Evolution of Tuna Towers

Towers have come a long way from the creaky perches with rickety ladders of the early days of Tuna Alley

tuna tower on sport-fishing boat
Tuna towers have become awesome feats of engineering.File Photo

Over the years, tuna towers evolved from a simple mast and crow’s nest into incredibly useful tools and awesome works of engineering. Crews fishing the famed Tuna Alley at Cat Cay helped make tuna towers an integral part of sport-fishing boats — with intricate steering, engine control systems and complete electronics suites.

Less than a handful of crews still fish the edge at Cat Cay for the spring migration of giant bluefin tuna these days, but many boats still come rigged with a tuna tower. It’s usually pretty easy to spot which towers are ornamental and which ones actually get used — most people won’t waste a ton of energy and money to build a tower and not equip it with steering, navigation systems and controls, but it does happen.

tuna tower on sport-fishing boat
A tower first must be easily accessible to the crew.File Photo

Any good crew today seriously fishing dredges, or any that understands the advantages that fishing from the tower offers, usually has at least one crewman up in the tower to ensure greater success. Increased visibility, not only for seeing greater distances but also for spotting fish down deep behind the boat in the spread, is the greatest advantage a tower offers.

Several criteria must be met when designing a tuna tower (one that actually serves the purpose of fishing, and is not just another place to sit). First and foremost, a tower needs to be easily accessible for crew, kids and guests of all ages. If it’s too steep to climb safely and comfortably, no one will use it.

In order to avoid a death-defying climb, the angles of the ladders need to be considered prior to building the tower. When we built Brier Patch, we knew we wanted a tower that was easier to climb than what the industry standard dictated — not only for our crew, but also for our guests who like to ride up in the tower, whether fishing or running up on the Bahama Banks.

tuna towers on sport-fishing boats
Stronger materials now allow buggy tops to handle larger loads and accommodate more than one person.File Photo

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Back in the day, the Tuna Alley towers came with a bit more forward angle on the ladders — some with a great deal more. At Cat Cay, fishing crews spent the entire day in the tower, and at least one crew member made numerous trips up and down the ladders, even while under way. The forward angle made climbing more like going up stairs. Today, many boats fishing sailfish tournaments have a tower man to watch the dredges, and his job is much easier if he’s in a tower that’s been built properly.

Many towers built today come with a steep 8-degree angle on the back ladders, and they’re not nearly as easy to climb, especially when under way. The larger-diameter, heavy-schedule 80 pipe that’s now required as a consequence of faster boat speeds doesn’t help you get a good grip, either.

Builders like Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works started using a more friendly 10-degree forward angle (the other 72s in Merritt’s line have the 10-degree angle) but we wanted to go even further. To get an even easier climb for guests and crew on Brier Patch, we met with tower builder Jack Hopewell of Marine Welding and made a simple 2-degree adjustment, setting our ladders at a 12-degree angle. This 2-degree difference put the platform floor 1½ feet farther forward than other towers at that height, so it didn’t adversely affect the hardtop placement and enclosure. But it certainly made the climb up to the tower a much safer and easier journey.

tuna tower on sport-fishing boat
Buggy tops are the highest and weakest point. Stronger materials now allow them to handle larger loads and accommodate more than one person.File Photo

The “ring” is the band atop the tower that holds the crew securely on the perch. It’s usually outfitted with a cushioned bellyband a bit above waist height. If the ring is too large, you risk not being able to “lock” yourself into the tower in rough seas. The size of the ring also affects the height and the look of the tower. Oftentimes, folks want a large platform in order to have a bunch of people in the tower at the same time. That’s a shame, because the other 98 percent of the time when the tower is in use, it won’t be set up right, making for long days for the tower man.

I recently captained a sport-fisherman that boasted a tower equipped with split, single-lever controls on either side of the helm pod. This is all wrong for serious fishing. When running the boat from the tower, you need to be able to steer with one hand, usually the left, and make throttle adjustments with the right — especially when trying to bait fish. With split controls, you have to take your hand off the wheel to adjust speed, and to steer you have to take your hands off the gear lever, and then you can’t adjust speed.

