June 21, 2024

Marline Travel Sea

Fly to a New World, Set Foot on Every Adventure

Jimmy Buffett’s Maritime Dream and Legacy

11 min read
A sport-fishing catamaran cruising across the open water.
Jimmy Buffett truly enjoyed his Freeman catamarans and wanted to work with Merritt’s on a larger custom build.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

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I suppose there are varying degrees of loving boats. Certainly, growing up near the water or having a heritage of seafaring people in your background doesn’t always guarantee that love, but in many cases, it is the rich stock for the gumbo of a water-loving life. And when that passion strikes, it can be so deeply ingrained that it is indeed the greatest ingredient of a truly full life. To say Jimmy Buffett was a lover of boats cannot be taken lightly.

Buffett’s longtime fishing buddy, the accomplished author and angler Carl Hiaasen, once put it into perspective, saying: “When Jimmy wasn’t on stage, he was on the water, or heading full speed to the water. He paid as much attention to the details of his boats as he did to his songs. Every line had to be just right.” Sadly, after battling skin cancer for four years, Buffett died on September 1, 2023, at the age of 76 of Merkel cell carcinoma.

Jimmy Buffett giving a thumbs up at the helm.
When Jimmy wasn’t on stage, he was on the water, or heading full speed to the water. He paid as much attention to the details of his boats as he did to his songs. Every line had to be just right.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

A Life on the Water

Buffett was infected with a love of the sea and boats of all manner—so much so, he wanted to always live by the sea. He spent the majority of his time away from his musical pursuits on the water, sailing, surfing, fishing or just messing about on his boats.

In a recent conversation I had with his sister Lucy Buffett, she spoke so glowingly of their childhood and the threads of growing up on the Gulf Coast that were woven into her late brother’s love of boats and the sea that made up a great portion of the fabric of his life.

Buffett’s grandfather from Nova Scotia famously jumped out of a window of the family home at 13 years old to become a runaway going to sea. He became a cabin boy on a sailing ship, and the stories of his time at sea surely put dreams of travel and adventure into his grandson’s head. The sea calls many with its charms. Lucy recalls, “Our grandfather never returned home full time until he was in his 70s. Our parents both worked in the Mobile, Alabama, shipyards, building big ships. This, along with the constant dream for us kids of having a house on the water that my parents couldn’t afford, were the seeds of life around the water that were planted in us.”

As Lucy recounts, “The boating mythology has been in our family since we can remember, because we spent a lot of time on the Mississippi coast at our grandparent’s home. It was always a big deal whenever our merchant mariner grandfather Capt. Buffett came home, because he would have been gone for months and months at a time. He always returned with stories of where he had been, from all over the world. That’s the story of the song ‘The Captain and the Kid,’ and all of that was true.”

A black and white image of Jimmy Buffett and Roy Merritt standing in a warehouse.
Roy Merritt and Buffett developed an enduring friendship over the years, thanks to a mutual respect.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

She continues, “As kids, our parents would rent a home for our vacations on Mobile Bay or at the beach, and Daddy and Jimmy would rent motorboats. Then our parents had some friends, the Kennedy engine family of Biloxi, who had a 100-foot wooden motor-yacht called Mariner II. They would go on extended trips on the boat to Tampa and the islands off the Mississippi coast. One year, Jimmy and their oldest son got to go on one summer trip as bait boys. That was the first time Jimmy was introduced to that type of leisure boating. They also had a seaplane in the 1960s, and those experiences were something Jimmy always talked about, saying, ‘Someday I’ll have one of those.’ So I think these things, along with the culture of the Gulf Coast to work hard and play hard on the water, had a huge impact on Jimmy. The first house he ever bought was for [his wife] Jane, and the second house was for my mom and dad, and it was on the water. It was their dream as well, working at the shipyard to have a house overlooking the bay. Jimmy also bought Daddy his first boat, a 17-foot Mako center-console.”

Lucy recalls, “Jimmy was always going to have some sort of boat. In Key West [Florida] in the mid- to late ’70s, it was the fascination of sailing and that romantic notion that led him to buy a little skiff with the first money he made. He then bought his first sailboat that he named Euphoria II, so that curiosity led to always having this bond with boats and being around the water. For him, there was no better place. He always had that forward-looking ability—‘What’s on the horizon?’—and he had to go do it.”

