The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition

A passion for the ocean leads to the trip of a lifetime

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Carnivore lies at anchor on the northwestern side of Martinique, below Mount Pelée in the Caribbean.Courtesy Petrilli Family

Imagine a family of six, with children ranging in age from 9 to 16, taking a full year off from their normal day-to-day lives to explore the world in their sport-fisher. It seems impossible, but after thorough planning and preparation, the Petrilli family did exactly that when they fished, surfed, and explored their way across Central America and the Caribbean on a 12-month voyage in 2007 and 2008. The trip fueled their passion for the ocean and influenced the family in countless ways, leaving lasting impressions on them all.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
The Petrilli family in Los Sueños, Costa Rica.Courtesy Petrilli Family

The Early Years

The family consists of Ed Petrilli, his wife Natalie, and their four children: sons Justin, now 26, Anthony, 24, Gianno, 23, and daughter Taj, 20. Ed grew up in ­southeastern Connecticut, where he spent his early childhood catching flounder, blackfish and porgies off the rocks of the Thames River using crushed snails, sandworms and green crabs he collected for bait. He eventually graduated to striped bass fishing when his family purchased a home on the Niantic River in Waterford. Ed’s father bought a 31-foot Chris Craft when he was 14, so they started trolling for bluefish and striped bass in Long Island Sound. At 15, Ed got his first job as a mate on a headboat and worked until he had enough sea time to sit for his captain’s license.

Ed went on to attend Southampton College, on the eastern tip of Long Island, where he met his wife, Natalie. “The love of the sea and what it had to offer became our life together,” he recalls. The two married in 1982 and worked in Connecticut for a couple of years after college.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Capt. Ed Petrilli (left) and a local fisherman named Domingo, sharing stories in broken English at anchor at Bahia Honda in Western Panama.Courtesy Petrilli Family

With entrepreneurial mindsets and a desire for warmer weather, they became franchisees in a Jiffy Lube territory in California, where they moved at the age of 24 and remained for 10 years. “Our business journey together was always a team effort,” Ed says. “During that 10-year period, we essentially did no boating or fishing,” he adds. “Our energies were focused on the business and starting our family, so surfing, hunting and golf temporarily filled the void of fishing.”

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
At La Providencia, Columbia, Carnivore tied up to the only dock available on the small island, where they launched the tender and spent a week exploring.Courtesy Petrilli Family

After a decade in California, they were ready to move on to the next stage of their lives. “The arid climate and cold Pacific water never felt like it would be our home forever,” Ed says. Instead, they wanted to move back to the East Coast and decided the southern Outer Banks was the ideal spot. “It offered affordable living, great hunting, fishing, surfing, warm water, a long warm season and short, mild winters,” Ed emphasizes. In 1995, with Justin, Anthony and Gianno in tow, Ed and Natalie made their move to Cape Carteret, North Carolina. “This is where we were able to really continue our love of the ocean and develop an outdoor lifestyle for our entire family,” he says.

The Gulf Stream Calls

Ed purchased a 21-foot center console after the move. "I had never bluewater-fished or even trolled a dead bait, so everything I did was new, different and self-taught," Ed recalls. However, he was fortunate enough to have an old-timer named Buzz Mitchell as a neighbor. Mitchell was a legend in the local fishing and diving community, and he taught the family a lot about fishing in eastern North Carolina. He also introduced Ed to Glynn Loftin, a well-known captain in Morehead City who ran Frequent Flyer at the time. Though Ed never fished with Loftin, he spent a lot of time picking his brain about all aspects of bluewater fishing. "I was lucky to have him as a resource," Ed remarks.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Throughout their Pacific journey, the family encountered excellent fishing for a variety of species, including plenty of sailfish like this one.Richard Gibson

Ed purchased a 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran a few years after the move, and then moved up to a 37-foot Salt Shaker. This was the family’s first boat with diesel engines and a full set of systems. From that point on, they fished and surfed as a family, and even traveled during holidays to places like Cape Hatteras, South Florida and the Bahamas. “We were like gypsies, with all six of us piled into that express boat,” Ed says. “It was all new to us and we just loved it.” It was on a Bahamas trip over Christmas when they talked about building a larger, custom Carolina boat and living aboard for a year. They wanted to fish, surf, dive and explore as a family, and they pulled the trigger after several years of discussion.

