With a storied 16-year career to date with Viking Yacht Company—most of that time spent at the helm of the company’s various demonstrator vessels—Capt. Ryan Higgins is one of offshore sport fishing’s most recognizable personalities. And while he’s still the manager of the company’s demo program, he’s moved off the bridge to assume the role of southeastern sales manager for Viking. A passion for high-performance center-consoles also led to his involvement with Valhalla Boatworks, which was established by Viking to build a line of premium-quality outboard-powered boats, currently ranging from 33 to 41 feet in length; Higgins is general manager of Valhalla Boat Sales South, the dealer for southeastern Florida. With many hats to wear and an ever-growing list of responsibilities, he’s definitely up for the challenge.
M: What’s it like fishing with Viking president and CEO Pat Healey?
RH: Pat is great to fish with. He could have had the worst day at work, but he doesn’t bring it with him on the water—he’s all about having a good time and staying positive. His passions in life are his family, fishing and boatbuilding, and that’s it, so it was a lot of fun running the boat for him. We have one big thing in common: We were out there to win, every day. Pat is always on board for doing what it takes to be in the right spot.
M: What is your all-time favorite fishing destination?
RH: Venezuela, hands down. That was the start of my professional billfishing career. In 2000, Steve Potts, the owner of Scout Boats, hired me to run his 72-foot Mikelson, Caliente. That was my first captain’s job, and I’d had only four years’ experience at the time, but we put together a schedule, and he sent me down there with the boat. I was 21 years old, and it was an incredible opportunity. I was thrilled to be fishing alongside guys like Dave Noling, Jimmy Grant, Lee Alonso and Mike Merritt, among many others; the camaraderie was amazing. There were no secrets—everyone called in their bites, so you knew what was going on all day long. And the fishing speaks for itself. Most places, you go there mostly for one species, but in Venezuela, you could have a grand slam in the spread at the same time, and have a legitimate chance to catch a grand slam or a super slam pretty much on any given day. And the people were so friendly. That’s the hardest part about not going back—all the great friendships we made over the years.
M: What are some of the things you learned as a demo captain that translated into changes in the production of a certain model?
RH: Whether it’s a new engine package or a system like the Octoplex [power distribution system], we always put it in a demo first before it’s available for the customers’ boats. And we try to run Hull No. 1 of each new model as a demo, which gives all of us a chance to spend time on the boat and actually live on it. We keep a notebook on board where the crew can make notes on things they’d like to change, anything from more storage in the crew quarters to another 6 inches at the foot of the bed in the master stateroom. We noticed that some of the other builders were starting to push the envelope on performance while we were fishing tournaments on the demos, so that led us to making all kinds of small tweaks to our 70-footer: less hull resistance, lightening the build, using honeycombed interior panels. It wasn’t one little thing but more like a dozen things; from the first 70 demo to the last, we reduced the weight by nearly 10,000 pounds and improved performance by around 3 knots to reach speeds of over 45 knots. It was a benchmark design because the changes and refinements we made were incorporated into future models.
M: What are some of your most memorable tournament wins?
RH: My first tournament and first time fishing in the Northeast was the White Marlin Open on the Viking 74 demo, and that event quickly became a favorite of mine. During my last season as captain in 2018, we were the top boat out of a fleet of 400. It meant a lot to wrap up my career as a captain with a big win like that. Over the past 15 years, we have had two top-boat finishes, multiple top-five finishes and a second-place heaviest white marlin. Another memorable one for me is the Buccaneer Cup. Before I was hired, I was asked to run the Viking 65 for the tournament, so I packed my bags and drove to Palm Beach. We had a great tournament and thought we had won it but unfortunately fell short. We’ve had multiple top-three finishes but never could seem to win it over the years, but on my last opportunity as a captain, we were able to pull off a win at the 2018 Buc. We did it during the last few minutes of the tournament, and in extremely rough conditions. It’s another one I will never forget.
M: Do you feel captains are becoming too reliant on technology?
RH: I believe there are two different types of captains: those who are instinctively good fishermen, and those who have to rely on everything else to be successful. I’m the complete opposite from what I would call an instinctual captain, guys like Glenn Cameron or Mike Brady. I have to use the tools that are available. One example is sonar: It’s only as good as the person using it, and if you’re not actively scanning the water column and looking for bait and fish, you’re not going to see the benefits that it can offer. I’m always tuned in to the electronics, checking the radar for birds. But I’d say networking is my number-one priority: getting actual reports of what people are seeing on the water from North Carolina to New York and matching those reports with the sea-surface-temperature data and other information to put together an idea of which eddies are holding fish and what patterns are emerging. More technology is becoming available every season, it’s just up to the captains whether they want to use it.
M: Many might see it as a dream job, but what are some of the drawbacks of being a demo captain?
RH: For me, it has been a dream come true in many ways. At a young age, I told my parents I wanted to live in Palm Beach and work for a boatbuilder, and that’s what I’m doing. And like any job, there are challenges. Living a normal life with normal hours is probably the biggest one. Most people want to look at or sea-trial boats on the weekends, and when you include a busy schedule of tournaments and boat shows, before you know it, you’ve just worked a seven-day week. I am fortunate to have a very supportive wife, Kelly, who has allowed me to pursue my career and give it my best. Just finding time to spend with my family and friends is the biggest challenge.
M: How did the demo job prepare you for your responsibilities of today?
RH: Running the demo, you always have a schedule to maintain. I had to perform at the highest level while keeping a perfect boat in show condition at all times. That was the standard. There was no stopping and dropping everything when the bell rang at the end of a day. I still think and operate like that. I go home when I feel like I’ve accomplished everything.
M: Any hobbies other than boating or fishing?
RH: I played golf in high school, so I still like to get out on the course when I can with my dad and my friends.
M: What does the future hold?
RH: Viking Yacht Company will always do extremely well; I foresee great success with Valhalla Boatworks and look forward to helping it mature into an industry-leading company as well.
M: Are you seeing any effects of the pandemic?
RH: Our Riviera Beach location remained open for business the entire time, which was fortunate for us—the waterways have been packed with people boating and fishing. Usually around late spring it starts to slow down as everyone heads back up north, but this year it seems that a lot of them chose to stay in Florida. And they’re buying boats.