A Closer Look at the Offshore World Championship’s Three Event Destinations Across Two Decades of Successful International Competition.
OWC Fishing teams aboard charter boats head out of the Marina Pez Vela in Quepos, Costa Rica
To celebrate 20 years of Offshore World Championship (OWC) tournaments, we took a dive into the history of this unique, prestigious fishing event. Did you know the OWC has been held in three different tournament locations over the past two decades? Each location is a marlin hot spot, with different fishing techniques necessary to successfully target local billfish.
“I originally came up with the idea to hold the OWC as a means to [attract] new members to the IGFA,” says Mike Leech, former president of the International Game Fish Association [IGFA]. “I had been involved in many tournaments over the years. I created several tournaments, observed in many and participated in many over the years. The idea that it could generate cash flow was secondary.”
Leech says it took some convincing for all the IGFA trustees to go along with the idea of the association sponsoring a world championship. However, the plan was approved in June 1997, with the first championship to be held in 2000. This gave the IGFA time to publicize and approve qualifying events around the world in 1999. The winning teams were invited to the first OWC in March 2000 in Kona, Hawaii.
“Although we had somewhere around 100 qualifying tourneys, only 38 teams actually participated the first year,” says Leech. “We only charged the qualifying tourneys $100 to be approved as part of the event, but the qualifying events were also supposed to make their participants members of the IGFA at a discount price. Eventually, this practice would generate close to 5,000 IGFA members each year.”
The original name Leech picked for the event was called the IGFA International Tournament of Champions, but the Champion Boat Company threatened to sue the IGFA for infringing on its Champion Tournament name. Rather than argue, the IGFA changed its name to the Rolex IGFA Offshore World Championship when Rolex joined as a major sponsor. All four members of the winning team received engraved Rolex watches. The event grew and became known simply as The Rolex, a name that’s still sometimes mentioned to this day.
“One of the goals of the IGFA in holding the event was to show the world that you did not need to offer cash prizes or to kill billfish to hold a successful competition,” says Leech. “In this, we succeeded. Ecuador soon copied our format to hold their first-ever total release billfish tourney. We were also one of the first tournaments to require circle hooks in an international event.”
In the following section, we spotlight Kona, Hawaii; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and Quepos, Costa Rica, along with key individuals who made the tournaments in each location successful. Kona was the first location ever to host an Offshore World Championship tourney, back in 2000. Soon, the event moved to bountiful Cabo San Lucas in 2002, where it stayed for more than a decade. Since 2013, the Olympic-style sport-fishing event has been hosted in beautiful Quepos, Costa Rica.
Team Allied Marine Sailfish Hoedown, consisting of Ronald R. McCall II, R. Scott Hurley, Tom Castlleman and Micheal Bozzuto, won the first-ever championship in Hawaii.
KONA, HAWAII: 2000-2001
The IGFA chose Kona, Hawaii, to hold its first championship for several reasons. Kona had plenty of excellent charter boats with experienced captains and reasonable charter fees. Target species included big blue marlin, plus black marlin, striped marlin and spearfish. Kona also has calm seas, a year-round fishing season, beautiful scenery and famed Hawaiian ambience. Given its location in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, the volcanic Hawaiian Islands serve as natural feeding outposts for many pelagic species, with blue marlin at the very top of the list. The depths plummet rapidly, so there’s no reason to make a long run. Trolling often begins as soon as the boats leave the harbor. Two large mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, offer a 40-mile-long swath of water that’s protected from the trade winds, meaning conditions are usually flat-calm all year.
Several IGFA world-record blue marlin have been landed in the surrounding waters, which are also home to the largest marlin ever caught on hook and line: an 1,805-pounder known as Choy’s Monster that was caught off the island of Oahu in 1970 by a charter party fishing with Capt. Cornelius Choy. In order to cover ground, nearly everyone pulls a spread of artificial lures, with some of the world’s most popular designs originating in Kona. Heavy tackle also rules the day, with most boats running their lures from 80s and 130s.
Sue Vermillion was picked as the first-ever tournament director. Vermillion still runs fishing events in Hawaii, including Huggo’s Wahine Tournament for the past 23 years, one of the largest women’s marlin tournaments in the world. The tournament draws an average of 75 teams.
“I was contacted and hired by Mike Leech in 1999 to be the tournament director for the OWC,” says Vermillion. “I wrote the rules, set up all of the tournament operations and assisted the IGFA in starting the inaugural event in Hawaii.”
Vermillion lived in Hawaii and had major experience running competitions, explains Leech. It was a wise decision to hire her, and Vermillion remained with the OWC every year Leech was in charge. Early on, Leech also hired Lynda Wilson, another valuable member of the team, to coordinate tournament operations at IGFA headquarters. Wilson remained with the OWC until 2018.
“I was the tournament director for the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, so folding in a new event went pretty well, as I was very familiar with running a large event,” says Vermillion. “The logistical challenges were making sure we had the best possible boats, captains and venues for all of the events, and making sure that the sponsors, teams and IGFA staff were committed to competing and running the most professional tournament possible.”
