One-design builder Lippincott dies

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Howard Lippincott, himself an accomplished one-design racer, built Lightnings, Comets, Stars and Dusters

Howard Lippincott, himself an accomplished one-design racer, built Lightnings, Comets, Stars and Dusters

The Star Class sailboat race was on the Delaware River, Howard Lippincott’s home waters, and his crew was Richard Walling, whose family has operated tugs and barges on the river for more than 100 years. But Lippincott wanted an edge, and he had a secret weapon: a stethoscope.

“I can remember Howard having me listen to the keel bolts with a stethoscope,” Walling recalls, the boat snaking along in light air close to the shallow and silty New Jersey shore, where the current was slower. “With a stethoscope, you could hear as the bulb started to get into that [mud]. All the time, Howard’s talking about, ‘You’ve got to heel to windward,’ just loud enough for anybody else to hear.”

But unseen, Walling was in the bilge listening, and Lippincott’s boat was edging ahead of those that were deeper in the silt and the others that were out fighting the current.

Lippincott — whose cleverness as a one-design racer, and craftsmanship and innovation as a builder of one-design sailboats led to a national reputation in the sailing community — died Aug. 26 in a Moorestown, N.J., nursing home of complications from pneumonia. He was 85.

Lippincott Boat Works in Riverton, N.J., which he started with his brother Bob, turned out hundreds of Lightnings, Comets, Stars and Dusters. The company started building with wood and switched to fiberglass before many other one-design builders. Their boats were prized by racers for their light weight and quality of construction, according to old-timers. And both of the brothers were as competitive as their boats, each winning national and international titles.

Howard Lippincott’s love of boats began early. He was born the son of an architect who had raced sailing canoes on the Delaware and who had taken his bride on a honeymoon canoe trip. The Lippincott children — Howard and his five brothers and two sisters — accompanied their parents aboard the family’s motor launches on Chesapeake Bay and spent summers at the Riverton Yacht Club, where their father was commodore in 1935.

Howard Lippincott was among a group of a half-dozen local boys who as teenagers sailed their wooden Dusters from Riverton to the Chesapeake one summer, camping along the way and challenging the young members of yacht clubs there to races.

Lippincott was 26 in 1946 when he and Bob began building boats for sale. All the siblings but one brother, Winfield, were employed at the Boat Works at one time or another before it closed in 1985.

“The Lippincotts are a pretty amazing bunch of brothers,” Walling says. “They were master craftsmen.”

Walling remembers when his father bought a Lippincott Lightning that the brothers delivered to the Bay Head (N.J.) Yacht Club. “Put it in the water and went sailing around with my brother and father, and then put it in the basin at the club,” he says. “Here’s this thing floating with the chines up out of the water. The measurer immediately protested the boat. He measured and weighed and measured and weighed. I remember asking him, as a little kid, ‘Is it legal or not?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you tomorrow.’ By the time tomorrow came, he’d already bought one from Lippincott.”

As a builder of racing boats, Lippincott’s goal was to eliminate weight wherever he found excess. “Certainly the Lippincott Star was as good as any in their era,” says legendary California Star sailor Malin Burnham. “Their boats were strong and well-built and very popular.”

“Howard was a real stickler for weight,” says David Bolles, a Connecticut Star Class racer who publishes the class newsletter. “He wanted all the weight out he could. They had a very good finisher there, Bob Levine. He was their back-room fix-it guy and painter. He crewed for the Lippincotts.” The Lippincott paint jobs were said by some to “look like gelcoat.”

Lippincott Boat Works had built fiberglass Lightnings for several years when they decided it was time to build plastic Stars, according to John Sherwood, an Annapolis, Md., Star sailor. The boats built in the first year were slow. But the problem — placement of the mast partners that prohibited proper raking of the mast — was discovered and corrected, and the boats were extremely competitive, Sherwood says. Lippincott had solved the technical problems that the Star design posed for fiberglass construction. Sherwood says two other Star builders — Skip Etchells in Connecticut and Carl Eichenlaub in California — were unsuccessful in making the conversion and stopped building Stars.

As boatbuilders Lippincott and his brother were “great supporters of the Star class, helping people get started, coming to regattas, and showing people how to rig boats,” says Burnham. The brothers were “completely unselfish. I would think that Howard Lippincott would be considered one of the stalwarts of the class.”

The brothers also were racers who competed nationally and internationally. While Bob won the Star Worlds in 1950, Howard Lippincott settled for one win in the Star North Americans in 1956 and the Star Class Bacardi Cup in 1963, both in boats called Cirrus, the name he clung to until his final 36-foot cruising sloop.

In the Comet Class, however, Howard Lippincott won the internationals four times (there were no world championships), in 1949, 1950, 1954 and 1955.

“He was a very keen competitor, very fair, very honest,” says James Schoonmaker, another Star racer. “While his theories were very good, he was more of a seat-of-the-pants sailor than a theorist. When he was there, he was one of the people to beat.”

“We sailed against each other for 30 years,” says Jack Lynch, a manager at the Annapolis Yacht Club. “Since he was the builder, he was very open to discussing with anyone who got in the class anything that would help him get better. The Star boat was a difficult boat to sail downwind, and he was an excellent downwind sailor. He taught me so much about sailing downwind when I got in the class as a young sailor.”

Says Walling: “Howard was extremely good in light air in Comets. He paid attention to the trim. I crewed for him a few times. He was very, very serious about his racing.”

Schoonmaker remembers that Howard Lippincott was well known nationally both in Comets and Stars as a good man. “He was a fair man,” says Schoonmaker. “He was an honest man, and people admired him for the way he conducted himself.”

Walling echoes the sentiment. “He had enough confidence in himself that he could be gentle. He didn’t lose control,” Walling says. “He was just a guy who you should emulate if you want to be successful, if you want to be productive.”

Sherwood, who raced against Lippincott in both Comets and Stars, sums him up as “a quiet guy, technically oriented — a good, serious but not aggressive competitor. You knew he was good; you knew he could beat you. At the same time, you knew he wasn’t going to be aggressive to the point of being an irritant. He was a gentleman sailor. He beat you with his skill.”

Lippincott and his wife, Doris, had six children with whom they would spend summer vacations on their 54-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl Zeearend, sailing out of the Tred Avon Yacht Club in Oxford, Md. Lippincott was predeceased by Doris.

He was a life member of the Riverton Yacht Club, and in the 1960s and ’70s had been on the board of directors for the Out Island Inn in Georgetown, Exuma, in the Bahamas. He is survived by his children, 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, almost all of whom are involved in sailing.