Long Beach, California 1926. A skinny, sandy-haired kid from Blackfoot, Idaho, stuffs a suit of home-sewn sails into the basket on his bicycle and pedals two miles to the waterfront. There, he bends his canvas onto a little gaff punt that he built from plans in Popular Mechanics.
He has spent the morning hawking newspapers, and has missed the early shore breeze. Now it's a long, hot scull down the Cerritos Channel through the still air at the seaward lip of the Los Angeles basin. He works the oar and thinks of Middleton pushing his KATE by brawn alone against the tides of England. Out on San Pedro Bay, a northwest breeze is spilling down the Palos Verde Hills. The kid sculls and dreams until he reaches the wrinkling water; then it's a hard beat to weather to make the 'round the-buoy races at Cabrillo Beach.
The kid feels like a million bucks. Here he is, just 14 years old, under canvas on the Pacific Ocean. Who cares if the little punt doesn't point too well? It's a huge step up from a toy boat on a piece of string in a drainage ditch in Idaho. If the punt won't go to weather, he'll build another boat that will.
The Work at Hand
To improve on the punt, which he had kept for cruising, Lyle (now, as then, he is an informal person—you call him Lyle) had helped a friend build a little sharpie. "We put a real fine bow on it. And man, it was fast. We used to skin 'em all. You had to watch the helm close, but we cleaned everybody with it."
Later still, he had built his own 14' racing dinghy. "I had as much fun with that boat as with any I ever owned in my life. My 14 wasn't quite as good as Uffa Fox's—but fly, I'd leave a roostertail off the transom that high. I never saw anything like that damn boat. Boy, would it go!"
It should come as no surprise that Mr. Character Boat himself was an early terror 'round-the-buoys. This is Southern California, after all, where contradictions are a way of life. If lemons and lettuce can spring from the bone-parched land and travel by side street is often quicker than by freeway, why can't speed, safety, and comfort all be possible in a single small boat? And why shouldn't that dream boat be a treat to the eyes, as well?
Lyle and his wife of 49 years, Jean Seabring (he calls her "Doodle"), live in a ranch-style home in a sea of middle-class tract housing just minutes from Disneyland. For 31 years, this house has served as office, studio, and workshop for Lyle, and home for Doodle and their four children.
The children are grown, and Lyle has recently survived two bouts of serious illness. He has reached an age when another man might be content to slow down, to relax with his memories. For Lyle, the message of age is to get on with the work at hand.
"I've got a limited amount of time— that's something I've got to understand. And I've got to use it well, because I've got some more boats I want to develop." Even as we sit at his dining-room table, looking over pictures of old boats, past friends, and clients—watching all the while for marauding butcherbirds on the persimmon tree out back—Lyle's attention keeps veering to his work at hand.
A 16' catboat is on his drawing board in an alcove off the living room, under a bank of windows that take in the softened sunshine of late afternoon. "I love catboats," he says. "I always have." And he relishes the satisfaction of fitting cruising accommodations for two, plus a small diesel auxiliary, into so small a hull.
"I have a knack for getting a lot out of a small boat. My whole psyche at sea is the security of a small, tight boat. Big boats—with the roar and the crash and the tremendous forces—can be just frightening. I prefer the real pleasure that you feel on those little boats—the motion, the closeness to the sea (you're almost in it, you know). And I value the real companionship that people have on a small boat." The first of these cats is now being built in New Hampshire by Philip LaFlamme (see sidebar), who completed one of Lyle's 32' cutters last year.
Other boats rolled inside cardboard tubes await Lyle's attention. Plans for an 18' coastal cruiser, recently coldmolded by Art Hoban and test-sailed to Lyle's initial satisfaction, are in need of finishing touches before going out to other builders. "With its 8' of beam, this 18-footer pushed me into a tonnage that deepens the buttock lines, which could lead to excessive motion. I gave it a rather deep inner buttock, than flattened out the other two, to act as a damper. They won't let it pitch. More than anything else, what has discouraged people from going to sea is the ungodly motion of some boats. People think that because a boat looks like a Colin Archer, it must be the right boat to go to sea in, but that may not be the case at all."
From another tube Lyle pulls a nearly completed 29' round-sterner motorsailer, for construction in either wood or glass; its hull lines are based on a West Coast development boat, the fantailed seiner. The drawing board environs reveal hints of other new directions, too, like a 34' offshore cruiser fashioned on classic Block Islander lines.
