After losing the use of his legs, Bert Glaser, owner of Midnight Express Powerboats, challenged his sons to design a craft that would allow him to enjoy boating again.
It’s been said that bad luck either breaks you or makes you stronger. For the owners of Midnight Express Powerboats—Bert Glaser and his sons Eric and Harris—it has unequivocally done the latter. During their 10 years at the helm of one of the preeminent performance-boat companies in the world, their resolve has been tested early and often.
Bert, a retinal surgeon by trade and an entrepreneurial businessman at heart, purchased Midnight Express with his sons in 2006. By the time they planted their feet firmly beneath them and began building the quality of boats they were happy with, the Great Recession came barreling down on their South Florida factory like a tropical storm.
But creative thinking and some early Homeland Security and U.S. Navy contracts for their high-performance center consoles would see the family and the Midnight Express brand through. Then, in 2009, something happened that would put brothers Eric and Harris (then 29 and 25, respectively) up against a much more formidable hardship, one that they never saw coming: the accident.
Bert says he was born with an insatiable need for speed. He has always owned fast cars, fast boats, and fast motorcycles. So it was a particularly cruel twist of fate when a horrific motorcycle crash cost him the use of his legs; he would never walk again.
Still only in their 20s, with a new business to run and their father fighting for his life, the brothers shouldered a heavy burden. They would need to tap into their tireless work ethic like never before to keep Midnight Express—and their family—moving forward.
I experienced that work ethic firsthand on a recent visit to the builder’s newly minted North Miami factory. It was a couple of days before Harris’s wedding, and family members were flying in from all over to attend; yet the brothers were working. While Harris was on the phone with clients, Eric was fielding e-mails, overseeing the production of a half-dozen 43s, paying bills, and even filling the soda machine. (Yes, the owner of the 50-plus employee company fills the soda machine. “It gives me a chance to clear my head and do something mindless,” laughs Eric.)
When he’s not stocking soda, the primary responsibility for the engineer at Midnight Express is creating custom modifications for the many 34-, 37-, 39- and 43-foot center consoles (with triple-, quad-, and quintuple-outboard configurations) that fill its order book. He normally deals with things such as adding fishing options or a one-of-a-kind sound system to a particular model. And then there are the molds for a new 60-footer that he’s chomping at the bit to continue building.
But all these projects, handled completely in-house, pale in comparison to the importance of Eric’s most recent custom build, a boat that would allow his father to reconnect with his passion. “Almost immediately after his accident he was saying he wanted a boat built to get him on the water,” laughs Eric while walking around the factory and fielding questions from his employees.
Passing a fleet of molds, Eric explains with pride that they’ve been infusing and using divinycell coring on every part of their boats, hull to hardtop, for three years now.
“Stength, strength, strength,” says Eric. “That’s what Midnight Express is about.”
This value is something of a family creed that trickles down from the Glaser patriarch. Down at the Miami Beach Marina, Bert would put his strength (mental and physical) to the test. He would be taking members of his family that were in town for the wedding out for a ride.
He pushes and pulls at his chair’s wheels, jockeying himself into position to board his adapted 39. Eric opens the hullside door and Bert lines himself up, it’s a tight squeeze, but he makes it through. To the untrained eye, the boarding platform looks like an ordinary dive door with a hydraulic ramp. But nothing on this boat is that simple. “When we started putting side doors in the boat, it had to be wide enough for my wheelchair to roll aboard,” says Bert. “It was engineered into the structure of the boat so that we could run at 60 miles per hour without the door even in.”
“With the door being so wide, the stresses are very difficult to overcome,” explains Eric. “But with everything overlapping and integrated within the mold, it’s incredibly strong. Pretty much everything we build has a safety factor of four, which is basically unheard of.”
Bert rolls over toward the driver’s seat, which he lowers to deck level with the push of a button on a remote. Next comes the challenge of shifting into the helm seat itself, something he has done only a half-dozen times before. He leans forward, grabs the arms of the seat, and strains to pull himself over as Eric fights the urge to help his father. It’s a tense minute.
Once ensconced, upright, and smiling again, Bert pushes a button on the port side of the seat and he’s raised until level with the helm. Again, you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d seen similar seats before.
“My father’s back is weaker because of his accident,” says Eric as he walks up to the helm. “And when you’re riding in rough seas at high speeds, it can hurt more. We made these seats that could, one, slide down and back so he could get in it, and two, it had to be shock absorbing, so we took a shock from one of those huge trucks you see jumping in the sand and used those.”
Bert presses a button at the side of the helm seat and inches closer to the specially designed helm that comes a bit further aft than on other Midnight Express models. Eric explains that the arrangement allows Bert to reach his Garmin MFDs without having to lean forward. He taps twice on a screen and brings up cameras that offer a 360-degree view around the boat.
Eric drops the dock lines, and signals to his dad that they’re all clear. Under Bert’s guiding hand, the boat, nimble as a ballerina, pirouettes out of a tight space and makes its way toward open water. Eric stands by his father’s side, offering a navigational tip or two. Bert pushes the throttles ahead, with enough travel so that the boat climbs to 40 knots. Eric then gently nudges them forward some more, and we climb into the 50s. Like going from driving an old beater to a luxury car, the ride is so calm that you don’t quite believe the speeds. But stepping from behind the helm into the full force of the wind changes that.
Bert’s smiling, Eric’s smiling, and their guests, some of whom have never ridden a Midnight Express before, are damn near giddy with excitement. And sitting in the stern is one person who’s probably enjoying the ride the most: Bert’s wife, Ronnie. Despite a few joking shrieks to slow down, it’s clear that she’s soaking up every minute of being on the water with her husband at the helm, surrounded by her family, something she enjoyed for many years before Bert’s accident.
“I’m so proud my boys could put this together. Bert always loved boating before his accident, and it’s going on seven years that he hasn’t been able to do this,” she says while glancing at her husband and son together at the helm. “The first time we took this boat out, the smile on his face was unbelievable. I’m just blown away by Eric’s abilities, and he’s very modest about it. I’m so proud of him, I’m going to cry. It just warms my heart because my husband made this boat company possible for them and now they made boating possible for him.”
In boatbuilding, as in life, there are many challenges, and some of them wake you in the middle of the night and shake you to your core. Bert’s future continues to be anything but certain; there are more doctor’s visits and surgeries looming off in the horizon. But in this moment, with the throttle forward and miles of open ocean ahead of him, he’s just another boater enjoying time on the water, surrounded by family and friends. In this moment, Bert is free.
- Builder: Midnight Express
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.