Boston Whaler, this is how “unsinkable” American boats were born

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The challenge between a Boston Whaler and a dozer the hull seems to resist well.

“If I say strong, resilient, ready for anything, what comes to mind?”

“Mmm. The boats that catch whales!”

Whaler, indeed. Legend has it that in this conversation with his daughter a young Massachusetts entrepreneur, Richard “Dick” Fisher, found the second part of a name destined to make boating history. What about Boston? A significant reference, geographically speaking, to the America from which he came. This anecdote told to me by Alessandro Lorenzon, former Boston Whaler manager for the EMEAA market, under the apocalypse rain that punctually hits the Genoa boat show for at least one day, marks the beginning of my journey inside the history of one of America’s most famous shipyards.

Boston Whaler

If we look at Boston Whaler, from its genesis to what it represents today, it is clear that it could not have been born anywhere else but in the United States. It is not so much the type of boat itself, but the value of this brand itself over time. Those described by Fisher and summarized by his daughter in “whaler” are concepts that a certain kind of American proudly reflects in and puts at the center of his culture. Boating in America, even high-end boating, often has a tendency not to be exclusive, or rather, not to have its center of gravity there. To get into the order of ideas, let’s think about cars. In our country, a sports car symbolic of “made in Italy” probably brings to mind two brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini. Great machines, but for very few people. In the U.S., the same success in terms of fame is found in a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro, within the reach, potentially, of hundreds of thousands of people.

Boston Whaler Conquest 405
New Boston Whaler Conquest 405

The basic idea is that overseas, observed from the Old World, a “top” brand is often also “pop,” that is, popular. So even a boat like a Boston Whaler is not for a niche, but rather a target that an
average Joe
with commitment and dedication can achieve. Fatigue for an important result. Maybe in that “whaler” in the beginning we could put that in there as well. The fact remains that Boston Whaler is a symbol of the United States and with this philosophy it has come to the whole world.

Boston Whaler and its founder Dick Fisher

Speaking of philosophy, this was the discipline in which the multifaceted Richard Fisher graduated from Harvard in 1936, before founding Fisher-Pierce three years later with his childhood friend, Robert Pierce. The company specialized in relay switches for traffic lights and as a reality still exists today. As a passion Fisher went fishing and did so on rivers where rocks might suddenly appear. So in 1943, he had tried building small boats out of balsa wood with the goal of combining lightness and strength, but soon realized that it was not working. He had to wait until 1954 when a press release about polyurethane foam came under his eyes. Mindful of his youthful endeavors, thanks to that providential insert Fisher’s enthusiasm was rekindled, and before long he was making a sailboat, a kind of scow for America’s inland lakes.

The arrival of Ray Hunt

At this point it becomes necessary to introduce another key player in the birth of Boston Whaler: the legendary Raymond “Ray” Hunt, inventor of the deep-V hull, the Moppie and the very first Bertrams, but above all a friend of Fisher’s. When he saw the sailboat he was surprised, positively, but he made an argument that in sixty years has not aged a day:

“Nice, but the sailing market is limited. Why don’t you motor it with outboards?”

At this point Hunt brought up an old project, the Sea Sled. Developed in the 1920s by Canadian William Hickman, it differed from a normal boat in having two clearly separated hulls and a “blunt” bow. Hunt wanted the Sea Sled as the basis for what would become the first Boston Whaler and talked to Hickman himself about it, showing him some modifications to improve it, but the Canadian did not get involved. Hunt then went ahead on his own and added a central element to the Sea Sled from which came the design of the first legendary “13 foot” Boston Whaler.

Evidence of unsinkability:

It actually took several months of trial and error and water testing with Fisher to arrive at the right shape of the living work, but not much was changed since then. The momentous breakthrough that this boat brought was not just about the hull. In fact, the basis of everything was precisely polyurethane foam. It was a pioneering time for fiberglass, the first mass-produced boat was yet to come, and it would be a sailboat.

Boston 230 Dauntless

It was already clear, however, that that kind of laminate with the knowledge of the time would not work for small, lightweight outboard boats. The problem was circumvented upstream by Fisher, who created a hull made primarily of foam enclosed in a lighter, thinner layer of laminates and gelcoat. The result was a rigid, robust, fast and extremely buoyant unit. Also “too much.”

