In the late 1920s, the early days of offshore charter fishing in Florida, Miami charter skipper Roy Merritt built himself a 37-footer, hoping to serve the growing interest in bluewater angling (helped along by Ernest Hemingway’s stories) and build his charter business in New York and Florida. Merritt built and fished four more boats over the next 20 years, all named Caliban, establishing his reputation as a South Florida skipper and boatbuilder while further publicizing offshore fishing.
In the late 1950s, Roy’s sons designed and built the company’s first semicustom production boat, the Merritt 37, calling it the “perfect fishing machine.” More than 50 years later, the Merritt 37 remains a sought-after fishing boat. Capt. Larry Wren got his hands on a vintage model four years ago, did a major renovation and refit, and won’t be letting this one go anytime soon.
The Islamorada, Fla.-based charter skipper has been fishing the Atlantic and the Florida Straits out of the Holiday Isle Marina for seven years, going after sailfish, marlin, dolphin, tuna and wahoo (www.florida-keys-fishing-charterboat.com). He started out with a Bertram 33 Flybridge, a boat that ran well but didn’t have enough space in the cockpit for his parties. In 2009, he started looking for a boat with more room. While wandering through Max’s Marina in Islamorada, Wren says, he noticed a boat “with very active lines” — it was a wood and fiberglass 37-foot Merritt built in 1955. And at that point, it looked all of its 50-plus years. “It was obviously in the early stages of a rebuild, gutted inside with raw wood and fiberglass showing everywhere,” Wren recalls. The owner was a lobster fisherman who’d been working on the boat in the off-season. Wren inquired at the boatyard office and then called the lobsterman, who confirmed he wanted to sell.
Knowing he’d be involved in a major project, Wren decided the boat was worth buying, considering the builder. “I was aware of the Merritt boats,” he says. “I knew they were regarded as the best of the best of the custom sportfishing boats.” The final price for the classic was $17,000.
The price reflected the enormous amount of work the boat required. “I had never undertaken such a large boat restoration project, and knowing what I know now, I never will again,” says Wren. “The hull and two new fuel tanks were the only things intact. Basically, I had to build a complete boat.”
Wren worked on the boat every spare moment for three years, adding fiberglass layers to the bottom and the chines, and fairing and painting the entire boat. He powered her with a pair of Cummins QSB diesels and installed a complete drive train, from the gears to the props. He also fabricated and installed stringers, decks and engine boxes; put in fresh- and saltwater systems; and added new electronics and a 12-volt electrical system. He estimates his outlay at $150,000 to $200,000.
The payoff? Capt. Wren fishes a piece of history: hull No. 2 of one of sportfishing’s most famous designs, a head-turner that stands out among head-turners. But a pedigree and good looks alone don’t catch fish. “This is not the average charter boat,” says Wren. “It was built for giant bluefin tuna fishing in the Bahamas. It needed to be fast to get in front of the school of tuna, leave a clean wake so as not to spook the fish, and then be extremely nimble to bait and turn the fish from sounding over the reef’s edge. And, most important, was that the boat needed to be able to back down on the giant tuna very quickly.”
These are the qualities that were bred into the design back in the ’50s, says Wren. And they’re just as valid today as they were back then. “It’s what makes Merritt boats among the most sought-after fishing boats in the world today,” he says.
And he’s got one.
The Merritt 37 is a South Florida classic, with its clean, well-proportioned lines and a bit of a workboat attitude. Merritt’s wooden hulls were built of Alaskan cedar fastened to mahogany frames, with the hull glassed over inside and out. (Merritt switched to cold-molded construction in the late 1960s.) The modified-vee hull has a tall bow with moderate flare and Merritt’s distinctive unbroken sheer, which gently curves to the broad, rounded transom.
As semicustom boats, no two Merritt 37s are exactly alike. Common to all of them, however, is the open layout with no deckhouse bulkhead aft, the big cockpit, and the flybridge with its centerline helm station and accompanying bench seating. There’s plenty of room for fishing gear, and owners have added live wells, fresh- and saltwater washdowns, tackle and prep centers, outriggers and more.
The boat also could be built with a variety of interior layouts, from the Spartan — Wren’s boat has just a head and bunks — to the luxurious. There’s a small forward cabin with room for a galley, an enclosed head and a berth with hanging lockers and other storage.
The Merritt boatbuilding name goes back more than 70 years and is well-steeped in New York and Florida offshore fishing. The 37 was the builder’s first production boat, and a successful one at that. Record-setting Merritts include Black Bart, which landed a 1,656-pound marlin in Hawaii; Ships Café, which caught a 1,000-pound marlin off Venezuela; and Allen Merritt’s hull No. 3, winner of seven Cat Cay tuna tournaments in the Bahamas. In these boats, Merritt pioneered such innovations as the tuna tower and tuna door, rocket launchers, center outriggers and more. The Merritt 37 and other models can be found on the used-boat market. Prices range from around $200,000 to $600,000. Today, Merritt Boat and Engine Works builds cold-molded custom and semicustom sportfishing boats to 80 feet at the Pompano Beach, Fla., location it has occupied since the 1940s. The family-owned business also includes brokerage, marine supplies and yacht insurance.
LOA: 37 feet
BEAM: 12 feet
DRAFT: 2 feet, 7 inches
WEIGHT: 16,000 pounds
POWER: twin inboards
TANKAGE: 400 gallons fuel, 40 gallons water
DESIGNER: Roy Sr. and Buddy Merritt
BUILDER: Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works, Pompano Beach, Fla.,
PHONE: (954) 941-5207.
January 2013 issue