The Boston Whaler: From ‘bathtub’ to icon

Unsinkable: The History of Boston Whaler
By Matthew D. Plunkett, Motorbooks 2017, 208 pp., $24

Reviewed by Jake Lundberg
For Points East

The classic Boston Whalers still plying waters around the world are now regarded as such rough beauties that it’s easy to forget they were initially maligned as eyesores. When Whaler founder Dick Fisher first showcased his 13’ model in the late 1950s, the question he fielded most often was where he planned to put the soap dish. Some 60 years on, many of those “blue bathtubs” remain in operation, and the Boston Whaler brand has become as salty as its name.

The Whaler was Dick Fisher’s white whale. Fisher, a Harvard-educated Brahmin with a philosophy degree and an engineer’s mind, took to the design and development of his famously unsinkable creation with an Ahab-like persistence. After he abandoned his vision for a sailboat to rival the Alcort Sailfish, he spent four years and a small fortune finding the Whaler’s cathedral hull shape. More years, more dollars, and more partners followed as he perfected the manufacturing process. A fortuitous “Life” magazine feature in 1961 pictured Fisher in a trilby hat, tweed jacket, and bowtie calmly watching as a saw rips one of his boats in half. Another shot of Fisher driving just the aft-portion of the boat gave the company a free and enduring ad campaign. By 1966, more than 5,000 vessels a year were being produced in Rockland, Mass., and the legendary boat manufacturer had reached maturity.

Fisher’s vision and the legacy that followed is the subject of Matthew D. Plunkett’s “Unsinkable: The History of Boston Whaler.” Building on hundreds of interviews and impressive archival sleuthing, Plunkett tracks the Whaler’s course from Fisher’s initial collaboration with celebrated designer C. Raymond Hunt up to the present. The result is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, company history enlivened by a wealth of sketches, plans and color photographs.

The book’s opening sections, detailing the Whaler’s early design and breathtakingly unsafe manufacturing process, are the most engaging. Fisher began with the dream of designing boats with the qualities of balsa wood – light, strong and unfailingly buoyant. He found answers in polystyrene foam, and with it he became one of the great innovators of the postwar fiberglass era. Where others were building heavy boats with layer upon layer of glass and resin, Fisher’s foam core allowed him to keep his hulls light and thin. The combination was famously visionary, but, as Plunkett notes, the shear braces that stiffened Whaler hulls actually stood as the company’s most jealously guarded secret. One only wishes Plunkett had offered a bit more context on postwar boatbuilding and fiberglass mass-production.

Plunkett’s subsequent chapters on the rising and falling fortunes of the company’s multiple owners can get a little lost in the details. Suffice it to say that, as a business, Boston Whaler hasn’t always been as buoyant as its boats. Fisher’s uncompromising pursuit yielded an expensive product for which obsolescence was never part of the plan. When you have an unsinkable boat, you don’t need to buy a new one. A few dings and some broken teak hatches notwithstanding, my family’s 17’ Montauk looks about the same as it did when my father bought it in the late 1980s.

“Boats are better than they used to be. They go faster, they ride softer, they leak less, and they hardly ever blow up”: the lead of a 1966 “New York Times” boat show review was unassailable. If fiberglass boats weren’t always as pretty as their wooden forebears, they were a damn sight more practical. For Boston Whalers, that eminent practicality – “they perform,” the same “Times” review noted of Fisher’s brainchild – has become a beauty of its own.

Jake Lundberg teaches U.S. History at the University of Notre Dame. A lifelong sailor, he races Lasers in Chicago and Guilford, Conn., and gunkholes around Long Island Sound in a Caledonia yawl.

 

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