Industry mourns Boston BoatWorks’ founder Mark Lindsay

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Boston BoatWorks cofounder Mark Lindsay died unexpectedly in his Gloucester, Mass., home on Friday. He was 75.

“It’s still not quite real,” Boston BoatWorks cofounder Scott Smith told Trade Only Today en route to the Newport International boat Show on Thursday. “But heading to a boat show without Mark makes it more so — and it’s raining, which is perfect.”

Lindsay was 14 when his father helped him buy a kit to build his first boat, a Sailfish, Lindsay wrote in a first-person account on the website of MJM Yachts. Boston BoatWorks has built 300 boats for MJM over the last 17 years.

It was that first experience of building the Sailfish with his father that showed Lindsay not only the unifying component of boating, but the connection that building a boat could bring by doing it with someone else.

“His enjoyment in helping me as we drilled and set the bronze screws in the mahogany, and planed and sanded, taught me the value of putting your energy into something you love,” wrote Lindsay last year. “I also learned how much fun it is to share that process with others who are just as excited as you are. Two summers later, away from home and working at my first job on Cape Cod, that Sailfish won a season championship for me, and I was hooked on learning what makes boats go faster.”

Almost singularly focused on the challenge, Lindsay dropped out of college during his sophomore year to build boats, landing a job at a Marblehead, Mass., boatyard where the 12-meter Nefertiti and Easterner were being outfitted for the America’s Cup.

Lindsay returned to college at the University of Pennsylvania, studying architecture, and subsequently focused on architectural engineering at MIT.

“The structures classes opened my mind to the important distinctions between stiffness and strength, and the materials testing lab provided a fascinating opportunity to load the structures and watch how they failed,” wrote Lindsay. “I also found myself inevitably drawn to the MIT Sailing Pavilion where the Charles River was a test tank for all our ideas on what makes boats go faster.”

Lindsay spent years building Olympic Class Star boats with champion sailor Joe Duplin — the two built their first epoxy boat 30 years ago. When a friend asked Lindsay to build him a boat in 1975, he rented a barn loft on Boston’s North Shore and built an International Fireball Class sailboat, the first of many for Mark Lindsay Boatbuilders Ltd. On that boat, Joan Ellis became the first woman to win a double-handed Worlds, and the first winning American in the class.

Lindsay built his International 505s using vacuum-bagged epoxy, carbon-fiber and Kevlar with Nomex honeycomb cores. In the 1980s, a grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee allowed him to design and build a high-temperature-cured, pre-impregnated epoxy Flying Dutchman.

“The boats he was building were lighter, stronger, faster, stiffer,” said Smith, adding that an award-winning 505 built in 1981 named Dump Truck still had corrector weights in it during a 1998 world championship race it won, because it was too light. “He was disruptive when he was building boats 30 years ago,” says Smith. “Mark’s 505s have won many world championships over the years. In the case of Dump Truck, being able to win when it’s almost 20 years old is testament to the durability of an epoxy boat.”

Smith himself decided to launch Boston BoatWorks with Lindsay after being a customer.

“I was racing on a Taylor 40 that Mark built that was just demonstrably better than any other boat around,” said Smith. “We were winning races we had absolutely no business winning because the boat was just terrific. I met my wife [Karen] because she was on a boat that wasn’t as fast, and she said, ‘I want to race on that boat.’”

In 1996, Smith and Lindsay formed Boston BoatWorks at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard in the city.

“His inquiry dial was, how do I make this a high-performing boat?” said Smith. “Regardless of what the project application is, his definition of high-performing boats was binary: You’re either winning or you’re losing.”

That definition evolved to include taking a customer’s vision and adding his experience and unique approach to develop a solution, said Smith.

“Today we’re delivering boats using the transfer of knowledge that Mark’s been completing ever since we got into business 24 years ago,” said Smith. “He was as proud of the company he built and the relationships he developed around the boats as any of the world championship winners he’s built. He said that over and over again: ‘We are in the relationship business. We’re building relationships around wonderful experiences on the water.’ That’s what high performing now means. It’s not binary, or about winning a trophy. It’s the experience of being on the water, and, am I achieving my goals in a boat that is high performing and durable? Durability has been a key in everything that Mark does.”

