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Midnight Lace designer recalled

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Tom Fexas’ low and lean Midnight Lace with its black hull helped spawn the retro movement in 1978

Tom Fexas’ low and lean Midnight Lace with its black hull helped spawn the retro movement in 1978

Boatbuilder Mike Kelsey called him the Johnny Cash of yacht design — the man in black — for his signature Midnight Lace, a low-slung, black-hulled yacht Kelsey always will remember as long, lean and mean-looking.

Tom Fexas, designer of the classic Midnight Lace and pioneer of the “retro” look that brought low profiles, graceful and flowing lines, and lean, efficient hulls back into vogue, died Nov. 29 at the age of 65. Cause of death remained undetermined, according to staff at Tom Fexas Yacht Design.

The Midnight Laces “were bad-ass boats; they really were,” says Kelsey, president of Palmer Johnson Yachts of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., which built many Fexas designs. “Tom liked a mean-looking boat.”

Fexas introduced the 44-foot Midnight Lace in 1978 at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, at a time when most motoryachts were white, beamy and rather boxy. A 52-footer came later, followed by a production 40 and 65- and 36-foot custom Midnight Laces. An updated version, beamier and with brawnier engines, is still being built.

Some found the Midnight Laces reminiscent of 1930s rumrunners; others saw in them a stylized New England workboat. Fexas said he borrowed some of the Midnight Lace’s design elements from the long, skinny commuter boats of the ’30s, which he knew first-hand after crewing as a teen on a classic 62-foot Consolidated high-speed commuter. He took other design features from World War II PT boats and from classic Elcos, both of which had fascinated him since childhood. The Midnight Laces “reflected his own boating experience on Long Island Sound with his family,” says Nicholas DiMatteo, a project manager who has worked at the Stuart, Fla., Fexas design office for 22 years.

Kelsey says the Midnight Lace was not only a boat that Fexas had dreamed about designing as a young man, it was one that restored grace and elegance to American yacht styling and showcased efficient hull design and good speed with small, fuel-efficient engines. Fexas’ semidisplacement hulls were always among the most fuel-efficient, Kelsey says. The 44 topped out at 26 knots with a pair of 210-hp diesels and delivered 2 nautical miles per gallon at 20 knots. Fexas also helped pioneer the use of cored hull materials and light laminates to save weight, building his early Midnight Lace hulls of Airex.

DiMatteo found Fexas easy to work for. “Unlike a lot of people [in design], he never raised his voice or lost his temper,” he says. “If you had ideas or thoughts, he was always willing to listen. He was confident, so much so that he didn’t have this ego thing. He had proven himself.”

Another project manager, David Glasco, says Fexas reviewed every design that went out of the office and had the uncanny ability to spot a flaw in a design just by eyeballing it on paper. “He was really intuitive that way,” he says. “I think it was from his years of experience.”

Fexas began his career as a marine engineer. He graduated with a degree in marine engineering from the State University of New York Maritime College and from Westlawn Institute of Yacht Design. He worked as a design engineer for nuclear submarines at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton, Conn., from 1965 to 1972. While there, he worked part-time doing marine surveys and boat modifications to get a foot in the yacht-design door. By his own account at www.tomfexas.com , he sat down in 1973 to design what he considered the “ideal boat, without any thought to the wants or needs of the marine marketplace.” That was the genesis of the Midnight Lace.

The Midnight Laces represent just a fraction of Fexas’ work. He designed 64-foot Aleutian cruisers for Grand Banks; 70-foot sportfishermen for Mikelson Yachts; the 126-foot Time, with what was in the late ’80s daring water-jet power and an open European transom, for Palmer Johnson; the lipstick-red and white Force of Habit, an 80-foot custom express cruiser, also a Palmer Johnson; and tridecks like the 137-foot Palmer Johnson Lady Jenn. He designed motoryachts and sportfishing boats for Cheoy Lee, express cruisers for Mares and Tornado. Most of the designs carried the distinctive Fexas imprint in their styling, says Glasco: long, sweeping, curving shapes. No boxes.

“He was his own man,” Kelsey says. “He’s another good one that’s gone.”

He is survived by his wife, Regina; mother, Antonia; and a sister, Penelope Casas.