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Original Issue

All kinds of people go to sea in Whalers

It looks like a bathtub and it is not much good for catching whales, but if you want a boat for any other reason—fishing or water skiing or scuba diving or even commuting—the no-nonsense Boston Whaler is it

Of the artifacts our current civilization will leave behind, most will be counted by future archaeologists as gadgety junk or flossy baubles. A few, however, may survive as very creditable items. The water bucket, the Jeep, the garden spade, the Volkswagen and the Colt .45 revolver, for instance. Undergoing change only when change could do some good, the Colt .45 has served for 90 years, in major wars and countless minor arguments, and it is still selling and shooting well. The latest item worthy of inclusion in this brief catalogue is the Boston Whaler, a boat that looks like a bathtub and indeed could be used for one by the mere installation of a faucet—it has a drain.

When the Whaler first appeared in the marketplace five years ago, it suffered because of its unorthodox, tubby looks. Seeing it at boat shows, the public would ask, "What in the name of heaven is that?" Dealers seeing it said, "A wonderful boat, but I don't think I could sell one." But during the past five years the Whaler has sold itself, partly because, like the water bucket, the Colt .45 and the Volkswagen, it is well made and efficient, and certainly because it has one special feature that even the dumbest boat lover can appreciate: it does not sink.

There are currently two hull models of the Boston Whaler. The smaller of these, 13 feet 3 inches long, with a 5-foot 3-inch beam, weighs a mere 250 pounds and has a pay load of 1,200 pounds. In more human terms, it will carry six fair-weather fishermen complete with bait and beer, or four frog-footed, lead-weighted, tank-heavy scuba divers. With such a load in a heavy chop an orthodox hull of comparable dimensions wallows and may swamp or capsize. The Whaler simply settles down a couple of inches deeper in the slop and carries on.

As with many items of enduring quality, the Whaler is a New England product. It is built in a nondescript, modern Easter-egg-pink factory in Rockland, Mass., some dozen miles removed from the sea. There is no sign, either large or small, on or near the building proclaiming that the Fisher-Pierce Company makes Boston Whalers inside. For all the passing public knows, the pink plant could contain an assembly line of lawn sprinklers or a colony of Trappist monks.

Like the Whaler itself, the Yankee austerity of its manufacture is a reflection of Richard T. Fisher, president and chief worrier of the Fisher-Pierce Company. In an age distinguished by verbose hucksterism, Fisher talks only when he has something to say, which is occasionally a good deal. He often starts his phone talks, "Since it's my dime, I'll give you my ideas, then I'd like to have yours."

In 1958, when he first put his boat on the market, Fisher, in order to publicize its unsinkability, sawed a Whaler in half and let the occupants of the two halves go their separate ways. Taken by this, a Whaler purchaser wired the company, "Just received delivery of my Whaler. How come no saw?" Fisher simply wired back, "The saw is extra."

Without saw, the basic 13-foot 3-inch Whaler costs $595, and for this the buyer gets a hull fitted with bare necessities: one bow eye, three cleats, two seats, a forward locker and internal wiring for running lights. The money buys a small boat that may not be the absolute best for any particular sporting use but does better than most by all. Because of its low freeboard it rates high with divers, water skiers and swimmers, who can flop in and out of it. A Whaler provides ample room for a fisherman to wield just about every weapon in his armory, and the consequent mess and odor of fish and bait are readily washed away; the Whaler rides so high that with three persons aboard the plug can be pulled and all the unpleasant juices of a successful catch flushed down the drain. Dogs are partial to Whalers; the boat is so stable that a restless dog can prowl the length and breadth of it with utter assurance, getting a good nosehold on every new smell that the air has to offer. Picnickers, yachtsmen, duck hunters, even an occasional commuter all find Whalers useful.

