Boat Designer, Gloucester, Massachusetts
By Joseph Gribbens
Nautical Quarterly 21, Spring 1983
When you call Phil Bolger on the
telephone, the voice that answers says "Bolger." It
used to ask a pointed "Yes?" It is a curt, Boston accented
voice, and there is an intimation of "What do you want?"
in the single word it pronounces, a thing that makes the caller
feel that he's interrupted something. He has. What he's interrupted
is a thought process that's been going on for 50 years, with many
such interruptions but with probably no real disturbance of its
flow or its complexity.
Bolger is thinking about boats, an intellectual and technical
exercise whose ideal is a purity the designer seems to prize above
all things—a rightness, an exquisite equilibrium that extends
not only to what he calls "designs that are right of their
kind," but to peripheral bits of perfection: the way the
lines go down on paper, the way the parts of his recent small
boats come neatly out of 4' x 8' sheets of plywood, the way the
designer spends his workday, the way he expresses himself in person
and in print.
Bolger is precise. He is also funny,
self-deprecating, easy to challenge on dogma, free with conversation
when he's in the mood for it, and oddly anti-precise in his libertarian
tolerance of new and strange ideas. Conversations with Bolger,
when he gets rolling, skip sideways from yacht design to politics,
ancient history, the space program, sex, money, any number of
things. And they are full of quotes and footnotes from H.G. Wells,
Alexander the Great, Kipling, Mary Renault, W.C. Fields, any number
of people. Although he works in a field that he claims is "really
not worth the time of really able people," be gives it his
time every workday and, one suspects, pretty much every instant,
awake or asleep with dreams of an ultimate portable daysailer
or some dead-simple outboard workboat. Bolger is inspired by thoughts
of boats that will be pure and perfect, but unbothered—so
he says—by boats that incorporate the "crude solutions"
he cheerfully admits in a lot of his own work. "Some boats
than others; but it's not important that they be better,"
he says in a conversation about the uses to which various types
He means this "any sort of
boat will do" in the general sense that a boat roughly suitable
to its purpose can achieve its purpose, and in the social sense
that it's good for people to enjoy themselves on the water whatever
they're in, so long as they don't get drowned. But in a very thoughtful
article he wrote for this magazine's ninth issue, Bolger described
L. Francis Herreshoff's H-28 as "a deliberate mediocrity"
in concept, but a boat that "if built exactly as designed
down to the last detail (and the details are defined on sheet
after sheet of large-scale drawings). . moves from mediocrity
to a universal prototype, original essence of small cruising boat.
. . It's a haunting and frustrating achievement. Generations of
young designers and boatbuilders have tinkered with it, trying
to make it faster, or roomier, or something. The result is always
a mediocrity that looks mediocre. In context, different means
spoiled. There's a lot to be learned from studying this design;
but to apply the lessons you have to start over with a blank sheet."
In several remarks in his latest
book for International Marine, Bolger illuminates his unique,
austere approach to shaping boats. Burgundy, his sharpie variation
of the L.F.H. Rozinante, is able to be built by Brad Story for
less than a third of the cost of a Rozinante on the shop floor
that looks like a Stradivarius. "`There's a catch,"
writes Bolger. "Rozinante is one of the all-time masterpieces
of art. For visual satisfaction, three Burgundys don't equal one
Rozinante Notwithstanding Brad's Yankee outrage (at her cost to
build), I think the Rozinante is worth what she costs. But for
somebody who doesn't have the price of a Rubens original, there
may be some merit in a Playboy centerfold "—(i.e.,
Bolger's lovely Burgundy).
In discussing Wisp, a canoe-form
20' sloop built by a man who gave her the best of materials and
finish, and didn't mind building three trunks for a pair of bilgeboards
and an inboard rudder, Bolger notes: "This is a goldplater,
something I'm seldom immediately comfortable with.. I tend to
go off and try to produce something cheap and expendable that
will do the same job." And writing about the angled, shield-shaped
transom of Fancy a lovely 15' gaff sloop of Muscongus Bay inspiration,
Bolger discusses the uselessness of such a stern and concludes:
"I've often thought of offering a reward for a good reason
why pretty girls shouldn't chew gum. A legitimate excuse for a
stern of this kind would be welcome in the same way, as it makes
me uncomfortable to draw something degraded in its action by its
There is a tension here between
perfect but elite little boats like Francis Herreshoff's masterpieces
and the boats for everybody that Bolger has designed with inspired
inventiveness for decades. It is a creative tension for the designer.
