybovich, but the Ryboviches build a boat matched only by another Rybovich. The three Rybovich sons and their father all believe that a bored workman is a bad workman. So they rotate their artisans from one job to another to keep their interest fresh. "Among the four of us," says Emil in a classic of modest understatement, "we get out a pretty good boat."
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."