The Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic was formed a decade ago as a way to highlight the outstanding offshore fishing for which the Panhandle is notably famous, and in 2012 the tournament celebrated its 10th anniversary. Not only has the event grown to one of the top billfish tournaments in the world, but this year they also welcomed a new tournament record.
Angler Travis Dorland, fishing aboard Done Deal, landed a blue marlin that tipped the scales at an impressive 783.6 pounds. The monster fish shattered the previous record of 714 pounds and would raise the bar that much higher for future anglers.
The following year would be a very important one in terms of the continued financial and psychological recovery. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t get the memo.
It’s important to note that million-dollar tournaments don’t just spring to life overnight; world-class events like these are closer to fine wines maturing gradually over time rather than the instant gratification of a slot-machine jackpot. The concept for the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic at Sandestin gathered steam through a collaboration between Galati Yacht Sales in Destin and the management of the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The tournament would serve as a vehicle to not only showcase the outstanding fishing in the region but also the luxury and amenities for which the Sandestin Resort is widely known. The ECBC would further serve as a fundraising event for local charities and The Billfish Foundation. The stage was now set.
The success of any big-money tournament lies in its ability to recruit participants. The higher the number of entries, the larger the purse for the winners. And the higher the prize money, the more attractive it becomes for additional teams to sign up the following year. In theory it sounds simple, but it’s a staggeringly difficult feat to achieve. By 2006, just three short years after its inception, the ECBC was rolling. Shawna Meisner Harris had taken over the responsibilities as tournament director, bringing leadership to the event’s staff as participation levels reached record numbers. That year, 77 boats and 391 anglers showed up to compete. The corresponding optional jackpot levels reflected this contagious enthusiasm as the prize money topped the $1 million mark and another page in sport fishing history was written. The Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic at Sandestin joined that rarefied club of million-dollar billfish tournaments in just three years.
The eventual winner of the blue marlin division that year, Sean McClellan, won $371,000 for his accomplishment, an amount that matched the entire prize purse available during the very first ECBC in 2003. The next year saw an increase to 84 boats and a considerable sum, $1.3 million up for grabs. In 2008, thanks to input from the participating anglers, additional jackpot categories were added for Largest Blue Marlin, Top Release Team and Largest Game Fish. This dropkicked the cash awards to over $1.5 million even though the number of participating teams fell to 79. The million dollar years continued through 2009 where the total purse topped $1.29 million with 67 participating boats despite a tenuous economic situation. But no one could predict the disaster that would strike just a few months later.
On April 20, 2010, there was an explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil exploration rig, located 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana—right in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico’s prime billfishing grounds. A serious blow had been struck. The ensuing oil spill would be one of the most costly in the world, forcing the cancellation of the entire summer of offshore tournaments in the Gulf including the 2010 ECBC. Tourism throughout the Gulf Coast ceased to exist for over a year.
Due to the extreme depth of water, the well continued to spew crude oil until it was finally capped on July 15th but not before an estimated five million barrels of oil had been spilled. And it all happened right in the tournament’s backyard. What would be the effects of a spill of such a large magnitude? Would fishing ever be the same in the northern Gulf? While the answers regarding the long-term effects remain elusive, the short-term answer seems to be that an impressive rebound is taking place.
In 2011, a new presenting sponsor, Mojo Sportswear came aboard with the ECBC while other sponsors continued to show interest in the event. While participating teams are the lifeblood of any tournament, survival is impossible without sponsorship support. Once again, the total prize purse including optional jackpots crested the $1 million dollar mark, demonstrating the resolve of anglers in the region to get back to fishing. And the action also seemed to be on the mend. In 2011, Team Galati won the tournament on their release points from one blue marlin and five white marlin in two days. Things appeared to be back on track for the ECBC. The following year would be a very important one in terms of the continued financial and psychological recovery. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t get the memo.
Tournaments are typically scheduled up to a year in advance, and in the case of the ECBC arrangements are made to temporarily move the residents of Baytowne Marina during tournament week in order to make room for visiting vessels. An army of catering staffers, bartenders, additional dockhands and others are on standby during the days leading up to the tournament ready to jump into action, and it’s all at the whim of the weather. In the days leading up to the 10th anniversary ECBC event, 71 boats had expressed interest but a swirling blob of low pressure just north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which would later become Tropical Storm Debby, drastically reduced the fleet to just 38 teams. It was a disappointing setback but the staff plowed ahead. And in a perfect twist, the teams who chose to participate were rewarded with great fishing and two new tournament records.
The first fell to the hands of Travis Dorland, fishing aboard Done Deal. Dorland and his team knew that with the rough weather ahead they would have to make the most of any strikes, knowing that just one missed bite could mean the difference between winning and losing. With Captain Jason Buck at the helm of the 56 foot Viking, the team was able to make the most of a smashing strike on Saturday that proved to be a massive blue marlin. Subduing the big blue in those conditions was a true test of team and machine but Dorland, Buck, and the rest of the crew were successful in their efforts. Back at the weigh-in station Saturday evening, the stout blue weighed 783.6 pounds, eclipsing the existing record of 714.7 pounds set in 2009 by Jasper Time. Done Deal also landed the tournament’s 1st Place dolphin, 3rd Place yellowfin tuna, in addition to releasing two white marlin to officially seal the deal. They ended up taking home $261,540!
The tournament’s long-standing yellowfin tuna mark was also broken, this one by Jake Breaux aboard Testing The Water. The Louisiana-based angler boated a huge yellowfin, which weighed 190.1 pounds, worth nearly $20,000 in prize money despite the shortened fleet of participating teams. In the release division, Captain Jeremy Miles and Inlet Magic emerged victorious with one blue and one white marlin released, finishing just ahead of the 2nd Place team based on time. They would have their names permanently engraved on the magnificent blue perpetual trophy that’s on year-round display at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
It’s also important to remember that the ECBC was founded to support charitable organizations as well as conservation efforts, and the 2012 event continued the tradition of philanthropy. The Billfish Foundation received a contribution from the event to continue their efforts in conservation, education and outreach around the world. Locally, The Harvest House received support from the tournament.
While the past decade has seen many changes, the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic at Sandestin has managed to weather the challenges and change with the times. It should be interesting to see what the next ten years will bring. Visit fishecbc.com for complete results and information on how to participate in next year’s event.