50 years of Bertram
Posted on 02 November 2011
Written by Jim Flannery
Marking Bertram Yacht’s 50th anniversary, company president Alton Herndon touts today’s Bertrams as “hard-core, kick-ass fishing machines,” which is what your grandad also might have said about the boats Richard Bertram built. He might have had a few other choice words for them as well: rugged, seakindly, maneuverable, rough-water boat, a seakeeper.
The Bertram legend lives on, although the boats have changed since grandpa’s day. The legend was born in April 1960 during the 172-mile Miami-Nassau race, when Bertram’s 31-foot Moppie knifed through 8-foot seas and a 30-knot wind to finish two-and-a-half-hours ahead of its nearest rival.
Moppie, named for Bertram’s wife, averaged a little more than 20 mph in those seas, riding a deep-vee hull conceived by C. Raymond Hunt, the design genius who revolutionized powerboating with this hull. Departing from the flat aft section that enables a boat to plane easier, but also causes it to pound, Hunt designed his hull with a constant 24-degree deadrise so the boat could cut and track through big seas. He added horizontal strakes to lift the boat on plane and deflect spray, and he gave it a rounded, bell-shaped V bow to soften the ride.
“Moppie could be driven hard into steep head seas, rolled very little in the trough and could track straight before following crests, a situation in which traditional underbodies would go dangerously out of control,” yachting journalist and racer Carlton Mitchell wrote of Bertram’s 31-footer. “Every successful ocean-racing powerboat since has been a modification of the same basic form.”
Mitchell described that legendary race from Miami to Nassau with Bertram and champion racer Sam Griffith this way in a May 24, 1965, Sports Illustrated article
“We didn’t get caught out in bad weather; we went out in it deliberately. Small-craft warnings had come down at midnight before a 7-o’clock-in-the-morning start, and seas generated by a three-day nor’easter were running undiminished in the Gulf Stream. In that blow, Moppie became airborne at the end of the Miami breakwater to land somewhere short of Cat Cay with a crash that not only collapsed my chair but drove my spine into my skull, and I emerged from the eight-hour ordeal — in which we set a record — feeling like a survivor of the Battle of the Atlantic. But bruised and battered though I was, especially as the wind piped up harder than ever in the Tongue of the Ocean, I had learned that some modern power vessels don’t scare a crew to death in a bit of a blow. They can take it if you can, with comfort or lack of it in direct ratio to speed, and they get you to port safely.”
So was born not only the Bertram legend but also the descriptive term “Bertram weather” — weather only a Bertram will go out in. David Napier, of Dania, Fla., who retired in 1991 as Bertram’s chief designer after 22 years with the company, kept a Bertram 28 Flybridge at his dock for six months in the early ’70s for his personal use, as employees were encouraged to do then. “I’d take it out in the worst weather” — weather the Coast Guard warned him was too rough for small craft, Napier says. But he’d go out anyway and he’d come back in safely.
“After a while, they’d say, ‘OK, Bertram, we’ll keep an eye on you,’ and I’d go out and jump waves on that boat,” says Napier. “I’d go airborne and slosh down comfortable as could be. You couldn’t hurt that boat and it wouldn’t hurt you if you knew how to run it.”
That was the era when Bertram, known for its creative advertising, ran a series of ads generically known as “Just ask them in the boondocks.” These were tales of Bertram owners in Mexico’s Baja (“How to survive seven years in the Baja”) and Tahiti (“In Tahiti, even the best mechanics may have better things to do than fix your boat”) and the Dominican Republic (“When you want to know which boats hold together and which boats fall apart, ask the guys in the boondocks”).
You still hear stories about Bertrams’ legendary ability to hang tough in stormy seas. While visiting Homer, Alaska, in the early spring a half-dozen years ago, Napier saw three Bertrams — two 31s and a 28 — in the town marina among the commercial fishing boats. The air was still cold, about 30 degrees, and seas were running high. Napier says he saw a fisherman in boots and parka tossing fish off the Bertram 28 Flybridge onto the dock. He asked the obvious question.
“Been out fishing?”
“Out there?” Napier asked, eyeing the seas.
The fisherman looked at him with puzzlement. “Why not? We’re running a Bertram here.”
Napier was stunned. The mystique of invincibility endures.
Raceboat is model for the 31
Dick Bertram was not first and foremost a powerboater or a boatbuilder on the day in 1958 when, as one of the America’s Cup crewmembers on the 12 Meter Vim, he saw a 23-foot tender with a Hunt-designed deep-vee hull slicing through a heavy chop on Block Island Sound. Bertram was a champion sailboat racer who had won trophies in college and crewed on winners in the Southern Ocean Raving Conference and the Newport-Bermuda Race, which he and Mitchell won three times running — 1956, 1958 and 1960 — on the yacht Finisterre. He also was a successful yacht broker and boatyard operator who had been helping to nurture the emerging sport of offshore powerboat racing.
After seeing the way the Hunt-designed tender ran through the slop, he commissioned Hunt to build him a 31-foot wooden deep-vee, Moppie. After winning the 1960 Miami-Nassau race, that hull became the plug for a fiberglass mold of the groundbreaking Bertram 31. Bertram built more than 1,800 Moppies until regular production ceased in 1983.
