Fashion and ingenuity were the catalyst behind the sport-fishing feature many of us now take for granted. In the early 1970s, avid South Florida angler Jo-Jo Del Guercio was looking for something that would allow him to fish multiple trolling rods by himself on his own boat. So he and his skipper, Capt. Bill Staros, came up with an idea they took to Merritt’s Boat & Engine Works in Pompano Beach, where some tubes were welded in series on a cross-bar and mounted upright in place of the fighting chair. By the time Del Guercio took delivery of his new 43 Merritt, No Problem, in 1975, the contraption had a name.
“When the rods were mounted in the tubes, it looked just like a launcher for bottle rockets. So we started calling them rocket launchers,” Roy Merritt says with a chuckle.
That name stuck, but this important angling accessory has evolved greatly over the past 40-plus years. Versions today run the gamut from simple frame-and-tube designs to beautiful teak and polished-chrome arrangements in custom sport-fishermen. Rocket launchers aren’t relegated strictly to cockpit decks anymore either. Boats with towers often add welded rod holders up the tower legs to be used in combination with the outriggers, or to rack gaffs, tag sticks and other tools. These days, it’s rare to see center consoles with soft or hard T-tops without a multirod rocket launcher mounted to the aft framework. Seating, storage for tackle and other gear, plus integrated coolers and livewells have all significantly reshaped and expanded on the original concept.
“We have been in the marine metal-fabrication business since 1983,” says John Carroll, president of North Carolina’s Winterville Machine Works. The company manufactures rocket launchers, leaning-post frames, T-top frames and folding footrests for boatbuilders such as Grady-White, Parker, World Cat, Baja, Mako and SeaCraft. “Styles are constantly changing. Today clear, anodized, polished tulip rod holders with black inserts are the most popular. In the past, straight tubes and gold were the favorites. Leaning posts with integrated rocket launchers have become complex lately, often combining the pipe and a fiberglass housing.
“It’s an involved process to build these larger items,” Carroll adds. “It’s a collaborative effort between us and the builders. We’re invited to go through their Computer-Assisted Design models, look at the manufacturing feasibility and give our assessment. It works great that way. Together we’re able to come up with a great product that’s user friendly and accomplishes what it was designed for, at a good price.”
Birdsall Marine Design in West Palm Beach, Florida, is another major supplier of rocket launchers and leaning posts.
“Lean posts with rocket launchers started as a simple pipe frame and cushion,” says Rick Connery, Birdsall’s production manager, who has been with the company for 25 years. “But they have evolved to bolstered seats with integrated coolers, livewells, rod and drink holders, tackle centers, and storage for everything from kites to fire extinguishers. They are very elaborate pieces in some cases.”
Birdsall Marine Design builds OEM parts for Bahama Boat Works, Albury, SeaCraft and Mako, in addition to selling retail directly to the boating public. It has a large showroom at its West Palm Beach facility, as well as catalog and Internet sales. Dozens of base styles are available, along with custom options for specific needs.
“If someone can’t find the product that nails it, we can tweak an existing model or fabricate something completely new,” Connery explains. “We offer so many options that we start by asking the boat brand and size, and go from there. If the base model isn’t enough, we can a la carte with other features to meet their needs. It’s rare to see two of the same units go out of here in a six-month period.”
Prices for lean posts/rocket launchers range from hundreds of dollars up to $10,000 for complex models like
Birdsall’s Helm Master 55, which is designed for large wide-beam open boats like the Bahama Boat Works 41. CAD drawings, photo-realistic models, five-axis routers to cut plugs, and more materials add to the cost, Connery says. Customers can also drive up the price tag with powder coating, Kevlar-fiber, pearlescent finishes and multiple upholstery colors.
“People are really getting creative with custom touches,” he adds. “Colors, stripes and custom finishes add cost. But 75 percent of the upholstery is still smooth white. It’s easy to care for and not too expensive when it comes time to replace the material.”
Connery sees several trends emerging among customers who are retrofitting their boats with new rocket launchers and leaning posts. Additional storage is always a highly desired feature.
“Everybody wants as much storage as they can get,” he says. “So we try to use every square inch we can in our designs. It’s a lot easier to add storage compartments to fiberglass units than it is to the pipe-frame styles.”
Leaning posts with removable backrests are giving way to fixed backrests, Connery notes. He also says cushions with lumbar support are currently popular, along with wraparound bolster-style helm seating.
“Almost every one of our 40 and 50 Bait Master models go out with the wraparound bolsters now,” he adds. “People feel more secure in them, and that style lets you run comfortably in most any kind of sea.”
So if you’re shopping for a new boat, or getting ready to upgrade a preowned craft, first make a checklist of features that you’ll need in a lean post/rocket launcher for your favorite coastal fishing. But if you can’t find one that matches everything on the list, remember Jo-Jo’s motto: No problem. The custom route is always an option