Designer was ‘instant boat’ champion

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Philip Bolger, who designed everything from dories to the ‘Master and Commander’ frigate, has died at 81

Philip C. Bolger, known for his inventive and freethinking boat designs and fondness for self-built “everyman’s” boats, died in May. He was 81.

Bolger at work in his Gloucester, Mass., office in 1982.

Susanne Altenburger, Bolger’s wife of 15 years and partner in Phil Bolger & Friends, their design firm, found him behind their home in Gloucester, Mass., in the early morning hours of May 24 with an apparently self-

inflicted .45-caliber gunshot wound to the head, according to a letter Altenburger wrote to a discussion group on Yahoo! dedicated to Bolger designs and philosophy.

Though in good physical health, he had experienced “intermittent but mounting episodes of apparent cognitive decline, ranging from near-funny to seriously disturbing,” Altenburger wrote. This affected his work and led to conversations in which “he made amply clear his insistence on controlling his final fate,” she says.

A prolific and versatile designer, Bolger designed nearly 700 boats in a 57-year career — from kayaks and dinghies to cruising power- and sailboats, shoal-draft gunkholers and Rose, a 179-foot replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate. Rose was the HMS Surprise in the film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” starring Russell Crowe, and is now at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Though his contribution was simple, functional, innovative designs rather than boats with mass-market appeal, Bolger “was without a doubt one of the most prolific and influential designers of the 20th century,” says naval architect David Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology in Mystic, Conn. “Phil could do a perfectly mainstream boat, but that’s not what he wanted to do,” says Gerr.

Working with Harold “Dynamite” Payson and Capt. Jim Orrell, who sold plans to do-it-yourselfers, Bolger became a passionate believer in “instant boats” — low-cost, seaworthy, easy-to-build plywood designs requiring no lofting or jigs. He was a master designer of shoal-draft sharpie sailboats steadied by a centerboard or leeboards and driven by simple, unstayed, low-aspect rigs.

Aesthetically, his designs ran from the sublime to what some would characterize as ridiculous, yet he stayed true to his maxim that simplicity and function always trump style. His most popular and best-known design, the Gloucester Gull dory, with its graceful, curving sheer that flows down from a high wave-piercing bow and back up to sharp stern, hasn’t been improved on for elegance and beauty, says Payson, a resident of South Thomaston, Maine. “He could draw something beautiful that would knock your eyes out,” Payson says. “The next time he would draw something so ugly you couldn’t believe he did both.”

The simple Gloucester Gull dory was among his best-known designs.

His Tortoise, a 6-foot, 5-inch dinghy, looks like a short, fat sled, and his 8-by-4-foot Brick like a box with a sail. He also designed a folding schooner, a 30-foot two-master with hinges at midpoint, where the front half of the hull folds back over and on the aft hull for ease of storage and transport. But Bolger also designed many eminently livable shallow-draft cruising sailboats, like the Dovekie, a comfortable 21-foot camp-cruising boat with a 4-inch draft with its leeboards up, and the shoal-draft AS 29, a liveaboard with twin swing keels, cat-yawl rig and enough living space inside that you’d think you were in a much bigger boat.

Alert is a shallow-draft 33-foot, 6-inch cruiser with leeboards.

Indeed, one of the marks of his designs, besides seaworthiness and ease of construction, is that they are easy to live on. For many years, Bolger lived aboard the 48-foot Resolution, a round-bottom sharpie and liveaboard of his own design.

“He was so versatile,” Payson says. “He never designed the same thing twice.” Every new design was an effort to improve on what had gone before it.

Bolger’s grandfather, Thomas Patrick Bolger, was an inventor who patented a steel icebox and an ash sifter for coal furnaces, among other innovations. His mother’s family, the Cunninghams, were fishing folk who operated the early 20th century fishing schooners Arethusa and Ingomar.

Bolger studied at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, for a year, then joined the Army and became a combat engineer. After World War II, he returned to Bowdoin, graduating in 1949 with a history degree. He landed his first design job as a draftsman for Lindsay Lord, a Falmouth Foreside, Maine, powerboat designer of the 1940s and ’50s and author of “The Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls.” Bolger went from Lord’s studio to the Detroit design office of John Hacker, the renowned powerboat designer, at a time when Hacker was working on a fast rescue boat for the Air Force. He also worked part time as a draftsman for L. Francis Herreshoff in the early 1950s — all great experiences with eminent designers.

Bolger designed the narrow 25-foot outboard launch TarTar for lightweight cold-molded construction.

After his apprenticeships, Bolger started designing on his own. “It was Phil’s conviction that shallow-draft boats — sharpies and others — could be superb cruisers and cost-effective,” Gerr says. “He believed it, and he practiced it. … He also was a great believer in simplicity. All the best designers are.”

Bolger was not bound by convention. His politics tended toward libertarian, and, according to Payson, he abhorred the telephone. “In the 45 years I knew him, I called him maybe two or three times when I absolutely had to do it,” Payson says. “Even then I dreaded it. You could tell when he answered that you better damn well say what you had to say and say it quickly.”

Working on do-it-yourself plans for dozens of Bolger designs, Payson says he conducted almost all his business with the designer in person or by letter. “I‘ve got two or three notebooks full of his letters,” he says. “He was so helpful.”

Gerr says probably 450 of Bolger’s designs were “odd to strange,” but he designed another 250 or so that were “normal, very conventional, very successful.” Though not his most memorable ones, they included fishing, lobster and pilot boats, cruisers, oceangoing kayaks, Whitehall boats, and Friendship sloops.

Bolger had continued to work on projects with Altenburger right up to his death. His recent projects included work on a new design for a military landing craft for the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C., and development of less costly, more efficient commercial fishing boat designs with long, narrow, shallow hulls that would be economical to operate even with lower catch rates.

Bolger was a prolific author. Among his books are “Small Boats” (1973), “Different Boats” (1980), “Thirty Odd Boats” (1982), and “103 Sailing Rigs ‘Straight Talk’ ” (1998).

Gerr says the man, his out-of-the-box thinking and his persistent advocacy for cost-effective, easy-to-build boats will be sorely missed.

“There’s not anyone quite like him,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.