Although I was only seven years old in 1958, even I could tell there was something happening in the boating world. After a 21-year hiatus, racing for the America's Cup was resumed. Wooden 12-meter yachts like Columbia and Vim vied for the right to defend against the British Sceptre. Monthly features in Yachting magazine told all about the competition and preparations for it.
The Cup races were a good bellwether for the return to normalcy in the American economy and lifestyle. The depression of the 1930's, the World War of the 1940's, and the Korean conflict of the early 1950's were finally behind us. American industry was finding capacity and market for recreational products, after decades of producing only industrial goods and war machines.
It was a time of innovation in many areas. Bell Labs announced the invention of the transistor. Sputnik flew overhead. Space was soon to be conquered. The American consumer was ready for something new, something innovative, and for the first time in decades, the American consumer had the money to buy it. The post war years were good times economically, and there was spare money and spare time for non-essentials like recreational boating. Into this setting, now introduce two men: C. Raymond Hunt and Richard T. Fisher.
Richard T. Fisher was a Harvard graduate (Class of 1936, a Philosophy major and one of only three in his class) who was running an electric relay company. In the back of Dick Fisher's head were ideas for designing and building small boats, especially light-weight boats built with balsa wood. "[In 1943] I became interested in the possibility of using balsa wood to make a very strong, very light rowboat," said Fisher. "I designed one and went so far as to find balsa wood in sizes and quantities larger than were being used for model airplanes. But I never went any further with it. I realized that you'd have the problem, let's say, of an eight-foot pram that would weight 35 pounds. It would be strong as hell except that it would dent very easily." Too busy with his company, the idea didn't get any further development.
C. Raymond Hunt was a naval architect and a friend of Fisher's. Ray Hunt's career as a boat designer was blossoming. He was drawing innovative boats, including a tender for use by America's Cup yachts that would ultimately evolve into the famous off-shore racer Moppie, the deep-vee boat that would become the progenitor of Bertram Yachts. Moppie would go on to amazing victories in off-shore racing; she would have an article written about her in Sports Illustrated; she would make Ray Hunt famous.
Together these two would collaborate and design the Boston Whaler.
In 1954 Dick Fisher came across press releases on a new product, a foaming-in-place plastic called polyurethane foam. "Right away I thought of it as synthetic balsa wood," he said. The similarity to balsa wood triggered those old ideas for light-weight boats. "I became interested in [the foam] as a possible boat building material figuring you could make synthetic balsa wood out of it," said Fisher. "And yet you could probably put a skin on it that would make it very strong."
Fisher did indeed build a boat with the new foam and skin technique, creating a small sailing dingy. Inspired by the Alcort Sailfish, the boat had a squarish bow that gave it more of the appearance of a inland lakes scow. Fisher was quite excited by the boat and the construction technique, so he showed it to his friend, Ray Hunt.
While Hunt was impressed with the boat, he thought (probably correctly) that there was a limited market for a sailing dingy: "They've been [building] the Sailfish for several years and they've built two or three thousand and there's more outboards than that on Lake Winnepesaukee." "Why not build outboard boats," he proposed.
Back in the 1920's a Nova Scotian named Hickman had designed a novel boat called the Sea Sled. Unlike traditional boats, the Sea Sled had two widely separated hulls or "runners" and was blunt bowed. In Hunt's view, the Sea Sled had never been properly exploited. So his initial design for Fisher was very similar to a Sea Sled.
Using epoxy and styrofoam, Fisher soon built a prototype of Hunt's design. "It had two keels," said Fisher, "one inverted V [between the runners] and an anti-skid, anti-trip chine." Powering it with a 15-hp outboard, Fisher ran the boat all summer, thinking it "the greatest thing ever."
When rougher weather came in the fall, a flaw in the new design was revealed. When under heavy load and plowing along below planning speeds, the middle cavity in the hull forced air into the water as it rushed into the propeller. This lead to partial cavitation and rough running for the motor.
Fisher took his problem to the originator of the Sea Sled, Hickman himself, but this consultation held little hope for improvement. Hickman was certain the Sea Sled was the way to go and offered no modifications.
