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Boating’s peerless idea man

In his 80th year, the legendary Ted Hood still looks at a yacht and asks Can I make this better?

In his 80th year, the legendary Ted Hood still looks at a yacht and asks Can I make this better?

Ted Hood, yacht designer and winning America’s Cup skipper, in the last 47 years has built 45 yachts for himself. Some years, he has built and owned two new yachts, each different from and

Read the other story in this package: Ted Hood - What he’s done

usually an improvement on the last. It is his business model. Draw them, build them, win races with them, and sell them along with, hopefully, a fleet of sister ships.

If you talked with Hood a few months ago, he would tell you about his most recent designs — not sailboats like those on which his reputation was built but ground-breaking power catamarans, including his own 52-footer, Twin Robin. It was, he would tell you, the future of boating. (More than one of his friends would tell you it was “plug-ugly.”)

Hood sold Twin Robin in January, but unlike the old days of the business model — when he might introduce one boat in the spring races, sell it in the summer and unveil another in the fall — Twin Robin had been on the market for two years. And despite the yacht’s obvious quality, comfort and huge spaces, he didn’t get the million-dollar-plus figure for which he had hoped. This left Hood, who is 79, lamenting in a characteristic near-whisper: “Being a pioneer is very expensive.”

Ted Hood is, among modern yacht designers, a pioneer without peer. One of his proudest achievements in yachting is his first: developing a superior Dacron sailcloth. That 1950s innovation was but the beginning. His name is linked with design improvements from hull to masthead — advances that include everything from the grooved headstay to his patented rotating keel.

All that, however, is history. With Twin Robin sold, Hood would rather talk about his front-burner projects: two new Expedition motorsailers with which he is stepping halfway back from powerboats. Like all other Hood efforts, these vessels are unique in the market. Their hulls are shaped like powerboats, their masts tower 81 feet above the water, and, he says, they have the ability to sail or motor at 11 knots.

If Hood isn’t in his Portsmouth, R.I., office six mornings a week, thinking of ways to improve the Expeditions, he may be visiting the boatyard in Turkey where these boats are under construction. His obsession with these next creations is undiminished by his years and his success. He remains a man in the grip of ideas.

Those who know Hood best will expound on this theme. “Ted is a unique individual,” says Everett Pearson, a pioneer himself of fiberglass production sailboats and a former business partner of Hood’s. “He’s a very quiet-type guy. I think he spends a lot of time thinking about things and observing things. He comes up with ideas and follows through on them. He’s willing to take a shot.”

Says Dodge Morgan, who set a world record on a Hood-designed yacht: “He follows his own star and is not necessarily one to listen to where style trends are going. He’s inner directed. That’s all he does. The man’s life is basically waking up and thinking or doing, and he’s still doing it.”

“He has a unique ability to conceive of ideas that were ready for the market, ready for the public, that were always an improvement over the current thinking,” says designer Ted Fontaine, whose first job was working for Hood in 1978. “He could motivate somebody to share his enthusiasm in his ideas.”

Susan Hood, who married Frederick Emmart “Ted” Hood in 1955, says of her husband: “His mind is always on.”

A “3-D mind”

On a blustery winter afternoon, Hood leaves his office in a nondescript industrial building and drives across the Portsmouth waterfront property he no longer owns (he sold it to the Hinckley Co. in 1999). The yachts of Hinckley customers are everywhere, as are a couple of Hood’s personal sailboats: the original Robin and Robin One Ton. His boats are inside plastic-covered sheds, each a landmark design and a significant piece of yachting history. Hood parks next door to the boats and goes into the offices of the Fontaine Design Group. Fontaine, a Hood protégé, now owns the studio that once was Hood’s. But one of Fontaine’s employees, a young yacht designer named Steven McNally, works exclusively on Hood’s projects.

The complex lines for the Expedition 55 interior are on McNally’s computer screen when Hood arrives. A few minutes into their discussion, Hood notices something on the computer. How deep, he asks McNally, is that top step of the ladder connecting the companionway to the cabin below? McNally moves his mouse, and the two designers, old man and young kid, discover that a passenger stepping down from the cockpit would have only 6 inches of tread, not enough for safety. They make some adjustments and, before he leaves, Hood quietly imparts some wisdom: “People are the same size, regardless of the size of the boat.”

The stair tread is a tiny detail, but Hood has all those details in his head. He knows that the distance from the backrest of a seat to the front edge should be 19.5 inches, 21 inches for a sofa. There should be 24 inches for each passenger on a cockpit seat, although three can squeeze into 42 inches. “One of his passions is interiors,” explains his son Ted Jr. (There are three other offspring. The three boys — Rick, Ted and Bob — all have been in the family business. Daughter Nancy has not.)