Everything was perfect in Hawaii except for one major component: The marlin were massive, but there weren’t enough fish for teams to target. Some teams came from the other side of the world and ended up fishing four days without a catch. Totals from day one of the first-ever championship included eight striped marlin, five short-nosed spearfish and four Pacific blue marlin — a total of 17 billfish. The results from the inaugural March 2000 championship were not eye-opening, to say the least. The first-place Team Allied Marine Sailfish Hoedown scored 850 points from three fish releases. Second-place Team International La Guaira Billfish Shootout scored 700 points from three fish. Third-place Team Presidential Challenge Series Costa Rica scored 700 points from four fish.
“By the second year we knew we needed to find a place with more fish,” says Leech. “Not only that, but although the state of Hawaii gave large subsidies to their locally sponsored tournaments, they would never commit to supporting the OWC with a single dime.”
In the second year of the event, qualifying-events numbers increased, but only 35 teams participated. A team from Brazil won. That’s when Cabo San Lucas entered the picture.
Striped marlin are the most prevalent and iconic billfish in Cabo San Lucas.
CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO: 2002-2012
A meeting Mike Leech had in New York City with Los Cabos Tourism led to their major financial commitment and support of the OWC.
“When the IGFA decided to move the tournament to Cabo San Lucas in 2002, I made the first trip down to Cabo San Lucas and set up all of the contacts needed to run an event in Mexico,” says Vermillion. “The issues in moving the event to Mexico and running it there were very complicated — permits, fees, officials, visas, shipping through customs, immigration, host marina and all the different politics involved. I could go on for hours about the logistical hurdles that we went through to make the event happen.”
Still, the first Cabo OWC tournament in May 2002 was a major success.
“We had 57 teams from 25 countries compete the first year in Cabo, and a Florida team ended up winning,” says Leech. “The press started calling the OWC the Olympics of Sport Fishing and the Super Bowl of Billfishing. The competing teams loved Cabo and the fishing there. All of the different tournament events were spread around the Cabo community, so not just one place benefited. We produced a major impact on the community.”
The runs to the fishing grounds are relatively short from Cabo; they’re not as short as Hawaii, but better than many other marlin fishing hot spots. Located about 23 miles from Los Cabos Marina, the 1150 Bank (so named for its fathom notation on nautical charts) is just one of several deep-sea formations that create nutrient-rich upwellings and attract forage and blue-water big game species near Cabo San Lucas.
The reasons Cabo San Lucas worked so well as a destination were varied. There were plenty of charter boats in Cabo San Lucas at very reasonable prices, as well as lots of striped marlin to catch. Cabo also had a large selection of venues and hotels, and airfare was cheaper.
“Our tournaments got bigger to the point that we had close to 70 teams from all over the world and most of them caught fish,” says Leech. “Some years our teams released more than 500 marlin.”
Leech remained in charge of the overall event until Rob Kramer was named president of the IGFA in March 2003. Leech stayed with the IGFA on a part-time basis for three more years but had no more control of the tournament. Next, Mike Myatt assumed the role of tournament director.
“Sue Vermillion left me an incredible blueprint to follow after 2003,” says Myatt, who took over the role of tournament director from 2004 to 2008. “For the tournament director, it’s realizing not every team wins, so make the experience unforgettable for all. The event was at a very high level when I became director, and every year improvements were made by the IGFA team to upgrade events, entertainment, angler bags and merchandise. I was very fortunate to have an excellent team dedicated to the championship and anglers’ needs.”
The Cabo San Lucas community welcomed Mike Myatt, like they had welcomed his predecessors. Influential locals like Minerva and Bob Smith, Phil Gentile, and Marco and Tracy Ehrenberg were invaluable resources on the ground in Cabo.
“Minerva, who runs a world-class tackle shop, and her crew welcomed all anglers, so her shop became the epicenter,” says Myatt. “The Hotel Finisterra, with their incredible staff, was the perfect venue for the event, mixing Old World charm with luxurious accommodations. In order to make the revolving boat format work, the Cabo fleet, captains and crew had to be world class, and because of their expertise, we were considered the most prestigious international event worldwide.”
But times change, and in 2008, the IGFA almost closed down the Offshore World Championship.
“When the IGFA sent out a press release detailing its intentions to end the OWC after 2008, it was definitely a head-turner,” says Dan Jacobs, the current tournament director of the OWC. “I received various emails and phone calls concerning this announcement, convincing me to call Mike Myatt and find a way to help. Myatt was extremely receptive, and after a few hours on the phone, we had some good ideas on how to keep this incredible event going.”
The IGFA considered partner options and awarded the license agreement in 2009 to Bonnier Corporation. With that decision, Jacobs gained the title of tournament director for the IGFA Offshore World Championship, which he said was an absolute honor.
“While I wasn’t a proponent of exiting the tournament business,” says Myatt, “I had the utmost confidence in Bonnier and Dan Jacobs to continue leading the team and continue seeking excellence with the championship.”
