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The 89-year-old designer

At 89 years, Art DeFever still stands tall and has a firm handshake. Dressed in casual slacks and a short-sleeve shirt to match his low-key demeanor, he sits behind a mound of rolled-up drawings and peers through gold-rimmed glasses.

At 89 years, Art DeFever still stands tall and has a firm handshake. Dressed in casual slacks and a short-sleeve shirt to match his low-key demeanor, he sits behind a mound of rolled-up drawings and peers through gold-rimmed glasses.

Start them early, and they're more likely to become lifelong boaters. Here's a loook at some remarkable young and not-so-young sailors. Read the other stories in this package: From Cradle to Grave   The 71-year-old Blue Water Medalist   The 84-year-old with a new motorsailer   The 90-year-old tech wizard

He patiently answers questions about yacht design but doesn’t hide his disdain for fads in the field. His customers love him for his opinions, which are grounded in nearly 70 years of experience and as bold as the boats that still come off his drawing board. Around 4,000 DeFevers — from 32-foot weekenders to 225-foot luxury yachts, including sportfishermen and some sailboats — have been built in the United States, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, China and Europe. He could have called it quits years ago, but boats are the fountain of youth for Art DeFever.

“I like what I do,” he says, “so there’s no reason to stop.”

It’s no surprise that he still keeps regular hours at his wood-paneled office on Shelter Island Drive in San Diego, working not on a computer but with spline and duck, the traditional tools of his trade. Floors and walls are crammed and plastered with images and models of his creations, along with such mementos as a picture of him with Walter Cronkite. DeFever has done well for himself, not just as a designer but also as a businessman. He owns the building, which is only a minute from the San Diego Yacht Club, where he keeps his 63-foot cruiser A/R DeFever. (A/R stands for Art and Ruth, his second wife.) It’s docked just around the corner from the club’s committee boat, Corinthian, a 43-foot DeFever design.

“I know everyone calls my boats trawlers, but I like to think of them as offshore cruisers,” says DeFever. Regardless of nomenclature, many consider this unassuming man the godfather of trawler yachts, because in the 1950s DeFever incorporated trawler features into his designs long before the industry understood the possibilities of offshore power cruising.

One thing he didn’t do was build boats. “When vertical integration ruled in the 1960s and ’70s, Art took a different approach,” says Scott Welch, an amateur maritime historian and owner of a 1964 DeFever. “While builders came and went, he focused on design and made sure his brand was always front and center.”

Some models, like DeFever’s 46-foot Alaskan, which he designed for American Marine, have achieved cult status because of their utility, from a blend of seaworthiness, functionality and comfort. “His boats have a voluminous bow with reserve buoyancy, so they won’t bury their nose,” says Ron Owens, a retired manufacturing engineer from Apollo, Fla., who owns a 44-foot DeFever. “They also have a deep forefoot and a flat run aft, so they don’t slam and they track well.”

Speed seems less of a concern to DeFever’s clients, who are like him, “happy to cruise at 10 to 12 knots.” Of course he has designed faster vessels, such the 154-foot Paminusch, which he did for the German beer-brewing Prince Fürstenberg, but they remain exceptions. “Many owners of DeFever boats are reformed sailors, so they aren’t necessarily obsessed with velocity,” explains Bob Dein, a retired pathologist and owner of a DeFever 44 who publishes the newsletter of the DeFever Cruising Club

( “We are comfortable at hull speed, but if we get caught in nasty weather, we know the boat can take it.”

DeFever’s personal vessel is an example of form following function. From the flybridge to the engine room, from the bow to the owner’s cabin, everything is correctly proportioned and properly positioned, conceived by someone who understands the demands of the sea.

DeFever grew up in San Pedro, Calif., near Los Angeles, exposed to life on the waterfront and Hollywood glamour by his father Edmond, a Belgian immigrant who came here in 1913 to work as a hard-hat deep-sea diver. On the side, the elder DeFever also landed stunt gigs as a diver for movie productions, which is why Art got jobs on the sets in the late 1930s.

“I had a 16-foot dinghy on BalboaIsland, and it was known that I liked boats,” he says. “So one day Shirley Temple’s father came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you make them from plastic?’ Great idea, but I couldn’t convince anyone.”

After attending the University of Southern California and a course of naval architecture at University of California-Berkeley, DeFever apprenticed with Carl Shield and Ted Geary. During World War II he designed military craft at the Hodgson-Greene-Haldeman yard in San Diego. After the war he introduced his first production boat, the Hollywood Cruiser, a fast weekender of 32 or 35 feet with accommodations for two couples. Around this time he began to design tuna clippers for the war-depleted fleet in San Diego. These were hardy trawlers with high, flared bows; flat, open sterns; and helo pads for small spotting choppers. In lieu of a design fee, DeFever partnered with some captains and owners to share in the proceeds of the catch, a smart business move.

When some of his sailing friends wanted power yachts to cruise the West Coast, they tapped DeFever. “Storm or calm, they always encountered tuna boats offshore, so they asked me if I could adapt a trawler hull for cruising,” he says. As the design evolved, DeFever eliminated the fantail to gain more space aft and incorporated the raised pilothouse and a Portuguese bridge to protect the deckhouse from green water when it crashed onto the foredeck. Some of these features soon became staples on other trawler designs.

“His influence is bigger than most people realize or give him credit for,” says Owens, who once commented to DeFever about limited headroom on his boat’s bridge wing.

“It’s called adaptive design,” Art explained, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Bump your head often enough and you’ll adapt to the boat’s design.”

DeFever also had to adapt when the market shifted to twin engines and demanded more amenities and electronics. “One engine used to be enough with auxiliary power from the genset,” he says. “But today customers want twins for redundancy. Then there are barbecues and wet bars, on-board entertainment systems and remote controls for bridge wing and aft deck.”

DeFever never was one-dimensional. He sailed too, racing a boat named Vendetta and bringing home the prestigious Lipton Cup for the San Diego Yacht Club. He also co-founded a local bank, and served as the director of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute and as a trustee of the USCMarineScienceCenter. He has had 17 boats of his own, but No. 18 is in the works, because he and his wife need to get to their beloved summer vacation spot on Catalina Island. “We go there every July and August,” he says. “But we had to downsize because our mooring is limited to 60 feet.”

Barring unforeseen circumstances, A/R DeFever will call on Avalon soon enough, guided there from San Diego by her 89-year old master. What better testimony for the man and his craft?