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Like his boats, Morris was an original

Morris Yachts founder built nearly 200 yachts before handing the helm over to his son

Thomas Morris, the son of a Philadelphia banker, was bored with the family business, so he took a job at a shipping firm. It was a move in the right direction for a young man whose childhood summers were spent on the family yacht on the coast of Maine.

Tom Morris, sailing in the summer of 2006 aboard Hull No. 1 of the M42, wanted to build a boat that was uniquely his.

As he told the story to friends, Morris was at work in the shipping firm one day when his boss entered his office.

“I’m going to do something for you that will make you indebted to me for the rest of your life,” the boss says. “You’re fired.”

Then, according to Mark Ellman, who shared stories with the founder of Morris Yachts over thousands of miles of sailing, the boss told Morris to move to Maine and do what he’d always wanted to do: build boats.

Morris died Dec. 7 of cancer in his home in Southwest Harbor, Maine, just days after his 68th birthday. His company, formed in 1972, had built nearly 200 bluewater yachts of the highest quality by 2001, when he retired and was succeeded by his son, Cuyler.

Ellman, who first met Morris when he was looking for a boat to race to Bermuda and who visited him in Maine the week before his death, describes his friend as “quiet, shy, a man of few words,” adding, “Tom had great integrity. Whatever Tom said, you could count on.”

The family business is boating. Morris' son Cuyler (left) succeeded him after his retirement in 2001.

Morris and his wife, Tina, drove from Philadelphia to Maine in 1972 with their infant, Cuyler, in a black 1965 Volkswagen Beetle to start their new life. They bought a piece of vacant land and a house that they moved to their lot.

Looking about for his new line of work, Morris saw an opportunity in the bare fiberglass hulls of the legendary Friendship Sloop builder Jarvis Newman. He completed his first Pemaquid 25 in 1973.

But Morris wanted to build a boat that was uniquely his, and about this time he heard of a young designer who had just gone into business for himself.

“I designed a little 26-foot double-ender called the Frances,” recalls Chuck Paine. He hired a shop in Rockland, Maine, to build it in wood.

“[Morris] contacted me through a mutual friend,” says Paine. “I went to Southwest Harbor with a half model and drawings. He looked at the half model and said: ‘That’s the one.’ ”

Thus began a collaboration between the two men that lasted until Morris’ retirement. In the first year, the relationship was tested with an adversity that established for Paine an understanding of Morris’ character.

Morris had paid for and taken a fiberglass mold from Paine’s still-inverted Frances hull, costing Paine a week of progress on his own boat. That fall — it was 1975 — Paine’s shop and his hull were destroyed by fire. When he told Morris what had happened, Morris sold him a new fiberglass hull at cost and let Paine use the Morris shop to complete it.

“That’s when the friendship began,” Paine says. “He kept an eye on me as I became a boatbuilder. He kept coming back for my designs.”

The collaboration achieved both men’s goals, Paine says. “Me for my ego and he because he was competing with Hinckley” for top honors as a builder of quality boats.

Mark Ellman was looking for “an oh-my-God quality boat that was capable of going offshore but I could sail myself,” he says. It was 1989 and Ellman had a crew ready to enter the next race to Bermuda if Morris could deliver the boat on time.

Morris takes his grandsons, Thomas (left) and Sam, and daughter-in-law Cindy for a summer cruise.

“I built my first boat with Tom on a handshake,” Ellman says. He took Morris Yachts’ slogan — Each one an owner’s original — to heart. At Ellman’s request, Morris cut 4,000 pounds from the boat’s structure, redesigned the rig with a carbon fiber mast and gave the boat a deep keel.

On the way to Bermuda, Ellman encountered 55-knot winds in the Gulf Stream, and after the race he discovered that the chain locker bulkhead — to which the inner forestay was attached — had delaminated.

Morris’ response, says Ellman: “‘We built it. We’ll fix it.’ He, with his own hands, fixed the boat.”

Morris made several return voyages with Ellman from Bermuda and they shared many deliveries of new yachts. On one voyage the head clogged after Morris used it. When the problem was discovered, Morris said: “I clogged it. I’ll fix it.” And so he did, in 8-foot seas, says Ellman.

Ellman calls Morris a “phenomenal sailor” with an exhaustive knowledge of boats, despite his lack of formal training in marine engineering. Following his retirement, Morris completed his first trans-Atlantic voyage on a Paine-designed Morris 46. Ellman says his friend recently sailed a Morris 42 single-handed from Maine to Florida.

The day before Morris and Ellman were to start the 2007 Marion-Bermuda Race double-handed, Morris was driving south from Maine when his cell phone rang. It was his doctor, telling him he had cancer. He turned back home to Maine and Ellman withdrew from the race.

“I will miss him,” Ellman says. “He was a special guy.”

This story first appeared in the February 2009 issue.