Fisher decided that they'd have to "put some stuff on the bottom to move that airy water out the there." Development took place at his home, located on a tidal marsh. "We'd take the boat down and put fiberglass things on the bottom at nine o'clock in the morning. Then we would wait until the fiberglass cured and run the boat and find out it didn't work and bring it back and start over again. We'd get maybe three experiments done in one day."
As his experiments evolved, the prototype boat began to have a growing appendage down the center, filling the space between the two runners until it dropped down aft to become a slightly veed bottom. At some point, Fisher called Hunt to come over and see the modified prototype.
Hunt went back to the drawing board, and produced a new design which would ultimately evolve into the 13-foot Whaler. The new hull had a third element between the two runners, projecting down and ending with a nine-inch flat bottom sole in the middle. Fisher, confident that they were on the right track, built a second prototype, this one finished well enough that it could serve as the plug for a production mold.
On sea trials, which consisted of running the new boat full throttle from Cohasset, Massachusetts to New Bedford and back (a distance of 120 miles), Fisher found a new flaw: the boat was "wetter than hell." "A lot wetter," he said, "than the other boat had been." It was the nine-inch wide sole that was throwing all the water and would have to be changed.
But a female mold had already been constructed from the new prototype. Instead of modifying the prototype hull and re-testing, Fisher was so certain he had the right correction he modified the mold! Material was added to transform the flat center section into a vee-bottom, creating more or less of a "pointed keel" in Fisher's words.
From that mold in the fall of 1956 came the Boston Whaler 13 foot hull. And since then the lines of the hull have remained virtually unchanged. The boat that resulted had good stability and excellent load carrying capacity, two attributes that were expected from the hull form, but it also had unexpectedly good performance and handling in rough weather conditions. And its light weight and shape were easily driven by the comparatively low horsepower outboard motors of the time. Remember, in 1958 a 25 horsepower outboard was a big outboard. In total, it was a design breakthrough.
Head On View Whaler 13 Hull
The original Whaler hull evolved from the Hickman Sea Sled. The two outer hulls are "runners". Fisher and Hunt evolved the third central appendage to reduce "airy water" being created by air trapped under the boat and flowing into the propeller. This photo shows a more recent hull evolution. The wrap-around bow chine--the "smirk"--was not in the original molds.
Dick Fisher's innovation wasn't just in the hull's underwater shape. The construction technique was something totally new as well. Fiberglass boats were gaining in popularity. Up the coast in Rhode Island, Everett Pearson was about to make his famous Pearson Triton sailboat, the first successful fiberglass sailboat to be mass produced. But Pearson's laminates were thick lay ups of resin and glass, suitable for a heavy sailboat, but not applicable to a lightweight outboard boat.
The Boston Whaler was unique in that it was essentially made from foam, coated with a relatively thin skin of laminates and gelcoat. The composite boat was strong, rigid, and light. The foam provided unheard of floatation, too. It made the hull very resistant to "oil canning", and it worked to absorb sound as well. At every turn, the foam filled hull seemed to have an advantage.
Cross Section Whaler Hull
The two molded forms, the hull and the liner, join at the gunwales, where the rub rail conceals their edges. The entire central volume of the boat is filled with liquid foam, which expands and hardens, bonding to the laminates and forming a unified composite structure.
Whaler has never said much about its actual techniques for making the boat, and well it might keep silent. It seems that they are the only ones who have successfully mastered it. What is known is that the boat consists of two conventional laminated skins, the hull and the liner. These are laid up at the same time using the usual female molds. As the last layer of the laminate and resin is applied and curing, the two sections are assembled into a single unit and clamped together while still wet. The interior cavity thus formed is then filled with a liquid foam. The liquid foam expands and hardens, filling every inch of the inner cavity and at the same time completely bonding the hull and liner, forming a single composite structure. The conditions under which this is done are tightly controlled and produce a superior product: the Boston Whaler.
Using a two-piece hull and liner allowed for other design innovations. Although the hull had a complex shape, the interior could be made equally sophisticated by molding it, too. First, a nice flat cockpit floor could be created, providing an excellent surface for the boat's occupants to move about. Into the deck a non-skid pattern could be molded, too. This would improve traction and grip in wet conditions. Lockers, motorwells, and seat supports could be created in the mold and not fabricated by hand after the boat was assembled. By spending more time and money in tooling of the molds, Whaler could save time and money in the production process.
