50 Years of Whaler

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Boston Whaler celebrates a half-century of building unsinkable outboard boats

Boston Whaler celebrates a half-century of building unsinkable outboard boats

Four years after building the first Boston Whaler, company founder Dick Fisher resorted to drastic measures to prove to people that he also had developed the first unsinkable production boat.

In a May 1961 issue of Life magazine, Fisher appeared in photographs that showed him sitting aboard one of his 13-footers — arms crossed and wearing a tweed coat, bow tie and hat — watching casually as the boat was sawed in two. Fisher motored off in the stern half as the bow section bobbed in the water. The stunt was a success. Sales skyrocketed, and the Boston Whaler brand became known and respected by boaters across the country.

“Dick Fisher was a pioneer,” says John Ward, president of Boston Whaler, who spoke to Soundings from the Bahamas, where he was fishing aboard a Whaler (what else?). “If Dick was alive today, I think he’d be proud of where the company has been, where it is now and pleased with where it’s headed. The company has the legs, polish and shine that the brand is worthy of.”

This summer Boston Whaler is celebrating its 50th anniversary, commemorating the milestone with a year of festivities that officially kicks off July 28 in Boston, when the builder unveils its 2008 product line. There also will be a series of events at dealerships and a traveling Boston Whaler museum that will be featured at a number of boat shows.

“This certainly is an exciting time for us,” says Ward, who has been with Whaler for nearly 20 years. “We have the opportunity now to look back over the last 50 years — at the product and its evolution — and look at how we can continue to grow and expand over the decades to come.”

The Boston Whaler story begins in the mid-1950s, when Fisher, a Harvard graduate and co-owner of an electrical equipment company, began experimenting with a light polystyrene plastic called Styrofoam. Fisher and a friend used Styrofoam, fiberglass and epoxy resin to build a small, lightweight sailboat. Fisher showed his creation to longtime friend and naval architect C. Raymond Hunt (the man who designed and patented the first deep-vee fiberglass hull in 1963). Hunt liked Fisher’s use of foam in the hull but suggested applying it instead to a small outboard powerboat.

Fisher followed his friend’s advice, and the men continued to collaborate over the next couple of years, Hunt drawing the plans and Fisher building the prototypes. Fisher developed a construction method, later called Unibond, that utilizes a high-density closed-cell foam sandwiched between two walls of fiberglass. By 1958 the two had come up with a 13-footer they believed was unsinkable and unveiled it at that year’s New York Boat Show. The boat turned heads, so Fisher set up a production facility in Braintree, Mass. He called his boats Boston Whalers, and a company was born.

“I see Dick Fisher as quite the innovator,” says Ward. “To use fiberglass and combine it with foam to create the Unibond construction is remarkable. For that combination to remain largely the same over the years, despite some changes in resins and foams, is also remarkable.”

The company offered just the 13-footer until 1961, when a 16-1/2-footer was introduced. Testing the prototypes for the bigger boat, Fisher used a removable console placed in the center of the boat, which allowed better access on board. Fisher kept the console, making the 16-footer the industry’s first center console boat. The three early 16-footers — the Nauset, Eastport and Sakonnet — featured mahogany consoles with wood-framed windshields (and were forerunners of the enduring Montauk line).

In 1969, at age 55, Fisher sold Boston Whaler to the CML Group, a specialties marketing company based in Acton, Mass. Over the next two decades — Fisher stayed on as a consultant until 1972 — sales continued to grow and the product line expanded. The early 1970s saw the introduction of the Outrage and Revenge models. Designer Bob Dougherty, who had worked with Fisher at Whaler since the early 1960s, was promoted to chief designer and senior vice president of engineering.

In 1987 the company expanded its manufacturing operations by acquiring property in Edgewater, Fla. Headquarters was moved to Rockland, Mass., the following year. CML sold Boston Whaler to shoe manufacturer Reebok in 1989. A year later, Dougherty, who had relocated to the Edgewater facility, left Whaler to start his own company, Edgewater Boats. Today, Dougherty is CEO of Florida fishing-boat builder Everglades Boats.

Whaler was sold again in 1993 to Meridian Sports, which moved the entire operation to Edgewater in 1994. With sales flat, the company shifted more focus to its Commercial Products Division, which builds custom Whaler variants for military, law enforcement and other commercial applications. After only two years, Meridian sold Whaler to Brunswick Corp., the world’s largest builder of recreational boats. Today, Whaler builds 25 models in six lines: Sport, Montauk, Dauntless, Ventura, Outrage and Conquest. At this year’s Miami International Boat Show, Whaler unveiled the 345 Conquest. At 35 feet, 11 inches overall, it is the largest Unibond boat Whaler has built.

“Boston Whaler boats make people feel confident, and that allows people to have more boating experiences, to do things they might not do with other boats,” says Jim Hebert, 56, of Beverly Hills, Mich. Hebert, who owns a Revenge 22 Walk-Through, runs www.continuouswave.com , a popular Web site he describes as an “encyclopedia of boating information, especially for the classic Boston Whaler boat.”

“Although many people think of them as expensive, these days a used classic Boston Whaler boat is one of the best values in boating,” Hebert says. “And new Boston Whaler boats are priced competitively with other premium brands. In most cases there is never a problem with the boat itself. The problems are with other components — the motor, the weather, the waves, but not the boat.”

From that original 13-footer to the big, new Conquest, Whaler designs have come a long way over the years. But despite trends and advances in technology, many Whaler aficionados prefer the classics.

“Of all the models ever made by Whaler, the Montauk 17 [introduced in 1973 as the Cohasset] is perhaps the most versatile and recognizable as a Whaler, as well as being economical to own and operate,” says Tom Clark, 44, of Seattle. Clark owns a 1988 25-foot Revenge Walk-Through, a 1988 Montauk 17 and a 1981 Harpoon 4.6. Ward confirms that the 17-foot Montauk is one of the company’s best sellers.

Kevin Vanacore, of Ocala, Fla., has owned and restored more than 30 Whalers, and he says the 17-foot Montauk is one of the top five boats ever built. “I remember riding one in 5-foot breaking seas, and I caught one wave over the bow, filling the boat to the gunwales,” recalls Vanacore, who is 53. “Most other small boats turtle over quickly, but Whalers don’t. I zoomed back to the bilge plug and, before you know it, she’s making a steady rise to the surface. If I had been in anything but a Whaler there’s no doubt the outboard would have gone under water.”

Unsinkablility is one of the primary reasons boaters continue to buy Whalers, whether new or old. “Safety on the water is key,” says Gary Creasy, a Whaler owner from Olympia, Wash. “Because of the foam construction the condition is much more of a concern than the year. Most older, conventional boats used wood stringers for strength, so after a [while] you [can] get a soft floor from rot. Boston Whalers are in demand because of one word: value.”

As Boston Whaler celebrates its golden anniversary, company president Ward says he is excited about continuing to produce “great, innovative, desirable boats that consumers just gotta have.”

“Brands over the years have tried to copy our Unibond construction,” says Ward, “but none have been able to replicate what we have here at Boston Whaler.” www.whaler.com