Roaring back to life
After it sank during Hurricane Irma, the legendary sport-fishing boat Sea Lion II is being rebuilt by a team of five craftsmen using Willis Marine of Stuart. GREG GARDNER PHOTO
Efforts underway to restore Sea Lion II to fight fish another day
BY GREG GARDNER
Perhaps the most famous sport-fishing boat in history has been raised from the bottom of the Indian River Lagoon to fight monster fish for another 50 years.
Sea Lion II is well-known from Mexico to the Bahamas, from Florida to Long Island, N.Y., and has been profiled on several television shows. The guest list is long on celebrities including former President Richard Nixon.
“In every major port we stopped, people would stop by and tell their stories of being on the boat,” said Jim Carey, who has the longest tenure of any of the boat’s captains from 1986 to 2012. “I ran that boat for 26 years and I wish I was still running it. It was a natural fish-raiser. I always felt confident, like I had a good friend in that boat. In 1990, she was as fast as any new boat. It was the best head sea boat ever and it always brought me home.”
Built in 1963 by Whiticar Boat Works in Stuart, the 54-foot Sea Lion II sank at Jensen Beach Docks during Hurricane Irma after being impaled by pilings which left three large, gaping holes on the port side. There was a huge uproar on social media in 2017 when the boat was hours away from being dismembered by chainsaws. Charles Orr, a Houston electrical contractor, stepped in to purchase the boat and restore it. More than 2,000 people are following the boat’s restoration on Facebook.
It was raised, towed to Allied Marine in Stuart and pulled from the water. The three largest boat builders in South Florida — including Whiticar — turned down the restoration job, saying it was just too much for them. So then the problem was where to have the boat restored.
As luck would have it, Willis Marine in Stuart had just finished four grueling years building the 77-foot sport-fishing boat Uno Mas. As workers prepared to scatter to other jobs, the building and the five-man crew of master boat builders became available.
Orr’s captain Jeff Frank closed the deal to restore the Sea Lion II and put the workers on the payroll. Otherwise, he had planned to start in Maine and work his way down the coast, looking for a boatyard who could take on the restoration.
“There are not a lot of guys left with the skills for a job like this. It is a win-win for all of us,” Frank said.
The Honduran mahogany wood in the original hull is no longer available so the boat builders — supervised daily by a consultant — are using 1-inch strips to repair the port side. As the boat is stripped, any wood that appears rotten is being replaced.
Plans call for restoring the exterior of the boat to look as it once did. But the interior will be modern 2018. A pump room is being added to create service space for the twin, six-cylinder, 800-horsepower Man diesel engines.
“For the age of this boat, it is in great shape,” said Frank, who takes care of Orr’s fleet of boats and will stay in Stuart until the end of the year when the Sea Lion II will be seaworthy.
“Being built to 2018 standards, this boat should last another 50 years.”
Frank said the original hull was built with the strength to take the pounding of the sandbars in the St. Lucie Inlet. Sea Lion II was refitted in 1979 and three state rooms were converted to two. She was refitted again in 1999 after a plank popped loose in Mexico. The bottom was remade using the modern cold molding technique with plywood and epoxy, which adds strength, Frank said.
“They didn’t have the materials back then that they do today,” he said.
GUEST LIST A WHO’S WHO
Orr is the fifth owner, but the world prominence of Sea Lion II came under the ownership of Robert Abplanalp, owner of Precision Valve Corp. and inventor of the aerosol delivery device. He entertained and fished all over the Americas with a who’s who of the day: Nixon and his friend Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Roger Daltrey of The Who, Jensen Beach royalty Frances Langford and Ralph Evinrude, singer Jimmy Buffett, New York Mets manager Davey Johnson (after the team won the 1986 World Series), actor Christopher Plummer, singer Bing Crosby, comedian and band leader Phil Harris. Former Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham insisted on fishing off the boat with a hand line.
Carey said Nixon wasn’t much for fishing, but he loved to ride on the Sea Lion II. They were cruising Long Island Sound when Carey noticed the Coast Guard training vessel Eagle with sailors on deck. He radioed them that the former commander-in-chief would be passing by. The guardsmen scrambled into formation and gave salute, which Nixon acknowledged with his classic wave. Carey said Nixon never knew about the heads-up to the Coast Guard crew.
After Nixon’s wife, Pat, died, he was photographed sitting in the fighting chair on the back of the boat, while it was underway off Montauk, N.Y. Complete with a lurid headline, the uncredited photo appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer.
“He (Nixon) was nice and intelligent,” Carey said. “He could talk to anyone about anything. He was one of the smartest men I ever spoke with.”
Sea Lion II was featured several times on American Sportsman and was in the opening credits of the show for years. It was also seen on the Walker’s Cay Chronicles. An avid competitive fisherman, owner Abplanalp poured his money into Walker’s Cay to attract fishermen from South Florida and built much of the facilities on the tiny island. In a sad footnote, Walker’s Cay has been in disrepair and uninhabitable since it was battered by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004.
FAMOUS FOR SPORT FISHING
From the winter White House on Key Biscayne, Nixon and his Secret Service entourage would fly by helicopter and stay at a house Abplanalp owned on an island near Walker’s Cay.
There were dozens of trophies from tournaments and the boat’s prominence helped the surge in popularity of the sport-fishing industry. In 1977, the U.S. record was broken when a 1,071 pound tuna was caught with rod and reel aboard the Sea Lion II.
“We had a 40-year love affair with the Sea Lion II,” said Abplanalp’s son, John, who grew up fishing on the boat. “We went up and down the Intracoastal Waterway and with its classic lines, people paid attention to it. The summers in Montauk had some of the best fishing in the world.”
“The history of the Sea Lion II is keeping it alive,” said John Whiticar, whose father built hull No. 30 and the other 65 boats. “It is one of the most famous Whiticar boats and was pretty well-known at the time. Back then, there weren’t hundreds of boats going back and forth to Walker’s. He (Abplanalp) loved that boat and he loved Walker’s Cay. He pumped so much money into it, keeping the place open and taking a loss. It was like an obsession.”
Orr and his captain, Frank, hope the boat will be restored by the end of the year. A splash party will be held where it all began, at Whiticar Marine in Stuart. The boat will then go on a journey to Montauk, premiering the new Sea Lion II to all the old-timers along the way. It will also be displayed on the antique boat show circuit.
“It has a lot of history and I couldn’t see it going down like that,” said owner Orr, who has won fishing tournaments in Texas and the Bahamas and once owned a boatyard. “I love boats and this one was at the top of my list. The salvagers were coming and I did not want to see that happen. It is a very rare boat. We will restore it to better than new and breathe new life into the Sea Lion II.”