Even more revolutionary, the boat's extreme buoyancy (from its hull shape and light weight) allowed the floor of the cockpit to be located above the waterline! The meant that any water inside the boat could be easily drained overboard through a strategically placed sump and drain in the rear of the cockpit. You could leave the boat in the water at a dock or on a mooring with the drain plug out and no water (from rain) would collect in the boat.
The boat's topsides were innovative, too. Instead of high freeboard and tall gunwales, the boat was markedly low to the water. Some might think this was a liability, but in fact it was an asset. With the huge reserve buoyancy of the foam-filled hull, the entire cockpit could be filled with water, yet the power head of the outboard motor would still be above water! The boat's engine could run and the boat could be manuevered while filled with water. And, since the low freeboard meant there was less water trapped aboard, the cockpit could be bailed or drained through the drain sump much faster than on a boat with higher freeboard. It was another revolutionary concept. The low sides also made the boat very easy to fish from, and easy to get back into from the water.
Those parts of the boat not made from fiberglass were top-quality as well. The seats and consoles were beautiful mahogany with a glossy varnish. All fittings were stainless steel. Railings were custom fit and welded. Lifting eyes were over sized and through bolted for strength. Everything about the boat was made first-tier quality.
Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for all of this. The foam itself was quite expensive back then, five dollars a pound when five dollars was enough to buy twenty five gallons of gas! And the high quality of the other elements of the boat were costly, too. The result was a rather expensive 13-foot boat. Would it sell?
With all the features of the Boston Whaler, you'd think it would sell itself, and it probably would have. But just to make sure it was a roaring success, Dick Fisher ginned up some of the best promotional stunts ever seen in the recreational boat business or anywhere else.
Like Apple Computer's legendary television commercial in the 1984 Super Bowl that introduced the Macintosh computer to the world, Fisher created an advertising gimmick that would instantly make Boston Whaler a household name. To demonstrate the unsinkable nature of the boat, Fisher became the star performer in a series of photographs that appeared in Life Magazine in 1961. Casually seated in a tweed sport coat, bow tie, and hat, Dick appeared completely bored and disinterested as a huge saw cut the 13-foot Whaler hull in half. When the boat was in two pieces, he jauntily motored off in the rear half. Advertising like this was enormously effective in getting his fledgling company off the ground. The whole world read Life and the whole world knew of the Boston Whaler.
Life Magazine, May 19, 1961
Dick Fisher's marketing genius matched his engineering skills. After this photo layout ran, the whole world knew the Boston Whaler as the boat that was unsinkable.
Another famous ad photo showed Dick in similar attire, driving a Whaler up a small rapids. The message was clear: the boat was indestructible. Reflecting back on those early days, Dick said, "We knew it was a pretty good boat. And when a kid in Cohasset stole one we knew right away it was going to be a success."
Even the name "Boston Whaler" was carefully chosen. Fisher was looking for an "unstraight" name, something that people would remember. The "whaler" idea came from the boat's ability to behave in following seas-- "A hell of a good thing for a Nantucket sleigh ride," said Fisher of the boat. Of course, whaling dories are pointed on both ends and flat bottomed, while the new hull was blunt ended and anything but flat bottomed. More "unstraight-ness" for Fisher, which made "Whaler" good nomenclature. Since the boat was made in the Boston area, but Boston wasn't generally associated with Whaling, the "Boston Whaler" name seemed to have just the contradiction in terms Fisher was looking for.
Thus in 1958 the Boston Whaler was born, designed with its unique hull shape, constructed with new materials and techniques, and marketed with innovative advertising and promotion. The timing was excellent, as interest in recreational boating swelled among a new class of American boaters, enriched by a strong post-war economy with the leisure time and the discretionary income to enjoy a little yachting of their own.
Beverly Hills, Michigan
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This article first appeared February, 2000.
Copyright © 2000 by James W. Hebert. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: Tuesday, 16-Jan-2007 09:24:19 EST
Author: James W. Hebert
Material attributed as quotations to Dick Fisher appeared originally in other sources, including a January 1978 MOTOR BOATING article by Marty Lurey as well as a number of in-house publications of the Boston Whaler company.