The Century Mark for Merritt

One hundred boats and counting, Roy Merritt continues to lead the way in custom boatbuilding

Merritt hull number 100 is splashed
With its classic lines, a Merritt is unmistakable on the fishing grounds anywhere in the world.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Frank Villareale, or “Frankie,” as Roy Merritt calls him, is typical of many of Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works employees who have each spent decades building the 100th — and soon 101st and 102nd — Merritt boat to chase giant tuna, marlin and other species around the world.

Dressed in khaki shorts and a white Stuart Sailfish Club tournament shirt flecked with brown sawdust, Villareale scales the concrete steps of the two-story boat shed at a pace that leaves his young helper breathless. The jaunty 73-year-old is up and down these steps a dozen times a day, overseeing the joinery and finish work on no less than two 86-footers and a 72 under construction at the Merritt’s yard in Pompano Beach, Florida. As chief carpentry foreman, he’s the go-to guy when it comes to fashioning teak logs into perfectly honed toe rails as seamless as a bolt of silk — one of many details that help to make Merritt boats true works of art.

Merritt's Boat and Engine Works
Merritt's Boat and Engine Works in Pompano Beach, Florida is the site of some remarkable boat building history.Debra Todd

A Gamble Paid Off

Villareale started working at Merritt’s in 1979, back when both he and Roy were young men. Then 37, Roy had recently become the de facto CEO following his grandfather LeRoy’s death in 1978; he had headed new boat construction for the previous eight years after his uncle Buddy’s death. Within weeks of Roy taking over, Allen Merritt, Roy’s father, and Roy demolished the yard’s surplus World War II buildings, in place since 1950, to construct the fireproof concrete sheds, offices and covered boat slips in use today. These further expansions allowed for construction of multiple boats at one time. But new boat construction stalled during the recession in 1978, and such a costly expansion was a big gamble.

Whether the struggles of Rybovich & Sons, ­following the death of iconic boatbuilder Tommy Rybovich in 1972 and its subsequent sale three years later, had anything to do with Merritt’s expansion is unclear. What is not disputed is that Merritt’s filled what many considered a void, succeeding in the custom boatbuilding industry beyond even Roy’s vision of what their humble family boatyard could achieve. Roy admits, “The idea of us completing more than 100 boats in my ­lifetime was not something I imagined back then.”

Buddy Merritt
Buddy Merritt is credited with many innovations of the modern sport-fishing boat.Courtesy Merritt Family Archives

Bar-Raising Innovators

North Palm Beach, Florida, builder Michael Rybovich was one of the first to congratulate Roy on achieving the milestone in 2015. “My family’s history of constructing the first true sport-fishing boats is well-known. My uncles and father were innovators from the late 1940s through the 1960s, and they influenced every ­boatbuilder, including Merritt,” recalls Rybovich.

Buddy Merritt was also one of the sport's great innovators and the first to use an elevated platform for spotting and baiting giant bluefin tuna off Bimini. Two years before John Rybovich's 36-foot Miss Chevy IV debuted with the first aluminum tuna tower in 1952, Buddy installed a 20-foot sailboat mast with footholds and a crossbar that he could stand on and steer using pulley controls.

But during the past 30 years, Roy Merritt shaped this industry with innovations like adapting composite techniques to custom sport-fishing construction, creating the first elevated cockpit mezzanine, cleaning up the aesthetic challenge of the tuna tower, taking joinery to an exponentially higher level and many other practical sport-­fishing applications. Rybovich says, “He simply built a bigger, better sport-fishing boat.”

“My father liked Roy,” says Stephen Merritt, Buddy’s youngest son. “He saw someone with the same work ethic and passion for boatbuilding that he had — someone with the ability to continue the legacy he started.” Allen agrees, “Once Roy started working here, my brother saw he was serious about learning boatbuilding and supported him.”

Merritt Cockpit
While Rybovich was credited with the first tuna towers, it was Merritt who first used an elevated platform in order to gain a better vantage point for tuna fishing off the Bahamas.@Scott Kerrigan / Aquapaparazzi.com

Early Inspiration and Mentorship

Among Roy’s early influences were boatbuilders like Jim Smith and Rybovich & Sons, whose styling and finish work were the benchmarks every builder, including Merritt’s, strived for. Jim Smith became a mentor to Roy, who recounts on those experiences: “Jim liked to give advice, and without Buddy or Len Broadhurst around to guide me, I became an eager listener.”

“Jim was all about building ’em light and fast, and he was always pestering us to go in that direction. He used to say, ‘There’s no reason to carry around those heavy frames.’ When we redesigned hull No. 23 for JoJo DelGuercio and increased the boat from 42 to 43 feet to accommodate the engines he wanted, I decided to try it. That’s how Jim Smith came to help us set up our first jig boat,” says Roy.

Merritt Hull 1
Merritt Hull no. 1 started it all back in 1955.Courtesy IGFA / IGFA.org

Technology-Driven Changes

Unlike Buddy, who was reluctant about change, Roy Merritt has always been open to new technologies and trends. With fishermen beginning to cast their lines in faraway places in the late ’70s, Roy started building larger, yacht-like game boats that his uncle would have deemed unfishable.

