Search Gulf Coast Fisherman's
with a Legend
the Bertram 31
by Capt. Mike Holmes
There have been so many advances in offshore fishing boats over the past 30 years that it would seem grossly unfair to compare today's super-specialized sportsfishermen with those craft who pioneered the genre. New hull materials and designs, vastly improved power plants, addition of "built-in' fishing equipment like in-deck fishboxes and live wells, bait prep stations, wash-downs, and cabinets for all the new electronics have pushed the envelope of fishing technology to the limits. The older sedans, raised bridge cruisers, and boxy flybridge boats designed for generic boating just don't measure up.
As with most things in life, however, there are exceptions.
Wander through any marina in any offshore sportfishing port in the world, from Kona to Bimini, and one boat will likely be more in evidence than any other - the amazing 31 Bertram. With lines both unchanged since 1960 and unmatched by any boat since, low profile, wide beam, huge cockpit, and strictly business-like appearance, the "mother-of-all-deep-vees" is still a dominant force in offshore sportfishing. A profile of American industry stressing the results of quality, innovation, intelligence in design, - and pure class in a production commodity would do well to use "the 31" as a prime example.
I would be surprised to find a serious offshore fisherman anywhere who was not familiar with the 31 Bertram, or a charter captain who hasn't had experience with one at some time in his career. Most "boat people" are also aware of the rich history behind this craft. The story of how Dick Bertram had C. Raymond Hunt design the first wooden-hulled, "Moppie", for his personal use after watching a Hunt designed deep-vee yacht tender perform during the Americas Cup Races, then ran it in the 1960 Miami to Nassau offshore race with famed boaters Carlton Mitchell and Sam Griffith as crew is a part of boating lore.
For those who don't know, however, the first wooden-hulled 31 shattered the race record, finishing many hours ahead of the second place boat, a 24 foot deep-vee powered by a prototype stern-drive
and driven by boating genius Jim Wynne - which was itself hours ahead of the rest of the field. Even more impressive, this first Bertram ran in very rough seas, yet easily bested the previous record for smooth water in this contest.
The next year a fiberglass version of Moppie considerably bettered Bertram's own record, - and prompted him to go into production with the boat. The speed and sea-keeping ability of the 31 drew tremendous attention from a clientele ranging from charter fishermen to the Aga Khan. Although Bertram sold the company early on to remain in the yacht brokerage business, this was the boat that built the company that still bears his name, and began a legend in the world of power boating.
Like many serious boat nuts, I've always thought the 31 to be one of the best looking craft ever built, - and I had longed for years to be able to run one, to experience first hand all the things I'd read and heard about for so long. My dream was realized years ago when my friend Mike Cryer asked me to captain on his newly purchased MYOTT, a rather unique version of an already unique boat. The 31 was built in several versions, flybridge cruiser with cabin bulkhead, flybridge sportfisherman with an open cabin layout, the wide-open Bahia Mar with only a windshield and cuddy, a very rare express or sedan type configuration, and the hardtop model with a small cabin containing a minimal galley, vee-berth and stand-up head.
A year of running this boat on dive and fishing charters allowed me to develop my own opinions of the 31, discussing the boat with charter skippers and boat yard owners helped reinforce some of them, and added insight in other areas.
Any discussion of the 31 has to center around that remarkable hull. The original deep vee offshore design, the 31 has 23 degrees of deadrise at the stern, tapering quickly to 25 degrees in the bow. The running strakes and chine "spray rail" have be come industry standards on boats of this type, but few other vessels have been built to the same level of strength. The 31 was laid up in a two piece mold, then the two halves glassed together. There are two "stringers" running the length of the hull on either side of the centerline fuel tank - otherwise the hull supports the deck - and itself - on its own. In the entire history of the boat - and we're looking at over 36 years of hard use in the world's toughest ocean situations - there has never been a hull failure.
A surveyor told us of doing a damage appraisal last year on a 31 caught between a concrete bulkhead and a jack-up rig and pounded all night. The pressure on the hull was enough to pop the deck 2 inches above its normal position, but there were no stress cracks or structural damage. A Freeport skipper came off plane in his 31 just on top of the barely submerged rocks of the jetty expansion a few years ago, peeling one running strake completely off the boat from bow to stern. The hull itself was not cracked or punctured - the only place it took on water was where the rudder posts were jammed into the boat.
Although seldom mentioned in print, even those who love the 31 Bertram admit that there are two quirks inherent to the hull that we could well live without. The first is that the 31 has a reputation as a "wet" boat. This may partly be attributed to the fact that operators of 31's tend to run hard in rough seas that might turn others away, but it is also due to the deep vee and wide beam, and even more so to the low profile and weight of the hull.
The 31 tends to make its own path by shouldering through a sea, and it will kick up some spray. The other problem with the 31 is that Bertram saw fit to equip the boat with tiny little racing style rudders. Combined with the keel-like effect of the deep vee, this makes steering with the rudders less than responsive. In tight docking maneuvers, turns are best accomplished using gears and throttles.
On one engine, the boat steers in a circle, away from the side with power. Turning the steering wheel has very little effect. After being in this situation a few times, more experienced skippers told me that it is possible to drag a bucket or sea anchor and at least force the boat to run straight. A more permanent solution is to replace the stock rudders with oversized units.
Most 31's are powered with big block gas engines. 454's will push a clean hull to top speeds approaching or exceeding 40 mph, but do burn considerable fuel - it takes a lot of power to break that deep vee loose. Factory diesel options ran from 453 Detroits to 504 Cummins and 3208 Cats.
The big Cats push the boat to speeds comparable with gas engines, but are very heavy for such a low profile hull. There are at least five 31's in Freeport, Texas, repowered with 6BT250 Cummins engines, a relatively light inline 6 cylinder diesel rated at 250 hp. An owner of one such boat told me he runs 29 knots at 2200 RPM (the engine max is 2800), while getting 1.3 mpg.
Bertram no longer produces the 31, which might be because all of the old ones are still in service, but her influence can be seen in everything from the modern offshore racing hulls to the topside lines of the 32 Blackfin. Many of Blackfin's hulls are very similar to the 31, possibly due to the fact that founder Carl Herdon worked for Bertram in the early days. Herdon also bought Bertram two years ago, before briefly reselling, and rumors are that he may have kept the molds to the 31 for possible rebirth in the Blackfin line.
Looking down off the bridge and watching the bow split the waves in a good sea I can identify with Dick Bertram, and all the hundreds of charter skippers who made their reputations on this boat. Being aboard is to relive a part of boating history, like driving an early Corvette or Shelby Cobra around a twisting course.
Good old boats - especially those built heavily of fiberglass - never die, they just keep fishin'. The 31 Bertram has the distinction of being a legend in its time, and its time is far, far from over.