The improbable tale of how a crew with a crippled boat and a late start came back to win this year’s Blue Marlin Grand Championship sportfishing tournament.
Earlier this year, Netflix released a movie titled Blue Miracle, based on an improbable win at one of the world’s largest and richest fishing tournaments. The film stars Dennis Quaid as a crusty, washed-up captain reviled by his peers. His boat is even crustier than he is, and his crew consists of a group of young orphans who’ve never fished a day in their lives. The kids desperately need to win the tournament prize money so they can keep the bank from foreclosing on the man who operates the only place they have to live.
It’s easy to imagine the screenwriter having his script for the movie rejected because the plot was just too farfetched. Except that it wasn’t. Blue Miracle is based on a true story. But how would that same writer have fared if he’d pitched another fishing film based around another famous tournament? Instead of Mexico, though, this story takes place in the Gulf of Mexico. And the captain is a clean-cut, well-respected young man with an infectiously positive attitude.
In this story, the boat is custom-made and gorgeous. Well-known in both U.S. waters and throughout the Caribbean, it is fitted with the latest in fishing technology and all of the creature comforts for the crew of longtime friends. The owner of the boat’s greatest joy is seeing someone catch their first blue marlin on his boat. You can almost imagine the impatient eye rolls from would-be movie producers because the story has no struggle. There’s no suspense. There are no underdog orphans to root for.
But what if the script took a surprise turn? The boat breaks down, and the team has to return to port while the other teams are all out searching for the winning fish. What if the crew was to borrow a boat to get them back in the game but they still miss the entire first day of fishing? What if they somehow manage to chug all night long to an oil rig about 125 miles offshore and, against all odds, win the tournament?
The opening scene takes place 30 minutes after the 58 teams in the 2021 Blue Marlin Grand Championship have departed the Wharf in Orange Beach, Alabama, on their quest for the trophy. All but one of the boats are headed to their first spot in hopes of winning what’s been called “The Greatest Show in Sportfishing.”
That one boat is Skin Deep, a 63-foot Ricky Scarborough creation that has suffered a major mechanical failure. “It felt like we hit something,” said the captain, Kyle Smith. “In that situation, you hope for the best but immediately start mentally preparing for the worst.” Kyle’s biggest fear was that the boat would start taking on water. “Once we assessed that the damage was to the prop, we knew we were safe,” he said, “but we would have to return to Orange Beach and replace the prop with our spare.”
That effort would require hauling the sportfishing yacht out of the water at a local boatyard. Once Skin Deep was hoisted, it was clear there was more damage than just a simple prop swap could fix,” said boat owner Chris Haley. “We started calling friends and industry contacts trying to find out if there was another boat we could borrow and somehow still fish in the tournament.”
A friend of the crew, Joe Jernigan, owns a local charter boat called Feeling Nauti and offered it to Team Skin Deep for the weekend. “Joe was nice enough to let us use his boat,” said Chris. “We left just before dark and ran all night.”
Two of the mates, Ritchie Prince Jr. and Michael Pittman, deployed a trolling spread of lures as the sun poked just above the water on the eastern horizon. “Even with all of the challenges we’d faced, we still felt confident,” said Kyle. “There may have even been a hint of, when we catch the winning fish, it’s going to make for one helluva story.” Within 45 minutes, they got the bite they needed.
After a few hours with angler Patrick Haley in the fighting chair, the team boated a 9-foot-long blue marlin. On their ride back to Orange Beach, reports were circulating that three other blue marlin has been caught.
When the tournament scales opened on Friday night, Team Skin Deep was the first to weigh in their fish. The digital readout said 575.2 pounds. An impressive catch for sure, but would it hold up in a tournament where the winning fish routinely weighs 700 or even 800 pounds? As they stood and watched as the other fish were weighed in, the Team Skin Deep members became as nervous as they were while they were out there fighting the big fish. A 534.4-pound fish was next. Then one weighing 516.40 pounds. Then came the last fish of the night. It looked like a clone of the one caught by Team Skin Deep. The emcee waited for the official signal from the weighmaster and called out, “572.20 pounds!” Team Skin Deep was still in the lead for now, but by only 3 pounds. Their impending victory would have been ruined if the fish caught by that last team had eaten just one more baitfish for breakfast!
There was still one more day of fishing remaining, and Team Skin Deep would be forced to watch as four more blue marlin tried to take over the top spot at the Saturday night weigh-ins. They were all big, but not big enough. There were fish weighing 563, 482, and 501 pounds. When the last fish was lifted up onto the scale, the number read 471 pounds. Team Skin Deep was the tournament champion, collecting a Happy Gilmore-size check for $356,625 of the $1,3900,000 in total prize money. “This is a surreal moment for sure,” said a champagne-drenched Chris as they celebrated becoming only the ninth team to ever win the tournament. “It’s a great fishing story that never gets told without the fishing community coming together to help us when we needed it most.”
If a script of this story ever gets sold and the movie gets made, expect to see that familiar “Based on a true story” text scroll across the screen.
Next year’s Blue Marlin Grand Championship tournament will be held July 13-17, 2022. Visit bluemarlingrandchampionship.com for details.