Leonard Destin founded Destin, Florida, between 1845 and 1850. He was a fisherman, and for more than 100 years, the primary industry was commercial fishing. Recreational fishing became popular around 1950. Destin was the self-proclaimed “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” Things change.
When I moved to Destin in 1977, 90 percent of all boating activities involved fishing. If someone had spent all day on a boat, you could bet that they’d been fishing. Today, 90 percent of boating in Destin involves something entirely different.
Between jet skis, pontoon boats, porpoise watching boats, boats that drag people up in the air in parachute-things, pirate ships, go-fast boats—even contraptions that shoot you up in the air on a jet stream of water—most boating activity in Destin involves something that is definitely not fishing.
Destin is known for its white sand beaches. Anyone who doesn’t know that has been living under a rock. Or at least they’ve been living in an area that our Tourist Development Council has not been able to reach with its advertising.
But in many circles—and they aren’t small circles—Destin is known for something else.
There are two men in Destin who—more than anyone else—make this town special. They have been working for almost 50 years at the same job. One day at a time, one hull at a time, Buddy Gentry and Steve Sauer have been building boats.
Two quiet men have run the most impressive operation in Destin since 1973. They built boats for many years off of Benning Drive. The finished boats, on a makeshift trailer, would travel the short but perilous journey to the boat ramp on Joe’s Bayou for the splashdown. In 2000, they moved the operation to the waterfront in Freeport.
It started in 1973. Gentry was a charter boat fisherman. Sauer, a recent engineering graduate from LSU, talked him into building a boat. They learned to fiberglass, and since there wasn’t much to do in Destin in the winter, they built a boat. They worked on a 38-foot Infinity hull and then went on to build 15 of the classic 31-foot open boats.
There have been more world records set on G and S boats than on Bertram, Hatteras and Viking boats combined. They’ve built 52 boats over the years. There are currently G and S boats in the Bahamas, St. Thomas, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Gabon, Morocco (Casablanca), the Cape Verde Islands, Panama, and Costa Rica. Many of those boats have fished all over the world.
The French Look and the French Look II and the Madam and the Hooker (mother ship operations that carried G and S fish boats with them) are responsible for many of the line-class world records set on the boats. The French Look has 82 world records.
Their first big boat was the Mollie. It was built for Jim Waitsman and captained by Cecil Woodward. That boat was later renamed Big John, and it is owned and captained by Todd Allen. Mr. Waitsman built another Mollie. That version was captained by Jeff Shoults and is now named Papi. Mr. Waitsman built a third Mollie. It is also captained by Shoults—it wins tournaments every year—and it docks beside the Papi and the Hey Baby (an original 31-foot G and S) at Harbor Docks.
You don’t have to be an expert on boats to recognize the beauty of G and S creations. They have clean lines. They are not too extravagant. They are built to fish.
The boat being built now may be their last. It is a 52-foot boat originally commissioned by Stewart Campbell, a world-renowned fisherman who passed away a few years ago.
There are ports around the world, exotic places that few of us will ever visit, where people know about Destin. What they know about us has nothing to do with promotional advertising. They don’t know about all the tourist activities. They don’t care about being pulled about in a parachute-thing or taking a ride on a pirate ship.
What they know about us has been made possible by Buddy Gentry and Steve Sauer and the remarkable boats they have built. They know about us through the greatest fishermen in the world who fish those boats, many of whom have Destin roots.
Two men have worked for 44 years building boats. One day at a time. One boat after another. Those boats are something that should always make “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” proud.
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- Artist Joey McKenna Steps into Nature This Month at SoWal Library
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