Capt. Benny Blanco, readied in the cockpit of the first-ever Hell’s Bay Boatworks Orvis edition flats skiff, sifted his hands through the thousands of raffle tickets that filled the oversized YETI bucket at the 2021 ICAST in Orlando, Florida. A crowd gathered on the tradeshow floor and thousands more tuned in to watch the livestream, anxiously hoping that Blanco’s final reach would land on the ticket marked with their name. That lucky person would win the very boat Blanco was standing in, the 2020 Hell’s Bay raffle skiff, a one-of-a-kind raffle boat supporting Captains For Clean Water and their mission to fix Florida’s water quality issues. A few moments later, Blanco—a south-Florida fishing guide, TV show host, and Captains For Clean Water ambassador—drew his hand from the pile, single ticket in his grasp. He began to read into the outstretched microphone, “And the winner is: Evan Tucker from Jacksonville, Florida!”
Evan Tucker recalls it like it was a dream, vivid but seemingly too good to be true. “It was just unreal; I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget Benny’s face when he called my name. It was almost like somebody was punking me,” he remembers. Tucker, a Jacksonville native, was watching the livestream from his office, the same place he had been when he had ordered his one-and-only raffle ticket the day before. His disbelief of the moment began to wane, however, when the phone rang and Captains For Clean Water Co-Founder, Chris Wittman, was on the other line to offer him congratulations. That was the metaphorical “pinch” he needed—it was real now. His dream had become a reality.
For Tucker, it had truly always been a goal to own a Hell’s Bay skiff. A graduate of Embry-Riddle, the former aircraft mechanic, now pilot, has an aviation pedigree. His grandfather was an aircraft mechanic in World War II, so he has roots in the sky, but fishing is also in his blood. Growing up fishing mostly for bass throughout Florida, Tucker turned to the saltwater game during college, chasing redfish in the shallow-water marshes around New Smyrna, Florida. That’s when he began to set his sights on a Hell’s Bay. “It was always a dream of mine to have a Hell’s Bay. Once I figured out I want to go after redfish. I want to go shallow. I want to fish clean water,” he says he knew he had to have one.
Now 40 years old, Tucker had been long prepping his wife for his inevitable plunge into the Hell’s Bay family. Prior to the raffle, he had warned her, “Prepare yourself, because that’s going to be my mid-life crisis. When I turn 40, I’m going to buy a Hell’s Bay.” So, for him to win the boat was truly a dream come true. It was also a fortune he doesn’t take lightly. “I take the boat very seriously,” he says, committing immediately after winning to continue using the boat as an advocacy tool for the restoration of Florida’s imperiled waterways. Before being raffled off, the boat was used by Captains For Clean Water as an educational tool throughout the state of Florida, hosting scientists, policymakers, and water managers on the waterways that desperately need their attention. It was a vessel for change, and its legacy is marked by progress for Florida’s waters.
Tucker respects that legacy and carries it forward. “I think the boat is a symbol, and I’m just a steward of that symbol,” he explains. It’s a symbol that’s recognized throughout the state, one that can spark a conversation at the gas pump, on the water, or at the boat ramp. It’s a symbol that’s continually spreading awareness about the multitude of water-quality issues Florida faces. “It’s just a boat, but everybody knows the boat. Every time I take it to the ramp, somebody says something about the boat, and it starts a conversation. It gives you an opportunity to talk about the issues here, and what Rami and I are trying to do here,” Tucker says. Now he’s taken that a step further, teaming up with fellow Jacksonville native and local fishing guide, Capt. Rami Ashouri, to form Cowford Conservation, a local non-profit whose mission is to preserve old Florida’s heritage.
Tucker and Ashouri met at ICAST, when Tucker came to collect his dream boat the day after winning it. They quickly recognized a swath of similarities, at the core of which was their passion for the outdoors and protecting the wild places they loved. Months later, after a Jacksonville flood-tide fishing session, they discussed what would become Cowford Conservation while swatting mosquitos and no-see-ums at a buggy boat ramp.
Ashouri had launched the Cowford Flood Tide Fishing tournament just a couple years prior, a successful redfish tournament in Jacksonville that raised funds for other local conservation groups and raised awareness about some of the threats that face the destination fishery in North Florida. So, for Ashouri (who is actually a full-time lawyer) and Tucker (whose family has a background in Florida state politics) formalizing Cowford Conservation was the natural next step for them in fulfilling their duty to the outdoor treasures in their backyard.