Bolger has drawn his share of goldplaters, and some of them boats
that were exquisitely right, when he or the client gave the work
few restrictions of time, money or materials. But yacht design
is a game for Bolger, and limitations of time, money and materials
are rules in the game. It is a game he enjoys playing, and the
goal is to achieve boats that are beautiful, well-behaved, safe
in a variety of mischances, and a pleasure to be in. They should
also be simple in structure and rig, undemanding in maintenance,
and easy on their personnel. These final qualities define Bolger's
version of the game. He has applied himself to
bringing simplified and frequently cheap boats closer to his own
ideals of rightness for nearly 30 years, and more than a few of
his 433 designs to date have come close. A very few, in the designer's
careful judgment, have been close to perfect. But they are different
boats—the title of one of Bolger's four books for International
Marine—and they are products of different mental processes
from those which produce designed-around-the-rule IOR boats, competent
copies of traditional Yankee workboats, or even never-before-seen
multihulls and performance powerboats.
Bolger's grandfather was an inventor,
which may account for his grandson's inventive fervor in terms
of genes. Among other influences, it probably does account for
his freedom and freshness of vision. Thomas Patrick Bolger came
to Boston from Prince Edward Island, an eager immigrant who "was
a plumber who turned into an inventor," according to the
designer. Grandfather Bolger invented things to be made out of
steel that had previously been made out of wood, and his principal
invention -"the one that made money"—was the steel
icebox. Others were a very efficient ash sifter for coal furnaces
and a plant box that irrigated itself. "He was an ingenious
contriver," says his grandson, choosing his words precisely,
and he was a man who had a safe full of granted patents when he
died. Phil Bolger's father, William A., was salesman and business
agent for the family company that sold the steel iceboxes "all
over the place," in
Latin America and Bermuda as well as in the U.S.
"My mother's people were master
fishermen and vessel owners on both sides," says the designer,
"but not in my time." The Cunningham family of Cunningham
& Thompson of Gloucester owned the celebrated fishing schooners
Arethusa and Ingomar, among scores of others, both built early
in this century by Tarr and James in Essex, Massachusetts, from
designs by Tom McManus.
William A. Bolger died suddenly
in 1934, and it was a crisis for the family, although Phil, then
seven years old, doesn't recall hard times. His mother, Ruth Cunningham
Bolger—still a vigorous woman at 89 who keeps the house
in Gloucester that she helped design with her husband and a perhaps
overwhelmed architect, and still plants the flower garden with
its hedge of lilacs—coped and carried on through the Depression
so that her younger son never noticed much change. "She is
a woman of strong character," says Bolger.
Phil's brother Bill, who he describes
in contrast to himself as "a competent type," took a
hand in his upbringing, being a fatherly ten years older, and
gave the future yacht designer his first boat. "My brother
thought it would be interesting to build a boat out of Masonite.
. . It didn't work out at all well, so he gave it to me. He had
made a skate sail, which I took, and he taught me to make the
hardware for the sail and the boat in my grandfather's shop...
It didn't sail very well, but I can say that I had a boat with
leeboards, an unstayed mast and a wishbone boom 45 years ago."
Phil Bolger's "first real
boat"—although the Masonite contraption would seem
to be very real in terms of influence—was a 16' Chesapeake
catboat designed by Ralph Wiley and built by brother Bill, a legacy
to the younger brother when the older went off to war. "It
was a very exciting boat to sail—big rig and nose-heavy,"
Bolger recalls. It was a boat that Bolger sailed until he followed
his brother into the Army. Phil Bolger is of that generation that
had its adolescence during World War II, and it is the generation
that produced the Hell's Angels and now-forgotten bouts of "chicken"
on the highways as games of courage to counter elder brethren
who had experienced The War. Bolger went to Bowdoin to study History,
but he was soon seduced by soldiering. "I called up a friend
to see what he was going to do," Bolger remembers of that
first summer after a year of college. "He said he was going
into the Army, and I made a snap decision to go with ... . We
were determined to be good soldiers—infantry soldiers—
to do it right." Bolger and his friend were warned by the
sergeant in charge of the exams that if they didn't score well
they would end up up the infantry, so they "tried to figure
out the wrong answers."
