Innovators in Boating - The Healey Brothers & Viking Yachts
The pleasure boat industry is chock full of the most interesting of people -- hard working, dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love.
These are their stories.
Robert T. (Bob) Healey Sr. graduated with a degree in political science, earned a law degree from Philadelphia University, and practiced law for 25 years before retiring as a senior partner at his own law firm in New Jersey.
At that point, in the mid-1950s, his brother Bill Healey joined him in a real estate development business.
Soon after, they purchased and improved the Bass River Marina in New Gretna, New Jersey.
In 1964, they bought Peterson-Viking Builders, a local respected but struggling builder of 37-foot wooden cruising and sportfishing boats. The brothers moved the company next door to a marina on the banks of the Bass River and changed the name to Viking Yachts.
They subsequently sold the marina to concentrate on boat building, with Bob gravitating towards the management and financial side of the business while Bill took over the physical boat building within the plant.
In 1967, Viking Yachts offered seven models, all made of wood, in 37, 38, and 44 feet in Express, Fly Bridge Sedan, Sport Fisherman, and Motor Yacht designs. All were inboard powered and only two were diesels. By 1968, the only Express model and only 37-footer, a holdover from the Peterson-Viking days, was gone. By 1970, Double Cabin designs had been added to appeal to family cruising as well as for extended fishing excursions.
In 1971, they adopted the relatively new technology of fiberglass construction and introduced their first composite model -- the Viking 33 Convertible. The 38-foot flybridge Sport Fisher and Double Cabin models were still being made of wood, as were the 42 and brand new 53-foot Motor Yachts. The Healey brothers made a point to participate in as many fishing tournaments as possible to learn how their boats were being used and what their customers wanted. They continued to do this throughout their careers.
The following year there were only three Viking models -- all of fiberglass construction. There was the 33 Convertible Sport Fisherman and Sport Sedan, plus the brand new 40 Convertible Sedan Fisherman in gasoline or diesel inboard power. This new Convertible is arguably the model that put Viking on the map and set the standard for future Viking designs. The market loved it.
This design featured high freeboard forward with considerable bow flare and a flush foredeck, all in aid of running in high offshore sea conditions. The noticeable step-deck design provided a large but safe cockpit with decent access to the water for landing the big ones. The “convertible” part of the model referred to the boat offering both great fishing features and entertaining accommodations with the salon, galley, and staterooms. Most convertible models would offer a bulkhead between the cockpit and salon and a flybridge control station for better fish spotting was a must.
The 33 was dropped within a couple of years and the model lineup stayed pretty much the same in 35, 40, and 43 feet through to 1981 when a 46-foot Convertible Sport Fisher was added. By 1983, the 40 Convertible had become a 41 and the 43 Double Cabin had become a 44. In that year, a 50-foot Cockpit Motor Yacht was a new addition to the fleet. In 1985, the 48 Convertible Sport Fisher brought the model lineup to six distinct models from 35 to 50 feet. 1988 saw the addition of a 55 Motor Yacht and a 57 Convertible Sport Fisher to the lineup.
It was around this time in the late 1980’s that Viking Yachts purchased the highly respected Gulfstar Yachts from which Viking added two 55-foot motor yacht models to its offering. By the early 1990’s, Viking was offering 12 models from 35 to 57 feet, all but two with diesel power. At this time, I had the pleasure of assisting in the water testing one of the new Viking Gulfstar Motor Yachts at the Miami International Boat Show. The experience of running a motor yacht that size and subjecting it to suitable test criteria was most memorable. The boat was phenomenal.
But the early 90's were terrible times, especially for large luxury boatbuilders in the US, as a recession coupled with the Federal Luxury Tax in 1991 put a virtual halt to large boat sales. As the Healey brothers invested their own savings to help keep the business going, they were forced to lay off 95% of their employees and reduce operations to only one remaining facility. Bob Healey gained notoriety by chartering buses to carry laid off boat workers to protest the Luxury Tax on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C.
The tax was a total failure in terms of federal government revenue, and it was devastating to the boating world. The tax was repealed in 1993 and Viking, since it had remained somewhat in business, was able to pick up where it left off. Incredibly, it would surge ahead over the next years to become the world’s largest manufacturer of sportfishing yachts. By the mid-90s, Viking offered 11 models from 38 to 60 feet of mostly Convertible yachts. Their new 60-foot Sport Yacht was awarded “Boat of the Year” by Boating Magazine.
