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Remembering Tom Gillmer; the Pride of the Chesapeake

Thomas C. Gillmer, who designed such iconic vessels as the Southern Cross series, Blue Moon and Seawind - and designed the replica vessels Pride of Baltimore I and II - died Dec. 16, 2009.

He was 98. Gillmer's student and friend Iver Franzen shares this remembrance of the design icon.

The Lady Baltimore, one of Gillmer's designs, sails in the Baltimore Inner Harbor.

My relationship with Tom started long before I knew him personally. My formative years were a bit like Tom's, albeit somewhat more recent - we both grew up on and around boats.

We both started on Lake Erie and later gravitated to the East Coast: I to New England, he to the Chesapeake.

I love his story about seeing for the first time the Annapolis harbor full of skipjacks getting under way in the early morning ... his love of boats now confirmed, he said, he decided to become a naval architect.

(By the way, the first boat I sailed on as a young kid on Cape Cod? A skipjack.)

I first became aware of Tom during my 20s. I was working at a major Vermont ski area as a professional ski patroller. I spent some of my off-time doing yacht design study with Yacht Design Institute.

I remember sitting in my mountaintop patrol shack on many a cold gray day, waiting for the phone to ring to announce the next injured skier. I was cramped and shivering, but opened up before me was a color brochure from C.E. Ryder - the Bristol, R.I.-based builder - showing tropical waters, palm trees, white sand and, more importantly, these really pretty and very nicely designed cruising sailboats: the Southern Cross series.

They were designed by Tom Gillmer and I spent hours trying to figure out how I could afford one, how I would set it up and where I'd go with her. My favorite was the 31, as she and the 28 both reminded me of the Monomoy sailing whale boats I grew up and learned to sail on, and absolutely loved.

Gillmer in his home office at One Shipwright Harbor in Annapolis in 1989. He wouldn't retire for another 10 years.

No, I never bought a Southern Cross, but I put a lot of vicarious miles on those boats - and learned a lot of good design in the process.

I decided then to go sailing full time, so I left the slopes and moved to Newport, R.I. Later, I went to the Caribbean where I worked as a delivery and charter captain for about five years. I was good at the sailing part, but I decided I had neither the patience nor the temperament to do the charter thing, so I moved to Annapolis in the spring of 1986.

By that time, I had already done a fair bit of drafting and yacht study, so I posted a small notice on a bulletin board in a local copy shop offering my drafting services at "reasonable rates." I promptly forgot about the ad.

Pride of Baltimore II

Months later the phone rang. A raspy voice asked, "Is this Iver Franzen? ... This is Tom Gillmer, you've probably heard of me."

Many thoughts occurred all at once: The Tom Gillmer? Is this for real? Why would he be calling me? How does he know me?

The Pride of Baltimore II takes part in last year's Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.

I realized I probably ought to say something when he asked, "Iver, you still there?"

I sputtered, "Yeah, uh, sure, I think, Southern ... Allied ... Pride ... Cross, uh, yes, hello, Mr. Gillmer," or something equally articulate.

Tom had spotted my note at the copy shop, and wanted to talk with me about helping him draw up the plans for the new Pride of Baltimore II.

The first Pride of Baltimore had been designed by Tom as a reproduction of an early 19th-century topsail schooner type known as a "Baltimore clipper."

Tragically, though, she sank off Puerto Rico in May 1986; her captain and three crew were lost. Later the same year Pride of Baltimore II was commissioned and Tom Gillmer was once again the man chosen for the design.

So when I was offered a chance to be a part of Pride II, no real thought was required on my part. "Absolutely, when can I be there?"

We met the next day and I showed him a few of my old drawings. He didn't have much to say much about those.

We discussed the tragedy of the first Pride's sinking. I could tell already he wasn't an overly demonstrative man, but it was clear this was a real blow to him. I told him about seeing Pride in St. Thomas just before we both left on our respective passages north, about hearing the crew speak very warmly about their ship and about the squally weather we both sailed through on our way back to the United States. (Fortunately for my boat and crew, we had no real problems.)

Gillmer (on left in hat) and the author, Iver Franzen (right) strike a similar pose as they oversee the launch of The Pride of Baltimore II. This is one of the few photos of student and mentor together.

He told me a few thoughts about designing the ship and of his satisfaction in the crews' and owners' feelings about her ... then shifted the conversation quickly to the new ship.

He was clearly gratified that the prevailing sentiment was that a new ship would be appropriate - both for the program and as a fitting memorial to the lost ship and crew. We discussed some of the mission statement changes for the new ship and some of the design details he was thinking about incorporating in her.

"When can you start?" he asked. Apparently he thought my drawings were OK after all.

Well, right away, of course, and so I immediately began work on Pride of Baltimore II.

