RALEIGH, N.C. – About four hours after the fishing charter boat Citation left dock on the Outer Banks to compete in one of the country's richest deep-sea fishing tournaments, crewmembers were in the fight of their lives. Something huge was hooked, but it was invisible to human sight as it dove for the ocean bottom about 27 miles off the North Carolina coast.
Five hours later they hauled up a monster, an 883-pound, 14-foot-long blue marlin. They knew the silvery-blue torpedo of muscle bigger than a bear would mean a huge payday in the June 2010 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament when they recorded their catch in coastal Morehead City.
"When we finally saw it we couldn't believe it," the Citation's captain, Eric Holmes of Buxton, said at the time. "To catch a fish this big ... it's something. It really is. We got lucky and it's good to be lucky."
But their luck soured. The boat's owners landed in a fight for the $910,000 in prize money that continued Tuesday with arguments to North Carolina's Supreme Court.
Tournament officials disqualified the Citation's crew because the 22-year-old first mate, Peter Wann of Alexandria, Va., did not have a $15 North Carolina fishing license when the fish was hooked. His license was purchased while the Citation was still two hours out to sea and chugging toward a landing.
Tournament rules state that a fishing license is required for everyone aboard a participating vessel, said E. Bradley Evans, a lawyer for the contest's organizers. That rule was also emphasized at a pre-tournament meeting that Holmes and Wann did not attend.
The non-profit group that runs the tournament has no gain in disqualifying the Citation, but did so to protect the contest's integrity, Evans said.
"If none of the rules are material, then people could take rifles and shoot fish. They could fish at any hours of the day if they want to," Evans said. He said the rules were critical to the operation of the tournament and the most important aspect.
Wann thought the Citation had a blanket license that covered the entire crew, and when he found out there may have been a question if his license was active he got online while still miles at sea and bought another while still outside the state's territorial waters, which extend three miles from shore, said Darren Jackson, an attorney for the boat's owners.
"Maybe it was just luck that they happened to have a computer with internet access out in the middle of the ocean, but they did. And they did get the license," Jackson said.
State regulators couldn't decide when or if Wann violated state fishing laws and had to amend the citation they issued the mate, Jackson said. While one tournament rule said North Carolina required a recreational fishing license for anyone aboard, the language didn't state that failing to follow the state law could lead to disqualification from the contest, Jackson said. Disqualification for violating the fishing license rule was as unreasonable as if the same punishment were leveled for other violations that didn't tilt the competition, like going too fast in a "no wake" zone or failing to have the proper number of lifejackets on board.
"They applied this provision with the most drastic remedy they could," Jackson said. "It's the ultimate decision. It's their death penalty, so to speak. I would argue to you that's the height of arbitrariness."
The high court should send the case back for a jury to decide, Jackson said, not let stand a lower-court ruling that he said doesn't pass the smell test.
The Citation's lawsuit to reclaim its winnings was dismissed after it was transferred to the county where the tournament is based, and after local Superior Court Judge John Nobles Jr. decided its merits without a jury. Only just before the hearing did the Citation's lawyers learn that Nobles was the former law partner and vacation buddy of the attorney representing the boat finishing second after Citation.
Claud Wheatly III and Nobles had taken several vacations together, including during the time the lawsuit had been under way, the Citation's lawyers said. Owners of the second-place Carnivore stand to divide $999,453 after taking the winner's share and part of the third-place money.
Wheatly noted to the high court that Citation's lawyers have no evidence that Nobles displayed any prejudice or bias in the case.