• A Visit to Heaven- TNT Custom Marine

    by Tommy Snyder

    While attending the Miami Boat Show last month, I took a break from the crowds and spent a day hitting some spots around Miami. First on my list was the place that seems to be “ground zero” of the South Florida performance powerboating scene, Johnny Tomlinson’s TNT Custom Marine.
    Pulling onto the TNT lot, I immediately found myself in a traffic jam, with forklifts buzzing back and forth launching and racking boats. This is not your usual middle America-style boatyard. With the price of land on the water these days, there are no sprawling parking lots. But the space that is there is put to good use. The first thing you notice is the massive tan metal building on the East side of the property. Peeking in the door is what can only be described at an offshore fanatic’s “pearly gates” as what’s inside is nothing less than pure heaven. Rack after rack of some of the most impressive hardware you’ll find anywhere.

    "The Barn"

    Immediately you sense this is a different sort of place. There were a number of workers, every one of them in motion. At first glance it looked like chaos. But after a moment you discover that this is a highly orchestrated ballet of motion. What really struck me was that everyone there was moving briskly, with an apparent sense of purpose. These were not people who were just “doing a job.”My first stop was in the yard office to see Ralph. We chatted for a bit and then offered to help me track JT down. As we walked, Ralph gave me a quick snapshot of what was going on that day. I noticed immediately that Ralph not only had a firm grasp on what was happening on the yard, but also who was handling each task.

    Traffic Jam

    Walking into the front office I was immediately greeted by a very nice lady and a young girl, about 10 years of age. Ralph explained to them who I was, and the little girl excitedly offers to escort me to John. We get to the office, and the little girl says “grandpa, this man is here to see you”. John is on the phone, looks at his grand daughter, smiles and says “ok, thank you”. I waited in the hallway until John gets off the phone. I walked into John’s office and the first thing I get is that famous JT smile. You rarely see the man without it. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with the energy of this man. There isn’t a wasted minute in his day. While we’re talking, he’s simultaneously banging out an email. The phone (land line) rings, he excuses himself and takes the call, while still typing the email. Then his cell phone rings, he excuses himself to the caller on the land line and takes the cell call. At this point, he has the land line receiver in one ear holding it with his shoulder, the cell phone in his other ear with his left hand, and typing the email with one finger from his right hand. There is no grass growing under this man’s feet. Once he finished his email we head out for a walk around TNT. When leaving the office, John said to the lady that I first saw in the office, “Mom, I’ll be out in the yard, call me if you need anything” So, on this day, there were 4 generations of Tomlinsons at the facility. During our walk I ask John about the name TNT. He explains that it is the initials of Tomlinson and Thomas, as he started the company with a longtime friend named Mike Thomas. John explained that he and Mike started the company back in the 80′s and that they were one of the last boat companies to vacate the infamous NE188th Street. They acquired the Spinnaker Marina facility in the 90′s. Spinnaker then became TNT Marine. John explained that TNT is Mercury’s largest factory authorized service center due to the large volume of Mercury business they do. Judging from various Mercury the plaques and awards, It’s safe to assume that it’s not just doing alot of business, it’s doing alot of high-quality business.

    "Choices, Choices..."

    Walking the TNT grounds with John is a unique experience. He’s like a people magnet. One after another people approached him to either share information or ask for an opinion or guidance. Not only is this man clearly a well-informed manager, he and his team have communication honed to a very fine edge. While we were walking, JT introduced me to Jim Dyke of Airship boats, who was loading an Airship RIB at the time. Many will remember Jim as a champion powerboat racer who is now manufacturing a very unique, high-end rigid hull inflatable. Look for more on Jim and Airship in the near future. John led me to the “barn” which is their term for the rack storage building. They should have held the offshore portion of the Miami show right there. There were certainly more performance boats in that building than in the convention center just across the bay. As we walked, John talked a bit about some of the boats in the racks.