They didn't succeed. Bolger went
to the combat engineers and his friend went to field artillery.
Bolger was in the 1st Cay, in the Army of Occupation in Japan
for a year, and he was, in his own judgment, "extraordinarily
incompetent," although a crack shot on the rifle range.
"When I got out I went back
to college on the G.I. Bill and wasted three more years studying
History," he says. He graduated cum laude from Bowdoin, and
he took with him not only laurels but a distaste for what he indicts
as "an academic establishment that is wrecking American civilization."
Bolger describes himself as "a card-carrying Libertarian,"
and he feels that students who learn on their own, and get good
at something, should have the same access to professions as students
who have gone through the motions of acquiring an academic ticket.
Bolger soon sought a ticket in yacht design, a thing that, true
to his principles, seems to be granted on performance rather than
school credentials. When Bolger was back at Bowdoin, Lindsay Lord
published The Naval Architecture Planing Hulls, and Bolger wrote
him a letter that questioned some detail in the book. When he
graduated, he was invited up to Falmouth Foreside, Maine, to work
as a draftsman. Lindsay Lord was designing "very striking—spectacular—houses
then," Bolger remembers. But it was a good apprenticeship
in boat design. "Doc is certainly a very brilliant man,"
says Bolger of this versatile designer whose powerboats were very
adventurous in the 1940s and 1950s. "No praise is too great
for his generosity to me."
Bolger worked for Lindsay Lord
for less than a year before Lord recommended him to John Hacker
in Detroit, a fast-boat wizard who was busy with contracts for
the U.S. Air Force. "It was, for me, a gathering of confidence,"
Bolger says of his months with Lindsay Lord, "and that was
one of Doc's talents." With Hacker, Bolger needed all the
confidence he could get. The company that had contracted the rescue
boat for the Air Force—the Huron-Eddy Corp. —was what
Bolger describes as "a menagerie of boat designers."
The boat was the largest hull that Hacker had ever designed, a
90-footer, and it had three Packard engines with vee drives and
with the props under the engines. Hacker had designed raceboats
like this, and the project should have been a piece of cake, but
the old man seemed to be much too responsible to the Air Force.
"Jim Eddy, who was in charge of the weights, would come in
and tear his hair over the extra structure that Hacker kept putting
into it," Bolger remembers.
Bolger remembers a lot more illustrative
things from his months with Lindsay Lord and John Hacker, and
from part-time work for Francis Herreshoff as a draftsman when
he came back to Gloucester from Detroit in 1952, but the most
significant things he took from these short apprenticeships may
have been attitudes rather than lessons in structure or mathematics.
Lord, Hacker and Herreshoff have all been described as geniuses,
and all three were independent men with inventive turns of mind,
eccentricities, and an indefinable ability to work through a complex
of requirements and possibilities to lines on paper that represented
more than a sequence of problems solved. It would have been a
stroke of luck for any student of yacht design to have worked
with one of these men; that Bolger worked with all three is extraordinary.
And it seems to have been luck—"I went after them,"
he says, "but it was luck that they held still for it."
Yet Bolger claims his brother, Bill, and boatbuilder Nicholas
Montgomery as his real mentors. "My brother brought me up
to boat design, and taught me to be critical," he says. Nicholas
Montgomery, whose boatyard in Gloucester is now run by his son
and grandson, with Phil Bolger as in-house designer, was "a
thinker and an experimenter,"
Bolger says. Montgomery was an old school designer/boatbuilder
who worked with carved models, and Phil Bolger haunted his yard
as a boy. "I used to sit at his feet, and he would lecture
me on boat design," the designer says, smiling through his
beard at the memory.
