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Surprise! The Brick and folding schooner never made it as design fads

2009 November 1
The blunt look is in. I mean the profile of contemporary sailboat designs. Nearly plumb bows, steeply angled transoms, minimal overhangs, high freeboard and almost straight sheerlines are all the rage. The look is not limited by a boat's price or purpose. You see it in small cruising boats, all-out racers and megayachts.

Personally, I love the look. It makes boats appear purposeful and powerful. Even heavy cruisers look fast, almost sleek, with the low, streamlined coachouses high freeboard allows. The long waterline lengths yield speed and interior volume. The old designs I used to admire, with their long overhangs and riot of curves, now seem quaint.

Still, I have to wonder-how did so many designers suddenly agree that the blunt look is the right look? Did they all experience a eureka moment when the genius of straight-lined hulls became dazzlingly clear? Or are there fads in sailboat design?

Let's just say there are trends, influenced by the market, rating rules and popular perceptions of what constitutes stylish design, that many sailboat designers follow.

Many, but not all. One of the delightful features of the sailing universe is that it has always had more than its share of free-thinkers, a good many of them designers, who cannot abide sailing in the mainstream. We lost a classic example last summer when Phil Bolger died at the age of 81.

I don't know what sort of financial success Bolger achieved in his 57-year career as a boat designer. I'm guessing it was modest; many of his designs were cheap boats amateurs could build. His success is better measured by the ingenuity and the astonishing volume and range of his life's work consisting of designs for nearly 700 boats. His legacy derives from his devotion to imagining boats that were simple and inexpensive-truly yachts for Everyman.
It was good to see the New York Times recognize his importance to our world of boats with a 39-inch obituary including a laurel in the lead paragraph proclaiming him one of "the most prolific and versatile recreational boat designers in the world."

The obit went on to call him "a bit of a mad scientist." I'd say he was also a bit of a jokester. Some of his designs, while ingenious, seemed whimsical, as though they might have been meant to poke fun at the yacht design establishment. The folding schooner comes to mind.

But there was no joking in his quest to put sailing and boat ownership within reach of the masses. In the designs he described as "instant boats" he redefined simplicity in boat construction. Some of the boats could be built out of a single 8-by-4-foot sheet of plywood. No jigs, fancy tools, boatbuilding experience or even carpentry experience were needed. He explained how to build the boats in books that included plans and detailed instructions.

In these designs function trumps form so thoroughly that no one could describe them as pretty. He named one of his sailing dinghy designs The Brick for reasons that are obvious when you see a picture of one. He wrote that the boat could "carry four men and a frightened dog with plenty of buoyancy left."

He could just as well have named the boat The Box, which recalls an anecdote Bolger told, with what seemed like a touch of pride, in one of his books. He made a particularly simple dinghy design for "a box factory that wanted to try manufacturing boats; the proprietor gave the plans to his foreman when the shop opened at eight o'clock. He came back at noon to see what the foreman thought of the idea and found he'd built four boats."

Bolger's simple boats were but a small part of his output, which included designs for sailboats, powerboats, rowing boats and fishing boats and a 179-foot recreation of an 18th century British Navy frigate. The vessel, the HMS Rose, was used in the movie "Master and Commander."

He drew boats that were as handsome as his instant boats were plain. He perfected the sailing sharpie form in numerous designs that were objects of beauty and shoal-water sailing utility. Some of his boats were unconventional and odd-looking yet practical, like the 21-foot Dovekie, a camping sailboat with a draft of 4 inches. Many aficionados of rowing boats believe his exquisite Gloucester Gull is a perfect rendition of the dory.

Bolger considered it his masterpiece, and wrote, "This is certainly the best design I ever made. When I come up for judgment and they stop me at the gate and ask, 'What's your excuse?' I'll tell them I designed the Gloucester light dory and they'll let me in."

Then there's the folding schooner. It's essentially two open skiffs hinged together. The boat folds in the middle to make it compact for easy trailering. When opened it becomes a 31-foot sharpie. With its two-masted schooner rig, it was a surprisingly handsome boat under sail, but I still think Bolger was putting us on with this one. He tells in his book The Folding Schooner and Other Adventures in Boat Design of almost getting folded up in his invention when "going through a narrow canal in the wake of a string of heavy motorboats she jackknifed spectacularly in a trough."

Rereading Bolger's comments about his small-boat designs for amateur builders reminded me that I need to build a boat. It's not that I need another boat, but I would value the satisfaction of making one with my hands. As a maker of wooden things, I am more enthusiastic than refined. The pinnacle of my achievement in this area to date is not a nautical object but a garden shed, of saltbox design and board and batten construction. I built it from scratch, but it's hardly an example of skilled joinery. I can say, at least, that it has proved to be sturdy. That gives me hope that I could master The Brick.

I can see myself sailing this little Bolger box around the marina. Folks might think it's the latest thing in dinghies. After all, it's really blunt.