Illustrations by Brett Affrunti
While not as famous as Frank Huckins or C. Raymond Hunt, these designers moved the needle forward in their own way.
When boat nuts meet up and talk about powerboat designers—yeah, we’re kind of nerdy that way—a few big names always pop up: Jack Hargrave, Frank Huckins, Tom Fexas and, of course, C. Raymond Hunt. But there are a heck of a lot of other designers who aren’t so famous, but ought to be. Maybe they created an innovative hull, or designed especially fast boats, or drew vessels so darned sweet that just one look makes you feel better about humankind. It’s these folks, in my opinion, who are the unsung masters of yacht design. The following seven designers made an impact on design that deserves mention; even if the history books have forgotten them, the ocean never forgets.
But first, how did I pick and choose? For one thing, each designer had to be deceased—I didn’t want to call anyone “unsung” who maybe still had an arrow or two in his quiver. And then, each had to be known for powerboat design, although many of these fellows drew nice sailboats, too. Moreover, each had to be uncelebrated, but not totally obscure. And finally, they had to have designed boats that I like. It’s my list, after all.
My first entry is the most controversial of the lot, not because of what he did, but because, for many of us who go back a few years, he’s not exactly unsung—he’s more up there with Hargrave and Hunt. But newcomers to boating might not know about David P. Martin Sr. and his fast, efficient watercraft. In the 1980s, when 30 knots became the benchmark for offshore sportfishing vessels, Dave Martin’s designs for Ocean Yachts were at the head of the fleet. Thirty knots doesn’t sound fast today, but with the diesel engines available 40 years ago, it was tricky to create a boat capable of such a speed but also large enough and with enough range to fish far offshore. Martin did it by using principles he learned in the pre-deep-V days.
Martin started out as a boatbuilder. In 1948, right out of high school, he joined the Egg Harbor Yachts planking crew. When John Leek launched Pacemaker the following year, Martin moved to that company and helped plank the first boat, a 29-foot sea skiff designed by E. Lockwood Haggas. While boatbuilding during the day, Martin studied the Westlawn School of Yacht Design course at night. By 1965, he was the chief designer at Pacemaker. In 1977, when Jack Leek left Pacemaker to start Ocean Yachts, Martin went with him as principal designer and drew every Ocean for the next 30 years.
Martin was a student of traditional powerboat design and studied the speed/power graphs developed by George Crouch, a professor at Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. By incorporating traditional design components of the boats Crouch studied, plus a few he discovered on his own, Martin created efficient hulls that combined speed and fuel economy with reasonable power. Over the years he tested many hull-forms, not in a tank, but by towing models on the sheltered waters near the Pacemaker plant. Towing two models on a yoke let Martin observe how changes to one made it more or less efficient compared to the other. What he learned went into his Ocean designs. Concerning the 1979 Ocean Yachts 55 Sportfisherman, one of his favorites, Martin wrote in Professional Boatbuilder magazine: “I jogged the hull side inboard aft, below the waterline, to reduce immersed transom area, and reduce eddymaking.” Integrated lifting strakes forward reduced the bow wave, also reducing resistance.
Oceans weren’t deep-V boats; the deadrise of the 55 was just a few degrees at the transom to maximize speed versus horsepower. Lots of deadrise aft, Martin maintained, isn’t necessary unless you plan on the hull leaving the water, which is not the way typical sportfishing boats of this size are operated. To cushion the ride, Martin worked 28 degrees of deadrise into the hull forward, at about 25 percent of the waterline length aft of the stem. That’s where the hull’s leading edge is when cruising. Loaded to 59,000 pounds of displacement, with the owner’s gear on board for a trip to the Bahamas, the 55’s twin 650-hp Detroit Diesels drove the boat to 31.1 knots, a speed that was comparable to the most efficient hulls graphed by Crouch.
Martin’s yacht design career lasted more than 65 years, until his death in November 2019 at the age of 89. He was designing boats right up until the end: Nearing his 90th birthday, he sent me a study drawing of a pontoon he’d converted into a cruiser. Its deckhouse looked a lot like those he drew for Ocean.
