The Life and Designs of Bill Tripp

William Tripp was born in 1920 on Long Island where he was soon exposed to the world of boats by his father, a civil engineer. He sailed the family Star boat and everything else from frostbite dinghies to ocean racers. He was said to have begun drawing boats as a youth during a confinement for strep throat. He worked in Phillip Rhodes’s office for two years, and after the outbreak of war served in the U. S. Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol, in which private yachts, often armed with no more than a machine gun, were commandeered to search for German U-boats–in winter on the North Atlantic!

He graduated from the Coast Guard academy and served as a navigator in an LST in the Pacific. When the war ended, he continued his apprenticeship with the second great design office of that era, Sparkman & Stephens, until he started his own practice in 1952. In 1955 he finally got a chance to design a real ocean racer, the yawl Katingo, which promptly won the American Yacht Club cruise two years in succession. To this point, all his boats were built of wood, but the allure of fiberglass soon drew his attention.

Bill Robinson, former editor of Yachting magazine, met Tripp at this time and described him as a talented and ambitious young man with a blond shock of hair who raced around the coast roads in his Jaguar XK-140 checking on the progress of his designs. Tripp decided his car could aid him in learning to design in fiberglass, so he began subjecting laminate panels to the “driveway test.” If the panel could resist the weight of his car a few times, it had passed the initial test!

This was a time when fiberglass was viewed with great suspicion, but these and other experiments gave him enough confidence in 1956 to go ahead with plans for a 40-foot fiberglass yawl to race under the CCA (Cruising Club of America) rule. It was for a Connecticut lawyer named Frederick Lorenzen.who was prepared to risk racing offshore race in a boat built entirely from this new material. At the Beetle Boat Co. in East Greenwich, R.I., a fiberglass mold was built around a wooden mockup of Tripp’s design. From the mold came several hulls: Lorenzen’s boat Seal, Rhubarb and Southern Star II.

Half a century later, it is easy to point out that the long over-hangs, slack bilges, shallow draft (4′), centerboard and rig encouraged by the rule did not make for a boat that was particularly fast upwind. The three sister yawls had a promising debut and performed beautifully in the Newport-to-Bermuda race, finishing fifth, sixth and seventh in a field of 110 boats. The design was named the Block Island Forty, but little did anyone suspect that his concept of a seaworthy 40 footer would outlast them all.

It was a centerboarder, wider than most, and with a unique rounded stem. In the close-mouthed tradition of naval architects, Tripp would only say that his design “follows my ideas in relation to resistance and lateral plane, ideas which are somewhat different from some my competitors hold.” Lawyer Lorenzen was a little more specific. “It’s quite a trick to get a boat with tremendous stability and not too much underbody,” he said. “Bill draws his lines very tight. His lines at the forward section are very fine. This helps particularly in going windward.”

In 1957, Tripp’s Touche, a 47-foot flush-deck sloop built by the well-known yard of Abeking and Rasmussen in Germany, compiled a good race record and gave its young designer a boost in stature. In the 184-mile Miami-to-Nassau race, Rhubarb won on corrected time, leading to talk that here was a real challenger to the decades-long dominance of Philip Rhodes and Olin Stephens. Sadly, Tripp would only live another 11 years, leaving much of his potential unfulfilled.

In 1958, the Henry Hinckley Company of Maine asked for another version of the Block Island 40. Tripp made a few refinements to the drawings and the Bermuda 40 was born. This was the boat that achieved something that none of its contemporaries can match. Two hundred were built and almost 50 years later they are as popular as ever and have become the quintessential example of the CCA yacht and the entire era. The Bermuda 40 has stood the test of time, and commands a higher price than any yacht of its age. If you find this hard to believe, check the web for one! You’ll see prices around $100,00 for a fixer upper to $300,000 for a well-equipped version.

The B-40 was built with both sloop and yawl rigs. What it lacks in speed to windward, it more than makes up in other sailing qualities. The performance off the wind is very good, and the full keel and centerboard make the boat easy to balance and comfortable to sail on beam and broad reaches. It is very well-mannered in conditions that would give fits to the helmsmen of modem boats with high aspect fin keels and spade rudders. And of course, it can fit into shallow anchorages from Maine to the Bahamas.

In 1959, Tripp drew the first Ondine, a 57′ centerboard yawl, for Sumner Long. This big sister of the 40 footers was built in aluminum and went on to win races all over the world. (Alan Gurney was his assistant at this time. He went on to draw the Windward Passage, the first of the “modern” maxis.) At the same time, Tripp was also drawing production boats like the Javelin for Seafarer, the Medalist for US Yachts, and the Invicta for Pearson.

Having helped to introduce fiberglass construction, Bill Tripp had played his part in boosting sailing’s popularity, and as the cost of boats were brought down, more contemporary styling was demanded. Tripp was up to the challenge, and moved away from the classic styling of the centerboard yawls to more contemporary shapes. As early as 1958, his 32′ Galaxy sloop appeared with a flush deck, vertical transom, fin keel and spade rudder. Unfortunately, the public wasn’t ready for this leap forward, and the yard, American Boatbuilding, only delivered half a dozen hulls before going out of business.

By the mid-60s, the Columbia company had become America’s leading builder of fiberglass yachts and approached Tripp to design a fifty footer. He returned to the Galaxy concept and produced the first of the Columbia bubble-topped high-sided boats that are still easily recognizable. In the next six years, he produced thirteen Columbias, from 26 to 57 feet long. The C-50 attracted a strong following–and there is still an active owners association.

By 1969, Columbia was the world’s largest fiberglass sailboat manufacturer and was ready to build “the nation’s largest production fiberglass sailboat.” It was a Tripp 57 footer named Concerto, and displayed “several of the trademark features of his successful ocean racing yachts: an unusually long effective waterline, high aspect ratio sail plan, dual surface steering system with a keel-mounted trim tab as well as a balanced spade rudder aft.” Speed was derived partially from an absolute minimum of wetted surface area, and from the high prismatic coefficient hull design.

In 1971, the IOR (International Offshore Rule) was unveiled, effectively making every CCA yacht in the USA “obsolete.” Tripp had drawn a 52′ IOR boat for Columbia and was looking forward to the opportunity to develop his ideas on the new rule, but a few months later, a drunk driver drove his car across the divider on the Connecticut Turnpike and smashed into Tripp’s Jaguar coupe, killing him instantly. He was 51.

(His son, Bill Tripp Jr. became a successful naval architect and has worked on super yachts in excess of 100 feet–something his father could only have dreamed of.)


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
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