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Ted Hood: sailor, innovator, sportsman, builder

Frederick E. “Ted” Hood was a passionate sailor who won the America’s Cup on Courageous in 1974 and parlayed his love of the sport into a 64-year career as a sailmaker, boatbuilder, boat and rigging designer, spar maker and innovator. Hood died June 28 in Middletown, R.I. He was 86.

A man in full: Ted Hood was 'incredibly unique.'

Hood was the founder of Hood Sailmakers, the world’s largest sailmaker in the 1960s and ’70s, and the builder of Little Harbor cruising yachts and later Down East-styled WhisperJet powerboats. He adroitly navigated the tempests of a changing sport and industry, applying his restless and fertile mind to help coax yachting into the 21st century.

Hood started out repairing cotton sails, taught himself how to make them, then gravitated to synthetic materials, developing and weaving his own Dacron material with technical assistance from his father, “the professor,” an engineer and chemist. Hood designed rigs and masts, built masts — with one yachtsman calling him the “Rolls-Royce of spar makers” — and pursued a passion for boatbuilding and design. He designed cruising yachts and high-end powerboats, and two America’s Cup contenders, Nefertiti and Independence, with which he competed for defense of the Cup in 1959 and 1977.

“That was the amazing thing about Ted,” says Doyle Sailmakers CEO Robbie Doyle, who headed research and development at Hood’s loft from 1972 to 1982. “He was not only an amazing sailmaker; he designed rigs and boats. He built boats. He designed masts.”

Yet Hood was the last to toot his own horn. “He did all this without saying much,” says son Ted, one of Hood’s four children and a partner now in Wellington Yachts, a brokerage in Portsmouth, R.I. “He was quiet, humble, shy. He took great pride in his accomplishments, but he let them speak louder than words.”

Those accomplishments started with his love for sailing. “His grandfather and father both were great sailors,” Ted says. “As a young child he used to go racing with his father and grandfather off Marblehead [Mass.].”

“Ted, from his first voyages in a basket in the bottom of a cockpit, never wanted to do anything but go sailing,” his father, Stedman Hood, said in a 1967 profile of Hood in The New Yorker magazine.

Hood built his first sailboat when he was 9, fixing a mast and centerboard to a flat-bottomed rowboat he built and fashioning a hand-me-down piece of canvas into a sail. He was a crackerjack racing sailor in his youth, winning the Mallory Cup — North America’s most prestigious sailing championship — in 1956. “He was one of the best natural helmsmen around,” Ted says. “He could steer the boat, think tactically, look ahead to where the wind was going to be, knew what all the crew were doing. He could even trim the sails from below when he was off watch.”

And he was always “tweaking,” Ted says, running around the boat adjusting this and adjusting that, constantly seeking the perfect trim for that moment. “He loved to be at sea. He was a strong competitor, as well as a gracious loser.”

Sportsman and innovator

Hood at the helm in 1962

Three years after winning the Mallory Cup he designed and built his first raceboat, Robin, winning four of seven races in the New York Yacht Club Annual Cruise in the 38-footer and prompting Time magazine to observe, “Ted Hood’s record was roughly equivalent to a rookie batting .425 in the majors.”

He was named Yachtsman of the Year in 1974 after winning both the America’s Cup in a new Sparkman & Stephens-designed 12 Meter named Courageous and the prestigious Southern Ocean Racing Conference in Robin Too II, a boat of his own design. Hood’s daughter, Nancy Hood-MacLeod, remembers she and her mother, Susan, sailing the SORC with her dad on Robin Too II. “We weren’t just sitting on the rail,” she says. “Mom and I always were on the mainsheet. Those were girl duties.”

As often as possible, racing was a family affair. Vacations were for family cruising, usually on the family boat, a Little Harbor. Susan, Hood’s wife of 58 years, “never stepped on a boat” before she met him. “She was not an athletic person,” Nancy says. “She had to learn everything from scratch and get over seasickness. But she loved it. She loved it because she loved him so much. She took a liking to it. She always said she didn’t expect to like it that much. She made a lot of lasting friendships [through racing and cruising].”

Known as “Sailmaker to the Twelves,” Hood built sails for most of the 12 Meter Cup campaigns from 1958 to 1987 and could be counted on to deliver service to his competitors that was every bit as good as the service he gave his own boats when he was racing against them. “He was a truly honest sportsman,” Doyle recalls.

