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Old Yankee ingenuity as the mother of invention

Boating lost one of its Yankee innovators with the recent death of David “Fred” Brownell of Mattapoisett, Mass.

Brownell was a well-regarded boatbuilder who changed the marine industry through his creations. He was 80.

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Brownell invented the hydraulic boat trailer and adjustable boat stand, which allowed boatyards and marinas to quickly and efficiently move, launch and unload boats of various shapes and sizes. The open U-shaped frame allowed the self-loading, submersible trailer to be backed under a boat on the hard, straddling the wood keel blocks. Adjustable stands did away with wood and steel cradles, enabling boats with different drafts to be quickly and securely stabilized on the sides.

“It revolutionized the way boats are moved,” says Tom Brownell, 60, Fred’s son, who runs Brownell Systems, a boat transportation and storage business also in Mattapoisett. “It allowed boatyards and storage and repair facilities to move off the water. That’s what really changed the world. We weren’t going back to cradles after my dad’s invention.”

Fred Brownell’s adjustable tubular boat stands with their orange poppets are now ubiquitous in boatyards and marinas. “He welded up the first several thousand himself,” the son recalls. And he later built with his own hands the production-line machinery that would produce the popular boat stands in record numbers, as well as the tooling for the trailers.

Those innovations earned him an award for excellence in marine technology from the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association. Before he conceived his first hydraulic trailer and boat stands, however, Fred Brownell built boats in the old ice sheds on his father’s farm, located about 1-1/2 miles from the water. His first company, started in 1954, was called Brownell Boat Works. The talented young man first built plank-on-frame bass boats for the short, steep, knee-popping chop of Buzzards Bay based on Eldredge-McInnis designs, the finest kind.

Ironically, it was the desire of Brownell the fledgling boatbuilder for a faster and more effective way to move his boats in and out of the sheds and to the water for sea-trialing that led him to develop his unique trailers and stands. Isn’t that the way innovation works?

Over time, Brownell and his crews, including his son, would produce about 130 custom and semicustom powerboats from 24 to 52 feet — bass boats, cruisers and sportfishermen — with the early building methods evolving into cold-molded hulls. Brownell, himself a skilled boatman, made annual winter sojourns to Florida and the Bahamas on his own boats, the last being a 44-foot single-screw sportfisherman, a swordfish boat with the long trademark pulpit from which a skilled crewman like his son Tom would “stick” a basking sword with a harpoon.

Fred Brownell’s marine businesses eventually evolved into four companies, two of which were run by his daughter Linda and two by Tom.

A high school graduate, Fred Brownell was blessed with a strong mechanical aptitude. He was the kind of guy who could build anything with his hands. “Constantly inventing,” his son recalls. “Never stopped inventing things, all his life, since he was a teenager.”

While still in high school, Fred Brownell built a tractor dubbed the “Galloping Goose” out of parts found on the farm: an old truck frame, a transmission salvaged from a fire truck, and so forth. He used it to help his father haul ice out of the bogs, and it was continually modified to tow his first hydraulic boat trailer.

“He didn’t talk a lot, but he thought continuously,” Tom Brownell says. “Always sketching. Always had a pencil behind his ear.”

A one-of-a-kind, in the best sense of the expression.

“I loved that little tub. But I recognized her limitations, and after a while I painted her and sold her for a profit.”

– Dwight Long

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.