“A boat should be made to do the things you want to do with it,” Hood says. “It’s important for the helmsman to be comfortable, to see where he is going. You should have the jib and main sheets so he can reach them from the wheel. Make sure he can walk around the wheel if possible. Design decks clear so you don’t trip over lines and high coamings.”

Go below on any Hood boat, and you will be able to see the world outside, even when seated, because the ports are at eye level. “A lot of people think you can’t see out because that’s the way it has to be,” he says. “It doesn’t. A lot of people think if you’re in a boat, it’s like camping. You’ve got to rough it. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

John Perkins, a yacht broker who has known Hood since his Marblehead days, refers to Hood’s “active, 3-D mind. That’s Ted’s calling card,” Perkins says. “He’s constantly looking at empirical evidence — meaning boats — and thinking, Why not? He’s always thinking of how to come up with a better slice of cheese.”

Susan Hood says Hood got designer genes from his father and his grandfather.

The first boat

Ralph Otis Hood, Ted’s grandfather, was an inventor who held a number of patents, including one on an early automotive starter and another for a speedometer. In the early 1930s, when Ted was 6 or 7 years old, Ralph was his babysitter, taking the young lad around on sales calls. It was around the time of the repeal of Prohibition, and Ralph was “sort of a man about town,” Hood recalls, doing a low-key W.C. Fields imitation. In the afternoon, Ralph Otis would ask little Ted, “Would you like a ginger ale?” They would turn into Matty’s Sail Loft, a tavern where grandfather would have “a couple of libations, and I’d have my ginger ale,” says Hood.

Hood’s father, Ralph Stedman Hood, held degrees in chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering. He was called “The Professor” and, when Ted was young, worked for Monsanto Chemical Co. The Professor had his own patents and in the 1950s, with his other son, Bruce, invented the machinery and formulated the chemicals to make the foam used in automotive upholstery.

Bradley Noyes, a boyhood friend of Ted’s, spent so much time in the Hood home in Marblehead that Hood’s father “used to call me his third son,” Noyes recalls. “He never was a professor. He was a tinkerer, and he was always inventing things.” One time, Noyes says he asked The Professor, “What do you do about calculus? He said, ‘Bradley, you just have to have ideas. You hire people to do that stuff.’ ”

In 1938, when Hood was 11, his father bought the 40-foot Philip Rhodes canoe-stern cutter Narwhal, which had been wrecked that year in the Great New England Hurricane. The father and his two sons spent weekends in a boatyard in New Bedford, Mass., repairing the Narwhal. “One whole side was gone,” Hood remembers. “She was full of Padanaram mud.” That year, the boy learned caulking from the yard workers, and he did a lot of the carpentry needed to refloat Narwhal.

Three years later, Hood designed and built his first boat, a 12-foot sailing dinghy. “I made a cardboard model first,” he says, then built the boat in his grandfather’s barn. Noyes recalls it was pretty and well-made, a boat “you would think came out of Nevins [boatyard], and he called it Doohdet.”

“I learned how to rig a boat by making model boats with light rigging so it would break when it got overloaded,” Hood says. “I had to be very careful just handling the boat.”

Hood’s thoughts were focused on boats, but the same overflowing mind had room for other interests. Noyes, who went to private high school, and some friends invited Hood, a public school student, to go skiing with them in New Hampshire over one New Year’s holiday. “Ted couldn’t afford to buy any skis, so he spent some evenings in his cellar,” Noyes says. “He laminated up some skis that were spruce and mahogany, and they were beautiful. They didn’t have steel edges. He didn’t know how to ski. He ended up in the parking lot with a broken ski.”

A better sailcloth

High school for both Hood and Noyes ended with draft notices in 1945. Approaching age 18, both teens decided to quit school and join the Navy before the Army got them. Hood at one point found himself painting an entire tugboat before he was discharged in 1946. He finished high school and entered Wentworth Institute in Boston, where he earned an associate’s degree in architecture in 1950. His plan was to build houses, and he had started one that summer in Marblehead. But a neighbor, upset because the new house would ruin his view, offered to pay Hood to tear it down. He took the offer, demolished the house, and started making sails full time in an old loft behind Matty’s, the bar where as a child he had sipped his ginger ale. He bought an old loom that was used to weave tubes of cloth for pillow cases, and he began experimenting.

Hood had been making sails for his friends since high school. He would buy his material from cotton vendors, examining each bolt of cloth in great detail. The problem with all of it was that it stretched. So in 1952, when Orlon became available, he tried it and found that by weaving the cloth very tightly, it made better sails. Two years later, he and some other sailmakers tried another synthetic, Dacron. With the same looms, Hood used heavy threads in one direction and lighter threads in the other, again weaving them tightly and heat-finishing them. The result was the most sturdy sailcloth anyone had seen.