MJM Yachts founder Bob Johnstone was attracted to Boston BoatWorks because of the materials and processes that put a premium on craftsmanship, controls, and the right application in the right place, said Smith.

“It wasn’t a construction method that was readily picked up in the motorboat industry,” said Smith. “In the motorboat industry, horsepower is cheap and you can overcome a design deficiency by putting more outboards on the back. That’s the design loop we stay out of by building boats stronger, lighter, more durable. But you have to have a project proponent like MJM Yachts, who imagines how to take advantage of high-strength, lightweight, durable construction. You have to have a designer like Doug Zurn who knows how to translate something stronger, lighter, and more durable into something people want.”

One of MJM Yachts’ “great strengths” is the dedication and enthusiasm of the building team at Boston BoatWorks, said Bob Johnstone in a 2017 Q&A with Soundings Trade Only.

“They love talking about it,” said Johnstone. “No one else was available with 35 years’ experience building epoxy composites to start building MJMs at the time in 2002. We went from tooling to the launch of the first 34z in eight months for the Rockland, Maine, boat show. Doug Zurn had interned at Boston BoatWorks as a young designer, and communications were good. Mark Lindsay and Scott Smith were excited to build MJMs, and to this day engage with owners on plant tours, boat shows and owner rendezvous.”

Those strong relationships were evident in the nearly 80 comments on a tribute posted on the Facebook page of Peter Johnstone, MJM product development head and son of Bob Johnstone.

“Mark was one of America’s high-tech boat-building pioneers,” wrote Peter Johnstone. “His sailboats won World Championships, Olympic Medals, and competed for the America’s Cup. For the past 17 years, Mark’s company, Boston BoatWorks, built over 300 MJM Yachts. To me he was the Zen Master. His warmth, charm, insights and expertise will be greatly missed by so many. He set the example for giving back to sailing all along.”

The relationships were what got Lindsay excited about building boats and drove him to live up to his trademark phrase: The best, said Smith.

“It was the people, and the vision of what they wanted to do,” said Smith. “It was the people who were building the boats. Mark liked to have expressions that he could apply universally, and building boats with friends was something you could apply universally to the people you’re building with in a shop, the vendors whose expertise keeps us up to date, and the customers for whom building a boat is a really fun experience.”

Lindsay was devoted to his wife Marty over the course of their 45-year marriage and was planning to retire so he could focus on painting — a hobby Marty encouraged him to pursue.

When asked by Smith if she would like to contribute to this tribute, Marty Lindsay replied: “What can I say? I had 45 years of dancing, laughing, sailing and joy.”

Lindsay was known for giving generously back to the sailing and boating communities. He volunteered his time starting a boatbuilding program at the Shore school in Beverly, Mass., according to the Gloucester Times.

He also served on the board of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum and at Courageous Sailing in Charlestown, Mass. The family is requesting donations in lieu of flowers to these organizations.

“When Mark left the Courageous board as chairman, they decided to replace him with two co-chairs because no one could imagine replacing his effort with just one person,” recalled Smith. The nonprofit started by the late South Boston sailing enthusiast Harry McDonough was launched to use sailing as a tool to build camaraderie and character among Boston kids from all economic and ethnic backgrounds, according to the website.

“When Mark decided what to do, a long time ago, his tagline was ‘the best,’ and he just left it at that,” said Smith. “It’s a tagline that for him simplifies the question of, ‘What am I going to do, and how am I going to approach this project?’ If you’re not sure what you want, you might explore all kinds of different ways of reaching the end. If you simplify it by saying, ‘What do I want to be? I want to be the best,’ you have a clear vision.”

Smith said the company that Lindsay and he built has been expressing that vision for 24 years. “Building excellence and being the best and recognizing that we are all connected is part of that value,” Smith said. “We are all connected.”

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