In the cockpit of her 48-foot boat, Princess Susan Troubetzkoy hovered about the fishing rods like a nervous hostess.
She watched the baited lines and the horizon for signs of sailfish. And when a fish finally took a bait, she sent her cigarette over the gunwale like a missile and backed the pressure off the reel.
The princess is a fisherman.
Troubetzkoy is the reigning champion of the Gold Cup Invitational Billfish Tournament, which will run Wednesday through Saturday out of the Sailfish Club on Palm Beach. During the 1992 event, she and partner Joe Lopez of Miami caught and released 31 sailfish aboard her Viking sport fishing boat, Souka III. On one of the tournament days, the team had a phenomenal 17 fish.
Troubetzkoy assumed her royalty through marriage to Prince Youka Troubetzkoy, a Palm Beach jet-setter who died in April at age 86. The prince was a descendant of the Russian royal family that dates back to the ninth century.
But last week, in her blue jeans, Reeboks and pink mesh shirt, Troubetzkoy was all angler. Her domain was the Gulf Stream, where sailfish perform their pirouettes in a ballet that rivals the Bolshoi.
"I like to see all that show they put on," Troubetzkoy said. "Catching more than anybody is a challenge."
Competition is steep among club members who keep running totals of fish caught. Last year, Troubetzkoy released 63 billfish: 21 blue marlin, two white marlin and 40 sailfish mostly in Mexico, the Bahamas and South Florida.
But fishing is a relatively new passion for the princess, who spent much of her adult life traveling and entertaining the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Cary Grant and Rex Harrison.
Troubetzkoy and her husband met in New York in the late 1970s, where as the former Susan Baltz she was trading futures in precious metals such as platinum.
A Long Island native, she had grown up the oldest of five children. The island was more rural in those years, so she was used to the outdoors and was somewhat of a tomboy, said brother Bruce Baltz of West Palm Beach.
"She always has to be the best at whatever she does," he said. "She's very, very competitive."
While she attended community college, she began making and selling jewelry with a manufacturing firm. From there, she learned the business of commodities.
"It was an exciting field, particularly in 1977," she said. "There were tremendous gains in precious metals."
Troubetzkoy's reverie was interrupted by a sharp cry from her captain, who was standing on the vessel's bridge, about 10 feet above the cockpit.
"The right rigger's going," Capt. Wendell (Wendy) Waggener warned. Line from one of the fishing rods was snaked through a clip on a metal pole or outrigger that juts laterally from the boat. The outrigger helps spread the lines so they won't tangle.
Troubetzkoy snatched the fishing rod and waited for the line to pop from its clip, so she could pay out slack and then crank down and set the hook. But it was a false alarm.
"This is exciting, isn't it," she joked, returning the rod to its holder.
The life of the party
Prince Youka came to New York periodically to host luncheons, Troubetzkoy said. He was always having big lunch parties.
"He was quite a charmer. He took a liking to me. He was quite a fabulous person and it just grew," she said.
Troubetzkoy's friend, Lore Dryzgula, a Palm Beach realtor, remembered Prince Youka as the life of the party who was very supportive of his wife.
"Susan is basically a quiet person. She's serious and introverted. They had a really fabulous relationship," Dryzgula said. "He was very interesting. He always wanted to listen to other people."
The prince was born in California because his parents left Russia before the Soviet revolt. When he was school-aged, the family moved to France, Troubetzkoy said.
The family can be traced back to several Polish and Lithuanian kings and Russian ministers of government, she said. There was a Troubetzkoy stadium in Moscow and a large family province around the city.
But with the revolution looming, many of the Russian royals left without much money, she said.
The prince first worked in American movies, including a starring role in a silent film with actress Pola Negri called The Flower of the Desert. He later made movies in France, she said.
In 1949, Prince Youka married Marcia Stranahan, an heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune. She died in an accident in 1974, leaving him alone in their French mansion "Mayou," a combination of their first names.
After the prince married Susan Baltz in 1980, they moved to the villa, which is near Monte Carlo.
"Southern France is very cliquey, particularly when you have a big fabulous villa and everybody liked to be entertained," she said.
At various times, the villa featured a pool filled with penguins, an aviary and a huge saltwater aquarium.
Stories of Royalty
"My husband was very friendly with Prince Rainier. He came to our home for lunch and we used to go to their palace for functions. He had known them for 30 years," she said. "Cary Grant stayed with us for Grace's funeral."
Troubetzkoy recalled a luncheon with the royals where Princess Grace made a telling comment. An Italian countess was whispering a naughty story in Prince Rainier's ear. When Grace asked her to share the story with the crowd, the woman said it was not appropriate.
"Grace said she hoped she didn't intimidate her," Troubetzkoy said. Then the princess added: "The only ones I try to intimidate are my children."
Troubetzkoy and her husband left France in 1986 to come to Palm Beach. She was tiring of their travels, and the prince's health began to fail.
"I can't say I didn't enjoy it all," she said. "It just gets to be the same old thing."
Of her royalty, she said: "I get tables in restaurants quicker. But it means very little to me with the exception of the social things. Most of the time I even forget."
Troubetzkoy liked the climate of South Florida and the small town quality of Palm Beach.
"It gave me something to do. I planned the house and worked on the garden," said Troubetzkoy, who has since left Palm Beach and is building a home on Singer Island. "But once I started fishing, that was the end of the gardening."
Troubetzkoy had a succession of boats before settling on the 48-foot Viking. The name Souka, like the name Mayou, was created by putting the couple's first names together.
Later, they learned that Souka means female dog or bitch. They found it amusing and kept the name.
The vessels were at first strictly for boating to the islands or to New York. But in the past four years, Capt. Wendy has interested the princess in billfishing.
From tying knots and rigging baits to fighting fish, she has become efficient and quick.
"She's getting very good," Waggener said. "I can't think of anybody I fish with who is any better."
Top Buccaneer Cup angler
Besides winning the Gold Cup last year, Troubetzkoy was top angler in last year's Buccaneer Cup, and the boat took first place in the Little Palm Island tournament in the Keys.
"She stands right there all day long," Waggener said pointing to the cockpit, where Troubetzkoy was poised behind the four fishing rods. "That's 50 percent of the battle. Most people, if the fish don't bite for two or three hours, they're in on the couch taking a nap."
Throughout the day Wednesday, Troubetzkoy battled two sharks and two bonito that pestered the live baits. The seas were calm and the sun hot, which are poor conditions for sailfish.
They tried slow-trolling the baits along a color change in about 150 feet of water north of Jupiter inlet. Later, they put the lines out on a fishing kite. Troubetzkoy helped the mate raise the kite and attach the lines to the release clips.
When the action gets hectic and two or three sailfish hit the baits simultaneously, all the anglers must react with speed and confidence. As quickly as fish are released, more baits must be rigged and set behind the boat.
"There were times last year when we were fishing the Gold Cup with only one mate," she said. "We all had to work to tie hooks on and rig baits. We wouldn't have been able to keep the baits in the water if everybody was not helping out."
Friends like Dryzgula are impressed by Troubetzkoy's efforts.
"I think it's very unique and it's challenging," she said. "It's usually a man's sport. It takes energy and muscle and discipline ... It's not for everyone, but she definitely has the discipline for it."