Portlanders Built Fiberglass Keelboats in 1956
The sport of sailing never got any respect in Portland. But that’s understandable. It’s 100 miles upriver from the Columbia Bar then another 10 to the home of the Willamette (River) Sailing Club. Dodging barges on a narrow waterway with the downtown skyline for a backdrop-it’s an unlikely place to nurture national sailing champions.
Which leads us to this month’s fascinating question-who built the first fiberglass yachts? The boating press, headquartered in the NE states, would have us believe that it was the Pearson company in 1959 with a 28 foot class called the Triton. Maybe if they repeat that often enough everyone will start to believe it!
But we in the NW center of the sport need to be reminded occasionally that “it just ain’t so”. By 1959 a group in Portland had been in the laminating business for four years and had already launched ten of their 34 foot Chinook class boats. That enterprise became Yacht Constructors in 1956 and after many years was officially renamed Cascade Yachts in 1989. This is the story of their 35 years in continuous fiberglass production.
In the fall of 1954 a work party at the Rose City Yacht Club brought together an energetic group of Columbia River sailors. While they were working on the club’s floats the talk turned to-what else-the ideal boat. They were all, it seemed, looking for something quite similar, and the talk turned to ways to sponsor a new, economical, cruiser class. But there was little chance of seriously lowering costs if the boats were built one at a time in plank-on-frame style construction.
Merle Starr and Tom Green were particularly impressed by the potential of fiberglass, although the only examples they had seen were dinghies and runabouts. They found out about a builder in La Conner who was turning out 20 foot, fiberglass, fishing skiffs. He recomended they use only glass fabric, and stay away from chopped-strand mat. They also saw how the Freightliner company was building truck bodies with the new materials in Portland.
Merle and Tom then found a design by the Philadelphia architect Frederick Geiger that fit the bill for their one-design, and persuaded Wade Cornwell, Henry Morton and Jarvis Gould to join them in the venture. (Wade remembered that other prominent architects refused to answer their inquiries when they mentioned “fiberglass”.)
One can imagine that there must have been a few doubts as the five amateur partners spent eight months, from April to November 1955, building the plug and painstakingly fairing it. Even today that is a process that most boat owners know little about. Yet here were five guys who had never even seen a fiberglass yacht laboring on the construction of the first stage in the process-a perfectly fair hull-shape that wouldn’t even float! For once it’s justifiable to call this “a dream” project. They sweated over the plug, then took off the mold, in an old building next to Steinfeld’s pickle works, now part of Portland airport, sharing aspace with Ed Gove who was building a 30 foot sloop to a William Garden design. (Ed later moved to Seattle and founded Gove’s Cove.)
In converting the lines from traditional wood to fiberglass the team had nothing to go on except their own judgment, but since all the Chinooks they built are still going strong they must have done it right! One of the boats actually went on to sail around the world. The design was in every way a classic, centerboard hull, only 23 feet on the waterline with 11 feet of elegant overhangs and displacing a solid 12,000lbs.
Hull no.1 was completed in April 1956, Starr got hull no.5 in July 1957. It was Christmas before he had the mast built and the rig set up. He sailed “Pxyis” for the first time during a mild spell in January 1958. Merle owned and sailed no. 5 for 30 years, until his death in 1985. The basic hull, deck and cabin had cost about $4,500 and the entire yacht, ready-to-sail came out to about $9,000. “The main idea was to provide an affordable sailboat” recalled Wade Cornwell. “Back then hardly anyone could afford a real yacht”.
Each skipper now had a real cruiser that he would never have been able to afford otherwise-with low maintenance to boot. The five boats did well in local racing with an optional, tall rig carrying 530 sq.ft. Eventually Merle won PYC’s Long Distance Race three times and Tom won it twice. You can guess what happened next-other sailors began asking them for “just one more boat” off the molds. Three of the original partners, Starr, Green and Cornwell slid into business and incorporated with the low-key title of Yacht Constructors.
Their first customer was Dr. Donald Laird of Portland, their slogan-“Anyone can afford a fabulous Chinook”. During the early years transportation costs were lower-it cost only $240 to truck a hull and keel to San Diego for instance-and many were shipped around the country. The 70th and last hull went to Maryland in 1968.
By then the company had bought the property on NE 42 nd, where they are still to be found, and had commissioned the Cascade series of designs from local naval architect Robert Smith. First came the 29, in 1961, followed by the 42 in 1964 and the 36 in 1967. These made a complete break with the style of the Chinook design-the 29 had more waterline length but only displaced half as much. The new hulls, with their canoe shape, moderate beam and fin keels were destined to become cruising classics and see more ocean-going miles than anyone could have thought possible at the time.
Smith was also an architect with east coast roots. He was working at Sparkman & Stephens when war broke out and was recruited by Henry Kaiser to the Portland shipyards. When the last Liberty Ship went down the ways he set up his own office on the Columbia. His yacht Mischief was one of the first fin-keel racers in the NW and won the 1956 Swiftsure. (Although retired Smith, like Cornwell and Green, also stays active in the yachting world and recently took delivery of a custom, wooden 27 foot centerboarder to his own design.)
