There I sat, at a table with the great Charley Morgan, one of the founding fathers of fiberglass, as he tried to explain the nuances of boat design and the boat business in general. Morgan's past students are among the most talented names in yacht design today-Seaton, Neville, Holland-but sometimes you have to make do with what the devil has sent you, so Morgan pressed on as I struggled to keep up with his discourse.
For those of you who may have arrived late to the subculture of recreational boating, Charley Morgan is the real deal.
In 1957, he raced to Cuba in a 32-foot sailboat he designed called Brisote (Spanish for squall); it was built of plywood "with bits and pieces from boats of all sorts." In Havana, this enfant terrible from Florida paused long enough to collect his trophies and get whipped in arm wrestling by Ernest Hemingway, who then proceeded to teach Morgan his arm-wrestling secrets. Inspired by success, Morgan in 1961 went on to build his famous 40-foot ocean racer Paper Tiger, and this time the hull was fiberglass.
Paper Tiger led to the foundation of Morgan Yacht Corporation of St. Petersburg, which became one of the largest production sailboat manufacturers in the nation. For boaters this was the era of endless possibilities. The growing affluence of the World War II generation and the cost savings of production fiberglass came together as critical mass. Suddenly, messing about in boats was a pastime for the hoi polloi, too, not just the lock-jawed Eastern elite.
The mavericks of fiberglass were coming of age, and Morgan Yachts became a laboratory for new materials such as Airex and Kevlar. Morgan also conducted extensive tank tests. Some of the processes they tried didn't even have names yet. They were making it up as they went along. And Morgan's company built the fantasy boats for Disney World-the paddle wheelers and jungle boats, some of which were the biggest fiberglass craft to date.
Out of this era came one of the most successful designs in history-Morgan's Out Island 41, a shallow draft vessel, which sacrificed windward performance for comfort. Though much maligned (the Morgan "outhouse," it was called), this proto-trawler-some aficionados actually have lopped off the sticks and added pilothouses-became a favorite of the charter industry. More than 1,000 Out Islands are still cruising; several have circumnavigated. If anything, the Out Island 41 is more popular today than it was during its production years. There was a series of Out Islands, from 28 to 51 feet, and other boats as well.
Topper Hermanson is a metal boatbuilder in Fernandina Beach, Florida, who builds Morgan trawler designs today. He said that Charley Morgan's distinguishing characteristic as a designer is his keen understanding of the market. "He's approached things from a market standpoint different from the other designers," Hermanson said. "I think Charley has tried to find out what he can sell and then designs something to meet that market. A lot of architects don't do that. They come on from an engineering standpoint when people provoke them into a design."
Morgan influenced an entire generation of boat designers, because so many worked for him either at Morgan Yachts or Heritage Yachts, another Morgan company. Hermanson said Morgan is a "broad brush designer" who sought out skilled apprentices to take care of the details. "If you are a well-known naval architect who once worked for Charley Morgan, that means he saw that you had talent, which is a skill in and of itself," Hermanson said. "He was spotting good talent. That's a talent, too."
To those subordinates during the glory days, Morgan seemed a force of nature. Alternately flamboyant, fatherly, volatile-Morgan set high standards; he demanded attention to detail. He threw things.
"He didn't like changes without good cause," recalled Chuck Neville, a naval architect in Maryland who got his start drawing hull lines and doing weight calculations for Morgan. "There were times when you had to make changes, but you had to defend what you did and why. If you had a good defense, more often than not he was very accommodating. If you all of a sudden surprised him with something, that's when he might throw something at somebody."
Steve Seaton, a naval architect in Fort Lauderdale, said he has never regretted working for Morgan, though it wasn't easy at the time. For example, Seaton said, Morgan had fired him five times//though Morgan didn't tell him until two years ago, decades after Seaton had left the company. It seems Morgan would send Seaton off on tasks but in the hurly-burly of business would forget the assignment and fire Seaton, only to withdraw the dismissal after learning that his apprentice had not been AWOL after all.
During my chat with Morgan, he digressed several times to say how proud he is of his former employees, particularly Seaton and Neville, for what they have accomplished on their own. His sentiments are reciprocated.
"He was a teacher in the finest sense of the word. He told me he enjoys being around people who want to learn and have enthusiasm. He got me focused on learning the business from the engineering standpoint," said Seaton, for whom the esthetics of boat building always came easier than the math. "How can you thank a guy who helped you get a career going by seeing the talent in a kid?"
Morgan's conversation also returned many times to his late wife, Sally, who died last year of lung cancer.
Morgan had retired at age 43, a few years after Beatrice foods had acquired Morgan Yachts through a merger. He had been rich enough to spend $1.5 million (a lot of money in 1970) to design and build the yacht Heritage to defend the America's Cup. ("One of the most welldocumented defeats in history," Morgan recalled, referring to the film Duel in the Wind, about Morgan's campaign.) Morgan was a master of his universe. He could be charming. He was divorced from his first wife. Women liked Charley Morgan, and why not?
Morgan's friends say the flirtations stopped on a dime when Charley married Sally, his second wife. Now, as I spoke to him, the woman who had changed his life so long ago was gone. "Her death startled him," Topper Hermanson said. "He never ever thought he would outlive his wife."
Morgan's design efforts pretty much shut down during his wife's decline and his own bereavement, but he said he wants to start accepting clients again. He wants to design two or three trawlers a year for Hermanson to build. You can see those boats in Morgan'sPMM advertisements; they're little ships of shallow draft, designed to cruise the islands just like his most successful production sailboats.
How does Hermanson, who said he has built designs by "a litany of dead guys," see Morgan?
"He's the Ronald Reagan of boat design. He's a wonderful delegator. He's a wonderful public relations guy. He's got great personality," Hermanson said. "And he's still innovative; he's playing with bottom designs; he's still looking at how a boat flows through the water."
The people skills are hugely important, Morgan and Hermanson agree, because designers and builders spend a great deal of time talking clients out of expensive features they don't really need. Morgan said he has no interest in designing "an edifice to the greatest you can do in modern yachting." Maybe it's the teacher in him, but Morgan said he has talked some potential customers out of having a custom boat built at all, steering them instead to the used market.
And why metal? Morgan's not interested in a production line. He succeeded marvelously at that with Morgan Yachts and later went out of business running Heritage Yachts. For the small custom designer that Morgan has become, steel is ideal, and so is aluminum.
Hermanson said his boatyard could build the aluminum equivalent, say, of a Grand Banks 42. For $100,000, the boat comes with "everything that keeps you afloat," engine beds, rudder, shaft log and window cutouts. The owner then has the boat outfitted with engine, windows, electronics and furnishings. Do the math and compare.
Charley Morgan, the man who helped bring sailing to the middle class in the 1960s and '70s, is striving to do the equivalent one trawler at a time for the power cruisers of today.