WE BUILD YOUR DREAM

JIM SMITH TOURNAMENT BOATS
4396 SE Commerce Ave, Stuart, FL 34997
Tel: 1 (772) 286 1172  |  Email: tammy@jimsmithboats.net
Performance cheetahs of the sea
ON THE EDGE MAGAZINE
BYJAN VOGT, 2009

On the race from the edge at this year's 37th USVI Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament how much would you like to bet that out of 40 odd boats sprinting for the finish line at least one Tribute, American and Jim Smith will be in the hunt, edging the field for honors as the top speed machine. If the rakish profiles of these three custom boats bear a resemblance it's for good reason. They are all part of the family tree that began with Jim Smith's first performance sportfisherman 5O-years ago.

The story behind Jim Smith Boats, American and Tribute is inextricably linked. Headed now by Stuart, FL builders John Vance, Dominick LaCombe and Rich Scheffer, the boats share the same bloodline and have served as the inspiration for boats by Spencer, Sculley, Weaver, Hines-Farley, Bayliss and scores of others. With all three Stuart, FL builders starting in the 90s, each took their own course following in the footsteps of the man who defined what a modern day sportsfishermen should be.

Radical in thought and action, Jim Smith was an innovator who could turn corn into brandy, bikes into motorcycles and canoes into hydroplanes. To see his family through financial crisis, at 9, he went to work commercial fishing, moonshining and delivering Western Union messages by bike. At 12 he made a deal to remove and sell the trees near his home for a profit. Two years later he was in the lumber business. At 17, Smith found his escape in speed. A member of the Indian Motorcycle Factory Team, he loved driving on the edge and at 19, he paid the price when he lost a leg. Filled with the need for speed, he turned to barn­storming and by 1927 had found his niche racing hydroplanes and building his own engines and boats. During his 24 year career he won hundreds of races. By 1949 when he retired, he was a successful businessman with a string of enterprises including liquor stores, restaurants and the largest Johnson Outboard/Chris Craft dealership in the South. With a new wife and all the money he thought he'd need, he moved from Atlanta to Miami with plans to start fishing again. Said his sister Peggy, "with loathing I remember he would not quit fishing until he got a boatload."

Dissatisfied by Miami's post war growth spurt. Smith soon moved to sleepy Boca Raton in 1950 where he took notice of the shapely sportfishing boats being built by the Rybovich brothers in West Palm Beach. Smith liked everything he saw in them and so did his friend Mabry Edwards in Jacksonville, FL. A young career officer in the U.S. Air Force, Edwards was not just a fellow boat racer, he was a boat builder like Smith. At first they discussed buying a Rybovich together but even with Jim's help it was too much money for me, said Edwards during an interview I did with him shortly before Smith's death in 1994. They decided instead to build a boat with the amenities of a Rybovich - only faster.

The Revolution Begins

 

Between them, they came up with a 38-footer that resembled the 29' Carolina boat Edwards owned. After finishing it, Smith and his wife took it north and ran into the owner of Emancipator, the boat that had been the inspiration. "He fell in love with the boat and bought it," said Edwards. Immediately they went back to the drawing board and came up with a sleeker, faster 35- footer - the Boca Jima. The name is an amalgamation of Boca Raton and Jim and Mary. Styled more like a 1957 Chevy than a Carolina boat, its most radical feature was its weight to horse­power ratio. Compared to the rest of the fleet in 1959 it was overpowered and underweight. Powered by a pair of custom 409 Chevy Daytona engines, the boat was one of the first to utilize epoxy resins in its construction, which was traditional cold molded double diagonal cedar planking. With interior appointments kept to a minimum, even with the tower, it did a jaw-drop­ping 44-knots, leaving Richard Ber­tram and his stripped down 31-foot Moppie in its wake. At the Cat Cay Tuna Tournaments, Smith and Ed­wards never placed but they did win eight straight Bimini starts. Before his death in 1994, Smith said, "Dick Bertram and his co-driver Sam Griffin couldn't figure out how I was beating them in a conventional sportfisherman with two staterooms and a tower when they were running 31' deep-vee ocean racer. Bertram thought it was the power but, it was really a combination of construc­tion, design and power. My philosophy was keep it light and strong."

