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An appreciation: John Merrifield

The Merrifield-Roberts co-founder built boats for the likes of Dennis Conner and Buddy Melges

The Merrifield-Roberts co-founder built boats for the likes of Dennis Conner and Buddy Melges

John Merrifield died Aug. 10 at the age of 65 years from a brain tumor that took him in five months. John was a sailor and boatbuilder his whole life, one hard-working son-of-a-bitch.

As a young man he won many sailing trophies, including the Sears Cup. He held a pilot’s license when he was a teenager and flew with his father. He served in the Army and worked on Wall Street, as his father wished, until he finally broke free. He always built things — mostly boats — and eventually worked alongside Robert E. Derecktor in Mamaroneck, N.Y., building the 12 Meter Valiant and the 53-footer Congere. He would quote Bob for the rest of his life, always reciting how he would handle a situation.

John moved over to Minnefords Yacht Yard in City Island, N.Y., and worked with Chuck Sadler building Namis (54 feet), Siren Song (58 feet), Courageous (12 Meter), Tantara (46 feet), Charisma (51 feet), Aries (49 feet), Leonara (39 feet), Independence (12 Meter), Enterprise (12 Meter), Williwaw (46 feet), Black Magic (42 feet), Acadia (52 feet), Tabasco (41 feet), Obsession (46 feet), Love Machine (43 feet), Williwaw (46 feet), Viola (40 feet), Pinta (40 feet), Freedom (12 Meter) and Tatoosh (46 feet).

John had many Chuck Sadler stories, like when they had to founder a 12 Meter’s keel and the mold opened at the end of the pour, covering the floor with 60,000 pounds of lead 3 inches thick. And the time he had the yard boys paint his airplane, which he kept at the boatyard, and they sanded off all the rivet heads in preparing the surface, ruining the plane.

One of John’s chores was to build carbon fiber rudders for some of the boats, which was the first time that material had been used in offshore racing sailboats. He was excellent at research and getting information out of people and strangers, especially aerospace engineers.

In 1979 Andy MacGowan and Bob Connell brought John to Newport (R.I.) Offshore Ltd. — where we met for the first time — to build the 12 Meter Clipper. They encouraged him to continue his research and take boatbuilding to new heights, achieving many firsts in the global boatbuilding marketplace.

What a think tank we had going then. He built Intuition (42 feet), Yeoman (45 feet), Artemis (51 feet), Bullfrog (55 feet), Bright Finish (42 feet), and Zero (51 feet), all of which used high-temperature cure prepreg decks; the aluminum hulls got increasingly lighter and stronger. He employed titanium steering wheels and fittings, custom made using a material boats simply weren’t made of.

He built the 12 Meter Defender for Tom Blackaller, including her prepreg carbon boom and poles. For Dennis Conner, he built the 12 Meters Spirit of America and Liberty — the boat that lost the America’s Cup after some 130 years through no fault of his own, nothing like the inventiveness of Ben Lexan. He also built the 58-footer Temptation.

Times change, and all things come to end, like IOR (International Offshore Rule), SORC (Southern Ocean Racing Conference), the America’s Cup in Newport, and Newport Offshore Ltd. In 1985 John and I co-founded Merrifield-Roberts Inc. in Bristol, R.I., and our first boat was Heart of America — the last aluminum 12 Meter — for Buddy Melges. We also built another Congere, a 77-footer and the last aluminum IOR maxi. We built the IMI ProSail 40 racing catamarans for that professional series, as well as Windstar V, a 53-footer, both composite products beautiful and fast. Along the way he built semiproduction vessels and helped develop such products as the Flarecraft, a carbon fiber flying boat. He also got to build his largest boat ever, Alyconne II, a 90-foot luxury yacht.

John was a master craftsman from the old school, multitalented and skilled in every phase of boatbuilding. As a specialist in every material, he knew which to apply and when. He was first to bring aerospace technology to the marine field until they had no more to give, no more to teach — and they still don’t. They built extremely expensive planes; we built less-expensive works of art called yachts. John was a welder and a painter, and every once in a while he went out to show the boys how to do it. He led men by being out in front.

The last boat he built was Ocean State, a 65-foot-high speed catamaran ferry that runs from Providence, R.I., to Newport. On its maiden voyage it smashed into the hurricane barrier it had to go through. It had been just two weeks since John had a kidney removed, and he was up all night grinding and welding alongside the rest of us at the age of 63. I’ll say it again: He was a hard-working SOB. Tough to keep up with.

He continued to his last day, building custom yachts and public sculptures — visit to see the great stuff he made. He loved his wife, Lise, who loved him back and did her loving duty to the end. He also is survived by his son, John Wright Merrifield.

I spent 25 years with him building the most beautiful of things. (He also adored cars and golden retrievers.) He was as honest as the day is long, hard working, and knew how to meet deadlines and pick up the pieces of a mistake that would make other men cry, correcting them and moving forward without regret. He knew how to finish a project when most didn’t. We will carry on in this tradition.

Kim Roberts, 55, is co-founder and vice president of custom fabricators Merrifield-Roberts in Bristol, R.I. He races a Shields named Folly out of Newport, R.I.