Boston Whaler, the “unsinkable legend”

We talked about a “multifaceted Fisher.” In addition to being an entrepreneur, the Boston founder also had a keen talent for marketing. How to publicize a craft that was aesthetically referred to as a “soapbox”? Banking on different, unique qualities, such as the one that has become proverbial: Boston’s unsinkability. To do so, Fisher donned a tweed coat, bow tie and hat and had himself portrayed in a series of shots as he sat quietly aboard the 13-footer while a large saw cut the boat in two. As a lock he added more shots in which he could be seen smoothly walking away with the remaining half. These photos appeared in Life, one of the most widely read magazines at the time, and with this stunt, which became cult, the Boston Whaler name took off. It was, clearly, not the first time Fisher had one of his hulls cut in two.

It is likely that as early as the spring of ’59 he had been making such experiments, and in a world as small as boating, news of his “stunt” had reached the ears of Carl Kiekhaefer, founder of Mercury Marine who, intrigued, had invited Fisher to the annual dealer meeting to show the “act” live. Destiny, that of Boston and Mercury, which, as we shall see, will become one. Over time the range of Boston Whaler boats has definitely expanded with new hulls also for off-shore and improved construction techniques.

Boston Outrage 25
Boston Outrage 25

Interesting, however, how the use of internal foam, albeit with a formula updated each year, has remained one of the defining elements of the entire production. Ownership has also changed hands several times since Fisher-Pierce sold the business to the CML group in 1969. It would have to wait until 1996, however, to see its entry into the Brunswick Group, a boating giant that today has this brand as one of its cornerstones.

The arrival at Edgewater

In 1993 production moved to Edgewater, now headquarters in Florida, permanently leaving Rockland, Massachusetts where it all began. A plant in Edgewater had already been opened in 1987 at a time of market expansion. Today, Florida remains the territory where Boston Whaler has put down roots, so much so that still in 2021 the reopening of a 20,000-plus-square-foot facility in Flagler County, precisely in Florida, a stone’s throw from Daytona, was celebrated. The facility, which is expected to work at full capacity by 2025, not only increases production space but also brings in new, state-of-the-art machinery.

345 Conquest

With this additional piece, in three years, Boston Whaler production will increase by about 30-40% in total among all facilities. This is an ambitious plan for a manufacturer that already employs about 1,400 people and is heading toward 500 new hires just this year. Of course, behind it for more than 25 years now is a group that has been doing the lion’s share of the boating industry by catering to an extremely diverse market segment. We are talking about Brunswick, which with its recent
acquisition of electronics giant Navico (Simrad, C-Map, Lowrance) for about a billion euros
, now figures as one of the leading players in small-to-medium sized boating. In an industry where integration is increasingly central Boston Whaler is in a privileged position in the market by being able to rely on the firepower, whether technological or industrial, of this large group. Similar discussion for thrusters. Kiekhaefer and Fisher are gone, but their two creations, Mercury Marine, also part of Brunswick, and the EdgeWater brand are now more closely linked than ever. Boston hulls are designed specifically for these engines, and when they leave the yard at the stern they already have one or more outboards made by the Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin-based company. And in a range of boats from the smallest four-meter Super Sport to the 420 Outrage, the family continues to grow.

Boston 360 Outrage or 405 Conquest?

The last two arrivals in terms of time are the 360 Outrage and the 405 Conquest, making its European debut at the Düsseldorf 2023 show. The former is a sports center console while the latter is a cruiser cab.

Boston Whaler 360 Outrage: la nuova barca (11 m) per la pesca e crociera

The attitude, in terms of performance and seaworthiness, as an offshore boat is, however, common to both. In the world, in fact, a Boston goes from a pure fisherman to a cruising boat simply by changing area and mindset. What does not change is the passion that revolves around these hulls as evidenced by the clubs that have sprung up in various locations and the gatherings that are organized by these entities to create moments dedicated to those who have one of these hulls.

Boston Whaler Conquest 405 (12 m) è il cabinato fuoribordo da 50 nodi

The great thing is that you don’t have to show off the newest or the greatest to be admired; on the contrary. Indeed, it is the vintage models that have the most success and interest, and it is no accident that a hull of these is a kind of cashier’s check with minimal loss of value over time. Among the owners there is precisely that group concept that makes these boats the opposite of an exclusive product, but rather something that unites. A real “pop” myth!

Gregorio Ferrari

From Motor Boats No.29

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