By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003
LARGO -- Wayne Johnston knew what he wanted in a boat.
"I'm from a fishing family, and we know what works," said the president of Pinellas County-based Sabalo boats. "My boats are all about function."
The shape of a hull is what determines how a boat rides in rough water. Johnston, who spent 30 years working in his family's jewelry business before becoming a boat builder, said the inconsistent seas of the Gulf of Mexico present a unique problem to boat designers.
"I looked around and found a hull that would work in these conditions," said Johnston, 51. "This boat was originally designed for the Chesapeake Bay, which has the same short, sharp waves that we have here."
The boat that so impressed Johnston was designed and built by the late Clark Mills, who is best known for another one of his creations, the Optimist Pram, a sailing dinghy that thousands of children race worldwide to this day. Though he achieved fame designing sailboats, Clark designed and built only one powerboat, the 26-footer that Johnston patterned his boats after.
Johnston purchased the boat from Clark and fished for kingfish and tarpon out of it before selling it to Dave Mistretta, a well-known Indian Rocks Beach charter boat captain.
"I went back to Clark and asked him if I could buy the plans so I could start to build some more boats," Johnston said. "But there was just one problem -- he didn't have the plans."
Mills, as it turns out, designed the boat on the back of a bathroom door, which he had since painted.
"So I had no choice but to buy the boat back from Dave so I could make a plug," Johnston said.
Johnston built another 26-foot offshore boat, complete with a pilot house and a 9-foot-7 beam, then had to come up with a name.
The choice was easy: Sabalo, which is Spanish for tarpon.
The Johnstons -- Wayne and brother Doug -- had been regular anglers in the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup since they were boys.
"I couldn't believe the name was available," Johnston said. "I couldn't help but wonder why the folks at Robalo picked "snook' when tarpon was available."
The 26-footer, built to house a Cummins B 260 Diesel engine, soon proved to be a favorite with commercial fishermen and charter boat captains. Based on the success of the 26, Johnston decided to build a bigger model, the 32.
Sabalo's second effort soon became the standard for high-quality workhorse fishing boats on the west coast of Florida.
"These aren't boats for taking the family on a cruise," Johnston said. "These are fishing boats, built for function."
Stop by Salt Rock Grill on Indian Shores, one of Pinellas County's top seafood restaurants, late in the afternoon and you'll see several Sabalo 32s tied up at the dock unloading their catches.
"You can't beat 'em," said Salt Rock owner Frank Chivas. "They are just all-around great fishing boats."
Johnston took a stab at the inshore market and built the 16-foot Shadow Flats Skiff. He then followed up with a 22-foot inshore/offshore boat that he hopes will be his biggest seller.
"The key to this boat is the compound entry," Johnston said. "The hull is cupped out, which pushes the water away. This makes for a softer, drier ride."
The 22-foot center console has a 7-foot-6 beam, 8-inch draft and can handle up to 150 horse power.
"They operate very economically and, as a result, make a good dive boat, charter boat, ferry," he said. "A charter tip can operate for $60 a day in fuel instead of $200, so the charter captain is making money instead of the oil companies."
The Sabalo 22 can run offshore to fish for king mackerel or stay inside and hunt redfish, trout or snook.
"You can pole it in 7 inches of water and run in 12," Johnston said. "The transom is wide enough so you can stand on it and don't need a poling platform."
One of the most popular features on the new 22 is that it is cast-net friendly.
"You can literally stand inside the boat and throw a cast net without climbing over the bow," Johnston said.
The Sabalo 22 lists for $11,700 without power or a trailer. Rigged and ready to go fishing, it costs more in the neighborhood of $25,000.
The 32-foot Fish-Dive-Charter boat, in comparison, has a base boat price of $80,423. The price varies, depending on the power package.
"All I ever wanted to do was build the ultimate fishing machine," Johnston said. "And I think this is it."