The Magic of Merritt
Pompano's First Family of Boating
by Ric Green
In the rarified air of the ultimate custom sportfishing machine, two words set a very few owners apart from all the rest. Because, if you own a "Merritt Boat" you are at the top of the top. No boat and no boat building family commands more worldwide respect in sportfishing than Merritt.
Tucked away on a corner lot along the Intracoastal in Pompano Beach is a family business with the quiet reputation for designing and building the world's finest sportfishing boats. They bring international attention to a city with deep roots in fishing and boating. Their success and commitment to fishing has fueled the sport locally, and the Merritt family has played a major role in the Pompano Beach Fishing Rodeo's success and longevity.
Merritt Boat and Engine Works or just "Merritt's," as the locals call it, represents five generations of a family's love for the sea. It will be the backdrop for this year's Fishing Rodeo weigh-ins and activities. The Rodeo's new home at Alsdorf Boat Ramp Park, located on the Caliban Canal on the 14th Street Causeway, is right across the water from Merritt's.
To fully grasp the Merritt family's dedication and determination, one needs to look back to the early part of the last century. Franklin Leroy Merritt was born in Michigan and started his working life as a farmer in Virginia. With the onset of World War I, he found himself working at the Norfolk Navy Yard where he developed a love for the water and quickly became recognized as a talented boat builder.
Franklin, known as Roy (Sr.) to friends and family, bought a houseboat in 1920, and this was home for the young Merritt family for the next few years and the birthplace of his son Allen in 1922. In 1924 he packed up his family and moved to Miami where he found work at a boatyard. Two years later they relocated to Fort Lauderdale and Roy Sr. began to build on his reputation, not only as boat builder but also as the area's top fishing captain. He was soon busy with his charter business catering to northern visitors to South Florida.
It was not long before the very first "Merritt Boat" was launched. In 1929, looking to expand his business, Roy built a 38' boat that would become the first of a five-boat fleet. The boats were all named "Caliban" after the fictional monster in William Shakespeare's, The Tempest. Today, the "Caliban" name is synonymous with Merritt, hence the name of the canal.
Roy Sr. quickly learned that the tourists who charter boats in Florida were gone by late spring. Looking for other ways to support his family, he agreed to tow a houseboat from Florida to Babylon, Long Island, New York.
On his arrival in New York, the houseboat's owner asked Roy to take his party on an offshore fishing trip. Apparently, local charters only fished the sound and his group, including writers from the New York Herald Tribune, wanted to test the deep ocean waters off Long Island. The tuna were biting and after putting a sizable haul on the dock, the story of Roy Sr.'s boat and fishing skills made its way to the pages of the paper. He was in business. With this success came a plan to move the fleet north in the summer and return to Fort Lauderdale in the winter.
In 1932, Roy relocated to Freeport, Long Island and purchased a piece of waterfront property that would become the summer home for the Caliban fleet. During those years, in addition to raising five children, Roy Sr.'s wife Ennis ran the charter business and became the glue that kept the company afloat. Sons Buddy and Allen joined the fledgling company as teenagers and captained two of the boats.
By 1947, Roy Sr. and Ennis had tired of the grind of relocating their business twice each year, and decided it was time to settle in South Florida permanently. They purchased 10 acres of swamp land on the Intracoastal at what became N.E. 16th Street in Pompano. The plan was to set up a small boatyard to maintain their charter boats as well as other charter and drift boats in the area. However, within a few years Merritt's amazing knowledge of boats and his reputation for providing quality service brought so much business to the boatyard, they gave up the charter business and focused on running the yard full time.
After much prodding from local businessmen and fishermen, and with sons Buddy and Allen involved in much of the yard's activities, Roy Sr. agreed in 1955, that it was time to once again start building boats. Buddy ran the boat building division and Allen took over the business aspect of the yard in 1957. Inspired by his father's input and experience, Buddy, an avid fisherman, built what he called "the perfect fishing boat." The famous Merritt 37' was born and was built with one purpose in mind: to catch fish. Even today, with so many larger, faster and more technologically advanced custom boats on the scene, the 37' is one of the world's most sought-after pure fishing machines. In fact, hull number one is still afloat and is called not surprisingly, "Number One." Buddy is credited with a design plan that was innovative as well as imaginative. But it was Roy Sr. who guided his son as they laid up that first carvel planked Alaskan cedar boat. Together the pair developed a design with an unbroken sheer line that became a Merritt trademark. The construction of that sleek and solid boat was unhurried and thorough, a "Merritt Boat" trademark that has never changed. In their 53 plus years of boat building, the Merritt family has only produced about two boats a year.
