Inside the Viking Yachts Demonstrator Program

Setting records, making careers and cementing relationships, one flagship at a time
A Viking sport-fishing boat cruising on the open waters.
Another beautiful Viking demo boat heads for the dock at the end of the day. Courtesy Viking Yachts

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On a breezy day in June, Viking 64—her right rigger full of flags—rounded the ­corner of the Intracoastal Waterway as the boat approached Toler’s Cove Marina in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The spartina grass on either side of the saltwater creek’s edge glowed fluorescent green in the afternoon sun, and the humid haze of a Lowcountry summer hung low and thick around the boat’s gleaming hull. Those driving across the nearby drawbridge might have assumed that the Viking Yacht Co.’s demonstrator team had placed in yet another tournament. Instead, the crew had just set an unofficial state record for blue marlin releases in a single day. Celebrating accordingly, the demo crew had just made history, a standard that Viking Yachts considers a fundamental component of company culture.

The Viking demonstrator program is one of the most widely recognized sport-­fishing operations of its kind, with a long list of outstanding tournament performances and boat sales tied to its storied title. Pat Healey, Viking’s president and CEO, oversaw the establishment of the program 40 years ago; since then, not only has he watched it foster strong relationships with new and returning customers, but he’s also seen the operation build character and lifelong careers. While it’s now become a critical pillar of the company’s success, with a full-time captain and two full-time mates who travel the globe aboard the company’s most advanced builds, Viking’s demo program didn’t quite start that way.

Four anglers fishing from the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
Since its inception, the Viking demo program has been about fishing. Courtesy Viking Yachts

The Founding of a World-Class Program

Healey first learned the value of these programs while working as a part-time mate aboard another company’s demo boat. Fresh out of high school, he’d spend the week working at Viking Yachts, which his father and uncle owned and operated. Then, on the weekends, he’d head out on ViCat, a Viking build that the local Caterpillar dealer used as a demonstrator. “While working on the ViCat, I started to see the benefit of having a boat available during the summer months that Viking could use to test new systems and to showcase new models to customers,” Healey recalls. “That’s when I started talking to my dad and uncle about the possibility of us building a demo boat.”

At the time, Viking built cruisers. Healey’s father and uncle had little interest in the fishing market. He, on the other hand, couldn’t resist the sport. In 1978, Healey’s father and uncle finally agreed to expand Viking’s suite of cruising models to include boats optimized for fishing. “We built a 40-footer with turbos and a Bimini top that we used during tournaments and for fun fishing,” Healey says. “I ran the boat for a couple of summers with a group of other young mechanics and sales guys who worked at the plant. After 150 hours each summer over two years, we started gaining success and attention with the fishing models.”

By 1984, Drew McDowell had taken over the helm of the demo program, a position he’d hold for the next 19 years. With the new operation in place, Viking’s team was able to compete at an entirely different level. Soon, leadership expanded the program to have a demo boat operating year-round. Meanwhile, Viking’s designs continued to evolve and adapt to the demands of the sport-­fishing industry. The boats got bigger, and the systems grew more complex. To date, the company has fished 50 different demo boats ranging from 46 to 92 feet. Over the program’s 40-year history, those 50 boats have been critical hubs for owners, captains and mates to socialize and exchange ideas.

View of a sport-fishing boat with anglers standing in the cockpit and tower.
A record-setting day off South Carolina on Viking 64. Courtesy Viking Yachts

In his many years as demo captain, McDowell was responsible for boat design, testing, sales and, of course, tournament fishing. It was a big job and one that required world travel. In 2003, McDowell moved into a full-time position with Viking Marine Group’s newest endeavor, Palm Beach Towers.

In 2004, Capt. Ryan Higgins found himself at an interview that would determine the course of his life. “I was 24 at the time, and my interview with Viking was running the 65 demo during the Buccaneer Cup,” Higgins says. “We had an incredible tournament, which led to a job opportunity with Viking. I told Pat and Don Gemmell, another former demo captain and longtime member of Viking’s design team, that I wanted to be part of the design of the product, not just the demo program. Pat brought me up to New Gretna [New Jersey] to learn the product firsthand and work on the production line. I worked every stage of the line for the build of Hull No. 1 of the flagship 74 convertible. It was the best learning experience of my life.”

A few years into his career on the production line and as a mate aboard the demo program, Higgins moved up to the bridge as Viking’s demo captain. He’d hold that position for 15 years and in that time would also take on responsibilities as the demo program manager, a job that handles the ­administration and communication related to the operation. Much like McDowell, Higgins eventually moved into another position in the company. He’s now the Southeast sales manager for Viking Yachts and general manager for Valhalla Boat Sales, another division of Viking Marine Group.

