Here's when you realize you're not just fishing: Something strikes the bait under the starboard kite with deadly ferocity. The angler on deck hesitates a second too long before the captain shouts down from the bridge, "Somebody get on that *&%$# rod!" The angler runs over, closes the bail, and reels down for all he's worth. That is, until a bull dolphin breaches, exposing its electric green colors. In a moment of reverie the angler stops reeling to admire the display, but all it gets him is more admonishment. "Get that fish in," the captain screams. "You're costing us money!"
This is what happens when you're fishing a high-roller sailfish tournament, and dolphin don't count. The crew knows that every sail caught and released takes them one step closer to the $100,000 prize - and whatever other unspoken money may be passing hands. Everything else is a waste of bait. This is the World Sailfish Championship in Key West, Florida - high-stakes fishing at its core. But it's also where those with deep pockets work and play at the same time, getting deals done and earning bragging rights. And above all, it's a place where type-A personalities collide.
Into the Fray
The boats are lined up and ready to go before sunrise, waiting for the Bimini Start. It's a sportfishing armada, with an impressive array of boats from top-of-the-line builders all concentrated in a small swath of water. I do a quick count - 20 boats immediately surrounding ours - and guesstimate that I'm looking at more than $50 million worth of fiberglass. "That's a lot of F-U money," says the first mate, preparing the cockpit as sunlight creeps in. Money that owners use instead of an upright middle finger, telling the world, "I got mine." The battlewagons are so numerous that the few $250,000 center consoles, top-notch boats to be sure, look pedestrian by comparison.
I am on Black Pearl, a custom-build from Brazil worth $2 million. I'm fishing with the team from Cortex Resorts, a real estate group that builds waterside vacation resorts and condos throughout Florida. There are 12 of us onboard, though only six are registered as tournament anglers. Graciously, they give me first shot at the rods.
The captain and crew have checked in with buddies in the tournament, allies of sorts, to find out where fish might be biting. The captain sets a course and we head south and east out of Key West to a spot where several sails were caught in preliminary ventures. We arrive to set up our spread - four lines in the water maximum - and find we're not alone. No spot in a tournament with 110 boats can truly be a secret. A quick look in either direction reveals boats as far as the eye can see along the color change. Glance up and the sky is peppered with kites, used to suspend live bait just beneath the surface behind the boats. The mood onboard is collegial. Ralph, the affable director of sales for Cortex, is entertaining everyone with loud and humorous stories. Scott, who handles public relations, makes sure everyone has anything they could possibly need. Everett, one of the owners of the company, sits talking with a group from a large hotel chain, potential investors in Cortex's Florida properties. He's laid back and jovial and seems quite content to spend the next eight hours at sea.
At first, everyone is interested in the activity in the cockpit, watching the mates work the lines and play out the kites. But then people start making their way in and out of the well-appointed air-conditioned cabin, and up and down the ladder to the settee on the flying bridge. Now the only ones truly focused on the fishing are the mates.
I think to myself, "Where have I felt this atmosphere before?" Then I realize this is exactly like sitting in a corporate luxury box at a big-time sporting event. This boat, with all its amenities, serves the same purpose, allowing executives to check out the action when they want to, then socialize and talk business during lulls. As I hear beer bottles being opened and jokes being told, I have to admit, it's a hell of a lot better place to do business than a conference room.