Boatload of memories
Longtime Martin County resident Curt Whiticar, founder of Whiticar Boat Works, and his son, John, pose with the Patsea V in 1986. WHITICAR FAMILY PHOTO
Late centenarian left lasting mark on Treasure Coast marine industry
BY DONNA CRARY
Few in history have lived to be 106 years old with a crystal clear memory, let alone being able to write about and illustrate memories from a century before. Curt Whiticar, the founder of Whiticar Boat Works, was one of the lucky ones. The patriarch of a family that has ruled the marine industry in Martin County, Whiticar died on March 7 of natural causes.
Born in 1911 during the Taft administration, his life spanned 19 presidents and two world wars. As a Martin County resident since 1917, he easily recalled in an interview with Indian River Magazine just before his death, the days when the Treasure Coast was a remote place that few had yet discovered. He remembered when the Lyric Theatre first opened in 1926 playing silent films; when Florida Gov. John Martin came to Stuart to celebrate the newly formed Martin County named for him; when area rum runners bootlegged in local waterways during Prohibition; and when the Indian River Lagoon ran a clear aqua blue, teeming with trout, snook and tarpon.
The Whiticar name is a powerhouse in the boating industry thanks to this multi-talented man who spent a lifetime creating sports fishing boats that are legendary in the boating world. Add to that he was renowned as a fisherman and charter captain. It’s no wonder that shortly before his passing he received the Legendary Captain and Crew Award from the International Game and Fish Association.
The accomplished man carried his zest for life into his retirement years. He was an extensive collector of antiques; he loved to play 18 holes of golf until he was well in his 90s. And he never gave up on his creative muse. He channeled his artistry into oil painting and produced more than 1,900 landscapes of places he loved.
A REEL FISH TALE
Curt’s journey to Florida all started with a fishing tale, except this one was for real. His father, Addison Whiticar, ran a charter fishing business on the Delaware Bay in New Jersey. During one of his fishing outings, a man told Captain Add about a place in Florida where he could catch 1,000 pounds of fish a day. The place was Stuart, and the man had been a guest at the Bay Tree Lodge in Sewalls Point. Add hated oystering and couldn’t wait to escape the cold, miserable winters, so in October 1917, he and his family moved to Stuart.
After his arrival, Captain Add purchased a used 23-foot squid boat with a one-cylinder engine for $500 from a man in Jensen Beach. The Phantom had a fish box that could hold 1,000 pounds of fish. Eager to test the waters, he began handline commercial fishing the ocean reefs. It was too good to be true. Amazed, he quickly loaded the box with Spanish mackerel and bluefish.
“My father had two spreader lines — they were like little outriggers — and they had a line attached to each one of those,” Curt recalled. “And then he had a straight line. He’d get into the fish out there, which were plentiful at that time, and they would start hauling. They shortened up the lines, so they were only maybe 15 feet behind the boat. As long as the lure was in the water, the fish would grab them, and they just kept busy.”
The fishing was so successful that Captain Add paid off the Phantom by the next month. He and his family began to spend winters in Stuart, where he continued handline fishing and then migrated to Fortescue, N.J. in the summers, where he charter fished. To Curt and his younger brothers, Jack and Johnson, boating and fishing was a way of life. Their wardrobe mainly consisted of four or five bathing suits each, and they ran around barefooted, just like Florida natives.
THE YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR
Determined, talented and ambitious, young Curt was never one to shy away from hard work. He was always looking for creative ways to make money.
Early on, he delivered newspapers and worked as a mate on his father’s boat. At 10 years old, he made a little workshop inside his family’s garage and taught himself how to build wooden fishing rods that he sold to his dad’s fishing clients. When he was 11, he decided to take a stab at painting signs on commercial boats and discovered that he was good at it. Soon the young boy had a side painting business with boat captains and owners.
Curt’s passion for boating and fishing combined with his intense curiosity to understand how things worked led him to hang around boatyards, like Backus Boat Co. in Fort Pierce. By watching Todd Backus ply his skills, Curt learned how to construct a well-made boat.
When he turned 12, he decided to put that knowledge to work and asked his father if he could build a 16-foot flat-bottomed skiff.
“Dad was very cooperative,” he said. “First he asked, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can do it!’ So I built this boat and we used it out in the river, just above the bridge, right down by the city dock.”
