In 2003 the billfish tournament scene was experiencing record participation and massive prize payouts. And yet for some reason Virginia Beach continued to be overlooked. Local car dealer, tournament sponsor and Bluewater customer Charles Barker found it frustrating, “I remember twelve years ago commenting about successful tournaments on both sides of Rudee Inlet, Pirates Cove just to the south and Ocean City to the north. The question to many of us was ‘why not Rudee Inlet?’”
As marine industry veterans, both Earle Hall and Jud Black of Bluewater heard it all. “Tournaments are an integral part of our business, being able to demonstrate our brands’ prowess on the circuit goes a long way to not just make a sale, but build the camaraderie we all enjoy out here.
We had many conversations with our customers and fellow marine sponsors about a local tournament. It just made sense,” recalls Earle. Local Wayne Sawyer was one such customer and he knew it could be done, “There was precedent in the successes of previous tournaments. It’s just crazy that when the bite is going off out of VB we’re off fishing a tournament elsewhere. We missed our friends coming here, to fish with us.”
Earle Hall also discussed the idea with friend and Newport News businessman Jimmy Bayne who also ran offshore trips aboard his Paul Mann built Sniper. With hours on the water with both the Oregon Inlet and Rudee fleets, Bayne had a finger on the pulse of both and the best sense of how much enthusiasm they would have for a new Rudee event. His reaction was positive that with the right timing it could be a success, and so the conversation shifted from “why not?” to “why don’t we?”
In late September the five sat down with Bluewater’s new marketing director Deirdre Bell and hammered out their ideas. There were challenges, but also strong common goals: A desire to revitalize the Virginia fishing scene, raise money for worthy charities and pay out 100% of the entry fees.
Although there was much to put in place, on that day the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament was born. “One of the advantages the VBBT had was that every single one of the board members believed in the VBBT enough to step up and pledge to fund it personally,” states Jud, “and we have every year to this day—that shows commitment.”
The group traded the Virginia Ducks Unlimited Chapter their August dates for a winter Rockfish tournament in Hampton. Charlie and Earle recruited two additional Board Members to join them, local restaurateur Mike Atkinson to help craft the food and social side of the show and Bluewater client and developer Bob Stanton for his local connections and experience with the city. Charlie sold the presenting sponsorship to Toyota, and Viking and Regulator told Earle and Jud they wanted to get onboard right away.
Deirdre and Wayne already had an idea for the role of tournament director and rattled off the qualifications of local dock master Paula Owen. The new board of directors agreed she seemed like a good fit, but would she think so? “I had to do a lot of fast talking to get her to agree to an interview,” recalls Deirdre. “I had to promise that I‘d help and be there every step of the way—kept my promise, too,” she grins. Paula presented a confident and smiling face to the crew who arrived at Big Sam’s Raw Bar to conduct the interview. “It was tough,” recalls Paula. “I was already sold on the idea and wanted to be a part of doing it right, but I still had to convince them,” she laughs.
And she did. On April 4, 2004 the press release went out to give credence to the buzz already on the docks. It had not been kept a secret, but a lot of planning needed time to be put into action. Sponsors stepped up and pitched in, most of whom are still believers to this day. Wayne and Cheryl McLeskey donated the beautiful site perched on Rudee Inlet where each year the sight of the tent going up sparks excitement in every boat that pulls in. Jimmy Bayne knows the feeling well, “A lot of folks wanted this to happen and wanted to be a part of it. The truth is there are a lot of them who won’t get nearly the credit they deserve. Every boat captain who talked us up on the radio here or in Mexico, every volunteer who gave their time and all the friends who gave a word of advice—all of them deserve credit for getting us here. On behalf of the board, I’d just like to say thanks.”
Over the years the tournament has grown and had gains. Local CPA and businessman Dennis Deans joined the Board as Treasurer as did banker and financial guru Jeff Dykeman. There have been losses that the VBBT memorialized in honor including the Joel Webb “Tribute to Excellence” Top Mate Award and the F. Wayne McLeskey Memorial “Top Boat” Award. Both men contributed greatly and are sorely missed.
From the very beginning, the VBBT was built from a place of gratitude. From the generous bounty of the fishery just offshore, the companies and people eager to pitch in and lend a hand and the chance to do good for some very worthy charities, the people who gave of themselves did it for all the right reasons and were grateful to do so. In 11 years the young VBBT has donated $610,000 to charity, and that is a legacy all are grateful to be part of—especially everyone at Bluewater Yacht Sales.