Over 360 of the 29’s have been sold, the majority in the first two decades. They have sailed on all the world’s oceans, yet were actually advertised as “a trailerable cruiser”. However, Smith emphasised that the 8’2″ beam, which looks very narrow today, was foremost a reflection of the CCA rule which penalised anything greater than that. The skeg rudder was later changed to a spade and many skippers, in true owner-builder style, added bowsprits to set a larger jib, an idea which spread to the larger boats.
Now, there seem to be enough used boats on the market to satisfy demand; there are even a few unfinished hulls around. I have watched a good friend, Dave Acton, complete a 29 from a hull and deck over the past four years, purchasing major components as and when he could afford them. The boat continues to offer an economical alternative to the typical showroom models and can outsail many of them.
Portland boatbuilder Gary Weber sailed his 29 to the Caribbean then back through Panama to the south Pacific and home. The longest trip to date appears to be that of Walt wilson, a former Rose City policeman, who completed a six-year, 40,000 mile circumnavigation in the Cascade 29 Euphoria. The unofficial Cascade-owners grapevine has learned there is another circumnavigator in a 29 somewhere out there right now, over half way around the world.
One other use of this class deserves mention-the “Sea Scout 29″. After several requests from scout leader Bud Beggs, Bob Smith proposed to modify a hull to meet the scout’s needs. The sheer was lowered 4″ by a dam in the mold making the boat suitable for rowing with four 13 foot oars. The fin keel was replaced by a 2,400 lb iron shoe with a slot for the center-board, minimum draft is 2’9”. A new deck mold was built replacing the cabin with a long, self-bailing cockpit and buoyant compartments. With its ketch rig and bowsprit the Beaver was well-suited to carrying a young crew on instruction and adventure cruises. Six sister ships have been launched since 1969, all except one -which went to Everett scouters-remain on the Columbia.
An assortment of factors-among them the improving economy, the spirit of the sixties, the company history-was leading Yacht Constructors to become the premier kit boat supplier on the west coast. Would-be sailors began to show up with little money and even less knowledge, but they were determined to go cruising! They could buy a reliable, rugged, bare hull, park it inside the yard for a nominal rent and start on their dream-whether that meant finding a job to earn funds or fitting the floors and engine bed.
Most boatbuilders would recoil in horror at the thought of selling one of their unfinished designs to a complete amateur-the Yacht Constructors saw a healthy business where bigger or more ambitious yards refused to go. After all, that was the way the partnership had begun. What’s more, they happily provided advice and couragement to numerous owner-builders, encouraged by mail from those already “out there, doing it.”
Cascades have been finished by hundreds of owners, each in a different way, yet nothing disastrous has ever happened. In fact the problem, if there is one, is that owner-builders tend to overbuild everything. But then the hulls are also overbuilt as well, laminated with 8 layers of 24 oz. woven roving below the waterline on the 29 and 12 layers on the 42. (The expression “bulletproof” is often bandied around, but 45 slugs really do bounce off these hulls, which have survived groundings and collisions that would have sunk lighter boats.)
The best horror stories appear to be accidents which had nothing to do with poor navigation:one hull fell off a trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike at 55 MPH. The only damage was to a a worn patch on the bilge. Another Cascade was moored in a California marina which was buried in a mud slide. The mud was so deep that only the mast top was showing. Every boat except this 29 was a write-off. A 36 was dropped 8 feet onto concrete and suffered no damage.
The low-key approach to business was also a reflection of the partners lives in which boatbuilding was no more than a part-time occupation. Merle Starr Ph.D, retired from his post as Physics professor at the University of Portland in 1976, Tom Green stayed with the Hyster corporation as a fabrication foreman for 34 years until 1972. Wade Cornwell worked for Union Carbide until 1963. When his job was eliminated he became the full-time manager of the company.
In February 1989 Cascade found a new, owner. Hans Geerling, an electronics engineer at Tektronix, who was also facing unemployment. Looking for a way to avoid the next cyclical downturn in hi-tec business, he made the partners an offer they couldn’t refuse. Hans has been sailing since his youth, mostly on the inland waters of Friesland in Holland. He moved to Oregon in 1968, and quickly built himself a sailing dinghy. Since then he has moved up to a Catalina 25 and a Westsail 32. For his next boat, Hans has
more than Cascades to choose from because last summer he acquired four more molds from the defunct Heritage Boat works in Hood River. All four are designs from Jay Benford, who used to live in Friday Harbor before moving to St Michaels, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. The 20 and 22 are traditional pocket yachts, the 30 a beamy, aft-cabin boat and the 39 a handsome, full-keeled double-ender. The Smith designs have had a fin keel since 1961, observed Hans, but tastes have changed over the years. “Now I’m finally ready to begin building full keels for the 1990’s” he commented with a smile.