I know Tom was particularly proud of this design; he had every right to be. Pride of Baltimore II is probably the best example out there of how to do a replica vessel that performs well, has the proper look and function of her forebears, and is still able to satisfy all of the present-day regulatory requirements that can sometimes hobble the performance of other replica vessels.

Kalmar Nyckel, the tall ship of Delaware, was another replica design in which he was able to successfully strike a balance between authenticity and modern safety requirements. She is a very handsome, very impressive and very successful ship - especially when you consider the original was built in 1629.

Old Ironsides

Working together on the refit for the USS Constitution was interesting and gratifying - not to mention a real honor for both of us. Tom was asked by the Navy to do a thorough structural assessment, which then formed the basis for our proposed structural remedies. Of course these also needed to be true to the time period. We were also tasked with researching and documenting her 1803 and 1812 configurations, including determining the actual original design and designer.

From our research and work, Tom wrote an excellent book called "Old Ironsides: The Rise, Decline and Resurrection of the USS Constitution" (McGraw Hill, 1996; available from www.usscon for $21.95). The book describes her operational and maintenance histories, with a very informative discussion of this most recent refit, including efforts to return her to her 1812 configuration. Tom was invited, but was unable to be aboard for her return to sea on that July day in 1997. He was greatly disappointed he couldn't be there.

Earlier designs

Tom is perhaps best known for his dozens of cruising designs, some of which have very noteworthy histories. Those that stand out in particular are the Seawind and Seawind II, the Southern Crosses, and one of his best-known designs from early in his career, the Blue Moon. He was one of the first designers to recognize fiberglass as an excellent boatbuilding material, from which the Seawinds were made. It was a Seawind that became the first fiberglass boat to circumnavigate the globe.

Gillmer sails his own Blue Moon in Annapolis in 1980.

Many of his designs were originally meant for wood construction, later to be modified for fiberglass. Some show definite historical influences, with "clipper" bows, traditional rigs or carvings on the quarters or trailboards. All, however, are very good cruising boats. He knew how to give a vessel the proper balance of stability, seakindliness, ease of motion, performance, dryness and livability.

These vessels have become the standards by which other designs are measured - just studying those designs alone was a remarkable education.

The last student

My time working with Tom, in addition to a growing friendship, also allowed me to study his earlier works. Of the 60-plus designs on his summary list, 15 are of a wide variety of historical vessels from different time periods. His works and lifelong interest in this area have contributed to the understanding, education and scholarship of many facets of maritime history and naval architecture.

As an author, his early books are about subjects such as airfoils and weather.

Other books he's contributed include, "A History of Working Watercraft of the Western World" - an excellent discussion tracing the evolution of various workboats and commercial craft in different parts of the world. "Pride of Baltimore: The Story of the Baltimore Clippers" is a history of the development of the Baltimore clipper type, and discusses in-depth his two specific ships, Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II.

One day back in the beginning - a few weeks after I'd started working for Tom and had done a couple of drawings all the while peppering him with questions - he asked me, "So, Iver, are you really serious about becoming a naval architect?"

"Yes," I replied.

"And you're ready to get into the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of it?" he pressed.

I hesitated, but only for a second, "Yes, I am."

He mulled this over for a moment or two, then looked me in the eye and smirked slightly. "Well, I guess you'll be my last student then. Let's get to it."

Handing me a copy of his textbook "Modern Ship Design" (Yes, he wrote that, too), he said, "Start reading. I need floodable length calculations for Pride II by Friday."

Tom's mentorship continued through many projects and resulted in my induction into The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in 1992. He wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation in which he talks about our work together. The letter ends, "I am therefore confident in recommending Mr. Franzen as an exceptionally capable Naval Architect."

I consider this letter my Naval Architecture "diploma," and it hangs proudly under glass on my office wall.

Tom Gillmer not only oversaw my learning of the science of naval architecture, but he also helped me expand my appreciation and understanding of the art of designing boats. I consider my education in the historical research and replica niche of our business a uniquely rewarding bonus for which I will always be additionally grateful to him.

And that textbook he gave me ... it is now very tattered and the spine is very stressed and I still use it. A great teacher, a great mentor and a great friend, he will most assuredly be missed.

Memorial contributions can be made to Hospice of the Chesapeake, 445 Defense Hwy., Annapolis, MD 21401 or Pride of Baltimore, Inc., 1801 S. Clinton St., Baltimore, Md. 21224.

Iver Franzen holds a 500 gross ton master's license with an auxiliary sail endorsement. Upon Gillmer's retirement in 1998, Franzen established his own design practice. His projects since then have been a mix of major rehabs, new builds, stability work for USCG-certified vessels, and general consulting. His designs include a 73-foot traditional topsail schooner based on the Berbice and the PilotCruiser 57 motoryacht, presently making the boat show circuit.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.