Sunday, June 7, 2009

Phil Bolger and the Alternate Universe

Phil Bolger, the prolific boat designer, died last week. Phil didn't design racing sailboats; you won't find a fleet of "Martha Jane" designs doing a NOOD regatta, nor will you find a fleet of Windsprint's sitting wrapped in top and bottom covers in a dinghy park. As far as I know, Phil had only one production fiberglass design, the Dovekie. Phil did over 700 designs. Some of them were weird concepts.... in the realm of lets throw this against the wall and see what sticks.

A racing sailor, if he recognizes Phil Bolger's name at all, knows him as a eccentric designer of boxy, high sided, plywood craft sporting classic rigs; lug, gaff, sprit .... the "Instant Boats". That was also my opinion of him when I was in my twenties. But with age, comes wisdom, and an understanding of the creative genius of Phil Bolger.

What Phil did was create an alternative yachting universe; just like Hobie Alter did with the beach cats and Hoyle Schweitzer did with the Windsurfer. Phil's plywood boxes were easily homebuilt and today, with other designers working in the same medium (Jim Michalak), there is an entire boatbuilding/sailng/cruising culture that shows up to myriad Messabout gatherings such as Cedar Key (80 boats) and Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival (close to 200 craft). Phil was the original American homebuilding beatnik that presaged by 30 years today's boat building boom in kayaks, and canoes, a boom fueled by "make your own boat kit" companies as Chesapeake Light Craft and Pygmy.

Phil wasn't just box boats, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of North American maritiime history and he could draw a curvaceous schooner, a dory, a rum runner speed boat, a traditional cat boat..... with the best of them.

Phil, like many successful designers was a good promoter, writing monthly design brief columns in "Small Boat Journal" and "Messing About In Boats". His books published detailed plans of many of his boats, so much so that you could build his boats out of the books and avoid the royalty fees, as I assume many cheapskate sailors have done.

I will have more on Phil Bolger boats down the road. If you tire of reading one of your several books on Laser racing, I recommend you pick up Phil's book "Boats with an Open Mind" to get a flavor of his multifaceted genius.

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