Bolger sent a design for a clean-lined
32' sportfisherman to Yachting in the fall of 1951, and it was
published in the January, 1952, issue. This first published design
elicited "a satisfying amount of correspondence— probably
three letters," and it caused Bolger to set up on his own
in the house in Gloucester with stock designs for "mostly
powerboats, with a few rowboats." None of these early designs
showed obvious influence from Lord, Hacker or Herreshoff. The
powerboats were lean and angular; the rowing boats—among
them the original of the Gloucester Gull rowing dory—were
plywood versions of dories and dory skiffs. They were original
conceptions, and they were typically simplified in line and structure.
In the middle to late `fifties,
Bolger worked up some production boats, two of which began to
make his reputation and one of which tore it down. Bolger freely
admits mistakes and disappointments in the boats he designs, and
he does it in print. Mistakes are nature's way of telling you
you're still learning. He designed the first Striker sportfisherman,
and he learned some things about steel construction from the builder.
The first Striker was a 24-footer, and Bolger, like Hacker with
the Air Force boat, designed a complicated frame structure to
be covered with 14-gauge steel. The Nassau-Suffolk Welding Company,
which built the boat, used heavier plating for a monococque structure
and dispensed with the framing scheme except to use it as a jig.
The hull oilcanned in only a few places during its shakedown run,
and "the builder much improved the job," says Bolger.
Those first Strikers, with rakish, patrol-boat lines and clean
planes of steel and later aluminum, were very beautiful boats.
"They didn't sell very well because they didn't run very
well," says the
designer, "but they looked wonderful."
Bolger had been designing sea-skiff
types in the `fifties, too, and in 1956-57 he designed a carvel-planked
31-footer for Egg Harbor that was a thorough success. "My
boast is that it was about two years before any of them came on
the used-boat market, and then they sold for more than they had
originally." After this, he says, "pride ran before
a fall." His friend Terry Kilborne came to him with a scheme
"to build boats in Japan where boats can be built cheap."
The result was the Out O'Gloucester 30, a "very radical design."
It produced what Bolger describes as "the worst day I ever
had." When launched, the first of these cruising/fishing
powerboats "was 5 inches down in the stern, wouldn't steer,
reached for the moon in
trim." Fortunately, Yachting came out that month with an
article by Ed Monk on shingles to correct trim problems in powerboats;
we did exactly what Monk recommended, and it worked."
Bolger designed powerboats for
Striker until the mid-1960s, and at the same time he produced
a series of power "dories" and "sampans" for
Captain Jim Orrell's Texas Dory Boat Plans. These were dead-simple
flatiron/sharpie types in lengths from 15' to 45' for cheap and
simple home construction in plywood, and they were exceptionally
well-behaved boats despite their shoebox shapes. They were built
all over the world—a slick 15-footer as a family boatbuilding
project by the keeper of the Eddystone Light in St. Helens, Tasmania
110 boats from 18' to 30' built by native fishermen on Wallis
Island in New Caledonia; hundreds more built by handy and penny-pinching
customers in the U.S. A man in Rhode Island wrote Captain Orrell
about his Bolger-designed 17' "Sampan Express:" "In
rough water, it is unbeatable, and consistently puts the stock
boats to shame in both speed and handling. In three-to-five-foot
chop, while others are hanging on and hoping, we continue on at
¼ throttle. Surfing down the big ones is quite a thrill,
and with the tremendous bow buoyancy no need to worry about digging
Bolger's interest in simple boats
made from developable materials such as wide planks of pine or
sheets of steel, aluminum or plywood goes back to that Masonite
boat with the kite sail, although it has been influenced by such
academic and/or purposeful exercises as Howard Chapelle's researches
into sharpies and the worldwide success of the Texas Dories. Bolger
feels that he has had more experience with sharpie types than
anybody alive, experience that has included crewing a Star boat
for years; owning sailing sharpies. dories and flatiron skiffs
for decades; and designing hundreds of plane-sectioned hulls that
gave good service. "It's a thing I can do—so I do it,"
he says, which expresses not half his belief in sharp-form, shallow-draft
boats that go together simply and go against the ancient orthodoxy
of round sections as the only able form for boats
with seakeeping ability or even comfort in a bay chop.