With the recession and energy crisis ending, Roy judged the time correctly and decided to bring out something new. But before building 11 46-footers between 1979 and 1986, he built three 53s, a 54 and a 55 for longtime clients like Ralph Gilster, Ray Brown and the Bramans, who wanted larger boats and more accommodations to be able to fish Cozumel, Mexico, and St. Thomas, USVI.

During the decade of the 46, Roy moved from wood to cored-construction techniques. In 1982, Roy added a Kevlar bottom and cored sides to Doyle Cotton's Tall Cotton, the yard's first fiberglass boat. But with the launch of Runaway in 1988, he was done building small boats.

Fishermen were also no longer content with 20-knot cruising speeds aboard their fishing boats. “The need for speed not only drove the amount of horsepower you could get from a diesel engine, it also had a direct effect on the size of boats we could build,” says Roy, who credits engine innovation as the driving force of the building boom in large sport-fishing yachts. “In 1990, there wasn’t an engine to drive a 75-foot Merritt; by 1996, we were able to build a fishing boat that size because of the Deutz engines,” says Roy. Such advances drove Merritt to build popular models like the 58s (of which there are 14), 15 72-footers, nine 80s and five completed 86s, including hull No. 100.

Merritt Hull 100
Hull no. 100 from Merritt shares that proud sport fishing lineage of her previous sister ships.Matthew Thomas

A Toast of Congratulations

Roy Merritt doesn't dwell on history or the fact he's built 85 of the yard's 100 finished boats, yet his co-workers and customers do. His cousin Stephen, a carpenter who worked on the interiors of Flyer, Merritt's 100th boat, believes Buddy would be bursting with pride over the milestone. "We've been blessed with great clients who believe Merritt boats are some of the world's premier sport-fishing boats because of the quality of materials and construction. We want our boats to last a lifetime — actually generations. That's why we build them this strong."

Like Stephen Merritt, John Skubal, Roy’s longtime right hand and new boat construction manager, looks at building 100 boats as a rare feat, especially considering complex projects like the 72s and 86s. “It’s a benchmark for any builder, especially custom builders like us who complete one and a half boats a year. All I can say is because we build without cutting corners, we’ve developed a great reputation and following with our customers — and most are repeat owners. Caterpillar distributor Randy Ringhaver, for instance, is building an 86, his fourth Merritt.”

Others like Bob Snyder of New Jersey, who owns the 66-foot My-Lynn, have had as many as six Merritts. Snyder's one-off cold-molded wood hull completed in 2013 is even better than the many 58s he owned and loved, he says. "I'd been out of boating for a year or more after selling my last 58 Merritt when we decided to buy another boat," says Snyder. He looked at other builders, but he says he chose Roy because his wife loves him. "The real reason is that there's no one in the industry with his integrity. If you want a boat that's done right and on time from a builder that takes care of any problem, Merritt is it."

Merritt Family
It's a family effort at Merritts. Roy (left) and his son Roy Jr. (right) spend time in the shop with Allen Merritt (middle) and Roy Merritt III.Jan Fogt

Reaching a Milestone

Roy Merritt does not grandstand, so there’s been little fuss and certainly no press releases about the yard’s 100th launch since hull No. 1 in 1955. Others builders feel differently. “That’s a milestone,” says John Vance, CEO of Jim Smith Tournament Boats in Stuart, Florida. “Roy and his organization are first tier, and he’s the guy to call if you’ve got a problem,” adds Vance. “Roy is now the Godfather of custom boatbuilding; for a long time, John Rybovich was that guy. And because Roy’s a fan of many builders, he’s the guy matching the right buyer to right builder.” Capt. Skip Smith, CEO of Smith-Merritt Insurance and a well-known big-game fishing captain, has been a firsthand witness to Merritt’s success over the past 25 years. “Roy’s goal, following Buddy’s death in 1972, was to build two good boats a year. Between demand and the size of boats back then, there was a time when he could have built twice as many boats. Being the God-fearing guy he is, Roy’s commitment to quality and to the buyers of his boats was more important than profit. Under his watchful eye, Merritt’s builds boats to last for generations.”

Jarrett Bay founder Randy Ramsey of North Carolina, also uses “milestone” to express his feelings about Merritt’s achievement. “Only two custom builders have built that many boats. Rybovich did it with five different owners. Merritt’s is the only one-owner yard I know to do it. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment!” Ramsey continues, “Roy Merritt is a great leader. He’s always helpful, offering guidance and direction to other builders. Roy jokes about me being his favorite redneck builder, and from my end, he’s my favorite guy in the industry. For a lot of years, he’s been the one promoting custom boatbuilding.”

There was a time in boatbuilding history when Merritt’s competed with the Rybovich phenomenon, but as Michael Rybovich says, “That was before Roy. He’s done a hell of a job there.”