With an open deckhouse, the Merritt 37' pioneered a style that gained popularity throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the overall design, Buddy added innovations.
Merritt's designed the first "rocket launcher" as a way to keep multiple trolling rods in a central location. Allen conceived the center rigger, another huge innovation in trolling efficiency.
While Buddy designed and built great fishing boats, they were Spartan in their simplicity. Air conditioning, plush galleys, fancy heads, and salons were nowhere to be found on a Merritt Boat.
In 1971, Buddy passed away after a bout with Lou Gehrig's disease. His death took its toll on the business, especially the boat building component. Yet, once again, the company rebounded as a third generation of Merritt's assumed the helm.
Buddy's son Richard followed in his father's footsteps, working in the boatyard, fishing and finally going into the boat brokerage business. In the 70s he started his own company, Merritt Yacht Brokers, Inc.
Allen's son Roy began working at the boatyard while in junior high school. He started cleaning up and sweeping floors and graduated to scraping hulls and painting boat bottoms. Before long, he was working side-by-side with his uncle learning everything he could about boat design, boat building, and what it meant to carry on the challenge of keeping Merritt in the forefront of the world's finest sportfishing boats. Roy was just 29 when he assumed control of the family business.
Today's Merritt boats range from 37' to 83'. They are still built on the same piece of property purchased in the 40s by Ennis and Roy Sr. And, while the family's commitment to excellence has never wavered, the Merritt family business has certainly changed. The boats themselves are larger and faster and the interiors bear little resemblance to Buddy's no-frills 37'. The boatyard today employs around 125 skilled craftsmen. Roy, hard working and personable, has added Merritt Marine Supply and Smith Merritt Insurance to the stable of marine related companies.
They have also more than kept up with the times when it comes to technology and advanced boat building techniques. Today's Merritt Boat is cold molded using the strongest, most lightweight materials available. Engines, electronics, and furnishings are all state of the art.
Amazingly, all but two of the company's boats are accounted for, and there is no end to the spectacular fish stories their owners can tell. Hull No. 13 was the biggest boat Buddy Merritt had built at the time. The boat became the "Black Bart," owned by Bart Miller in Kona, Hawaii, perhaps the most legendary charter captain of all time. This boat caught the famous 1,656-pound Pacific blue marlin; it won the 1975 Hawaiian International Allison-Yellowfin Tuna Tournament with a 2,000-point lead, and became the first to land more than 100 blue marlin in a season off Kona.
Hull No.3 skippered by Allen Merritt won seven out of eleven Cat Cay Tuna Tournaments, more than any captain in history.
Delivered in 1975, Hull No.23, Ship's Cafe, set a record for capturing the most white marlin in a day, a feat accomplished in 1983 off La Guaira Bank, Venezuela. The boat also caught the first 1,000-pound blue marlin off Venezuela.
The last 43' Merritt ever built was one of the most famous. The Cookie II, owned by the Murray Brothers, well-known makers of fighting chairs, was world renowned for catching giant blue fin tuna. The Murray family later sold this boat to Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops, who renamed her The Tracker. Over the years, Merritt's has built a customer list that includes the world's top fishermen, celebrities and business-men. Corporate giants like Tyson Chicken, Entenmann's, and J.P. Morgan are represented. Celebrities like NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and country singers George Strait and Alan Jackson have the keys to a Merritt Boat, boats with price tags that can set owners back over five million dollars.
In 1965, a group of local charter boat fisherman got together and came up with the idea for a fishing tournament that might make the tourist season last just a little longer. The Merritt family was a part of that first POMPANO BEACH FISHING RODEO, and has continued that support throughout the years. The Rodeo gratefully salutes Pompano Beach's first family of boating.
There is magic in the Merritt name. In the world of sportfishing owning a Merritt Boat is playing on the ultimate stage. It is pitching at Yankee Stadium. It is running at Churchill Downs. It is driving at Daytona. It is truly the stuff dreams are made of.
Why, I remember that time at the end of the Bahamas Billfish Championship. It was a beautiful clear day, fishing in a gently rolling swell staring into that incredible deep blue ocean where you think you can see the bottom hundreds of feet down. Yes sir, there I was, backing into my slip, the docks at Cat Cay were packed with people and flying from the outrigger on my Merritt Boat were the three blue marlin release flags that meant I was the champion...Oh, sorry! I was dreaming there for a minute.