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Dave and Anke
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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Phil Bolger: In Memoriam

Susanne Altenburger and Phil Bolger

 “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
Woody Guthrie

“If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn't call it genius. ”
Michelangelo Buonarroti

Phillip C. Bolger: In Memorium

While I never met Phil, and we only exchanged a couple of letters, I loved the man.

He is, to me, a font of ingenuity and inspiration. His love of KISS sailing and ultra-shoal draft inspired and informed my own.

I've heard him called arrogant, an iconoclast, lacking in aesthetics... I beg to differ. Folks of this persuasion have only usually  been exposed to some narrow slice of his extraordinarily rich spectrum. Taste a wider swathe, and one can't fail to see the humorful humility, reverence for tradition and passion for beauty that Phil radiated.

That, and they have perhaps failed to adjust their reaction for EastCoast / Gloucester cultural modes of expression. Opinions are expressed forefully, in these parts. Meanwhile, Phil had no more penetrating critic than himself, and he often turned his wry (Gloucesterian) humor on his own works.

I'll also add that, while I'm writing solely of Phil, here, I'm thinking as well of his partner, Susanne Altenburger whom we had the pleasure to meet in 2012. She and Phil collaborated in his latter years and has earned much of the praise I'll be heaping, here.


Square Boats probably have earned Phil as much derision and dismissal as any corner of his works. In them he is like the classical painter exploring Cubist expression... vessels such as YARROW and ROSE and even the GLOUCESTER GULL attest to his mastery of traditional virtues, while his 'Cubist' vessels are works of ground-breaking genius.

Yarn 1:

A friend of ours had built a Bolger BRICK (shaped about as it sounds). He brought it out to Tenakee for a Mess-About. All day, he and his daughter sailed circles around the rest of us (including respected designs of similar size by Devlin, Hess and a TORO!).

Later, back East, he rowed up to the ROSE (the Bolger tall ship used in the movie, Master and Commander). The Engineer (as it turns out) stuck his head over the side and began to run the BRICK and that Bolger down, down, down. Finally, my confused friend asked whether he was aware that the ROSE herself was a Bolger design? The poor man's still in therapy!

A picture was taken of the BRICK in ROSE's foreground, and a T-shirt printed, captioned, "Which is the Bolger Boat?"

Yarn 2:

When we launched ZOON (ex Bolger LONG MICRO) in Port Townsend, Washington, it was during their annual Wooden Boat Festival.

Sailing forth, we trimmed in and picked up to a fast clip for our size.... woo hoo!  We soon zipped through a fleet of traditional yachts, glistening with varnish.

Among them, the ADVENTURESS -- one of the big schooners -- crossed tacks with us. Must've been a hundred or so people lining her rail, staring at us and... um... frowning.

But as she drew abreast, one guy in the middle hoists his fist and shouts, "PHIL BOLGER FOREVER!!!" All heads, as if choreographed, turned as one toward him.

We prepared for man over-board! But fortunately, today's traditionalists are largely SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guys/Gals), and he was spared.


Phil's Works

Phil isn't one to let dogma (even his own!) get the upper hand, and he constantly reviewed, critiqued and expanded his ideas. He wrote many books containing complete designs, and articles -- many in the form of 'cartoons' (gedankenexperimenten, you might say) -- as well as a design portfolio in the neighborhood of eight hundred boats!

101 Small Boat Rigs stands out as an annotated survey for anyone contemplating a choice of rigging.

Boats with an Open Mind contains a broad range of Phil's designs in which his concepts have been highly refined.

To get a glimps of the range of Phil's opus, check out Bruce Hallman's assemblage of Bolger designs.

Bow Steering Keel Sharpie with Wheelchair Access

Technical Genius

How does one measure genius? Useful Innovation is a pretty good criterion.

Phil came up with a handful of designs which combine more or less well known elements into revolutionary arrangements of high synergy. In other words, he gets these elements to work exceptionally well together, and the sum is greater than the parts. Many of these, to my knowledge, represent entirely novel approaches.

The following represent what I feel to be Phil's Hall of Fame (a power boater might notice others I've missed!):

Advanced Sharpie (AS) Concept -- I think of these as 'box sharpies'... they have rectangular sections which eliminate longitudinal bevels, simplifying constructon immensely. Bottom and side curveature are matched in plan and profile view, reducing or eliminating cross-chine flow / turbulence, which in turn reduces drag. The bottom is carried well clear of the waterline, fore and aft; this reduces waterline length, when upright, for nimble tacks. As the hull heels, the waterline increases for higher hull speeds.

