Boatbuilding has become a boardroom business, yet there are still a few pockets of entrepreneurial enthusiasm where one man's vision can make a difference. One of the last collections of such characters can be found in the small but robust custom fishboat market. Reputation and a knowledgeable clientele drive this business-and drive it hard. Such rugged individualism is only fitting for a sport that deploys a pugilistic vocabulary (pounding, punching, blasting) to wringing maximum pleasure out of the sea and your boat. It also tends to result in boats worth talking about.
These days there is a lot of dock talk about what Mark Willis and Willis Marine are doing with their boats. After taking a look at their 67-foot Mehl Ticket I can see why.
Even by custom standards Mehl Ticket took a long time to build. To give you some idea, her owner, Robert Bocchino, bought a house near the yard so he could enjoy the build process firsthand-and says he enjoyed every minute of the three-year effort. In fact, while Mehl Ticket was his first custom project, Bocchino is a typical buyer in the market-he knows what he wants in a boat and he is willing to pay for it.
"I love boats," says Bocchino, whose passion for speed and machinery led him first to offshore powerboat racing. It was performance, not angling, that drew him to tournament-level convertibles, and he's owned half-a-dozen large production designs. He does enjoy competitive fishing and follows the lead of his capable captain, Roy Krum, on the tournament trail.
Like many custom fishboat builders, Mark Willis paid his dues at the helm before he laid saw to timber. "My first ride was a 40-foot Carolina-built boat with a single 8-71 Detroit that barely managed 17 knots down sea," recalls Willis, whose first love is still fishing. Aboard her he fished the Outer Banks for billfish during the day and studied design at night. "I taught myself to draw and wore out the pages of Herreshoff's The Common Sense of Yacht Design." Willis started construction of a boat for himself in 1982. Before she was complete a fellow came along and offered to buy her. "Since then I've never been without a boat to build or had the time to build one of my own," he says. "I guess I became a boatbuilder by default."
Willis set up shop in Stuart, Florida, and launched the 53-foot Katie M in 1993. Two 65-footers, the Lucky Punch and NuCO2 followed, as did the 63-foot Fleetwood. Bocchino became acquainted with the brand when he met the owner of NuCO2; an opportunity to do a sea trial of her impressed him. When a respected custom builder offered praise for relative newcomer Willis, Bocchino was sold. "I first talked to Mark about a 54, but the next building slot was taken before I could commit," he says. "I was ready when I came back for the 67." To cope with the delay, he bought a 60-foot production convertible to tide him over during the new build.
Bocchino liked the 60's arrangement and Mehl Ticket's main cabin and three-stateroom layout is similar. Her extra length is dedicated to the exterior mezzanine so his guests won't be left out of the action in the cockpit. The area is also home to a built-in live well, two drink boxes, two freezers and a ice bin plumbed with an ice machine.
Beyond her basic layout, Mehl Ticket shares little with production designs. The teak used for her construction was cut from three logs selected by Willis and the joinery is carefully book-matched and finished. Custom wool carpeting is complemented by teak and maple soles in the galley area and the heads. Air-conditioning discharge and return air is handled discreetly through plenums integrated in the teak joiner design. High-end hardware, granite countertops and leather complement the traditionally conservative theme.
Willis' attention for detail extends well beyond the interior joinerwork and outfitting. The engineroom, which is accessible from the cockpit, is faired and finished in mirror-like white Awlgrip. Common drains are fitted for gray- and raw-water discharges; all are Awlgrip-finished PVC with silicone hose connections. Fuel and hydraulic lines are polished stainless steel, secured in acrylic bridles. A machinery space forward of the engineroom accommodates the air-conditioning system and a watermaker-all fitted with the same attention to detail. The net result may be the finest mechanical and systems work I have found aboard a yacht. "The systems on these boats are very complex," admits Willis. "Our goal is to make them simple to operate and maintain."