Sharp-form boats nave their own
orthodoxy in New England dories in Chesapeake skipjacks, and in
skiffs, garveys and flatirons built for a hundred years from Maine
to Florida, where Commodore Ralph Munroe, pal of Nat Herreshoff,
was a partisan of the type. Howard I. Chapelle's Smithsonian Bulletin
228 describes them nicely (Chapelle was another partisan) and
notes that: "The sharpie's rapid spread in use can be accounted
for in its low cost, light draft, speed, handiness under sail,
graceful appearance, and rather astonishing seaworthiness ...
There is a case on record in which a tonging sharpie rescued the
crew of a coasting schooner at Branford, Connecticut, during a
severe gale, after other boats had proven unable to approach the
Bolger is a 1980s-and-beyond sharpie
partisan, principally because these boats are able to be everyman's
yacht, stuck together in the backyard from plywood available in
the local lumberyard, and also because their performance can be
exciting and their behavior forgiving with proper design. His
sharp-form boats have ranged from the elegant Burgundy and Black
Skimmer (shown in these pages) to the Thomaston Galley and the
controversial June Bug (also shown here). June Bug recently raised
the hackles of a from-the-first-issue subscriber to The Small
Boat Journal, who complained of "Phil Bolger's box"
and felt that the magazine had "lost sight of the definition
of a boat." June Bug is definitely a box with a pointy end—
"an order of magnitude away," as Bolger might say, from
an Edwardian yacht tender of similar volume. But she's a lightweight,
stable and useful vehicle as designed, and Bolger anticipated
the man's arguments in 30-Odd Boats, his new book, by commenting
on his sharpie purism: "The purist approach results in a
very good boat that looks cheap and nondescript. So why not add
just a little flare of side and a corresponding rake of stem?
Then the sheer could come out of a straight-edged sheet and save
at least one long saw cut and possibly a sheet of plywood, i.e.,
she'd be cheaper as well as `look more like a boat.' There's an
attractive argument that a good boat will look good, and if it
doesn't, the designer hasn't made the best of his requirement,
or the requirement is too demanding to be prudent. May be. But
it also makes me uneasy to deliberately design in something that
I'm sure is wrong for the service, and in this case I decided
not to do it."
June Bug is a pointed box, but
she's a more subtle creation than the amateur flatirons that many
of us remember from our first days on the water. She rows nicely,
sails tolerably well with her spritsail and leeboard, weighs less
than 100 pounds and carries 1000 in calm conditions, and her decked
ends enable her to be launched like jetsam from a high-sided vessel
without taking on water. She's practical, but she's as ugly as
an inflatable by yacht-tender standards. Bolger admits as much,
even though he carries an experimental June Bug with a pair of
dipping lugsails on the deck of his Resolution. The letter to
Small Boat Journal "really stung," he says, "because
it's true." Nevertheless, he believes in both the
usefulness of his boxes and their technical credibility. "I
designing boats of a type I was familiar with," he says.
"I started designing imitations of things like Amesbury skiffs
that were expensive to produce one-off—because they had
been designed originally for production. Now I'm getting a better
handle on prefabricated shapes—so that I eventually hope
to be able to do some very complex shapes... If you can visualize
the geometry well enough you can do it, and I think I'll get it
if I persist. I don't intend to abandon the boxes."
Harold Payson builds and sells
plans for 14 of Bolger's plywood "Instant Boats," some
of them the inspired boxes, and all of them able to be built without
lofting or jigs in 40 unskilled hours or less. Dynamite Nyson's
covering letter for these small-boat plans reads like the Charles
Atlas ads, and the plain but efficient little boats that result
are as satisfying as adding 3" to the girth of your biceps
after a month of Dynamic Tension. Amy Payson keeps albums of photos
and letters from pleased home-builders, and Harold says of the
boats that "a lot of them look real damned good—they
look just like they're supposed to." Harold Nyson is a man
Phil Bolger describes as "one of those people who don't overwhelm
you with brilliance on first acquaintance, but you gradually notice
that, whenever you get an opinion out of him, he always turn out
to be right. I know two or three other people like that, and I
sometimes wonder if civilization doesn't depend on them."