Dick Fisher first contemplated making small hulls by sandwiching a low-density material such as balsa between layers of a tougher skin in the late '30s. Since he is a man with a perpetual zest for messing around in boats, the idea persisted through the war. Then in the early '50s, when many synthetics became available, Fisher went to work, finally settling on one of the newest foamy compounds, polyurethane, sandwiched between layers of fiber glass. He consulted Designer Ray Hunt with a thought of producing a small sailing hull on the order of the Sailfish. But Hunt convinced Fisher that, though the future of sail looked bright, that of powerboating looked brighter still. Why not, suggested Hunt, build an outboard, improving on the concept of the old Hickman Sea Sled—a speedboat of the 1920s with two runnerlike keels where its chines should have been? The Hickman sled behaved competently, but it had shortcomings. On turns at high speed it tended to dig in and the inverted-V bottom created too much turbulence on the prop.

To counteract such defects in the future Whaler, Hunt and Fisher settled on a hull with a bow configuration of two inverted Vs, or, if you will, a very distended, inverted W. In addition, Hunt and Fisher softened the hard lines of the sled's keellike chines to prevent the Whaler from digging in on turns.

The first Whaler, sold in 1958, is still in action under the command of its original owner, Delmar Williams, a fuel oil contractor of Cohasset, Mass. The bright white exterior and the baby-blue interior of the Williams' Whaler are both a trifle grayer now, but at the drop of a classified ad the five-year-old hull would sell for at least $450. It is still as much a boat as the 3,500 identical hulls made in the pink plant this year.

Fisher is also turning out about 1,500 of his larger, 16-foot 7-inch Whaler hulls annually. Although the company's production is only a small slice of the total output of small hulls in this country, its position is a wholesome one. The boat market is crowded with well-made conventional hulls, and some not so well made, and with futuristic abominations whose eye-catching rocket tails, snappy upholstery and chrome doodads have become so commonplace that they no longer catch the eye. Among these, the different-looking Whaler stands out. It advertises itself by its very presence.

Although he still has not put a sign on the factory, Dick Fisher does give the Whaler considerable verbal and written support. Just as did Sam Colt for his novel repeating hand gun nearly a century ago, Fisher writes much of the advertising and sales copy about the Whaler, on the theory that a manufacturer ought to know better than anybody what his product is worth. In one of his stronger sales pitches, he wrote, "To state the simple truth, no other popular-priced boats approach Boston Whalers in solid elegance or purposeful performance. Boston Whalers are made modestly, but without compromise." Although he generally sticks to the facts as they relate to his own product, Fisher is not against some subtle suggestion about the quality of the competition. In a recent pamphlet he wrote, "In finish and appointments Boston Whalers come pretty close to the standards of yacht work and depart wholly from those of the stock boat industry where the latter uses stapled-on upholstery, imitation wooden decking, splatter paint, and cheap 'style' hardware. Although Whalers are simple and not costly for their size or specifications, there is no part that will cut you, come off when grabbed, or fall apart after a season's use. Where it best suits the purpose, wood is used, and it is handsome varnished mahogany." At this point, Fisher felt obliged to admonish prospective buyers, "For the benefit of the Department of Commerce busybodies, 'Mahogany' means any wood we elect so to name. Don't worry about this, the wood is good; you might vote more thoughtfully, however."

It is not supposed to be good business for a man selling boats to remind prospective buyers constantly of the risks. Fisher does so; the Whaler's reputation today is such that many new owners are stretching their luck. There are those, he says, who "believe that Whalers are totally invulnerable to any hazard and can probably, in fact, climb a brick wall." To be sure that he gets his safety message across to the dumbheads, Fisher occasionally spells out the dangers to the point of insult. "The very safety and 'surefootedness' of the 13-foot Whaler," he has written, "can constitute a hazard by inducing the careless driver or occupant to fail to watch the water ahead, to sit in a slouched attitude, neglect to hold on, or to operate standing up. The solo driver in particular should be careful in all boats. If he falls overboard, the driver-less boat will not return and rescue him of its own accord."

The Boston Whaler is not, Fisher insists, "damfoolproof." It is merely dam-safe, damfine and dampractical.