Tell Tales: Rag Business

Behind the modern stinkpot is a secret society of ragbaggers.

Recently I spent an afternoon with an old pal, Yachting editor-in-chief John Wooldridge. John is an avid sailor and we were aboard Puss, my 35-year-old catboat. He prefers fast sailboats (a relative term), and he had recently been frostbiting (sailing when you should be skating).

Those who really know boats often have a string of ragbag in their DNA helix. I speak from experience. Sailing is the only way you’ll ever understand a boat’s behavior at sea. Translation? Receive a diploma. My yacht-design instructor offered these words of wisdom circa 1970-something.

He knew I had weak stinkpot genetics and didn’t know a sheet from baggywrinkle. In just a year, my final exam would include the design of a boat — a sailboat! I spent the summer helping a pal build a fiberglass version of a stick-built Blue Jay, a one-design classic penned by the legendary design firm Sparkman & Stephens.

In addition to inhaling a great deal of styrene, I absorbed the meaning of the bits and pieces that power a boat in a breeze. By fall I was frostbiting on a miserable little Styrofoam sailboat that a pal had acquired in a cigarette promotion. After several dunkings in the icy water, I abandoned the effort and began penning an equally sad design that I submitted that spring.

My instructor reluctantly issued a diploma and prescribed my penance: a job interview at Sparkman & Stephens.

I donned a suit and tie and was making way for the office in midtown Manhattan when my car crapped out on FDR Drive. I coasted down the exit ramp at 125th Street, abandoned ship and completed the voyage aboard a city bus. “You’re late. Do you know anything about sailboats?” inquired a grumpy S&S engineer. “Uhhh ... the water’s cold?”

I found a job in friendlier climes designing powerboats. However, I soon discovered that a secret society of ragbaggers had shaped the modern stinkpot. Over the years, I've had the pleasure of sailing with a few of them. I've shared Puss' tiller with powerboat designers, builders and brokers — all sailors.

Many Yachting editors have been sailing legends and one (name withheld) made the record books aboard Puss. He's the only skipper who has put her in her place (a windblown slip) without the support of her disagreeable, one-lung diesel.

In the early 1990s, I spent an afternoon sailing with the late Dick Bertram aboard my yacht broker pal John Weller’s catboat. While most associate Bertram with the iconic powerboat brand he founded and early offshore powerboat racing, he was an experienced America’s Cup sailor. The 31-foot Moppie “deep-V” powerboat he raced and later produced was created by another accomplished sailor/sailboat designer, Ray Hunt.

The late designer Jack Hargrave defined the modern motor-yacht and helped create Bertram’s greatest competitor, Hatteras. Jack loved nothing more than windsurfing on the waters near his office in Palm Beach.

Then there's my friend and mentor, yacht designer Dave Martin. I believe Dave has penned more production powerboats than any designer present or past: Pacemaker, Egg Harbor, Ocean Yachts, to name a few. A few years back when I was struggling with the thought of remarrying Puss after a 10-year separation, he set me straight: "Coyle, sell that damn stinkpot of yours and buy the catboat." I followed Dave's advice — it was spot on. Perhaps I do have ragbag DNA in my blood. I sure hope so!