    As an Apache fanatic, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of resin buckets parked in the rack. It was fairly apparent that neither of them were going anywhere any time soon. JT explained that Desert Warrior had sunk while docked behind the owners home quite some time ago, and was brought to TNT for repair. It has been sitting there ever since. The other Apache was “King Midas”, which was brought to TNT for some troubleshooting. JT took the boat out for a test run, and the one of the drives blew up. Awaiting repairs, the two sisters mark time on the top shelf at TNT.
    Sitting on the floor was the new and almost-overwhelming Skater, Avatar. As impressive as that boat is, it had plenty of competition for attention.

    John had just begun talking about the famous Cigarette “kilo boat” built for an assault on the v-bottom record. John had just begun telling the story behind the Skater-layup Cigarette when a forklift operator pulled John’s attention to an issue regarding a trailer that has to be delivered by 2 o’clock. Then the phone rings. I sense some urgency and tell John to take care of his business and that I would catch up with him later. He tells me to make myself at home and take pictures of anything I want. If I needed anything, come find him. Otherwise, have a ball. TNT isn’t just the yard and rack storage. Just down the street is their massive workshop. Calling it a workshop almost makes it sound like a cozy little place where you could tinker on your boat. Not. The place is enormous. They have a huge open area where they do rigging, which was full of boats. Lots of boats. New one’s restorations, repairs. They have a machine shop, they have a drive shop, they have storage areas. The only thing I didn’t see was a place to laminate hulls. Had they opened a door leading into a world-class glass shop, I’d have not been even slightly amazed.

    In talking to some people about their experiences with TNT, I got a long list of very positive experiences related back to me. One impressed me in particular. This boater arrived in Miami to participate in a poker run. Retrieving his boat from storage, he headed to the ramp with plans to dock at his hotel that night and before the run the following morning. Somewhere in between the storage and ramp, the owner discovered some damage to an outdrive. One quick call to JT and the boat was in his shop. By the time the owner’s group had time to catch a burger and a beer, the drive was pulled, repaired and reinstalled, all for what he’d have expected to pay anywhere. This was an average guy with an average boat and someone that had never spent a nickle with TNT. A while later while still wandering around in awe, I passed JT in the yard. He asked if I was OK, and if I needed anything. I told him that I was fine and thanked him once again for his hospitality. As I wandered west towards the street-side of the TNT grounds, I strolled into the shop of the one and only Phil Lipschutz of Lip-Ship. I spent a bit of time with Phil, who was just as friendly and accommodating as Johnny Tomlinson. Like the Airship, this is a story in and of itself that will appear shortly. After spending some time with Phil, I decide that I’d had enough. About to succumb to sensory overload, between the unimaginable hardware and the pace of activity, I’m almost dizzy. While walking back to my car, I see JT out on the dock helping the dock guys tie up a boat. This is the picture that you see of him on the dock with the orange T shirt. If you visit TNT and bring your camera, this is likely what you’ll see in most of your photos. The back of John Tomlinson. He’s everywhere, involved in everything and has the answers. There is no place I’ve ever been that screams “customer service” more than TNT.

    JT, Making it happen

    I neglected to mention, when JT isn’t lounging around quietly on the TNT grounds, he’s out on the water. John is what one might call a “hired gun”. More than a few owners have taken John along when they wanted to see how their million-dollar toys feel as they’re approaching 200 mph. Having him along is what I’m sure many consider to be the best insurance they can get. John came by these skills the hard way, running fast boats everywhere in the world. With over 40 national and world titles, over 130 individual wins and one entire season running undefeated, it’s tough to dispute his credentials. If you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to take a spin past TNT. If you’re boating in that neck of the woods, I’d highly recommend paying them a visit. In thinking about this story, I know alot of what I chose to share was the high-end hardware we all dream about. While I was there, I saw no shortage of the kinds of boats that mere mortals like you and I own. If you’re that way and have a problem, JT would be the man to call.