Noyes bought some of Hood’s first Dacron sails. The late Lee Van Gemert, then one of Hood’s sailing friends and later an employee, recalled last year what happened next.

“He [Noyes] took [his boat] to the New York Yacht Club cruise, and they cleaned up. Won every damned race. Guys like Lee Loomis and the New York Yacht Club racing guys noticed that. They said, ‘Jesus Christ! What the hell’s going on there? Brad Noyes is not that good a sailor. Must be something to the sails.’

“Lee Lomis came up to Marblehead and met him [Hood],” Van Gemert continued. “He said: ‘Would you want to make some sails for me?’ Ted said, ‘Sure.’ He made Lee Loomis some sails, and they turned out very good, and he won with them. And that’s when the whole ball game started for [Hood.]”

The year was 1955, the year Ted would marry Susan. Theirs had been a long courtship, though it didn’t take Hood that long to propose. In 1948 a friend had asked Susan to go with her to a dance at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead. She loved ballroom dancing, and she danced with Bruce Hood.

“[But] I could feel Ted’s eyes on me,” Susan recalls. “The next morning he called up. He asked me out.” Within a week, Ted Hood had asked Susan Blake to marry him. “He looked very sincere and handsome. He looked like a nice guy, and he was tall enough, too,” says the willowy Susan. Best of all, Hood could dance. There was a problem, however. Susan was 19 and in college. She wanted to finish school — a five-year nursing program — before they wed. And she did.

While waiting for Susan, Hood moved ahead with sail design. Van Gemert said that although Dupont provided a wonderful new fiber, it was Ted’s mind that turned it into spectacular sails. “He took [looms] and cut them in half,” he said. “Instead of making 42-inch cloth, he made 22-inch cloth. By the time it had gone through the heat-setting machinery, it was around 16 inches, but it was a very stable cloth. He figured out the loads on a mainsail are entirely different than the stresses and loads on a triangular sail like a jib. He wove his cloth to suit those needs.”

Many sailmakers followed Hood’s Dacron lead, but he remained a jump ahead. “He was one of the first sailmakers to make a laminated cloth — Mylar laminated to Dacron to stabilize the material,” Van Gemert said. “He just figured if he could take a very stable material and put it with his material, it would enhance the shape-holding — and it did.”

A world-class sailor

Hood’s ability to envision sailmaking improvements is rooted in his skill as a sailor, a talent that drew widespread attention in 1958 when skipper Bus Mosbacher invited him to sail aboard the 12 Meter Vim in the America’s Cup. Then the world saw what James Mattingly, a crewman in three Cup campaigns beginning in 1977, later witnessed firsthand.

“He’s a world-class sailor in all respects,” Mattingly says. “He has a great feel for the weather, for how a boat should move through the water, a great eye for putting the right sail trim on for the right conditions, and a great sense of where to position the boat and get the most out of a boat. I’ve seen him do it on numerous boats.” Mattingly says Hood knows how to select a “compatible and amiable crew that would respect what he did. He was always respected as the leader.”

Ted Hood Jr. saw his father, the sailor, from another perspective. “As a sailor, he’s a pure do-everything type of guy,” he says. “He can steer the boat while he’s looking at the sail trim or looking upwind.”

Rick Hood says he and Ted Jr. saw the most of their father aboard boats. “He was off at work most of the time,” he says. “The cool thing is he did take us racing with him when we were very young and not of that much use, which is nice. And, of course, we learned a lot by that. I’d be steering the boat in a pretty windy condition when I was 10 years old, and he’d be right there, behind my shoulder saying, ‘Here comes a wave. Go up into it.’ He didn’t talk a lot. He was pretty good at letting you know the feel of things without words.”

Hood’s feel was obvious to others. Boyhood friend Noyes, who worked the foredeck on Vim, points to Hood’s “super concentration. He’s just married to the boat,” says Noyes. “He can tell you with his eyes shut whether things are right or wrong.”

“It’s a delight to watch him sail a boat,” says Dodge Morgan. “Rather than say anything, if he wants somebody to trim, he’ll point to a winch and twirl his hand which way he wants it to go. He’s got those great big hands. He barely moves the helm. He’s one of the best helmsmen around.”

The year after his first America’s Cup ride, Hood demonstrated his sailing skills for the whole New York Yacht Club to see — and feel. He had bought the Little Harbor boatyard in Marblehead in 1954, put a sail loft at one end and kept the rest of the yard running. In the winter of 1958-’59, inspired by the 38-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl Finisterre, which had won the two most recent Bermuda Races, Hood set his yard to work building his own design. He named the boat Robin, after another Marblehead yacht he had admired. (Every one of his subsequent boats would be named a variant of Robin.) The first Robin had a galvanized steel keel with a centerboard trunk and a very tall rig. She won four of seven races that year during the annual New York Yacht Club cruise.