One of Martin’s mentors was E. Lockwood (Ted) Haggas, an Atlantic City, New Jersey, naval architect who published his first design in 1906 and was still at the drawing table five decades later. Flip through Rudder or Motor Boating magazines from the 1920s and 30s and you’ll likely find Haggas’s work in the design pages. Haggas drew speedboats, cruisers, motoryachts, sportfishermen—you name it. He designed a 28-foot Jersey Sea Skiff before World War II that, after the war, became the first Egg Harbor yacht. (Some people credit Haggas with creating the Jersey Sea Skiff, a boat designed expressly for negotiating the sometimes-treacherous New Jersey inlets.) He also designed the first Pacemaker, a 29-footer, in 1949. Haggas was an artist too—his paintings ran on the covers of many magazines in the 1930s—and a musician, two skills that came in handy when yacht design work became scarce.
Like his protege, Dave Martin, Haggas was known for drawing hulls that could produce a good turn of speed with minimal horsepower. In the 1920s, his high-speed boats were popular with both the U.S. Coast Guard and the rum-runners intent on escaping them. (Prohibition, you might say, was a boon to powerboat design.) In 1926 he drew a 30-foot sea skiff with a low-profile deckhouse, a large cockpit and accommodations for two that was based on those night-running speedboats. She reportedly achieved speeds well over 20 knots with a single 100-hp engine.
George Stadel Jr. wasn’t from New Jersey—he graduated from Notre Dame in 1927 and immediately started his own yacht-design firm in his home town of Stamford, Connecticut. But his most successful design was built in New Jersey. The Egg Harbor 37 is one of the prettiest powerboats ever created, in my opinion (especially the sportfish version with its larger cockpit). Stadel was known for drawing very shapely hulls, including fisherman-style schooners and the charming Pilot 26 sloop. But if there’s a special section of heaven for yacht designers, the Egg Harbor 37 is Stadel’s ticket of admission.
During World War II, Stadel worked at Sparkman & Stephens designing sub-chasers; later, he managed a shipyard in Rye, New York, building them. After the war, he worked for Norwalk Boat Works in Norwalk, Connecticut, the local Egg Harbor dealer. In 1959, the owners of Egg Harbor asked him to draw a 36-footer which, after a year, they decided should be a 37 instead. According to Stadel’s son Bill, whom I interviewed in 2006, Stadel spent four long days modifying the 36—making it a bit finer in the bow, removing tumblehome from the aft sections and adding beam. Twin 210-hp Chrysler gas engines provided the power, with larger options, both gas and diesel, available. “It was essentially a beamy lobster boat,” said Bill Stadel. (Another of Stadel’s sons, George III, is also a yacht designer, currently based in Stamford.)
Over the next 10 years, Egg Harbor built more than 800 37s. The company also commissioned a 47 from Stadel, pre-sold six or seven at the 1965 New York Boat Show and built a new shop to produce them. The 47’s underbody transitioned from round bottom forward to hard chines aft, in the style of the sub-chasers Stadel drew during the war. This was an expensive shape to build in plank-on-frame construction. Rather than let Stadel calculate the cost of construction, as he usually did for his designs, Egg Harbor’s bean counters did it themselves. Unfortunately, they got the cost seriously wrong and lost money on every single one. That put Egg Harbor in a financial hole, and the company was sold to Pacemaker in 1967.
Naval architect Dave Gerr wrote an article a few years back titled “The Hickman Sea Sled: The Best High-Speed Hull Ever?” Gerr quoted old-time experts who extolled the virtues of the Sea Sled, calling it “the best sea boat I have ever been in,” and predicting that “[It] will be the beginning of a new era in motor boating.” So, what’s a Sea Sled? Designed by Canadian Albert Hickman, a graduate engineer from Harvard (he also wrote adventure novels), the Hickman Sea Sled was an inverted-V-hull design in its forward sections—it looked like a catamaran from ahead—that morphed into an almost traditional, zero-deadrise monohull at the transom. Hickman’s theory was that air trapped between the hulls by the hull’s forward motion would exit under the transom, reducing resistance by creating lift. Hickman designed the Sea Sled before World War I, when internal combustion engines in boats were a new thing. But his theory is still used to market power catamarans and tunnel boats today.
