The New Golf
Lines in at four. We've spent eight hours watching sails leap behind the transoms of other boats and contending with the pesky false albacore that keep eating our bait. They can be fun to handle on light tackle, but in this setting they do nothing but waste the crew's time. Time spent clearing the lines is time not catching a sailfish - something that eludes us on day one. The captain and mates are stressed, frustrated, and will no doubt lose sleep tonight figuring how to change our luck. But Everett has the same relaxed and contented demeanor as when the day started.
We head back in to the giant tents that are set up for the tournament in downtown Key West. Here, sponsors large and small announce their presence. From boatbuilders to fishing tackle companies to real estate companies (including Cortex) to financial institutions - it reminds me of the corporate tents at a golf tournament. Not at all surprising.
"Catching a billfish is becoming the new golf as far as the corporate world is concerned," says David Powers, who works for the World Sailfish Championship. And why not? You get the manly mythology surrounding offshore fishing - grizzled Hemingways battling big pelagics by day and hitting the bars at night. Something you don't get when wearing pink pants and riding in a golf cart.
And these guys know how to party. A night after fishing makes your typical PGA affair look more like the PTA. In this setting, lubed by alcohol and the anything-goes mentality that permeates Key West, truly anything goes. Including the money, which flows as freely as the Coronas.
It takes big bucks to be part of a tournament like this. The entry fee is $4,300 per boat, for as many as six registered anglers. The majority of the participants aren't from Key West, so they have to pay their crew and the large fuel bill to get their boat south. They have to provide room and board for the crewmembers and run an account for the social activities that run rampant in a place like this. The more serious anglers prefish the tournament every day for as many as two weeks. Add up the daily fuel bill, the bait bill (a dozen goggle eyes, the live bait of choice, cost well over $100), the ice bill, the maintenance bills-it can cost a team tens of thousands of dollars.
"It's not an insignificant endeavor," says Powers, who claims that more than 300 millionaires participated in or attended the event. Then I think back to Everett, who seemed so at ease despite shelling out thousands of dollars to entertain so many people during the tournament, despite the fact that we didn't catch a single meaningful fish. It's all summed up in his quote, listed prominently on the World Sailfish Championship Web site (www.worldsailfish.com): "After some preliminary contact, we invited a qualified group of prospects to the tournament and sold 32 units totaling $68,000,000."
Big Money, Big Players
Day two, we're on the water before first light, making speed to a more distant spot where the bite might be better. The captain and two mates have determined looks on their faces, resolved to do anything to start catching sailfish. If I needed any evidence that the people entered into this tournament take winning seriously, I have it right in front of me.
It comes down to this: Fishing is first and foremost a leisure sport. The people who buy the big boats and travel long distances to pursue billfish may get into it for that reason, but they made the money needed to do it because they are competitive. Enter these people into a high-stakes tournament and the Zen-like euphoria comes not from the act of hooking and landing a fish itself, but of hooking and landing enough fish to outdo the guy in the next boat. This is serious business.
We set up among a small cotillion of boats, and bam!, we're the first to hook up. But it's dolphin. An investor, first on the rods today, is the angler who draws the ire of the captain. But he fights the big bull until it comes boatside, where one of the mates gaffs it and throws it unceremoniously into a fishbox. For the investor, this was thrill enough. The kit goes airborn again immediately.