“That started me off as a designer,” says Hood, his voice a hushed baritone, weighty as the muffled thump of distant surf.

Within a few years Hood, working against convention once more, brought the “whale body” hull to the yachting public. The name, as it implies, refers to a nearly whale-shaped underbody, full and deep with no keel, only a centerboard. Hood reasoned that this shape would give less wetted surface, which would mean less friction and more speed, and that the center of gravity and center of buoyancy would be farther apart than on a keelboat, making the boat more stable and better able to carry a more efficient, tall rig, again adding speed. He was right, and he proved it racing his boats. He was first overall in the 1968 Newport-Bermuda Race and won the 1971 Marblehead to Halifax race, which he also had won in 1961. In 1974, the year he won the America’s Cup on Courageous, Hood won the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a boat of his own design.

Morgan chose Hood to design American Promise, a 60-foot cutter, for his 1985 solo around-the-world record attempt. “I knew from studying that I would be in a lot of heavy weather downwind,” Morgan says. “He put three boards between the keel and the rudder,” including one that could be used as an emergency rudder. “I was in a tropical cyclone, and in 24 hours I went 176 miles without having a hank of sail on. I cranked down those boards in 40- to 60-foot seas. That boat was going up and down these hummers, and I sat there with a cup of coffee in my hand. I said, ‘This works!’ ”

Later, Morgan was on Hood’s company board of directors. “What a joke that was,” he says. “We would have these meetings, and he would listen, and he wouldn’t change a thing.” Put another way, Morgan says, “He’s got ultimate belief in the quality of his own judgment, and don’t forget that. [Yet] the fact that he’s very opinionated is not translated into arrogance.”

Marybeth Ganssle, who worked for Hood for 15 years, agrees. “I absolutely loved the man,” she says. “He was very strict. He knew what he believed in, and that’s the way it had to be.”

She recalls the time Hood “called us up in his big conference room and told us how a tree grows and how the grain grows and how important it was to move the sandpaper across the wood in the right direction, with the grain, so you got the required effect he wanted,” says Ganssle. “He just wanted to make sure, I think.”

Smell the roses?

And so today, at the end of his eighth decade, with two hearing aids and two knee replacements, he can be found every few weeks boarding planes for the long flight to Istanbul. There are details to be overseen as construction on the new Expedition motorsailers progresses. Sea trials were planned for mid-September for the first 55-footer, which was to reach the United States in late October and be ready for the Miami Boat Show in February 2007.

(Hood has no orders for the 55 but says he has loads of inquiries, particularly from Europe. His other recent designs include two monohull trawlers, 61 and 71 feet with a theoretical 10,000 mile range, yachts that he’d like to build if he gets orders. And he is designing an 84-foot trawler for a client.)

Even back in Portsmouth, Hood is tinkering with the Expedition design. An example is propulsion. Hood would like to put in a diesel-electric power plant. Two diesel generators would turn a 300-hp electric motor. He’s having the motor custom made. Or he might use a Volvo I/O. The outdrive could be flipped up into a trunk — reducing resistance and adding speed under sail — and would be accessible from inside the boat for servicing. “It is more efficient with dual props, won’t stall out,” he explains. Or perhaps one of those new forward-facing propeller units? They are designed for powerboats, but why not use them on a sailboat?

Ted Sr. agrees when Ted Jr. says, “He’s not really slowing down.” On a boat, Susan will start reading, and her husband, who doesn’t read books, will unfold a set of plans and look at the boats around him. “If I see something, [I think], Can I make this better? And I mark up my plans. If I see something that’s good, I’ll copy it.”

Hood is close to his eight grandchildren, ages 4 to 21, according to Susan. “They have sleepovers. They climb on his lap and hug him. He’s very affectionate,” she says. “We love to take our grandchildren cruising when they can go.”

But there really isn’t as much cruising as there could be, a worry for Hood’s family and friends. “We’re concerned that he should naturally want to relax and enjoy time on the water,” says Rick. “Mother’s the one who’s left to suffer.”

Indeed, Susan Hood would like it if her husband would “take a little more time off and do a little more cruising with me. But his work … keeps him young,” she says. And she asks: “Why would he want to smell the roses? The roses are what he does.”

"Ted Hood: through Hand and Eye, An Autobiography," co-authored by Hood and Michael Levitt, traces the legend's life from child sailor to sailmaker and designer to America's Cup victor. The book was published this year by Mystic Seaport and sells for $50 (