Payson has been building boats
for 40 years, ever since his father took an ax to the first one
to keep him from being drowned, and he was a commercial lobsterman
in South Thomaston, Maine, until 1976. He built traditional bent-oak-and-cedar
lobstering skiffs until 1967, the year he built the first of many
light dories of Bolger's design. Payson and Bolger have become
a perfect, if improbable, team. Bolger is, says Dynamite, "an
intense sort of person—I can feel that intensity when he
comes up here." Dynamite, despite the nickname, is not an
intense sort of person. He is, despite constant interruptions
by visitors to his shop, an intense craftsman who produces perfect
versions of Bolger's odd but simple ideas for small boats, and
he's the test pilot for their rowing and sailing qualities. He's
not an automatic believer. "I don't think this thing is going
to work at all," he said of an ultra-simplified, multi-chined
plywood pram that was the latest Bolger project in midsummer.
In mid-August, after he'd named it Nymph, tried it out, and decided
to call it "the little sticktogether boat," he was high
in praise of it. "That Bolger is amazing," he said,
turning over the shapely little boat he'd painted ivory white,
"see here where the frames fit—there are waterways
cut in just where thechines have to have tapes of fiberglass all
along—you can get them right in there."
Bolger's inventive small boats
have a believer in Harold Payson. His larger projects have had
a believer for 20 years in Stanley Woodward, an independently
wealthy man, and a connoisseur of small yachts, who hire Bolger
as the in-house designer for Majorca Yacht and Boat Construction
Association (MYABCA), the yard he established in Spain's Balearic
Islands. Bolger describes Stanley Woodward as an artist as well
as yachtsman who has the skills to carry clouds of sail on his
Bolger-designed boats with the aplomb of a Bully Waterman. Stanley
Woodward designed the fanciful sculpture incorporated, la Ticonderoga,
into the L. Francis Herreshoff Bounty ketches he built in Majorca,
and into several Bolgerdesigned boats built in the Med. Perhaps
the most spectacular is Moccasin, shown here on pages 72-75.
Moccasin started out with a request
from Woodward for a Francis Herreshoff Nereia ketch with slightly
higher freeboard. By the time Bolger finished thinking the project
out, a whole new boat had appeared on paper—a lovely long-keeled
hull with shallow draft, big centerboard, a New Haven sharpie's
horizontal rudder, and an unstayed cat-yawl rig with a log-canoe
topsail and what Bolger describes as "a masthead reaching
jib-cum-spinnaker as well." Moccasin can set more than 1200
square feet of sail in light air; and she's a fine example of
Bolger's eclectic style in rig and his favor for the powerful,
low-aspect sailplans which working vessels carried, sometimes
as singlehanders, in the past. As Bolger wrote in 30-Odd Boats
in discussing an owner's doubts about a traditionally rigged 20'
Tancook whaler type: "I reassured him about the rig, pointing
out that the gaff rig was driven out of racing because the Universal
and International Rules both penalized large sail area indiscriminately,
taking no account of the advantages of rigs whose shape allows
the boat to carry more sail without being knocked down. So it
came to be taken for granted that a small sail set high was `more
efficient' than a large sail set low. The logic of this, if any,
eludes me. I once saw a champion 5.5-meter beaten hull-down by
a 50-year-old Massachusetts Bay 18-footer (18-foot waterline,
that is). They were both the same length and weight as near as
made no odds. The old boat had half again the sail area, but her
three-man crew worked less strenuously, with much simpler and
cheaper gear, than the same number in the `modem' boat. If a big
rig is cheaper and easier to handle than a small rig, and heels
the boat less, I'd be glad to hear somebody try to justify giving
the small rig a rating advantage."
Simple, unstayed, low-aspect rigs
have been characteristic of Bolger's work over several decades,
as well as boats whose hull forms have been designed to be shaped
from flat-plane materials. The sharpies and flatties, from the
simple boxes to such rakish conceptions as his Black Skimmer,
cause Bolger some technical doubts in particular but not in general
Sharpie experience, from Commodore Munroe through Howard Chapell
to the owners of Bolger-designed boats that perform and behave
well endorses his faith in the type. "Obviously something
with hard corner will have some problems with eddies," he
says. "The flat ends, with the jagged angles, make turbulence,
so such a boat has to be relatively long... But there's nothing
wrong with a square midsection, per se." In a further discussion
of hull shape, Bolger says that "a bad type which is long
will beat a good type that is short." The Cape Cod catboat,
he says is one of the great conceptions because its midsection
is so good that it car be very short and still sail well. The
British deep cutter, he says, "is generally a bad type because
it has too much displacement for its stability—and, as built,
for its buoyancy—and therefore has to be long tc perform
well." Almost any boat should be flat in the middle, not
at either of its ends, he says.