Many changes have been made to the original Cascades, like a multitude of keel options:deep, shallow, fin-and -bulb, wing. The best-seller now is definitely the 42, introduced 1964. The first customer was the Dr.Laird who bought the first Chinook. That hull has now been extended to become the 44, showing so many changes above the WL that it is practically a new boat. It is more likely to have an Airex core these days too, mainly for insulation, but still with plenty of roving on either side.
The topsides have been raised a foot, allowing a flush deck forward of the mast and the new cabin has around 7 feet of headroom. The stern extension seems such a natural feature that I had to see the separate mold to believe it wasn’t part of the hull mold. Two 44’s are being fitted out by the company this winter to two entirely different plans. There is an awful lot of space in there and anyone who plans on finishing their own 44 should be aware of the demands it will make.
Ten years building time is not unheard of with the big boat, but at the other end of the scale is Don Eudaly. His wife decided to have a baby around the time he bought the 36 foot hull. She gave him nine months to finish the job and he managed it on time! Since then the Fletcher has done 12 Swiftsures, Victoria-Maui, and cruised to Alaska and the Caribbean. Now Don’s son races the Fletcher so much that Don bought himself another 36.
Jim and Molly Moore’s 36 “Swan” is probably the best-known Portland boat. The Moore’s spent five years finishing their boat and four years sailing around the world. They have presented their slide show to many local sailors. A 1988 article in (the Bay Area publication) 38 North tells how 80 year-old Josh Taylor finished an 11 year round the world voyage in the Cascade 36 Comitan. The boat was still going strong but age had caught up with the skipper so he trucked it home from Florida.
In 1967 a Portland Yacht Club syndicate was formed to build a stripped-out Cascade 42, modified specifically to race the Trans-Pac. It was fitted with a lighter rig, a bowsprit and a deeper keel. Around 2,000 lbs was saved by lightening up on the deck construction and omitting the aft cabin, the interior was designed to sleep a 6-man crew. In those halcyon days of the CCA rule there were few loopholes, boats had to be weighed for rating and the Nimble tipped the scales at 15,500 lbs.
The syndicate raced seven consecutive Trans-Pacs, from 1967 to 1979, keeping the boat up north for time-sharing on the off-years. Their best place was 3rd in ’69, the best time 11 days, 15 hours. They might have improved on that in ’77 but lost the mast after a spreader failure when closing the islands. Bill Nickerson eventually bought out all the shares and cruised the boat in the 1980’s.
In 1978 Smith drew up the last of the line, the Cascade 27, a more roomy, affordable boat which the designer sailed to an overall win in the 1984 Swiftsure Race. Twenty years after the introduction of the IOR he is still vociferous in defence of the CCA designs and hopes for a return to moderation under IMS. Underway, you can always tell a Cascade by the mountain range insignia on the sail. One other feature that has become a trademark is the toerail on the 36 and 44.
(The accent here should be on the RAIL not the TOE, because we are talking about the world’s toughest!) One customer worked for a local aluminum company and used his expertise to produce an extruded, toerail/ rubrail section strong enough to double as a bowsprit and horizontal chainplate. There are no conventional chainplates on Cascades with this rail. All rigging is shackled directly to the toerail. In the shop they lift hulls by the rail, which is fitted
in 24 foot lengths then returned to the maker for anodising. The latest innovation is a big one-powerboating. You wouldn’t expect the company to start building just any old boat and the 36 trawler is certainly anything but ordinary. It’s a heavy displacement, deep-V, hard-chine hull that sports two enormous skegs, each carrying a protected prop and rudder. The “3 point” bottom of deep forefoot and skegs means the trawler can sit unsupported at low tide or when hauled out. Internally, the engine beds are down in the skegs, increasing cabin space. The concept was originally drawn up by Nils Lucander as a work boat for the Honduran government. Geerling is betting that it will interest NW boaters interested in economy cruising, especially in more remote areas.
In the small office inside the plant Geerling outlined for me how he thought the business might develop in the future. Cascade also provides catalog sales of everything needed to finish a boat, from cleats to engines. The yachting world has seen who-knows how many up and down turns of the market since 1955 but this is one company that has resisted the temptation to expand. They have never employed more than 12 people, at present there are six workers. The partners experimented with dealers, national advertising and licencing builders before deciding the product would just have to sell itself. Because most of their business is in partly-finished boats, the shop is not set up for series production of interiors and does not have a lot of space and machinery dedicated to joinery, which also reduces the overhead.
Although Geerling makes all the decisions now, the original Cascade philosophy won’t change significantly. Space is still available round the back for a nominal rent, the catalog order operation continues and they are not about to build a boat until there is an order. Every hull “No.1” is still sailing.
Hans is now the father to a huge boating family stretching back 36 years and guardian of the “owners file”, a battered folder that lists every owner of every yacht they have built since the very beginning. There are now 50 Cascades moored at the Rose City Yacht Club where it all began; back in a kinder, gentler age of boating OR sailing. OR when a few guys came up with an idea whose time had come