The buggy top is the highest point of the tower, and it represents the most likely place for a failure to occur. When I say failure, I mean cracks or breaks, usually at a weld. The desire to get all the satellite and other antennas to the highest point possible — on top of the buggy top — leads to increased weight and stress, causing more problems for the builders. Now it’s common to see very robust pipe and a more inward angle to the buggy-top supports. The problem is, when that angle gets to be too great, you end up hitting your head on the support pipes. So keeping that angle reasonable and comfortable for those in the tower is important. It also helps to keep as much weight as possible off the buggy top.

tuna towers on sport-fishing boat
Tower builders have increased the diameter of the aluminum they use and have made the climb to the top easier by designing more user-friendly ladders.File Photo

The Industry Pioneers

For 55 years, PipeWelders helped lead in the evolution of tower construction, building thousands of towers of all varieties worldwide. PipeWelders president Trey Irvine says that the biggest advancement in towers in recent history is the degree of advanced engineering needed to keep pace with the increased speeds of today’s yachts. His first priority is to design towers that will withstand the incredible force exerted on the tower. He accomplishes this tall-order task by strengthening geometry, making subtle design improvements and using more robust materials.

PipeWelders employs more than 200 highly skilled technical welders, engineers and mold makers, and they’ve put so many different towers on so many different styles of boats that they’ve pretty much seen — and fixed — it all. PipeWelders uses many different kinds of aluminum alloys in their construction, and they have the capability to weld dissimilar metals together — and integrate metals (such as titanium) as inserts for extra strength in high-stress areas of the tower. Always an innovator, PipeWelders was also the first company to integrate lightweight carbon Kevlar into their fiberglass parts.

Tim Bausch of Bausch-American Towers builds his towers in two great boatbuilding hot spots — Stuart, Florida, and Jarrett Bay, North Carolina. Bausch grew up in the business and saw most of the technological advances come about firsthand. Bausch says that the biggest single change he’s seen is the advent of fiberglass composite hardtops and buggy tops. His glass crew is just as important as his welders these days, if not more important at times.

tuna towers building
Lighter and stronger hardtops and buggy tops help reduce stress and strain on the entire structure.File Photo

Lighter Yet Stronger

Hardtops now house navigation lights, radars, life rafts and other safety and electronics gear. Being able to make large, lightweight parts from a mold, using composites such as carbon fiber and various foam cores, eliminates welds and heavy pipe from the construction, resulting in greater strength to hold all the antennas and gear. Composite tops also clean up the look and make for a more consistent, lower-maintenance tower. Lighter and stronger hardtops and buggy tops help reduce stress and strain on the entire structure.

building a tuna tower
The design and style of tuna towers has changed along with the shape of boats.File Photo

Viking Yachts is a very vertically integrated company. In 2001, in order to help control delivery times, product consistency, quality and customer service, Viking started Palm Beach Towers (PBT). Drew McDowell heads PBT in Riviera Beach, Florida, for Viking, and manufactures towers for roughly 70 to 80 percent of the Viking boats built. However, over the past several years, PBT has grown the custom-boat branch of their business, which today accounts for nearly 25 percent of their overall builds.

McDowell says the most notable trend that he’s noticed is the necessity to design and style the towers to conform more to today’s rounded, raked style of boats. This means adding perimeter rails and tops that feature more crown and X-braces with rolled pipes. Again, larger-diameter pipe has been a necessity because of the performance and speed of today’s boats. Main tower legs now commonly utilize 2½- and 3-inch-diameter pipe.

tuna tower on sport-fishing boat
The investment in building and outfitting the structure is huge. It’s imperative that the tower is kept clean, waxed and free of the evil destroyer — salt water.File Photo

Proper Maintenance is a Must

A tower represents a serious investment for your boat and needs to be maintained diligently. Regular waxing is a must, and thoroughly rinsing with fresh water and soap after a rough day is an absolute requirement. Salt is your boat’s worst enemy, and your tower is constantly under attack. Another good method of protecting and maintaining your tower’s integrity is to treat the aluminum with ClearKote. ClearKote is a ceramic-structure sealer system designed to protect and preserve your tower. ClearKote chemically bonds to metal, permanently sealing aluminum surfaces against pitting, dulling and streaking. Because it uses a chemical, as opposed to a mechanical bond like paint, it will not peel, chip or bubble, and is very scratch resistant.

boating from tuna tower
A tower should be a functional, safe and efficient tool for helping you catch more fish.File Photo

By planning ahead and communicating with both the tower manufacturer and the boatbuilder, you can get more than just a tall bunch of pipe that some poor crewman has to wax. A tower should be a functional, safe and efficient tool for helping you catch more fish, in addition to being a good-looking accent to your boat.