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The perfect boat and the art of compromise - Part Two

Editor’s note: What makes the perfect fishing boat? It depends, among other things, on the type of fishing you have in mind. This is the second of two columns examining a veteran charter captain’s progression through the four boats he has owned.

After 20 years of running smaller charter fishing boats, Capt. Al Anderson of Narragansett, R.I., in 1981 moved up to a 35-foot Down East-style boat, built in close collaboration with Connecticut-based designer/builder Peter Legnos.

Zach Harvey

In service for nearly two decades, the boat underwent an endless series of modifications to meet the evolving demands of the charter fishery. From the outset, the Legnos was designed first and foremost for lobstering in the sounds, with a top-end cruise of 13 knots compliments of a single 6-71 Detroit Diesel. Among many steps in the original boat’s metamorphosis, several problem-solving exercises made significant improvements to its overall fishability.

One of the first issues to resolve was the age-old problem stripermen face when transitioning from gas power plants to diesel: the inability to achieve in-gear, at-idle speeds slow enough to deep-troll effectively. Without incessant throttle work — in and out of gear, which ultimately blows gears — the Legnos struggled to drop much below 2.5 knots.

Anderson’s friend and diesel guru Barry Gallup pointed to an innovation brought about in West Coast salmon fisheries, where a top method was slow-trolling cut bait. Wisconsin-based aftermarket manufacturer Twin Disc, Gallup suggested, offers a reverse-gear troll valve that matches up perfectly with a Detroit 6-71. When engaged, the valve drops prop turn enough to achieve over-ground trolling speeds of 1 knot or less, giving a skipper the ability to stem a tide while fishing a rip — holding an exact position over bottom — or to drop trolled lures to significant depths without deploying a mile of the wire or lead-core line that charter skippers use to hunt big stripers, blues or even pollock in deeper water.

The degree of slow that valves deliver is equally important in big-game fishing, when captain and crew must coordinate efforts to get control of monster fish at the boat’s side. In tuna fishing, for example, it’s helpful to keep the boat under way at a crawl as the leader man wrestles a monster into gaff or tag-stick range. Fish will come to a corner of the stern in semiorderly fashion while a boat’s in gear but often go haywire if the boat stops. Unfortunately, trying to lift 400 pounds of tuna against 3 knots of headway spells stalemate. Troll valves let the captain walk the fine line between empowering the mate and keeping a big fish civil.

The 35 Legnos that Capt. Anderson ran for nearly two decades underwent a lengthy list of modifications.

Subsequent adjustments to the 35’s underlying design served two ends. First, as the 1980s progressed and we marched into a striped bass moratorium, angling interests swung toward offshore fisheries — tuna and marlin, particularly. The attendant shift in fishing distances pushed Anderson to eke every available knot out of a hull and engine paired for near-shore lobstering at yawning speeds.

The advent of lifting strakes in the bow helped compensate for the boat’s oversized keel and tendency to plow. Also, a total overhaul of the deck, well, power and tank arrangement served to transfer as much below-deck weight as far aft as possible and to drop weight as deep in the hull as possible — the end result dropping the stern to expose more forward running surface and enhancing overall stability.

Anderson’s second love affair with a fishing boat blossomed during the winters of 1997 and 1998, when he and several clients logged long and brutal days targeting giant bluefin tuna on the distant reaches of Hatteras Shoal via Hatteras and Oregon inlets in North Carolina. Those foul-weather February forays aboard an array of Carolina-built sportfishermen yielded some staggering catches, including one sodden, big-water outing that witnessed 20 hookups on tuna between 350 and 500 pounds. They also sparked in Anderson a profound respect for Carolina boatbuilding.

During the seasons that followed, Anderson scoured the Tar Heel State in search of the perfect offshore vessel and eventually found a bare hull that simultaneously fell within financial reason and struck a near-perfect balance within the range of Carolina designs. If the 26-foot Bonito solved the limitations of its diminutive predecessor, Anderson’s current boat, a 42-foot Alex Willis express sportfisherman powered by twin Cummins turbo diesels, is the culmination of 50 years of lessons learned.

The Willis 42 features a sharper bow entry than many Carolina hulls — a compromise, one might argue, between the sharp vee-entry employed by Maine builders to cut the slop and the classic Carolina bow flare. Along its running surface, a similar balance is struck with a subtle, soft chine — some angle to soften the ride and help her to track straight at cruising speeds.

Lastly, it features a small keel — many North Carolina skippers loath keels — that greatly enhances handling, particularly in tight quarters or challenging conditions. Both engines feature reverse-gear Twin Disc trolling valves for situations that warrant slow progress. She runs dry, straight and clean.

The helm is clean and intuitive, with a fishfinder screen shielded from direct sunlight. The driving principle is good, old-fashioned situational awareness. “As far as electronics and other necessities at the helm are concerned, you want to take it all in by shifting your eyes, not turning your head,” Anderson advises.

The bridge deck, raised two wide steps above cockpit level, at once helps compensate for the tall bow and its straight-ahead visibility limitations and grants the skipper ready access to cockpit and clients. “It’s important for the captain to be in a position to help clients and crew as needed,” Anderson says.

An expansive cockpit provides ample room to work, and a queen-size, foam-insulated fish well below deck can house enough circulating water to maintain a week’s supply of liveys, a serious quantity of fish, ice or both. I can’t say for sure, but I’ve yet to imagine a fishing scenario that would require more than the current 46 rod holders.

Anderson says his goal was to find a boat that would let him day-trip the canyons in comfort — a mission accomplished and then some. His chief gripe is with one set of gear-driven pumps whose impellers habitually fry — a pretty minor deal, all else considered. Perfect? Still a definite no, but for what she’s asked to do, Prowler’s probably close enough.

If there’s a moral amid Anderson’s fiberglass, wood and metal, it could well be this: When in the act of narrowing your own search for the right boat you focus on a single purpose — whether sportfishing or long-range cruising — that all-important balance will prove much less elusive.

Put another way, in an era when some boatbuilders are trying to court every single participant in the big-decision process, there’s a real risk of compromising the utility right out the scuppers. Maybe better to do one thing well than all things half-cocked.

See related article:

- The perfect fishing boat? There's no such thing. Part one

February 2013 issue