The demo program has created an impressive pipeline for Viking. When they’re ready for it, the program’s crewmembers have been able to step away from full-time fishing jobs into other fulfilling industry-leading positions. McDowell, Gemmell and Higgins are examples of the caliber of employees that the program has fostered and built, all while promising vertical growth. That kind of climate is tough to find in all industries, and sport fishing is no different. And it was that high-profile career pipeline that locked in Viking’s newest crew.

A black and white image collage of four sport-fishing anglers.
From Left: Capt. Ryan Higgins. Capt. Don Gemmell. Capt. West Rivers. Capt. Sean Dooley. Courtesy Viking Yachts, The Buckskin Billfish

Forming the Crew

New Jersey might be home to Viking Yachts, but the company’s demo program now boasts a full-time crew of fishermen born and raised in the South. Capt. Sean Dooley took the helm in 2021, with mates West Rivers and Thomas “Smalls” Garmany coming on board shortly afterward. They’ve proved themselves a formidable team, just as equipped to compete with the best as they are to talk trash to each other. They’re extremely talented and wildly fun, with a mix of Southern grit and charm that Viking welcomes.

Although he now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, Dooley got his start working on charter and private boats in his hometown of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Once he graduated from college, he worked as a mate for more than a decade, traveling to premier fishing destinations around the world. Dooley took his first turn as a captain in 2016 on a 63-foot Scarborough called Jackpot, a new program that would spend most of its summers fishing the South Carolina circuit with Garmany in the cockpit. Dooley and Garmany, who consider each other brothers, would ultimately lead that team to win the South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series in 2019.

When Dooley was ready for something new, he got a call from a friend about a potential job opportunity and reached out to Higgins to see if he’d be one of his references. That call opened the door to an entirely unexpected and exciting opportunity for Dooley: a shot at becoming Viking’s demo captain. It was a career move he couldn’t pass up, so he made the trip to Palm Beach the next morning to interview with some of the demo program’s longest-running members: Healey, Gemmell, McDowell and Higgins. “When you’re considering any new job, you never really know what you are getting into,” Dooley says. “I’d known all of those guys for a long time, but not on a personal level. It turned out to be a hell of an interview. For two hours we talked about all kinds of things. It was all just so comfortable and easy, which helped me to make my decision when they offered me the job.”

As the captain, Dooley was given the freedom to select his mates for the program. Garmany was tied up in prior commitments to other boats, and Dooley needed someone to sign on right away. He lucked out when he learned that Rivers, Garmany’s childhood friend and the longtime mate aboard Fa-La-Me, was looking to make his next career move. Rivers was a natural fit for the program. Not only did the Charleston native have great experience already under his belt after fishing with prominent programs such as Rookie IV, Caramba and Fa-La-Me, but he also had the foresight to see the bigger picture. Rivers recognized that taking a job with the Viking demo program was not just a great opportunity, but it also offered potential longevity.

Garmany, however, still had some reservations about the job even after his schedule opened up. The exceptionally talented mate grew up fishing with his dad, Capt. Bobby Garmany, in Charleston. He’s worked for big-name programs such as Big Oh, Outlaw and Fish Tank. So when Dooley came to him with an opportunity to join the demo program, he wasn’t sure he was ready for a corporate gig. “Dooley sat me down and told me that this was what we needed to do together, that this was the right next move for our careers. He told me it was the best job in the industry. And he was right.”

Ordinarily, a captain and mate have years to get to know a boat, but that’s not the case for the demo crew. With boats cycling in and out of the program every three months or so, the demo boys never stop running. “One of the hardest things about it is having to switch out boats so often,” Dooley explains. “Each year we have a winter boat and a summer boat. Then, every other year, in addition to our one winter boat, we have two boats—an A boat and a B boat—operating at the same time in the summer, so there are a lot of moving parts to manage.”

Anglers fishing on a sport-fishing boat.
While it’s an incredible responsibility to keep multiple vessels traveling and fishing while also maintaining them in boat-show-ready condition, the demo team remains up for the challenge each season. Courtesy Viking Yachts

That efficiency would come with perks for the crew. “Pat told us that the more we are willing to change boats, the more we get to go fishing,” Rivers explains. “Since we can’t put too many hours on a demo before it sells, if we want to get on the water every day, then we have to be ready to make those transitions. It’s a lot of work on the side, but we can load and unload a boat in a single day now.”