Bolger has designed an amazing
range of boats that stretch from the 6'5" x 3'2" Tortoise,
an ingenious rowing/sailing box, to the 114'l0' replica of the
18th-century warship Rose, which was built to decorate the Newport,
R.I., waterfront. In between have been well-behaved Whitehall
boats, Friendship sloops, several ocean-crossing rowing vessels,
lobsterboats, a pair of kayaks, deep-draft cruising powerboats,
a bone-simple wing dory, the famous Folding Schooner (discussed
in NQl4), and fast owerboats that the Italians should be building.
"I love to simplify things,"
Bolger says of his work. `And I think this is a minority outlook.
I think the majority impulse is to make things more complicated."
Even this statement is more complicated, the spokesman notwithstanding.
Bolger admires the work of a great many other designers—"there
are lots," he says. He admires William Garden's designs,
"although I disagree with him on a great many technical points."
he has an inch-thick sheaf of correspondence with Howard Chapelle
in his files. He says he admires Olin Stephens "intensely—basically
because he Lever does anything freakish unless he has to—he's
always working back something recognizable as a boat." Among
successful boats, he identifies Bruce Kirby's Laser as "a
beautiful example of not trying to revolutionize anything, but
just to get it right. It's finished; it's definitive." Bolger
that Rod Macalpine-Downie's C-Class catamarans also fit his conception
of definitive. He identifies Ray Hunt's International 110 as "a
very pure conception, but not perhaps defimtive...well, close
to definitive." He calls Francis Herreshoff's Bounty "the
most beautiful yacht ever designed or built—a flamboyant
thing with a riot of sweeping, visting, converging curves, all
set off with intricate detail and ornament, [1 blending into a
perfectly traditional effect overall." He judges the Gokstad
ship "perhaps the most advanced wooden structure ever created
Bolger has an intense personal
and professional involvement with definitive. It is a thing he's
been thinking about all his life, but with an independent point
of view he once wrote about in these pages in discussing Francis
Herreshoff: "L.FH. thought himself a lesser man than his
father. . . He had no hesitation in imitating his father's designs
(but never those of Burgess). More often, though, there is hardly
a trace of his father's influence; the designs reflect an entirely
different line of thought. It's surely remarkable that after 27
years of exposure to such a man as Nathanael Herreshoff, Francis
Herreshoff remained so tranquil in mind that he strained neither
to be like his father nor to be different."
Phil Bolger is like that.
His work—influenced by mentors like Lord, Hacker, Herreshoff,
Nick Montgomery and Bill Bolger, and inspired perhaps by the likes
of Garden, Hunt and Stephens—is very much his own. It is
nearly 450 different boats thusfar, nearly all different from
the work of others, and nearly all different from one another.
Bolger once designed a radical plywood daysailer for a sail-training
scheme—a 21' x 5'6" progenitor of the Folding Schooner
with sponsons along the topsides for reserve buoyancy, three spritsails
with spars light enough for boys to unship, leeboards, plenty
of room to sprawl around, and plywood carpentry straightforward
enough for high-school woodworking shops. The sponsor of the project
took the drawings to a number of people, including what Bolger
describes in Small Boats as "a very distinguished yacht designer."
"They one and all told him that the design was a disastrously
bad one, would be slow and clumsy, and would quickly break up.
They also told him that Bolger was
notoriously irresponsible; wild ideas like this, they told him,
were what you got if you didn't hold his nose tightly down on
some safe and sane standard." The design was eventually built
by another client, and Bolger reports that "she proved a
lively sailer, though wet." She had no structural problems.
As he wrote of the project in Small Boats: "What they say
about me has this much truth: I do love unusual and extreme boats,
and I was tickled at the thought of the outrage the design would
cause and how it would be silenced when she was tried."