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The ghost fleet sails on, helping to keep sailing alive

2010 July 1
I think of them as a ghost fleet, even though they're not dead. Not only are they not dead, it seems that some of them will live forever. So I guess they really are like ghosts, or benign zombies.

The ghost fleet consists of fiberglass sailboats made by builders no longer in business, built during the two to three decades following that magic moment in the late 1950s when it dawned that mass production of sailboats of any size up to 60 feet or more was practical.

No one knows for sure how big the ghost fleet is, but it certainly numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Within that number there are easily more than a thousand different models. Even more amazing-they are the products of more than 75 different builders.

The last number is no doubt conservative. Besides mining my memory (I can still win the occasional bet with skeptical friends by identifying the make and model of a production sailboat built during the Lyndon Johnson administration), I did only rudimentary research. I didn't include any boatbuilders that are still in business (not Beneteau, Hunter, Catalina or any others producing boats today) and excluded non-American builders except a few that had a big presence in the U.S. market.

Still, I came up with an incredibly long list of now-defunct builders that were producing fiberglass sailboats during that furious burst of boatbuilding in a roughly 25-year span of the 20th century and left us with that vast sailing resource-the ghost fleet. I hope a business school somewhere is studying this phenomenon. It has to be one of the most powerful explosions of entrepreneurial energy in the annals of business. During the same period, the number of automakers in the world might have been a couple of dozen. Think of other products-television sets, farm implements, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, bowling balls. It's a safe guess that none of them was being produced by 75 manufacturers at more or less the same time, as were sailboats.

Some of these start-up sailboat makers were lured by optimistic (and to some extent accurate) business plans predicting that untold numbers of Americans were waiting impatiently to become yachtsmen through the magic of plastic and mass production, but for others, especially those who were in the pastime of sailing before the industry of sailing, the cachet of being a boatbuilder probably had something to do with it. But this new iteration of boatbuilding didn't have quite the romance of creating boats from wood, and it didn't require traditional shipwright skills. The hulls of some of the grandest fiberglass yachts were built largely by minimum-wage workers. Some of them came from "plants" that were essentially parking lots under the California or Florida sun or jerry-built Visqueen shelters. There was a fair amount of experimentation at first and sometimes shortcuts were irresistible, such as the infamous chopper gun that made hulls in a jiffy by spraying a slurry of chopped fiberglass into molds instead of hand applying layers of woven roving. I'm not saying these boats were shoddy. Some weren't as good as others, but almost all of them did the job, and they endured. Boy, did they endure! The ghost fleet is testament to that.

There are superbly built boats in the ghost fleet too, with perfectly sound hulls at age 50 or older. But the most remarkable thing about the fleet is its diversity. The estimate of more than 1,000 models is not hyperbole. There are 54 different Columbias, for example. That's an average of more than three new Columbia designs per year for the life of the company from 1961 to 1978. Pearson, America's pioneer builder of cruising-racing fiberglass sailboats, contributed no less than 76 models, among them several of the true classics of the fiberglass era, well-built boats with lines that are easy on the eye, including the Triton and Alberg 35, designed by Carl Alberg, and the Vanguard 33 designed by Phil Rhodes. If they look a little different than most boats in the ghost fleet it's because they were basically wood-boat designs from the 1950s with traditional wine-glass sections. It didn't take long for designers to realize there were almost no limits to fiberglass shapes, no curve too complex to execute in plastic.

Each of many other big producers, the likes of Cal, Ericson, Morgan, Irwin and O'Day, contributed dozens of different designs to the fleet. These are instantly recognizable names to many sailing enthusiasts. Other builders are more obscure. Who remembers Seidelmann Yachts, a New Jersey firm in business for less than a decade that produced 25- to 30-foot boats designed by company namesake Bob Seidelmann? Or how about Laguna Yachts? The California company built about a dozen models over 13 years in the 1970s and '80s.

It would be a mistake to associate the ghost fleet with derelicts. I'm ruling out of fleet membership any boat that has not been launched or sailed in three years; no forgotten boats growing barnacles in marina slips or accumulating guano on moorings or in permanent residence in backyards, and certainly none in landfills. Ghost fleet boats are for most part active and well loved. Owners' associations for these relics of the early years of fiberglass boatbuilding abound. Proud owners trace their boat's provenance with the same devotion some people unravel family genealogy.

The ghost fleet includes a lot of boats that have had hard use and look like it, but there are also plenty of sparkling gems, boats that are not only beautifully maintained but are examples of superior breeding. I've seen gorgeous examples of the Tartan 27, the compact centerboarder that was the first fiberglass design by Sparkman & Stephens. You can find exquisite renditions of three classic 40-footers that still regularly win offshore races: the Block Island 40, dating to 1950s, one of many outstanding designs in the fleet by the late Bill Tripp; the Columbia 40, a fast and pretty Charley Morgan design first built in 1964; and the Cal 40, the revolutionary Bill Lapworth design that launched a new era of high-performance production boats.

Some boats in the ghost fleet, on the other hand, are acquired tastes. The Buccaneer 27, to mention just one, is so ugly it's almost charming. Something about the way portholes in the cabinhouse and at the top of the high-freeboard hull are stacked on top of one another creates aesthetic chaos. But, of course, there are owners who love the boat dearly and, yes, there is a Buccaneer owners' association.

The existence of the ghost fleet is considered by some to be the bane of the contemporary alive-and-kicking sailboat building industry, the idea being that the ever-growing stock of used boats deters purchases of new boats. I disagree. Many owners of ghost fleet boats aren't potential customers for new boats because they can't afford them. (New boats are expensive, but that is not to say they are overpriced; most people would be surprised to learn how slim the profit margins are in sailboat building.) Old used boats bring new people into sailing and give them the opportunity to learn to love it-and in many cases to become new boat buyers one day.

Long live the ghost fleet.