Hickman powered his Sea Sleds with another of his patented inventions, the surface-drive propeller, which is pretty much the same as the surface drives we use today. Editors of boating magazines regaled their readers with accounts of the Sea Sled’s astounding performance. Gerr writes that the editor of Motor Boating, accompanied by five buddies, drove a 26-foot Sea Sled from Boston to Bar Harbor in open-ocean conditions at an average of 30 knots, with the boat hitting 40 knots at times. This was nosebleed speed back in 1914. The U.S. Navy bought Sea Sleds for service in World War I. Civilians bought small ones as speedboats and tenders, and large ones for commercial service. Hickman wasn’t shy about loading on the power: Some of the biggest Sea Sleds had quadruple engines and ran 60 knots!
So, why did the Sea Sled eventually fade from the scene? Apparently, Hickman wasn’t into public relations, didn’t buy ads in slick boating magazines, generally antagonized people and guarded his patents so nobody else could build a Sea Sled—not legally, anyway. And then, the intricately shaped Sea Sled hull was difficult, and expensive, to build in wood. The hulls were also visually unusual: When I was around 10 years old, a Sea Sled often visited the harbor I grew up on; to me, the thing looked like a barge. Gerr disagrees: “I think they look quite handsome,” he wrote. I guess the charms of the sled reside in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the principles of the hull and drive system have been proved again and again in modern boats. Hickman, for all his shortcomings, was a man way ahead of his time.
Art Carlson brought 1960s California hot-rod culture to boats. His creations were designed and built in Garden Grove, California, and sold by Carlson High Performance Boats. Many rode on Carlson’s tunnel hull, with sponsons forward that transitioned into a flat underbody aft, and beveled chines to prevent tripping in turns. Carlson said the design reduced drag when air entering between the sponsons was forced aft to create lift. It was similar in some aspects to the Sea Sled, but on a smaller scale: Most of Carlson’s hot-rod boats were 20 feet or shorter.
Carlson wasn’t shy about adding horsepower. He built a 16-footer with a 427 Ford or Chevy, take your pick, in the cockpit, perched like a passenger aft of twin buckets for the helmsman and companion. No engine compartment, no cover, just the V-8 sitting there, all chrome and pipes in the style of California drag racers. All Carlson boats came with tuck-and-roll upholstery in the cockpit and a sturdy “Panic Handle” for the passenger to hold onto when the ride got overly exuberant. I suspect it got used more than anyone admitted. And, because this was California in the 60s, the finish was “dazzling metal-flake colors,” according to the catalog.
In 1968, Carlson joined with Glastron to design and build boats under the Glastron/Carlson name. Few Glastron/Carlsons were as raceboat-like as Carlson’s earlier boats, but they still had some of the same DNA. At least one model, the CT-15, was sold only to racing teams. The four-seater, 14-foot, 6-inch Contender, a raceboat in sheep’s clothing when powered with an 85-hp outboard, was advertised as a watercraft that would “easily become part of the family.” Glastron/Carlson produced many boats, but the one generally regarded as the coolest was the Scimitar from the early 1980s. It was a stern-drive runabout with a Corvette-style T-top, tinted acrylic panels, power adjustable helm seat, a safety glass windshield and, in Carlson style, metal flake finish in a selection of colors. Unlike his high-performance boats, Carlson powered his Scimitar with a family-friendly 260 MerCruiser sterndrive in a covered engine compartment. Forty years later, used Scimitars are prized by folks wanting to restore a classic runabout.