After her delivery Mehl Ticket headed straight to Mexico and spent a month fishing without a hitch-quite unbelievable for a new boat fresh out of the box, suggests Bocchino, who made the run to and from Isla Mujeres. While a lot of owners/anglers send their boats ahead and fly in for events or fishing time, Bocchino rarely misses the opportunity for a day at sea. Bocchino owns a large electrical contracting company (the boat's namesake: Mehl) and when he's not at the office, chances are he's on a boat. He's made the trip from his home in Brielle, New Jersey, to his home in Florida 10 times-and has seen more of the Bahamas than most Bahamians. "If I didn't have a company to run, I'd be running a boat," he insists.
I believe him, and I also believe that reaching out-of-the-way fishing destinations is one of the primary reasons for the increased interest in larger, more capable convertible designs. Certainly at 67 feet Mehl Ticket is an ideal size for such missions. While she could easily spend several weeks away from the dock, she is not so much trouble that a day of sailfishing becomes a headache. Her pair of 1,550 hp C30 Caterpillars and a 2,656-gallon fuel capacity allow her a range of about 600 nautical miles at 30 knots. When she gets to where the action is she has plenty of power to sprint and twist on a fish.
During our sea trial I recorded a top speed of 36.1 knots with 1,100 gallons of fuel aboard and a full tower (built by Jack Hopewell). Willis, unlike many builders in this market, is not interested in setting speed records-he uses foam and honeycomb core materials sensibly. "We could build lighter boats and insist owners tighten their belts in terms of outfitting and interior dÈcor, but I see little point in it," says Willis. "Mass is your friend when the weather turns on you and I wouldn't trade comfort for a few extra knots." With a half-load displacement of 88,000 pounds Mehl Ticket is still competitive for a boat her size.
Like most custom tournament boats, her hull is cold-molded wood/epoxy construction. Her bottom is triple diagonal 12-millimeter okume plywood supported by a laminated Douglas fir internal keel and four main longitudinals. All is covered inside and out with biaxial fiberglass and epoxy. The topsides are triple diagonal 7-millimeter okume. Douglas fir battens are positioned on 12-inch centers and the space between them filled with closed-cell foam. A 4-millimeter okume skin is then vacuum-bagged in place. This construction detail results in a fair interior hull ceiling, added stiffness and increased sound deadening in the accommodation space. Douglas fir doublers are used generously over the running gear for the same effect.
Yacht designer Robert Ullberg has assisted in the design of the last two Willis boats, including Mehl Ticket. "Mark has certain standards that I work around," says Ullberg. "Window lines, deck cambers and house radii for example are nonnegotiable-the rest is a collaborative effort." The result is a refined, slightly lower-cut variation of earlier Willis designs, a strikingly good-looking boat that is traditionally influenced but has a unique appearance that reinforces what is becoming an identifiable Willis brand.
Ullberg has also tweaked Willis' hull form for speed. "We began with a performance goal and made the styling and interior fit," he says. A new chine design is slightly higher forward and incorporates an integral ledge similar to that which is typical on a molded fiberglass boat. The result is a dryer ride, and as the chine does not stand proud of the hull it is not a target at the haul-out slip. Relatively deep convex sections forward soften the ride. This convexity extends aft to an efficient 13-degree deadrise at the transom.
As a man who loves design and speed, Bocchino has put some thought into what his new boat might be compared against-and says it looks like an Aston Martin and drives like a Porsche. (He should know, as there was one of each in his driveway.) After spending a few minutes at the wheel of Mehl Ticket I could see his point. Advancing the single-lever controls on her varnished teak helm pod yielded maximum turns in about 30 seconds. Her power-assisted hydraulic steering is easy on the arms and she turns at speed as Bocchino suggests-just like a sports car.
Custom boat projects can be a struggle, yet I am not certain that I have ever met an owner as excited about his new boat as Robert Bocchino. Certainly he was the ideal customer for Willis, the kind of connoisseur who in effect is a patron of a rare art, and one that is getting rarer these days. "It's not about the money for Mark, it's about his boats-he is an artist," Bocchino says of Willis. Based on Mehl Ticket I would have to agree.
Contact: Willis Marine Inc., (772) 283-7189.