In 1996, Bob and Bill Healey founded the non-profit Recreational Fishing Alliance to promote sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. This same year saw the formation of Viking Cruising Yachts to distribute British made Princess Yachts from 42 to 140 feet. These yachts were built to Viking's North American standards and amenity requirements and were distributed solely through the Viking dealer network in North and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
The late 1990’s saw the introduction of the 55 Convertible, designed to be “the ultimate mid-range luxury performance sportfisherman.” This was followed the next year with the legendary 65 Convertible which offered unrivaled speed, range, and comfort. It was capable of over 40 mph at full throttle from its optional 1800 horsepower diesel engines.
The turn of the new century saw Viking open a new service facility in Riviera Beach, Florida to cater to Viking owners who spent winters in southern climates. The Healey’s bought back the original Bass River Marina located right next to the Viking Yachts facility and renamed it the Viking Yachting Center. Then in 2003, Viking created Atlantic Marine Electronics (AME) based out of the Viking Yachting Center to create the sophisticated electronics and navigation packages for Viking Yachts and Sport Cruisers.
That same year and operating out of the Riviera Beach facility, Palm Beach Towers was created to design and fabricate the tuna towers and other parts needed for Viking boats, as well as for some additional builders. Bob and Bill Healey were also inducted into the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) Hall of Fame in 2003 for their contributions to the recreational marine industry.
2004 saw the introduction of Viking’s largest yacht to date -- the 74 Convertible. That was followed in 2005 with the 68 Convertible and the enclosed bridge 74. To keep up with demand, additional facilities were opened at New Gretna and Riviera Beach. New enclosed bridge models were created from most existing models in the lineup with new 52, 54, and 56 model variations being produced.
In 2008, Viking showcased its new series of models designed specifically for the Pacific West Coast market of California and Baja. Spring 2009 saw the introduction of Viking’s new flagship 82 Convertible as well as the new 46 and 57 Convertibles. Pod drives were first introduced in 2010 on the 42 Convertible, while 2011 saw solar roof panels added to the New Gretna facilities to supplement factory electricity requirements. The new setup allowed the company to reduce CO2 emissions by 3,000 tons.
When Viking celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2014 it introduced its new flagship 92 Convertible -- a design three years in the making and the largest sportfishing convertible yacht in the world to ever utilize resin-infused construction. Also new was Viking’s return to the motor yacht market with the head-turning 75 MY. 2016 saw Viking purchase the former Ocean Yachts facility as well as molds for Ocean’s 37 Billfish.
The following year, Viking introduced its new seven stateroom, three deck, enclosed bridge flagship 93 Motor Yacht, thus announcing that it was no longer simply a sportfishing boat company. In 2019, Viking shocked the industry again with the introduction of its subsidiary company Valhalla Boatworks along with its 33, 37, and 41 Center Consoles. Also introduced were the new 38 and 46 Billfish models.
Now in 2023, Viking offers 28 models -- nine Open Bridge convertible models from 44 to 90 feet, three Billfish models from 38 to 46 feet, three Open models from 44 to 54 feet, seven Enclosed Bridge models from 68 to 90 feet, and six Sport Yachts from 44 to 54 feet. In addition, Valhalla Boatworks offers four models of semi-custom high performance luxury center consoles from 37 to 55 feet.
If you were keeping track of the current Viking offerings as outlined above, the 90 Convertible in Open and Enclosed Bridge models are now the biggest in the lineup. What, you then may ask, happened to the 92 and the 93 Convertible and Motor Yacht models? The answer is that an international mandate to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions on boats exceeding a load-line length of 78-feet was put in place in 2017 with the deadline later extended to 2023. Since Viking decided there were no selective catalytic reduction systems available on the market at reasonable pricing, it elected to introduce a slightly smaller model in order to comply with the mandate. Thus, the slightly smaller 90 Convertible was born.
57 years after he and brother Bill co-founded Viking Yachts, Bob Healey passed away at the age of 92 in December, 2021. Bill Healey still visits the Viking facility whenever he can and still makes a point of shaking the hand of each employee at the end of each day, a practice he has maintained since day one. A second generation of Healeys now runs both Viking Yachts and the family real estate investments while a third generation, two of Bill’s grandsons, are actively involved and learning the ropes with Valhalla Boatworks.