Jimmy’s Sport-Fishers

Many years and many more boats later, in 2006, Buffett owned a 42-foot Rybovich called Last Mango that he began to bring to the boatyard at Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works in Pompano Beach, Florida, for annual service and maintenance. This was the start of his long relationship with not only the yard but the Merritts as well. Over the years, there were several Buffett boats that frequently visited the yard, including the Rybovich, a 33-foot Freeman catamaran, a 42-foot Freeman cat project boat and even a sailboat—the only one to come into the yard—along with a host of support boats, including a Hell’s Bay skiff and an Albury Brothers center-console, among many others.

Black and white image of Jimmy Buffett laying next to a large bluefin tuna to show off its massive size, which length is more than Buffett's height.
Buffett with a bluefin landed off New York.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

While still enjoying his 33-foot Freeman pilothouse boat, Buffett contracted Freeman to build a complete 42-foot hull without a console installed. If you have been anywhere near the water with an interest in boats and access to the internet, you certainly would have seen that vision of Buffett’s that came to life as a 42 Freeman with a walkaround cabin that was built and installed by Merritt’s.

As the 42’s hull and deck were being built, Buffett, along with his longtime captain, Vinnie Lasorsa, and Roy Merritt, went to work on what Buffett wanted in this next boat. Having years of experience with a vast assortment of vessels—both power and sail—Buffett had a unique vision for what would suit his needs best for his use at that time. This boat brainstorming and planning was nothing new.

Jimbo Meador, the legendary Alabama waterman and lifelong Buffett family friend and companion, told me: “Jimmy was a brilliant guy when it came to any kind of boat, electronics, navigation; he always had some kind of new idea as far as everything on the water. Whether it was fishing or designing those concepts into the boats, he was always improving what he had.”

Close up detail of a sport-fishing catamaran's hull.
The Freeman catamaran proved to be a very versatile fishing platform.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

The Freeman Project

Utilizing the boatbuilding and styling expertise at Merritt’s and the team of carpenters, glass crew, painters and mechanics, the house was built and integrated into the Freeman hull with direction and hands-on input from Buffett, Lasorsa and Roy Merritt.

Building a full-scale wood mock-up on the shop floor gave Buffett a real gauge of scale and space to make the most out of everything they could do, even down to reclining on the bunks to be sure he would be comfortable on his “camping out” fishing trips. Console layout was carefully executed to fit a host of the latest Garmin electronics and vessel-control systems. The cabin was designed for maximum storage and ample seating, and included a dinette area so Buffett, the always busy taskmaster, could work on his laptop and have a place to dine while on board. All of this was accomplished while still honoring the walk-around layout and 360-degree fishability of the boat.

The Merritt house was married to the hull and deck, allowing for electrical, plumbing and other finish work to happen, including the faux teak-painted cabin walls and ceiling beams as well as tower install, blending old-world classic boat feels with advanced composite construction and design. Freeman pulled the hull from the mold in January 2019, and the boat left Merritt’s yard just seven months later, in July—quite a task in a tight time frame, but it showed the commitment and vision by all parties to get it done.
In 2009, before the boatbuilding process had even begun, Lasorsa had an idea to give back and help US military veterans. Buffett, ever the idea man, promoter and philanthropist, encouraged Lasorsa to start Freedom Fighter Outdoors. With Buffett’s endorsement and urging, they began hosting events to take injured veterans fishing in Florida and on Long Island, New York. Building Freedom Fighter Outdoors to four and five events a year has impacted the lives of those veterans who participate beyond measure. This is all done in the spirit of giving back—a testament to the spirit and heart of both men.

As is often the case, the boating disease for real boat lovers kicks in after a while, and the desire for a larger vessel or more improvements and upgrades for the current model comes along. The boat enthusiast in all of us keeps thinking and dreaming of the next thing, and soon, the bug to build a dream and create the desired platform triggers the need to build the project.

And that was the case with Buffett. He was so pleased with the Freeman catamaran with the Merritt house, he had Lasorsa set up a meeting with Merritt once again. As those meetings typically go, Buffett—who loves a unique project—pleaded his case of needing a bit more comfort, a stand-up head and shower, a stateroom with a proper berth for overnighting and a larger salon, because it comes with a bigger boat that can also handle a bit more weather.