Smith was so pleased with the boat and its unique tower, which was like a fiberglass pod with elevator access, he ran it 10 years before sitting down with Edwards to design the 52-footer that launched the high performance movement. By this time, Smith was living near Stuart, where he met a local charter skipper named Don Chason, who made a deal to use the jig to build himself a boat. Named Sun­dance, the boat became the first Mon­terey. Built with Smith's supervision in Chason's rural backyard, it was to have been a one-off boat but in short order Chason was building boats like the Escapade and Elbo 7. This created a rift between Edwards and Smith and eventually between Chason and Smith, who had little use for the reckless Chason. Recalls John Vance, president of Jim Smith Boats, "Jim went out to see Don one day. They were sitting in the kitchen, in front of the barn where they built the boat, and Don was trying to get Jim to eat fried gator tail. Jim glanced out the window and saw a live alligator with no tail crawling around. Soon afterwards Jim took the jig back and started building boats in the SPS Industrial Park. That was the start of Jim Smith Boats in 1981"

The Futuristic Monterey

 

Much like Smith, Chason liked to live hard and fast. He died in 1983 flying a helicopter too low along the beach. As for Monterey Boats, basically it consisted of a handful of carpenters working in an open air barn on two half finished hulls, one of which belonged to Henry Tamagni of Vineland, N.J. This was no Merritt or Rybovich operation, yet Tamagni saw potential. High profile captains like Albert Johnston, who had just set records catching 83 sailfish in a day off Palm Beach and 104 blue marlin in 60 days at St. Thomas with owner Lou Boski, were helping create buzz about the boats. What was lacking, Tamagni reasoned, was management. Fortunately Tamagni had a 28-year- old captain who couldn't wait to go down to oversee the Glass Machine's construction. A hands on mechani­cal type, Dominick LaCombe quickly became part of the yard crew. For a Jersey kid that had grown up drooling at the sight of a Rybovich or Merritt, building a boat was a dream come true. He didn't even mind having to live in a trailer behind the barn nor working 10 hours a day.

The first Monterey La Combe ever saw was Hank Manley's Escapade. "To me, it looked so futuristic," he said. "Of course these were the days when Pacemakers and Chris Crafts were queens of the fleet." Fast forward to 1983 and suddenly LaCombe has gone from running 18 mph in a Hatteras to 41 mph in a Monterey. "The difference was mind boggling. In the Northeast where it's an 80 mile run to the fish­ing grounds, the boats revolutionized fishing. Instead of leaving at midnight we could get up at daylight and go." Between speed and fuel efficiency Jim Smith and Monterey boats were changing perceptions in the 80s. "To be competitive you had to do more than 30 knots," LaCombe said.

Now president of American Custom Yachts, LaCombe said the Glass Machine ended up being a much different riding boat than early boats built on the Jim Smith platform be- cause it was not built with the jig. Af­ter punching a hole in the first 58-foot Monterey, Henry Tamagni wanted the next boat to have a stronger keel, stringers and hull. To keep it light, he wanted as much weight as possible removed from the super structure. That's been our philosophy ever since," said La­Combe, who within a year was pro­moted to boat builder after Tamagni bought the business in 1983.

 
 
 

To make the bottom stronger, Tamagni suggested they finish it with a Kevlar skin. This he thought, was better than just adding more glass as Chason had suggested. With no one at Monterey familiar with the process, he sent LaCombe to DuPont to learn how to do it. This was the beginning of a technological revolution led by La­Combe.

Like the Smith hulls, everyone thought the Montereys were fast but ride was an issue. The 63-foot Glass Machine changed that perception. After working out center of gravity issues and adding spray rails, she rode solid and dry. Asked one day about how she rode, LaCombe replied, "like a Kevlar rocket." Such was the reputation of the Glass Machine - and Monterey.

LaCombe soon made the rounds, visiting John Rybovich and Jim Smith to introduce himself and to pick their brains. He was friends with both, especially John." Says LaCombe, ''. John dropped by one day to visit and noticed a set of plans for a 60 mph 120- foot sportfisherman on my desk." Rybovich said, "how are you gonna build that? You're just a boat captain." He was always testing me, said LaCombe. "My response was, "you were young once John, weren't you? You take the ball and you run with it."

