Unsinkable boats

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The afterthought that became legend

The afterthought that became legend

The original 13-foot Boston Whaler is perhaps the most famous “unsinkable” vessel in recreational boating history. But was “unsinkable” what company founder Dick Fisher was after when he created this small foam-and-fiberglass boat?

Boston Whaler was becoming a household name in the 1960s, the boat’s popularity fueled in no small way by one of the greatest promotional stunts ever. Fisher had his picture taken — confidently attired in business suit and hat — sitting in the after half of a Whaler cut in two. The photo showed without question that the boat was unsinkable.

But the very quality that made the Whaler stand out from its contemporaries — for a time — was merely an afterthought for its creator, says Bob Dougherty, 74, a designer who worked with Fisher and Ray Hunt in the early 1960s. Fisher was more interested in taking weight out of the boat, eliminating the frames and stringers associated with wooden boats of the day.

“Dick Fisher wanted a boat that was light and could be powered by a small engine,” says Doughtery. “There was no idea of building an unsinkable boat.”

Working in the late 1950s, Fisher originally used balsa wood as the core material, recalls Dougherty. But after it proved unsatisfactory, he hit on a material developed by the Germans during World War II: a polyurethane resin that expanded into closed-cell foam. Sandwiched between two thin layers of fiberglass, the whole unit became very strong, and it just happened to have positive flotation, too.

That’s what inspired the “unsinkable” ad campaign and earned Boston Whaler its place in boating — and advertising — history, says Dougherty. “Unsinkability was nothing more than an afterthought,” he says. “But it sure helped sell the boat.”