He and Ted tell a story of the 1977 Cup defender series, when Hood designed a 12 Meter, Independence, and modified Courageous — his 1974 Cup winner — as a trial horse, with Ted Turner skippering Courageous and Doyle working for Turner as a loaner sailmaker and mainsail trimmer. Doyle says it quickly became apparent that Courageous was a tad faster than Independence, but instead of taking Courageous as his steed, Hood continued to tinker with Independence to try to make it faster and honored a commitment to Turner and his crew to let them defend the Cup if they proved faster. “There was nothing in writing, but [Hood] always honored his word,” Doyle says.

Hood always was up for a challenge. Asked to build a single-handed circumnavigator, he delivered the 60-foot American Promise to Dodge Morgan, who soloed it around the world in a record 150 days in 1985-86, becoming the first U.S. sailor to circumnavigate alone and non-stop. He also was an innovator. “He was never afraid to look forward,” Doyle says.

He encouraged others to do the same. If he liked an idea, he didn’t talk it to death. “He wanted to get it out there, try it, see if it worked,” Doyle says. If it didn’t, he told his people not to be embarrassed. He wanted them to test new ideas.

Among Hood’s innovations: the grooved headstay, the dip-pole jibe, roller furling jib, the Stoway mast, the Stowboom, the cross-cut spinnaker. “Whatever he touches — and he touches practically everything — ends up significantly better than what was there before,” Nautical Quarterly said in an article about Hood.

If Hood was an innovator, he also was very much an individualist. He went his own way. “He was a contrarian,” recalls Bruce Livingston, who ran Hood’s Little Harbor sailboat production operations in Taiwan, Singapore and the United States for 14 years and now directs production for Grand Banks Yachts in Malaysia.

Inspired by Carleton Mitchell’s “fat yacht” Finisterre, which won the Newport Bermuda Race three times in the ’50s and early ’60s, Hood developed beamy, shallow-draft, high-aspect-ratio, centerboard, heavy displacement sailboats that delivered good speed on a reach, seakindly performance and plenty of volume for cruising. “On a close reach, they were very good,” Livingston says. And the more you loaded it up, the better it performed. “A lot of people liked his boats.”

Next up: powerboats

1947: Hood at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass.

In the 1980s, Hood sold his sailmaking business in the Little Harbor section of Marblehead and opened the Ted Hood Marine Complex on a surplus World War II fuel depot in Portsmouth, R.I., as he turned his focus to boatbuilding. Hood helped pioneer the move to building offshore. He already had built some boats in Japan and Holland when he began building in Taiwan in 1979, something he continued to do for 14 years, later moving his building operations to Singapore, Turkey, Poland and China.

“Ted’s primary goal was high-quality workmanship for good value,” Livingston says. Hood sent Livingston to Taiwan to turn a commercial fishing boat factory into a yacht-building operation. He says Hood learned early on that success in offshore building is all about how operations are managed, how people are put together as a team. “He was a very supportive boss,” Livingston says. “He encouraged innovation and good ideas. He was good at recognizing talent. He didn’t have time for someone who didn’t give him his best.” Like Doyle, Livingston says Hood focused single-mindedly on improving the quality and design of his boats and building them more efficiently.

Seeing explosive growth in the powerboat market, Hood bought Black Watch, a builder of Ray Hunt-designed sportfishing boats, and built them under the Little Harbor brand. In 1990, Hood came out with his first Down East-styled boats — a 34- and a 36-footer — and they helped pioneer the traditionally styled express cruiser that’s so popular today with older sailors easing out of sail into a genteel powerboat.

Ted says his father began to power the Little Harbors with waterjets so he could build them with a shallower draft for wider cruising. “That was just another piece of the whole puzzle,” he says.

In 1999, Hood sold Little Harbor to an investor group that two years earlier had bought The Hinckley Co. Ted Hood Yachts, his latest venture, builds expedition motoryachts and motorsailers, power catamarans and a “Fast Explorer” series.

Hood was born in Beverly, Mass., in 1927 to Ralph Stedman Hood and Helen Emmart Hood, and grew up in the nearby towns of Danvers and Marblehead. He attended Marblehead High School and Wentworth Institute and served in the Navy in World War II. He is survived by his wife, Susan Blake Hood; and children Richard Hood and wife Carroll McGrath Hood; Frederick “Ted” Hood and wife Anne Vandromme-Hood; Robert Hood and wife Sarah Hood; and Nancy Hood-MacLeod and her husband, Norman MacLeod.

More than 2,000 Hood designs have been launched, and thousands of his sails have been delivered. “He was incredible, unique,” Doyle says. “We won’t see another like him in our lifetime.”

Yet what Nancy will remember most about her father is that he passed his values on to his family. They included working hard, being humble and acting fairly. “He treated everyone he met and worked with,” she says, “with respect, regardless of their station in life. He said you could learn something from everybody.”

September 2013 issue