Jim Wynne was one of the biggest contributors to high-performance powerboating in the 1950s and 1960s. After earning his master’s degree at MIT, Wynne joined Mercury Marine, testing motors at Lake X, Mercury’s top-secret testing facility in central Florida. In 1957 he started his own gig, assigning himself a project: To perfect a sterndrive that he and Charles Strang (then director of research at Mercury, and later president and CEO of OMC Marine) had been developing on their own while both worked for Mercury. Wynne linked an outboard lower unit to an 80-hp Volvo gas engine through a series of universal joints, tinkered and tested the combination until it worked, then won his class in the 1959 Miami-Nassau powerboat race. In 1960, he applied for a patent, which was granted in 1968. While both Strang and Wynne might rightly claim the title of “Father of the Sterndrive,” Wynne’s name is on the patent. It’s number US3376842A, if you’d like to check.
Often working in collaboration with Walt Walters, Wynne also designed, built and raced boats, winning a roomful of trophies, including the World Offshore Championships in 1964 and 1966. In the 1960 Miami-Nassau race, in the rough conditions that made Ray Hunt’s deep-V the go-to bottom for offshore powerboats, Wynne, driving Aqua Hunter, a 24-foot deep-V with twin 80-hp Volvos and his Aquamatic sterndrives, finished two hours behind Dick Bertram’s 31-foot Moppie. The other boats either dropped out or finished the following day. At the time, Sports Illustrated called Wynne “the wildest ocean racer of them all.”
Wynne also designed boats for the rest of us, working with Formula, Donzi, Cigarette, Phoenix, Chris-Craft and Hatteras. In 1962, he was winning races with a 17-foot deep-V called Wyn-Mill. This attracted the attention of high-profile builder and racer Don Aronow, who hired Wynne and Walters to design the first model for his new Formula Marine Company. The Formula 233 was followed by the Formula Junior, a consumer version of Wyn-Mill. When Aronow started Donzi in 1964, his first boat was also a Wyn-Mill derivation, the 16-foot Ski Sporter. A variation of the Ski Sporter was called the Sweet 16, and it was the boat that made any waterfront kid with a heartbeat drool. Sleek and sexy, it had tuck-and-roll upholstery, a top speed around 45 knots, and enough sex appeal that even a nerdy kid with glasses and a pocket protector could get pretty girls to go for a boat ride. I still want one.
Plywood was a new material for boatbuilding in the early 1950s. Glen L. Witt, a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, imagined and facilitated the creation of boats that made use of its properties. Before World War II, the adhesives in plywood wouldn’t stand up to moisture; Witt once commented that the material would come apart in a heavy fog. But the war changed all of that. It took a while for plywood to be accepted, though: Many traditional yacht designers and builders looked down their noses at it, and some still do. “Gerald Taylor White at Westlawn didn’t think much of my father’s ideas,” said Gayle Brantuk, Witt’s daughter. White, who started the Westlawn school in 1930, sent Witt a scathing letter detailing his feelings. The company still has it on file, along with more than 300 designs in the Glen-L catalog, most for plywood construction. Witt created about half of those boats on his own; the rest were drawn by designers working under his supervision, notably Ken Hankinson, who worked for Glen-L for more than 22 years.
The DIY trend put boats within reach of folks who couldn’t afford to buy a finished model but who had the skills and time to invest their sweat equity. For those who needed a little help, Witt wrote the book—literally: His Boatbuilding With Plywood is still the go-to text for the amateur boatbuilder. “My father’s goal was to bring boatbuilding within the capability of guys, and they were all guys back then, with average skills,” said Brantuk. “Now we have quite a few women who have built our boats.” Witt’s daughter runs Glen-L, along with her husband, John. Witt passed away a couple of years ago, aged 98.
Witt provided full-size patterns with his plans, so home builders didn’t have to loft their own parts. (Lofting is drawing the various components in full size from the scaled drawing on the plans. It’s a process that has defeated many amateur boatbuilders, not least of all because it takes a lot of floor space.) Initially, Witt and his crew built each boat themselves to ensure all the parts went together correctly—Brantuk says her father estimated he’d built between 50 and 55 boats himself. She has no idea how many boats have been built by other folks using Glen-L designs, but it’s well into the thousands. Many people have built more than one; Brantuk recently received a photo from a man who had just finished his seventh Glen-L boat.
The design world is full of innovators who opened the door to new shapes and concepts that pushed the envelope. These were but seven of them. There are many more, and we owe them all a sincere thank you.