He wanted to stay with the catamaran hull platform with Mercury outboards. He was also looking to leave a legacy in the marine industry, in which he’d been a vibrant participant for the greater part of his life. The problem: he was working with Roy Merritt, who himself has made a great success of his family business building top-of-the-line world-traveling sport-fishermen for titans of industry and a host of discerning clients. What Buffett wants is not what Merritt builds, or even wants to build. However, as Buffett recognized, these two guys have something in common besides their friendship and a true love of boats. They are both guys that have achieved great things in their respective industries. They have both kept pace with their audiences and figured out what they want and what they need.

Buffett, with Lasorsa in tow, put on his best sales pitch, and with a bit of arm twisting, he cajoled the reluctant Merritt to begin the special project. But not just to build a boat. Buffett the philanthropist and marketer envisions a situation where they start up a company that would build the boats and give back to the industry by having a technical school for training young folks in the marine trades of welding, carpentry, painting, electrical and the like, and perhaps help troubled kids with few other prospects. Buffett saw improving lives as a large part of the mission, and this is the thoughtful, ambitious, caring Buffett at his best. The dropback works, and he hooks Merritt as solidly as a perfectly pitch-baited blue marlin. All of this was done in the best of old-school partnerships with a firm handshake—no lawyers, no multipage contracts, just two friends doing business.

A 56 foot catamaran hull being worked in a warehouse.
Although he was reluctant at first, Merritt became an enthusiastic supporter of the 56-foot catamaran project in large part because of its connections to the growth and future of boatbuilding.
Courtesy Last Mango Boatworks

The Boat

With the idea hatched and the basic parameters laid out, Merritt began just as he does with any new build. Having never done a catamaran hull, he enlisted the services of Michael Peters Yacht Design to create the running surface while he and his in-house team designed the layout and practical operating functions of the boat.

In order to satisfy the criteria for Buffett and have a fully functional rig with sufficient fuel capacity, a generator, a watermaker, ice makers, livewells and a host of other components that fit and can be serviced in place, all while getting the look of a finely styled classic boat, the length grew to 56 feet with a 17-foot beam.

There were a host of other considerations that were addressed during the development, such as the width of the walkaround, deck height off the water, tunnel height, major component placement in each hull, bow layout and seating, anchor locker and windlass configuration, flybridge layout, and a host of manufacturing and assembly issues that needed to be ironed out. Designed to be powered with quad 600-horsepower Mercury outboards for speed and reliability, the boat is certainly unique and fills a niche in the industry that has been missed to date. For Buffett, the inherent fishability of the walk-around layout, with a massive ­cockpit, combined with its length and beam, will make it a player on the blue water anywhere it goes. The big cat’s interior comforts, including a full-size stateroom, a large head with a shower, a spacious salon with a galley, an interior helm, a settee, a bar and a large flat-screen television, make it an ideal weekender and commuter. Topped with a spacious, beautiful flybridge, the Buffett-inspired 56 Merritt catamaran is as much a trendsetter as it is a practical fishing tool.

Read Next: Meet Roy Merritt in our exclusive interview with the legendary custom boatbuilder.

With this boat, Jimmy Buffett the visionary set the table for his marine legacy, while his trust and confidence in Merritt to build a quality boat are a testament to Merritt’s legacy and track record. With the great sadness of his passing, Jimmy Buffett’s dream will be realized, as the boat is being built as he envisioned it and wanted for his personal use, knowing that others would also see the many benefits of such a boat.

The treasured American writer Thomas McGuane spent a considerable amount of time with Buffett throughout his life as ­collaborator, friend and brother-in-law. Perhaps starting in the early ’70s ­fly-fishing for tarpon in Key West, they have logged many hours in various boats of all manner in many places far and wide. I’d say he put it best when it comes to Buffett and his love of boats and the sea when McGuane said: “I think Jimmy loved every boat that was ever born. As his knowledge of boats expanded through a lifetime of thinking about them, building and acquiring them, a day inevitably came when a boat project outlived him. Rest in peace, sailor.”

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