As LaCombe built the company over the next eight years, he continued to refine and innovate. He added a deeper forefoot and stem to improve the ride. And then he took custom boat building to next level by vacuum bagging balsa core for non­structural bulkheads to lighten the load. Instead of solid teak doors and counters, he used veneers with No­mex cores to achieve the same high end look at a fraction of the weight. In 1989, LaCombe built the first "pure" high performance sportfishing yacht, the 80-foot Renegade, now Patriot. Unlike other large sportfishing yachts built then, it did 48.6 knots with no turbines or a third engine to propel it. Powered by MTU396TB94s, the Renegade had the first V-drives along with custom transmissions and wheels de­livering 3460 HP - each. It also was the first sportfisher fitted with trolling valves. At 80-feet, it weighed only 126,000 pounds.

LaCombe had achieved his goal of building boats with "his ride" and a "Rybovich-like finish," yet he wasn't happy. "I had all the responsibility but no ownership stake in Monterey. I was an employee working for a man who couldn't understand why he could make a million glass bottles a day yet it took me a year to build a boat. I kept telling him custom boats are not manufactured." The inevitable break came in 1991 when LaCombe went out on his own, taking most of Monterey's carpenters with him. From the Glass Machine to the Gina Lisa he built 13 boats for Monterey and sud­denly he was on his own with no financial backer to help the company survive a tough recession and the luxury tax that already had claimed Egg Harbor. "I told my wife if we could make it through these times we'd be in good shape once the luxury tax lifted."

To make the bottom stronger, Tamagni suggested they finish it with a Kevlar skin. This he thought, was better than just adding more glass as Chason had suggested. With no one at Monterey familiar with the process, he sent LaCombe to DuPont to learn how to do it. This was the beginning of a technological revolution led by La­Combe.

Like the Smith hulls, everyone thought the Montereys were fast but ride was an issue. The 63-foot Glass Machine changed that perception. After working out center of gravity issues and adding spray rails, she rode solid and dry. Asked one day about how she rode, LaCombe replied, "like a Kevlar rocket." Such was the reputation of the Glass Machine - and Monterey.

LaCombe soon made the rounds, visiting John Rybovich and Jim Smith to introduce himself and to pick their brains. He was friends with both, especially John." Says LaCombe, ''. John dropped by one day to visit and noticed a set of plans for a 60 mph 120- foot sportfisherman on my desk." Rybovich said, "how are you gonna build that? You're just a boat captain." He was always testing me, said LaCombe. "My response was, "you were young once John, weren't you? You take the ball and you run with it."

As LaCombe built the company over the next eight years, he continued to refine and innovate. He added a deeper forefoot and stem to improve the ride. And then he took custom boat building to next level by vacuum bagging balsa core for non­structural bulkheads to lighten the load. Instead of solid teak doors and counters, he used veneers with No­mex cores to achieve the same high end look at a fraction of the weight. In 1989, LaCombe built the first "pure" high performance sportfishing yacht, the 80-foot Renegade, now Patriot. Unlike other large sportfishing yachts built then, it did 48.6 knots with no turbines or a third engine to propel it. Powered by MTU396TB94s, the Renegade had the first V-drives along with custom transmissions and wheels de­livering 3460 HP - each. It also was the first sportfisher fitted with trolling valves. At 80-feet, it weighed only 126,000 pounds.

LaCombe had achieved his goal of building boats with "his ride" and a "Rybovich-like finish," yet he wasn't happy. "I had all the responsibility but no ownership stake in Monterey. I was an employee working for a man who couldn't understand why he could make a million glass bottles a day yet it took me a year to build a boat. I kept telling him custom boats are not manufactured." The inevitable break came in 1991 when LaCombe went out on his own, taking most of Monterey's carpenters with him. From the Glass Machine to the Gina Lisa he built 13 boats for Monterey and sud­denly he was on his own with no financial backer to help the company survive a tough recession and the luxury tax that already had claimed Egg Harbor. "I told my wife if we could make it through these times we'd be in good shape once the luxury tax lifted."