With his first boat a success, Curt became driven to create a bigger and better vessel. About a year or two later when he returned to Fortescue, he built a 20-foot, V-bottom, smooth-planked boat in his backyard from plans in a Motor Boating Magazine. With a 12-horsepower outboard engine attached, he was soon transporting passengers from charter boats to shore.
“When I got this boat, the captain would call on me,” Curt said. “I charged 50 cents or a dollar to take the parties in, and sometimes I got tips.”
BEGGING TO FISH
In those days, the Treasure Coast was becoming a hot spot for fishing. Wealthy northerners would vacation at the former Sunrise Inn, a luxury club in Stuart, which had scenic views of the St. Lucie River, inlet and ocean. Irving Bonbright, a New York stockbroker and founding member of the Sunrise Inn, lived to offshore fish. He frequented the Stuart wharf, where handline fishermen, like Addison Whiticar, unloaded their daily catch.
The two talked and struck up a friendship. Every season, Bonbright practically begged Captain Add to take him deep-sea fishing. He refused because there wasn’t enough room on his boat. After four years, persistence eventually paid off for Bonbright, and Curt’s father agreed to take him offshore.
“Dad allowed Bonbright to fish one rod and reel from the center of the boat, warning Bonbright that he would not enjoy the trip,” Curt wrote in his Whiticar Waterway Tales. “With Bonbright in the center of the stern, Dad could still handline fish the two spreader lines and sell all of the fish, plus Bonbright offered him a large amount of cash to have the privilege of fishing with Dad. Bonbright went, and even though he had to stand up all day and was covered with blood and slime, he had the time of his life.”
Their fishing expedition was such a hit that Bonbright financed a larger boat for Captain Add. It had a broader stern and room for two removable fishing chairs in the cockpit. The vessel, built by Todd Backus, was equipped so he could still commercial fish. The purchase of The Little Jack changed the course of the Whiticar family’s history.
“Dad started taking Bonbright out from the Sunrise Inn, and there were other guests there who wanted to do the same thing,” Curt said. “So usually when Bonbright left, other guests wanted to go fishing. That really got him into the charter fishing business. After that, he really didn’t do handline fishing.”
CHARTING A COURSE
For a time, it seemed as though Curt might not follow his father’s career path. He graduated from Bliss Electrical School with a degree in electrical engineering and in the early 1930s worked for Western Electric in New Jersey installing phones. But he felt like a fish out of water there, and it wasn’t long before the world of boating and fishing pulled him back to Florida.
By the mid 1930s, Curt and his two brothers followed their father into the charter fishing business and became known as the Whiticar Fleet. It was one of the largest operations north of the Palm Beaches. It operated from the family’s compound on Willoughby Creek, a short distance from the Sunrise Inn.
By the time Curt was 20, he had designed and built six boats by himself.
“I had been studying boat design on my own time,” he said. “I just picked it up instinctively — I know I didn’t have any lessons on it. From what I learned from books, I could figure out what would make for a good and comfortable sea boat.”
He had a mind for math and science, so he understood the natural laws that governed good boat design. He also had the artist’s touch, so he knew how to sketch attractive-looking vessels.
At that time, the Whiticar Fleet was made up of secondhand vessels. The young charter captain imagined having better sea boats that could handle the harsh conditions of the local inlet and meet their fishing needs.
“I knew what I wanted from experience,” he recalled. “When you start, you figure out how the boat is going to sit in the water, where the center of buoyancy, the center of balance — and all those features that are in the design.”
His brainstorming led him to create the Shearwater in 1937, named after a long-winged oceanic bird. It was a 33-foot, single screw boat with a V-bottom, rather than the more rounded hulls of the day. Its ability to slice through sharp waves and still handle the shallow inlet waters would become the signature of a Whiticar sports fishing boat.
The Shearwater was such a success that his father asked Curt to build the Gannett in 1939 — a 40-foot twin-screw boat — on similar lines as the Shearwater. With the help of Curt’s brother, Johnson, and marine mechanic Curt Schroeder, they built the vessel at a rented boathouse in Stuart. It became part of the Whiticar Fleet and was Captain Add’s pride and joy.
“I would say that the original Gannett was the real predecessor to the Whiticar boats,” John Whiticar, Curt’s son, said. “The original Whiticar boats were good fishing boats — they raised fish — they were good head sea boats — they were good going into a chop — they were shallow draft.”
