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Tell Tales: Listen to Smart Old Guys

In which our intrepid columnist receives some advice from an old friend.

June 19, 2020
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Steve Haefele illustration
Good advice from Dave Martin, a longtime friend and mentor. Steve Haefele

My pal designer Dave Martin is on my mind. In his 65th year at the drawing board, he died in November at the age of 89. Wanting to reconnect, I dug into his recently released digital update of Naval Architects Notebook. Chapter 5 caught my eye: “Listening to Smart Old Guys.”

The original Naval Architects Notebook, printed in 1972, was packed with Dave’s wonderful designs and their often-humorous backstories. For me, the book offered hope that my obsession with boats and my enrollment in the Westlawn yacht-design course might lead to a job. I was following a path that Dave had blazed years before I was born. 

Dave landed his first boatbuilding job fresh out of high school, working a broom at Egg Harbor Yacht Co. in 1948. He’d walked his dog back and forth in front of Egg Harbor co-founder Russell Post’s house until he cornered Post one morning and begged for a job. Dave soon graduated from the broom to the planking crew. He signed up for Westlawn that same year and studied at night.

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He went to work for John E. Leek at Pacemaker Yachts in 1949. The day Dave was hired, Leek suggested that he quit after a while and knock around various boatbuilding jobs and learn more. He was halfway through Westlawn in 1951 when he interviewed at Sparkman & Stephens. “The [human resources] guy didn’t know a damn thing about boat design,” Dave once told me. “Things got loud, and [chief engineer] Gil Wyland emerged from his office, looked at my work and hired me.” 

Read More from Jay Coyle: Tell Tales

Dave started as a tracer and then became a draftsman and “interference checker” tasked with making sure all the stuff fit into the US Navy projects the team was noodling. He sweated memorizing the military specs and formulas required to accomplish the task until a wise 90-year-old engineer offered him a tip: Don’t try to remember anything—just remember what book it’s in.

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In 1955, Dave opened his own business and, today, is best known for his efficient planing hull designs. He credited his success to his father’s advice. “Pop” was a machinist and inventor. He suggested that if you don’t tell anybody how your design works, they’ll never figure it out. Take it to a builder you trust, and take a royalty. Dave made a deal with John “Jack” Leek Jr., and Ocean Yachts was born. Dave ultimately shared his wisdom with his peers as a dedicated panel member at the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

Like Dave, I made the pilgrimage to Sparkman & Stephens at halftime in my Westlawn studies. My car crapped out on the East Side Drive, and I jogged down Third Avenue in a greasy, cheap suit, arriving to face off with an unenthusiastic chief engineer. Dave was one of the few to respond to my résumé, and he complimented my work, insisting that I keep at it. Thanks to Dave, I did—and so did he. When we last spoke, he was penning a new design for his 90th birthday.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with Dave and appreciated his advice and wisdom. I will miss him.

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