Fishing has always been a priority for Dooley, Rivers and Garmany. While Healey enjoys a day or two of downtime, he knows that his demo crewmembers are always chomping at the bit to head offshore. “I call them my thoroughbreds,” Healey says. “I can’t have them sitting around too long. We have to go out and run ’em.”

Each of those prized horses brings very different skills to Viking’s demo team. “Sean has the desire to catch more fish than everyone else, whether or not he’s in a tournament,” says Higgins. “He’s been a great addition to the demo team, and his success in just a short amount of time has been impressive.” Healey agrees and says, “Sean is loved by everybody. He’s always bopping around the docks and networking. He does a great job getting us on the fish, keeping the boat in excellent condition and running the program.”
While Dooley leads the program, Rivers steps in to run the B boat whenever Viking has two demos fishing at the same time. He’s widely recognized as a voice of reason among the three friends. Wholly professional and self-aware, he acknowledges that Garmany is one of the best fishermen working today, and he’s mature enough to realize that Garmany’s talents don’t diminish his own. He fills in where he’s most needed, and that’s why he’s become such an enormously valuable cornerstone of Viking’s team. “West was all in and committed immediately,” Healey says. “He’s always so focused and organized. He’s the glue that holds everything together.”

And then there is Garmany, an impossibly charming fisherman with a disarming laugh and a sense of humor akin to a hound on the trail. “Smalls is one pot-stirring son of a gun,” says Healey with a laugh. “But I’ve never seen a set of eyes on anybody like that.” Higgins agrees: “To say he is incredible in the cockpit is an understatement. He is always thinking and is faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. He is, hands down, one of the best.”

Anglers in the cockpit of a sport-fishing boat.
Courtesy Viking Yachts

Worldwide Operations

Since taking the demo captain job, Dooley has absorbed the demo program manager responsibilities as well. In addition to managing the boat and addressing maintenance and fishing needs with the help of Rivers and Garmany, Dooley is now in charge of coordinating the program’s busy schedule. The crew splits time between boat shows, tournaments and international fishing destinations for more than 300 days of the year.

The tournament fishing team includes Viking’s upper management and members of the sales, design and engineering teams. But when fun fishing, the potential guest list expands. “First, Pat fills up whatever dates he’s able to fish with us,” Dooley explains. “Then we open up our calendar to the broker network with a mass email to all of our dealers, potential clients and past clients who are looking to purchase a bigger build or those who have been recurring buyers for years.”

Viking’s demo program offers brokers and their clients front-row access to one of the world’s most professional fishing operations. “The Viking demo crew helps to sell Viking’s customizable product,” explains HMY Yacht Sales’ Tim Gredick, who recently sold two demo boats and whom Healey describes as having used the demo program perfectly. “A team of that caliber showcases how best to use the tool and sets the standard for the kind of crew an owner might like to have in their program. Sean, West and Smalls make clients comfortable, answering questions and showing them a good time, all while proving the outstanding performance that Viking offers.” And that’s the real purpose of the program: to effectively show and sell world-class boats.

The question of who gets to fish the demo boat is almost just as important as where to send the boat next. The program matches the demo to the fishery and the customers in the area, so mapping out a year’s worth of builds requires careful planning. “Sean and his team always want to be where the bite is, and that’s what I love about them,” says Higgins. “Since they’ve come on board, the demo has been spending time in Bermuda, Cabo, Mag Bay, the Dominican Republic and several other great spots. And Pat’s sons, Justin and Sean Healey, are members of the demo fishing team as well, representing the next generation.”

Read Next: Meet Viking Yachts president and CEO Pat Healey in our exclusive interview.

Throughout a build, the current demo team also gets to offer their input on flagship designs and features for the engineers to consider, exchanging ideas and testing new models with the common interest of ensuring the best possible product. “We get to sit in on meetings and give feedback to the engineers,” Garmany says. “I’m getting to see all these aspects of the business that I’ve never been a part of before, which is pretty cool.” Rivers adds, “It’s been clear from the beginning that this company is Pat’s family. He takes care of the people around him, and he fully trusts us, which is important in any job. It’s great to be part of it all.”

As Viking’s demo crew continues to tack on accolades around the world, maintaining the notoriety Healey is proud to have seen develop over the program’s history, he can’t help but look ahead. “Sean, West, and Smalls are all such incredible fishermen. They’re a breed all to themselves,” he says. “When they first came on, I told all of them that this can be a lifetime job if they want it. I can see that they’re proud to be the demo crew. They’re all in. And maybe 10 years or so down the road, when they’re ready, they’ll bring in another crew. And then we’ll get to do this phenomenal cycle all over again.”

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