CAPPING OFF THE WEDDING
During this time of boat-building and charter-fishing, Curt met Elsa Dragseth at a dance held at the Stuart recreation center. She arrived with another date, but Curt asked her to dance anyway. From that moment on, he decided not to let her get away. They married on April 14, 1939, in Curt’s home on Willoughby Creek. The couple planned to leave the wedding on the Shearwater. Knowing that his brothers would follow them, Curt had a plan — he dismantled the distribution caps on their boats so the newlyweds would have a good head start.
“Right after the wedding, we jumped into the boat and went down the creek to what is called North Lake,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It’s just a little entrance that turns, so you can’t see it from the main creek area. We heard them go by — one of them said, ‘I think he went that way,’ — the other said, ‘No, he went the other way.’ They never did find us.”
The couple were married for almost 70 years. Elsa passed away on March 23, 2009. They were blessed with three children: Laura Kay, Joanne and John.
HELPING THE WAR EFFORT
The Whiticar Fleet shut down during World War II because Curt and his brothers left to assist in the war effort. Brothers Jack and Johnson enlisted in the military and Curt worked at Fisher Boat Co. in Detroit making subchasers for the Navy.
Eventually the war ended and the Whiticar boys returned home. The family fleet was back in business.
The postwar years brought prosperity and lots of tourists who were in the mood to fish. Business was good for the fleet and Curt started making boats again. He didn’t have a boat shop yet, so his father gave him permission to build one on his property near Willoughby Creek. He found the materials for the structure when he heard that the Army was looking for someone to tear down the buildings at Camp Murphy, what is now Jonathan Dickinson State Park. With a $425 bid, he bought the 70-by-90 mess hall and dismantled it with hand tools, piece by piece, within the required 30 days. He later reassembled the building on Willoughby Creek and in 1947 Whiticar Boat Works was born.
The first boat that Curt made in the shop was the Hobo — a bright red vessel that was powered by a pair of 225-horsepower Chrysler engines and proved fast and exceptionally seaworthy. He made it for his brother, Jack. The boat maker soon made a name for himself among anglers and would build celebrated boats like Gannett II, Aphrodite, and Patsea V.
The Sea Lion — another legendary Whiticar boat — was owned by Robert Abplanalp of Precision Valve Corp. The 54-foot sports fisher graced the shores of Walker Cay in the Bahamas, where Abplanalp fished with his good friend President Richard Nixon. Jim Carey captained the vessel during that time and remembers how it had a tremendous impact on raising fish.
“I had won a number of tournaments with that boat because it would draw the fish up,” he said. “It went in the water very gently. It was an easy pushing boat because of its length to width characteristics. And with that it would create a really nice undisturbed wake behind it. When you put a set of baits down — a spread of lures — you could set them up and the fish would get drawn into the boat very close.”
Curt created more than 60 custom Whiticar boats until he retired at 75. Since then, his son, John, and his nephew Jim Dragseth have taken over the helm, running four divisions of the company on the Treasure Coast.
SAILING INTO THE SUNSET
During his retirement, Curt approached his pastimes with as much diligence and passion as he had for his career. He loved to paint with oils.
“I paint most of the time — every morning. Sometimes, two or three hours in the afternoon,” he said.
The prolific artist looked up to mentors Beanie Backus and Jim Hutchinson, who were inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame, and who also inspired his work.
The centenarian never ran out of things to do. He owned an extensive collection of antiques, antique tools and cut glass — and carefully catalogued hundreds of pieces. He enjoyed golfing and played 18 holes at the Stuart Yacht and Country Club — twice a week — until he reached his mid-90s. And for old times’ sake, at 89, he built his last boat. It was a 16-foot, flat-bottomed skiff, a replica of his first boat. Steve Hero became the proud owner and named the boat Curtis.
So what was Curt’s secret to a long, healthy life?
“I still exercise. I have pulleys, rubber bands and I do sit ups. I walked until just recently,” he said the week before he died. “I never smoked, drank in moderation ...”
“And you have good genes and had a wife who treated you very well,” his daughter, Laura Kay, added.
When you reach 106 years, time is measured more in moments than in years. A sailfish jumping out of the ocean, a heron fishing for a meal or a sailboat gliding across azure waters — are all scenes that still need to be savored and captured. And so it is fitting that in Curt’s last days, he worked at his easel with paint-stained hands, busy portraying a brilliant sunset picture of the family boathouse on Willoughby Creek. He finished it in time. The painting was a gift for his son, John. It was just one more creation added to a lifetime filled with amazing works.