The longtime boatbuilder and skilled sailor was a ‘health nut’ and a ‘very young 69,’ says a colleague
Warren Luhrs wasn’t one to surround himself with “yes men.” Instead, the man who co-founded Hunter and Silverton with his brother John chose to be around straight-shooters with integrity.
That’s the view of past Luhrs president Roger Yarborough, who says the Sept. 18 death of the 69-year-old Luhrs was a complete shock to everyone who knew him and a tragic loss of a great man.
“He had a massive heart attack; it was totally unexpected and he didn’t recover,” Yarborough says. “He was going over to someone’s house when it happened. Warren was a real health nut, too. He did all the right things. He was 69 and a very young 69.”
Spencer Markatos, a yacht broker with South Florida Yachts who went to college with Luhrs at American University in Washington, D.C., in 1964, says anyone who knew the man would never have believed he would succumb to a heart attack.
“He was thin as a rail, he had not an ounce of fat, he didn’t smoke — he might’ve had a glass of wine or two, on occasion — he really kept himself in great shape,” Markatos says. “It’s just such a shock. Warren wasn’t going to die of an illness. I could see him being eaten by a bear before dying of a health issue. I think he’d have been happy, too, to go that way.”
Markatos spoke to Luhrs on Sept. 12, the Thursday before he died. “We were going to get together. He sounded pretty good, and then I got a call Wednesday night that he had dropped dead of a heart attack.”
There had been few details about Luhrs’ death because his wife, Linda, wanted to wait until after his funeral. “Warren’s family was very private,” says Yarborough, who had worked with Luhrs since 1988.
Luhrs spent as much time as possible with his wife and eight children, Yarborough says. He also spent a lot of time at his businesses, addressing most workers by their first name.
“He was very well respected and well liked,” Yarborough says. “He walked the floor. He was a very hands-on person. He was a very creative, very innovative man. He had great integrity and had a structure about his life that demanded integrity from himself and people around him. He surrounded himself with people who were honest with him. He did not surround himself [with] yes men. He wanted the facts and nothing but the facts. He was very much a gentleman. He never said a foul word. You couldn’t ask for anything better in an employer.”
More than a business
“For all of his achievements and accomplishments, if I had to use one word to describe Warren, I would use the word humble,” Yarborough says. “It’s very seldom you hear an employee say ‘I love my employer,’ but I really did. He was that kind of person. I can’t say anything bad about him.”
“He commanded the respect of, I guess you’d say, his inner circle of people that he trusted and that he held close,” Markatos says.
Luhrs was also a reflective and discreet person.
“He was unique,” Markatos says. “He was not flamboyant under any circumstances, and he certainly could’ve afforded to buy anything. He was a very serious guy. He took things to heart, he was a good listener and very intelligent, as well.”
Luhrs continued to be involved in the operation of the St. Augustine Marine Center, his one remaining business after Hunter Marine and the Luhrs Marine Group, which included Mainship and Silverton, declared bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy affected both brothers “horribly,” Yarborough says. “He and John continued to pour money in those companies until there was no salvaging it,” he says. “It wasn’t because of lack of effort on their part. The Luhrs Marine Group, in my estimation, became a victim of its own success.”
When the downturn struck, the brothers honored obligations by buying back inventory from dealers, of which there was a lot across the five brands. “In reality, they tried probably five years longer than they should’ve to keep it going,” he says.
Seeing the companies sold off was “one of the tougher things they ever faced,” Yarborough says. “It was more than just a business. It was their life.”
At times, while in between apartments, Markatos would stay with Luhrs, a fraternity brother in Alpha Tau Omega. “Warren, even in college, was involved with the business” started by his father, Henry Luhrs, he says. “He was kind of designing boats and sketching things, and I don’t think there was any doubt what he was going to do when he got out of school. He was really into it. I remember in one of his apartments, he had — it was almost like an architect’s [drawing] board, and it had drawings of boats all over it.”
In addition to a passion for sailing, Luhrs was an outdoorsman who spent time in the wilderness, Yarborough says.
True to his private nature, there is little press on Luhrs other than a few articles on his trip around Cape Horn or his single-handed sail across the Atlantic. “There isn’t a personality there from the standpoint of research; he kept it pretty close to the cuff,” Yarborough says.
The stories that can be found at sailing website Scuttlebutt.com show Luhrs became involved in single-handed ocean racing and set many records aboard his 60-foot sloops Thursday’s Child and Hunter’s Child. These floating test beds became the basis for many of the innovations that appeared in Hunter production models, including B&R rigs, arches and water ballast.
It was on Feb. 12, 1989, that Luhrs brought Thursday’s Child under the Golden Gate Bridge and into history, marking the end of an 80-day and 20-hour voyage from New York around Cape Horn. The time beat by eight days and 12 hours the clipper ship Flying Cloud’s 1854 passage at the height of the Gold Rush. Flying Cloud’s time of 89 days and 8 hours had stood for 135 years.
The love Luhrs had for the outdoors might have been a manifestation of his desire for solitude and reflection, Markatos says. In 1968 Markatos and Luhrs set out for Alaska for the summer in a Volkswagen (one of a handful of trips), largely living off the land in an area that had seen little development.
“If we spent two weeks together, he’d decide to strike off on his own,” Markatos says. Luhrs decided to head to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, and spend the the summer there while Markatos traveled around the rest of the state. “I think Alaska was kind of his calling, to a certain degree,” Markatos says.
“I think it was the wilderness, just the wide-open spaces, everything that would attract a young man, a pioneer and an adventurer. There’s a lot of unknown. It was a place not many people had been. People [there] kind of mean what they say, but don’t talk a lot,” similar to Luhrs himself, Markatos says. “We fished on the side of the road, shot a duck or two — we both came back pretty lean.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.