I was jawboning with a veteran yacht-sales pal when he launched into the standard old-guy rag about how much better things used to be. “Don’t get me wrong, business is great, but most buyers these days are boring,” Ted grumbled. “They shop for a boat as if it were a can of baked beans. I feel like a grocer — I’m just stocking the shelves.”
Ted had a point. As an independent yacht designer in the 1980s, I’d have been living on beans if enthusiasts had bought only off-the-shelf vessels. Granted, those times still weren’t easy. When I was seeking employment in 1980, boatbuilders already had all the design input they cared to have. The market had become a bit soft, and so had they. It was easier to pump out proven white-fiberglass clones than risking profits on the unknown.
The standard response to my résumé was, “Nice, but we have no use for a yacht designer.” Hell, I’d been warned.
“Kid, you can’t make a living designing boats anymore. Get a job at the post office,” an aging designer groused. Another admitted that he’d been driving a delivery truck to supplement his own dwindling commissions. But I wasn’t listening. I was committed to my senseless preoccupation with doodling boats.
Fortunately, a fresh batch of boat nuts were passing their prime and had the time and bucks to dream. With memories of darker times, they were risk-takers, and had no qualms about non-household brands. I found work with Tom Fexas, whose contrarian vision of yacht design was a perfect fit for this new wave of pioneers.
Tom’s Midnight Lace, with her throwback styling and svelte, efficient hull form, was definitely a boat of its own breed.
At first, Midnight Lace business cards were greeted with amusement: “Are you peddling boats or women’s lingerie?” Still, clients stepped forward, serious production began, and a larger model was introduced. Inspired by the Lace’s performance, a number of production builders joined the ranks of Tom’s early adopters.
Tom was a brilliant, albeit stubborn, designer; he was often pressured to pen a sport-fisher or motoryacht that looked more like a sport-fisher or motoryacht, but he almost always refused. Most boaters were still grocery-store consumers and couldn’t wrap their minds around Tom’s unique designs. Just the same, a few savvy yacht brokers embraced his independent eye and would come by the office with their most troublesome clients. The troublemakers were experienced yachtsmen, and most had tried every can of beans on the shelf before knocking on our door. Together with their brokers, we spent hours poring over drawings and specifications before sending bid packages to the small community of custom builders.
These days, the grocery store is an overstuffed, big-box outlet. “Fortunately, there are many good choices, as most shoppers can’t tell a good can of beans from a bad one,” Ted said with a sigh. “They wander down the aisles and grab the first brand they recognize.”
Hopefully, there will always be a few picky eaters who take the time to bake their own.