The Big Trip

Ed chose Jamie Chadwick to build him a beautiful 57-foot convertible sport-fisherman, which splashed in 2005. The Petrillis named their boat Carnivore and its tender Herbivore. The trip required a full year of strenuous planning, which included complete preparation of the boat, organizing business affairs, developing a home-schooling agenda for the kids, and even mothballing their home. "For every day of a boat voyage away from home port, you need a day of planning and preparation," Ed says.

They departed Morehead City on June 15, 2007, with Justin, 16, Anthony, 14, Gianno, 13, and Taj, the youngest at age 9. They cruised south along the East Coast and down through the Gulf of Mexico to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. They toured the island and performed boat chores for a few days before they did a double overnighter to La Providencia, a small Columbian island off Honduras. About 50 miles into the trip, the family caught their first billfish of the journey, a feisty little blue marlin they quickly released.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Taj Petrilli getting a monkey hug in Quepos, Costa Rica.Courtesy Petrilli Family

After grinding through some nasty weather for most of the voyage, they tied up to the only dock on the island: a small concrete pier used for freighter deliveries. Ed planned to stay one day, but they extended that to more than a week. They met a man named Francisco, who served as their guide and interpreter. The boys also made friends with some local teenagers. The island had limited exposure to the outside world, and the whole family got an up-close look at the local culture.

The next stop was the Columbian island of San Andrés, a stopover on their way toward the Panama Canal. They finally arrived in Colón, a Panamanian city and seaport near the Atlantic entrance to the canal, on July 12. They began their transit the following Sunday with two experienced line handlers: Roberto and his brother-in-law, Tito. The two had made 283 transits over the previous four years, so they were a huge asset the first time through the canal. The crew proceeded through the first three locks that evening and moored in Gatun Lake before completing the canal transit the following day.

Into the Pacific

The family settled in at Marina Flamenca after the transit, which is close to the Pacific entrance to the canal. Soon after, the Carnivore crew linked up with Capt. Leon "Lee" Krishnan, a member of the mothership operation at Cebaco Bay Sportfishing. The mothership was in Flamenca for maintenance, so Krishnan spent a week with the Petrillis. He is an avid surfer and fisherman, so he was a good fit with the family. He also guided them through the shallow waters of the Golfo de Monjito and upriver for fuel in Puerto Mutis, which is where he departed. Next, Carnivore moored off the tip of Isla Gobernadora, which put them a bit closer to Catalina Island and its world-class surf. They then ran about 70 miles up the coast to Isla Parida, Panama. The family chose Isla Parida to anchor because they spotted a small boat in front of a house on the beach. As fate would have it, that same boat appeared alongside Carnivore the next morning. It belonged to a local fisherman named Carlos, who makes his living as a lobsterman on the island. The Petrillis became close with Carlos and his family, so a one-night stay turned into several days.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Panama’s Hannibal Bank producing memorable fishing during the family’s visit, including this nice black marlin.Courtesy Petrilli Family

On August 7, Carnivore departed Isla Parida for Golfito, Costa Rica, where they stayed in Banana Bay Marina and turned off their generator and watermaker for the first time in a month. On August 16, after nine days of relaxing and surfing, Carnivore ventured up to Los Sueños in Herradura, Costa Rica, now a world-famous resort and fishing destination.

Carnivore stayed in Los Sueños for about two and a half months; the children started home-school. Natalie handled the bulk of the schooling, but Ed taught a class in navigation and seamanship for an hour a day throughout the trip. Carnivore left Los Sueños Marina on November 7, spending the next several months between northern Panama and Panama City. Early in this stretch, they reconnected with Carlos in Isla Parida, where they took him and his brother offshore fishing. The Petrillis then spent several days ­tangling with black marlin on Hannibal Bank (including one they estimated at 700 pounds) and subsequently visited the isolated island of Bahia Honda. After the first month on the hook, the crew went back to Panama City for a few days before they ventured down south on December 10 to Piñas Bay, home to Tropic Star Lodge. In three days of fishing, they caught one black marlin, two blue marlin, three sails, and had shots at several other billfish. They then traveled between Piñas Bay and Panama City the next few weeks, catching more black marlin, sailfish, mahimahi and yellowfin tuna.