The IGFA tournament staff, and especially Myatt, were gracious in bringing Bonnier Corporation on board. Bonnier was also fortunate to have Wilson available to join the team, with her experience helping the transition.
“I know Cabo very well, as we have produced the Los Cabos Billfish Tournament since 1999, but the championship was a very different format and I needed to learn the ropes,” says Jacobs. “As luck would have it, I was invited to fish on our Los Cabos Billfish Tournament winning team that qualified for 2008 OWC. The opportunity provided great insight as an angler, as well as being able to work with the IGFA team a year prior to being in the hot seat.”
The IGFA built a solid event, so Bonnier had a great blueprint to follow and grow from. The amazing sport-fishing community in Cabo and the striped-marlin fishery provided a perfect playing field for the tournament. Don Luis Coppola and the Finisterra were perfect hosts. Minerva and Pisces organized all of the charter boats; plus, the striped marlin always seemed to chew come tournament time in May.
“All I needed to do was take advantage of Bonnier’s strengths by adding a dedicated annual magazine, which we called Offshore World, to distribute to all of the qualifying event teams, fishing industry leaders and participants attending the championship,” says Jacobs. “Other media elements added included live scoring online, daily digital and social media, and official tournament video for the awards banquet.”
The checks and balances also needed to be tighter, so the OWC initiated catch, photograph and release rules and then transitioned to the catch, video and release requirements used today. Shooting video of the end game and fish release ensures every competing team accomplishes the required elements for scoring points. The IGFA license agreement started in 2009 and officially ended in 2012, although the tournament continues to support the IGFA every year. The year 2012 was also the last year the OWC hosted in Cabo San Lucas.
The Parador Resort and Spa is the OWC's official tourney lodging headquarters.
QUEPOS, COSTA RICA: 2013-2019
Similar to Kona and Cabo San Lucas, Quepos, Costa Rica, has great billfishing, calm sea conditions and reliable weather.
“Costa Rica has incredible offshore fishing with very few non-fishable weather days,” explains Jacobs. “Second, and just as important, Marina Pez Vela can host at least 80 quality charter boats to take the teams fishing. Third, we needed quality accommodations, food and experiences for the anglers and guests to enjoy, with Quepos and Manuel Antonio fitting the bill perfectly. Teams come from all over the world, so you have to provide a charter-boat rotation to keep a level playing field.”
The Costa Rica Tourism Board, Marina Pez Vela, Costa Sunglasses, and various other major sponsors and supporters allow the OWC to be successful for anglers in Costa Rica. The first Costa Rica OWC tournament occurred in 2013, and teams were ecstatic about the new location. A total of 68 teams and 324 anglers participated, catching 811 sailfish, nine blue marlin, one striped marlin, 24 dorado and six wahoo. Team Lyford Cay Offshore Tournament (Bahamas) scored 5,827 points to win first place. Their team caught 29 sailfish and a 27-pound dolphin in four days of fishing. Over the years, the excitement for fishing in Costa Rica hasn’t faded as teams continue to compete in qualifying events and make the pilgrimage to the event. Every year, the championship tries to provide great angler gifts, daily dockside socials and quality prizes. With 2019 being the 20th anniversary of the OWC, expect an even greater experience in Costa Rica.
“I feel that competitive anglers are always seeking a high-water mark to measure themselves against,” says Myatt. “When you have the quality of international anglers that the championship has enjoyed, the competitive juices flow, and it’s game on. National pride is evident too, but that doesn’t prevent camaraderie among teams.”
The series continues to be an international affair with more than 100 qualifying events. Teams from at least 30 different countries normally attend the championship. Jacobs would like to see a few more U.S.-based big-purse offshore event winners participate in the championship in 2019. There are so many great anglers fishing in U.S. waters that it would be nice to see them take advantage of the invitation to experience the OWC.
“We find that some of the qualified winners at these events aren’t interested in fishing from charter boats for prizes and trophies and are only interested in money events,” says Jacobs. “We certainly understand the allure of those events that can change the lives of the crew by catching a million-dollar fish. But we don’t plan on the OWC ever being a money event, so we need to do a better job of appealing to the anglers’ competitiveness and sense of adventure. If you think you and your team are world-class anglers, then the OWC has the best format to showcase your talents.”
Tournaments are like an annual reunion, hosting great parties with everyone catching up and enjoying their time to the fullest. Anglers know how to have fun, and sometimes it goes a bit far. Blending in serious competition with all the enjoyment provides memorable experiences for participants. That’s exactly what Jacobs and the Offshore World Championship team strive for every year.
“The passion for fishing in the end is what it’s all about,” says Jacobs. “OWC teams have enjoyed chasing huge marlin in Kona, prolific striped marlin in Cabo and record-setting sailfish in Costa Rica. In 2014, we had 64 teams release 2,735 billfish, setting a tournament record only to be beaten in 2015 with 67 teams releasing 2,840 billfish. That’s an average of more than 42 billfish per team over four days of fishing.”
Not every year is that jaw-dropping, but here’s to an unforgettable 20th anniversary for the Costa Offshore World Championship in beautiful Quepos, Costa Rica.