The early Bertrams were built for all sorts of recreational uses — racing, fishing, cruising — but as time went on sportfishing became the Bertram niche, says Lee Dana of Vero Beach, Fla., Bertram’s chief engineer from 1960 to 1989. The builder took a few stabs early on at building motoryachts with jazzed-up interiors to compete with Hatteras in the family cruising market, but Bertram’s target was the hard-core angler.
“That was our thing,” Dana says, so the company aimed for the bull’s-eye. It tricked out the boats for big-game fishing. Interiors were typically Spartan. One early 1980s ad that featured a letter from an angler’s wife named Diane Perry says it all. She writes that her husband bought a 28-foot Bertram Flybridge that she wasn’t all that crazy about.
“I was shocked at the high price we paid for what I considered to be a rather dull and sparsely appointed boat,” the letter reads. “My husband was quick to point out the quality of workmanship down to the tiniest detail and the high resale value. But for two seasons, I felt cheated bouncing around on our highly priced ‘fishing machine.’ ”
Then she tells of encountering 10-foot seas while cruising offshore from Atlantic City, N.J., to Annapolis, Md., and getting tossed around “like ping-pong balls in a fan. … With waves hitting us broadside, the hull slapping down again and again with an ear-splitting sound, and the whirring of propellers in the air, I never felt so close to dying.” But they reached an inlet and made it safely to the marina. Concluding, Perry writes, “Our Bertram is worth every penny we paid for it. … Thank you for making the best boat on the water.”
That was what the men and women who toiled on the floor of the Bertram plant liked to hear. “We told ourselves we’re going to build the finest offshore powerboat in the world, and we really had that in our minds,” Napier says. And the builder had the staff to do it: skilled craftsmen, a crackerjack designer and one of the best engineering departments in the business under Dana.
As anglers ventured farther offshore, the boats became bigger. Dana remembers the Bertram 46 and 54 as its most popular and profitable sportfishermen. “They ran good, they looked good and they caught fish,” he says. The 46, introduced in 1970, was the first Bertram to abandon the Hunt deep-vee hull. Dana says the bigger, heavier boats needed a 15- to 17-degree deadrise in the aft section so they could come up on plane more quickly with less power.
The 54, which debuted in 1981, became an icon of the modern Bertram, a reliable, good-looking sea boat with a big cockpit for fishing and a more luxurious interior for the family and a growing number of anglers who appreciated a finely appointed lair. In the ’70s and ’80s, “We became more competitive in terms of interiors, goodies, galleys and staterooms,” Dana says.
A big contributor to that was Bertram in-house interior designer Marty Lowe. “I think ours were just as good as Hatteras’ toward the end [of that era],” says Dana. “When the boats weren’t doing serious fishing, they became motoryachts. We got the ladies aboard.”
Whittaker Corp., Bertram’s owner from 1967 to 1985, steered Bertram through its halcyon years. The recession of the late 1980s and early ’90s and a short-lived 10 percent luxury tax in the early ’90s nearly killed Bertram, as they did most other luxury yacht builders. Wrecked by these economic tsunamis, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, then ran through a series of caretaker owners before Ferretti Group (www.ferrettigroup.com), a large and respected Italian boatbuilder, bought Bertram in 1998 with the intention of restoring the luster to the name and legend.
Today’s Bertram (www.bertram.com) is more luxurious and more finely styled than the Bertram of yesteryear. The lines are lower and sleeker but still clearly recognizable as those of a Bertram. And the yachts are getting bigger still. Bertram introduced an 80-footer at the 2010 Fort Lauderdale boat show. The $6 million flagship of the fleet is “185,000 pounds of muscle,” with twin 2,400-hp MTUs, a top speed of 35 to 37 knots, and a cruising speed of 30, says Herndon, Bertram’s president since February 2010. With a big, wide-open saloon, galley and dining area looking out through enormous windows and a spacious cockpit and flybridge, the 80-footer could be a very luxurious cruising yacht or a big, bruising sportfishing boat.
Herndon says to expect two more new models soon. “They’ll be longer, lower, sleeker, faster,” he says. “They’ll look like they’re moving while they’re sitting still, but you’ll still recognize them as Bertrams.”
Yet Herndon, a hard-core angler himself and president of rival Hatteras for 11 years in the ’80s and ’90s, is just as excited about the redesigned 54, Bertram’s new tournament battlewagon. Equipped with a pressurized live well, two freezers and six ice and storage compartments in the cockpit, plus storage below for 25 rods, the boat is fitted out for serious fishing. Typical of a Bertram, it offers good speed (40 knots) and a comfortable ride. It, too, is available in a version suitable for cruising or for more laid-back family fishing, but Herndon leaves no doubt where his heart is. And he says he has owner Ferretti’s backing in this.
“It’s sportfishing first,” he says. “We have to build hard-core, kick-ass fishing machines. That’s our heritage.”
See related article:
- Bertram owners
This article originally appeared inthe November 2011 issue.