The AS line puts 'thoroughbred' performance in reach of the most ham-fisted builder!

BIRDWATCHER Concept -- In this type, the superstructure is composed largely of (plexi)glass and built water-tight to a midships, longitudinal gangway. This allows beam-ends knock-downs to be taken in stride, with self-righting by the crew from within the hull. Typically, such hulls can have little to no ballast, reducing overall weight for speed underway and trailering.

This concept has brought shelter and comfort to small, previously open cruisers. It's more widely applicable to larger cruisers, as well.

ROMP / MANATEE Concept -- These are Curvy Dogs... rounded barge mid-sections drawn out to fine ends (as oppolessed to the typical bluff bow). Ultra-shoal, very stable (a barge's form stability) and slippery fast.

In my opinion, as cruising hulls these eclipse the revered Monroe PRESTOs with increased stability and load-carrying capacity. Phil considered this type to be a successor to the Herreschoff MEADOWLARK, as a competent cruiser which could be built by amateurs (though I think the AS line or VOLUNTEER types are even better candidates).

ST. VALERIE / VOLUNTEER Concept -- Similar to ROMP / MANATEE hulls, but with a rockered, midships plate. The beauty of this is that the plate can be heavily armoured against grounding, and the hull above (especially in VOLUNTEER sections) more lightly protected. VOLUNTEER styles can be built with Parker's Quick-Molding approaches.

Step-Sharpie Concept -- This approach stacks a wide sharpie hull over a narrow one (somewhat like a very wide, hollow keel). The lower hull acts as a cutwater, keel and provides headroom and storage.

Many have filled the lower space with battery banks to abet electric driven auxiliary power.

'Instant Boats' -- Collaborating with Dynamite Payson (Phil drew the designs; Dynamite prototyped them), he drew up a fleet of small boats requiring minimal lofting (plywood panel shapes are lofted directly on the material) and no jigs or molds (the frames and planking shape the boat).

Phil didn't like the term, but it did represent a big leap in construction ease. This has since become pretty much the norm for 'developed' hulls (made from sheet materials).


Aesthetic Genius

Phil's aesthetics have been roundly derogated, in certain circles, or lauded to the skies in others.

There is common ground, however... I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't admire a GLOUCESTER GULL (the light, plywood rowing dory Phil considered his 'ticket to heaven'). At Wooden Boat Festivals, YARROW draws appreciation from many who hold square boats in contempt. And the ROSE is, of course, a Hollywood Star.

Being a work-boat kind of a guy, the beauty of function appeals to me. Many of Phil's design aesthetics reflect 'handsome is as handsome does'. When form fits function, I believe, a deeper beauty emerges, to which varnish and a 'sweet sheer' is only surface effect.

In my opinion, Phil mastered both aspects.

My Personal Debt

The first home we built on our own was ZOON (19.5ft x 6.5ft x 10in), ex Bolger LONG MICRO. It was only s'posed to be a short-term, vacation cruiser, but a long story had us living aboard for three happy years. A smallish AS style hull,  it gave us rank beginners the courage to build our own.

We liked the type so much, we drew up LUNA (31ft x 8ft x 13in), which we built and lived aboard for twelve years. The AS hull type gave me the courage to design our own.

My TRILOBYTE (T16x4) was based on the BIRDWATCHER concept, which adapted readily to a box barge hull. This begat the line of TriloBoats, which also owes inspiration to AS concepts.

Meanwhile, we've built two GLOUCESTER GULLS and a NYMPH as  tenders, and used several of the concepts prominent in Phil's designs (right-angle construction, tabernacles, sprit-boomed mizzens, boomkins, copper plate, large windows).

If this wasn't enough, my brother built SELKIE, ex MARTHA JANE, and my sister now owns THEGREATSEA, ex DOUBLE EAGLE 657. This doesn't even mention good times had aboard Phil's boats built by many other friends.

Fair Winds to a Friend

Toward the end, Phil felt his mind begin to slip. To one whose every waking moment was illuminated by intellect, this was intolerable, and he chose to lay down his life by his own hand. Courageous and Libertarian to the end.

To me, Phil was a Mentor and Inspiration. In ways that are hard to express, I felt him to be a Friend. A fellow Wingnut in the Wide World of Boats. Someone I'd turn to with a problem, and find, if not an answer, at least an approach and the courage to attempt the solution.

Did I mention that I loved the man?


  1. I too loved Phil Bolger's design style and life philosophy. The world is a better place for his having being here...