The Caribbean

The family’s remaining goal after transiting back through the Panama Canal was to explore the islands of the Caribbean. The crew caught a blue marlin off Colón on the way to the San Blas Islands and another one in route to Cartagena, Columbia, making it 24 straight fishing trips at that point with at least one billfish release. The family enjoyed the local culture and good restaurants in Cartagena for a week before they committed to a 515-mile voyage to Bonaire. They stayed in Isla Monje the second night of the voyage, a small Venezuelan military outpost 25 miles off the coast. They then ventured to Curaçao for a couple of days before cruising the final leg to Bonaire, where they spent most of their time scuba diving.

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
Gianno, Justin and Anthony Petrilli, hanging out with one of the locals on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean.Courtesy Petrilli Family

The Petrillis left Bonaire in late April and headed for the Windward Islands, where they spent five days in St. Lucia in Maragot Bay, then Martinique, and next to the beautiful Dominica. From there, the family visited a tiny French island called Isla De Saints, and then made a 90-mile run up to Monserrat, an eerie town partially destroyed by a volcano about 20 years ago. They then ventured to St. Barth, where they stayed in Gustavio Harbor and watched the Concarneau-St. Barth sailboat race. They subsequently cruised to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where they arrived on May 15, 2008, and then spent time in Norman Cay.

Next, the family made the run to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, for one night, and then chugged 300 miles to the west coast of the Dominican Republic. During the transit, they caught their first longbill spearfish and witnessed a pod of killer whales feeding on the surface, a rare sight in this hemisphere. The Petrillis spent three nights in the Dominican Republic, where they toured the local scene and took advantage of the excellent surf. They ended the month of May with a 320-mile transit to Long Island in the Bahamas, where they stayed for a week at Flying Fish Marina.

They then worked their way through the Bahamas and across the Florida Straits to Fort Pierce. The family finally arrived back home in Morehead City, North Carolina, on June 23, 2008, after a 500-mile double overnighter from Fort Pierce. Overall, the boat logged 12,775 miles on the trip, an unbelievable experience for anyone, much less a family of six.

A Lasting Impact

Not surprisingly, the trip had a huge impact on each member of the Petrilli family. “We all learned an incredible amount on this trip,” Ed says. “Of course, we learned about boats and fishing but more about life, and what constitutes real happiness. There’s no doubt the entire family understands the importance of following your heart when moving forward in life,” he adds. “That trip continues to have a big impact on all of our lives, both individually and as a family.”

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
A nice mahimahi is a welcome addition to the fish box.Courtesy Petrilli Family

The boys have all become well-respected fishermen but were also energized in other ways. The journey influenced Justin to earn a degree at the Culinary Institute of America, which he has utilized in his career as a professional, well-traveled mate. Anthony continues to freelance on tournament and charter boats, but he also earned a business degree from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and started Right Coast Productions, a world-class film-production company. Gianno ­graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with a degree in marine transportation, 3rd Mate, Unlimited Tonnage, and is currently working as a first mate in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, while he pursues a career in the commercial-shipping transportation industry.

Similar to her brother Justin, Taj is also working toward a degree in the culinary arts. Though Taj was quite young on the trip, Ed believes it influenced her in equally positive ways. “She was always hanging around adults on the docks and all the places we went. I think she carries that level of maturity and independence with her to this day,” Ed remarks. “She is self-sufficient and confident in what she does.”

The Petrilli Family’s 12-Month Fishing Expedition
All billfish are released during the journey.Courtesy Petrilli Family

Ed and Natalie Petrilli still live in Cape Carteret, North Carolina. They still own Carnivore, which is now in Costa Rica. "I still love to get tight on a billfish and back down the boat like she's new," Ed says, "but what gives me the most pleasure now is helping others in and around the marine industry. That is where I find my real lasting happiness these days."

Editor’s Note: The complete captain’s log of their trip can be found on carnivore​­, which further details their adventure.