For more than 30 years, traveling the environs of the recreational marine industry, I’ve carried a boatyard around in my head. As a yacht designer and boatbuilder. Marina and marine business manager. Yacht yard executive. Boating freelance and staff writer/editor. And marine industry educator.
Admittedly, I have not exactly followed a great circle course. Moreover, I have experienced a few groundings along the way. But — and this is the essential point —never once during a span of some three decades have I ever regretted making the decision to pursue a career “messing about with boats.”
It began during my teenage years in the 1960s when two friends and I converted a World War II surplus life raft to a small outboard-powered, canvas cuddy boat and attempted a crossing of Lake Michigan. The voyage, if you can call it that, was frustrated by high winds and seas and ended with us blundering into the offshore firing range of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center during one of its sessions and being towed unceremoniously to the base by the Coast Guard.
Not exactly an auspicious beginning, but it did lay the seeds of a fascination with boats and boating.
After a hiatus that included college at Roosevelt University in Chicago and graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and a few years of teaching philosophy at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville and the University of Western Ontario at London, my fascination with boats and boating returned with a vengeance.
I did a six-week cruise in a 14-foot Starcraft center-console model rigged for boat camping on then newly formed Lake Powell in Utah. When I returned to the world of academic philosophy, I began reading and studying everything I could get my hands on concerning the elements of yacht design and the practices and procedures of boatbuilding. Took some courses, and even went so far as to study basic structural engineering and strength of materials. The sum total was a “portable boatyard” that I would carry around in my head to this day.
My marine career started in earnest on the Lake Erie shore, where for a couple of years in the early 1970s I managed a small full-service marina and boatyard, hauling and blocking boats for winter storage with some of the most rudimentary equipment known to man. That was when and where I developed my grounding in maintenance and repair, and where I became one of the first people in the industry to utilize linear polyurethanes for yacht painting (Imron before DuPont officially recognized boat painting as a possible application.)
There followed a four-year stint as a teaching master at the Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, where I wrote the curriculum for and coordinated a two-year post-secondary program in recreational marine industry management training. At the same time I designed and built boats and produced for more than seven years a monthly column on boatbuilding, repair and maintenance for the two major Canadian yachting publications of the day.
Then to Florida in the early 1980s, where I became VP-operations and eventually CFO for a multi-location Hatteras/Bertram dealership and chain of boatyards on the Gulf Coast. And after a couple years of a sailing-and-liveaboard sabbatical, I settled in Fort Lauderdale in 1989, where I became senior editor of Power & Motoryacht magazine and established a yacht industry consulting and project management practice.
Eventually one of my clients acquired Palmer Johnson Yachts and recruited me to run the company. Which I did, as president and CEO from 2000 until 2004, gaining the opportunity to build more than a dozen luxury yachts in the 25- to 50-meter range.
Eventually I returned to consulting and writing, and I worked through a series of projects that included the prototype construction for a line of high-performance air-cushion catamaran motoryachts, the ship fitting of a high-performance 50-meter composite military patrol vessel (in which I planned and managed the first-ever installation in an FRP hull of Hamilton’s HM1000 waterjet drives, at more than 22,000 pounds each), and the design and fabrication of ultra-lightweight cabinetry and furniture for a series of weight-sensitive vessel construction projects.
More recently, I completed a consulting contract for the reorganization and expansion of service operations for a Midwestern full-service boatyard and just returned from China on assignment to evaluate the infrastructure and capabilities of a yacht yard for a client contracting to do a new build there.
The journey, which is ongoing, has followed anything but a great circle track. In retrospect I am actually grateful for that. And for the “portable boatyard” I carry around. Fair winds and safe harbors.
Phil Friedman runs the Port Royal Group, which is based in the Fort Lauderdale area.