Now, a year after that life-changing raffle drawing, Cowford Conservation is a registered 501(c)3 addressing issues that threaten northeast Florida’s outdoor spaces on a daily basis, navigating legal and policy channels to fight for the area’s resources. Ashouri has a clear vision for Cowford, explaining, “Our goal is to represent sportsmen’s interests in northeast Florida, mainly as it relates to water, but not exclusively. Anywhere we see an issue that’s going to affect our ability to continue to do what we love, that’s an issue that we’re going to take on—whether it’s a development of natural lands, whether it’s nutrient overloading in the river, whether it’s a lack of freshwater flow going into the estuary system, that’s an issue we’re going to take on in our area.”
Tucker’s journey hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hell’s Bay Boatworks President, Chris Peterson, who is inspired by the home his boat has found and the good work it continues to do. “It was just my greatest joy to have someone who really is that passionate and that committed and that involved to be able to win this boat,” Peterson says of Tucker. “You know, he wins the boat, and since then he’s come up and supported us during the fight against Senate Bill 2508 at the Capitol—he even brought the boat to the Capitol for the Rally in Tally—and he’s been very involved in the Cowford and trying to work on issues in the St. Johns River too.” Always much more than a peripheral supporter to improving the Sunshine State’s water-quality, Tucker now takes every opportunity to continue the boat’s impact on progress. As he did when hauled the boat to Tallahassee in February and parked it in front of the Florida Capitol alongside a few other Hell’s Bay boats and a hundred or so rallying outdoorsmen and women.
There, the boat stood in protest to a corrupt piece of state legislation (Senate Bill 2508) that would cater to a few special interest groups and undermine years of water-quality progress. The boat was there representing the 43,000 people throughout the country who had signed a petition in opposition to the bill. It was there representing the thousands of Floridians who had called and emailed their state senators and representatives to voice their concern with how the bill would affect their waterways. It was there to continue fighting for clean water. Four months later, that bill was vetoed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had heard the voice of the people the boat represented. An absolute trainwreck for Florida’s waters had been derailed thanks to support and commitment from people like Tucker.
“Seeing Evan use this boat to continue to benefit our waters is what this whole thing is about. It’s why we’re passionate about supporting the skiff raffle; it’s why we know it has intangible value for our waters; and it’s why we’re doing it again this year,” says Peterson, who’s excited about this year’s raffle skiff. This next chapter in the skiff raffle offers another one-of-a-kind boat: a Hell’s Bay Eldora custom outfitted by YETI. The Eldora, the newest model in the Hell’s Bay lineup, is a true microskiff and a return to the company’s roots. It’s a technical poling skiff reduced to its purest form, a fishing machine that packs a big punch in a small package.
“This boat can pretty much float on dry land,” Peterson jokes, only slightly exaggerating. “It’s the perfect platform to chase shallow-water redfish, snook, bonefish and whatever else gets super skinny.” The boat’s open cockpit and tiller controls make for a simple layout, but its custom Captains For Clean Water SeaDek floor kit and YETI Panga upholstered cushions are anything but simple.
As a legacy partner of Captains For Clean Water and a supporter organization in the fight for clean water since day one, YETI was eager to challenge themselves creatively and put their stamp on this year’s skiff. That’s why this year’s skiff comes with a literal boatload of YETI gear, including coolers, cups, bags, chairs, and more. But what steals the show are the custom cushions made from YETI Panga material, which top the rear seats and one of the coolers. “We had never done something like that before using the Panga material, but we knew it would give the boat that one-of-a-kind feature we were looking for,” says Jake Drees, Fishing Marketing Manager of YETI. “So, when we saw the finished product and the whole boat come together, we were blown away and just super excited to be able to support the effort.”
This year’s raffle is open until November 25th, and the drawing is on December 1st—one lucky person will win the boat that day. The raffle will be over, but the skiff’s legacy will just be getting started. Will it follow in its big brother’s footsteps and continue on as a vessel for clean-water progress? Will it still make its way around the state as an advocate for our threatened waterways? Will it still spark conversations at the boat ramp or on the water? We should certainly hope so. We should hope it falls into the hands of someone like Tucker, who wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I’ve had the opportunity to sell it. Right away when you win the boat, everybody’s offering to buy it from you,” he says, “but I’ll never sell that boat.”
Editor’s note: Thank you to all of team Captains for Clean Water for the work y’all do to protect and improve the magical and fishy waters of South Florida–and for the work you are doing today to rebuild from the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian. While the team at Captains for Clean Water has remained focussed on rebuilding Communities throughout Florida’s west coast, many do not understand just how bad the Captains headquarters was hit. Click here to Support Captains’ rebuilding efforts throughout Southwest Florida. One coast, one community!