Behind his house, in the narrow yard where he and Doodle grow persimmons, grapefruit, and plums, Lyle pulls back several layers of carefully tied tarpaulins from another project— ' a nearly completed mold for a little 10' "touring cat"—the touring to be done by car and trailer, the boat to be launched and retrieved along the way.
Its cockpit converts to a sleeping platform under a tent, with large windows of mosquito netting draped overhead from the boom.
"Now, this boat's not going to be cheap," Lyle explains. "It'll sell in the $4,000 range. But it's going to be extremely capable. It'll weigh 250-300 lbs.—you can take it behind your little Volkswagen or Toyota, take your wife along, cruise the lakes and bays, and sleep in it overnight. You know, there's a magic to sleeping in a boat—a real magic.
"And what's more, it will be a real nice little boat for a person to let his son and his son's friend take and go gunkholing, on their own. They can go up a creek, put their anchor down, cook their meals—the same as we did when we were kids, learning self-reliance. Oh, there are certain dangers. But that's the trouble with this society of ours. The only danger we have is on the streets at night."
This little cat, in both size and spirit, has brought Lyle full circle to the magic of his first little punt. "We used to go outside the San Pedro breakwater, and sail up to a little cove where the Portuguese fishermen went in to stay overnight. We'd tie up to the kelp in there. Didn't have an anchor or a compass; just had a little water jug and some beans. We'd cook the beans on our little stove, and go to sleep. We ran our feet up alongside the centerboard under the half-deck; no pads or anything, just our clothes. But we were snug and tight, see—this is California. And, the next day, we'd come booming home. "
Lyle's delight in the snugness of small boats may have something to do with being number 7 in a flock of 12 children-back in Idaho. Besides the kids, there were as many as 35 laborers working for his father, the contractor son of a deacon in the Mormon church. His mother fed them all, somehow, before hard times sent the family to California in 1924.
His mother was a devout Mormon, an educated woman who encouraged his reading. "She was very interested in what I did, although she worried about the ocean because she was frightened of it." His father was not a religious man; indeed, he suffered from a compulsion that guaranteed the family's continuing hardship. "My dad was a 'mineaholic'—he had a gold mine back in Idaho where he'd return each April, digging until late September. Every spring, there was a glory hole, just 3' away. Every fall, they were just short of it. Never did get to it." In the meantime, Lyle and his siblings had to do their part to keep bread on the table.
"Really, I've no complaints. I didn't seem to think times were tough, then," he says. The money he made hawking newspapers around town and selling popcorn at the boxing fights went to his mother; still, he managed to always have some kind of boat. "We'd build 'em or fix 'em up and trade or sell as we went along, and I kept improving my boating position all the time. Can you imagine a better youth than that? Can you?"
His first boat answered a need to cross the Cerritos Channel to Terminal Island—where the workboats and smells and polylinguistic babble of Fish Harbor beckoned—and it cost him nothing.
The Long Beach waterfront at that time still offered leftover scraps and odd bits of junk from wartime shipbuilding—worthless stuff to anyone but a 12 year old. Lyle took a piece of sheet metal, about 14' long, and bent the ends up double, nailing them to short pieces of 2 x 4 which served as stem and sternpost. "First thing I learned from that was flotation. We had to get tar out of some old barrels and seal up the ends." He used a 1 x 6 plank thwart to keep the middle spread open. "Second thing I learned about was stability. If I didn't put the 1 x 6 in there long enough, the little boat would keep turning over on me, and I'd get soaking wet." This wasn't M.I.T. or an apprenticeship under the Burgesses or Herreshoffs, but it was an opportunity for learning and growth. "I made every mistake in the book," says Lyle. "But I didn't make any of 'em twice."
Advice from the local masters came his way in bits and pieces, too. When Lyle and his waterfront chums appropriated a bit of unused wharfage and mudbank for their little boats and makeshift slipways, it led to friendship with George Chalker and Bill Whiting at the boatyard next door. Lyle came to know Edson Schock, too, in the wake of SCARAMOUCHE's domination of the offshore island races.
In such company, a willing kid who was also a hard worker could find opportunities to go sailing and get paid for it. Lyle was barely into high school when he signed on with Doc Murfey, a dentist/adventurer who had returned from Mexico with gold to spend and an urge to own a boat. Murfey bought the 45' centerboard sloop RAINBOW and hired Lyle to teach him to sail it. Then Lyle crewed for Jack Petter aboard the 30' converted centerboard chandlery boat BUTCHER BOY. "It was a brilliant, brilliant boat. It sure could go to weather! From the west end of Catalina to the west end of San Clemente, we averaged 7.8 knots in those 10-12' seas. The bowsprit was 10' long from the stemhead, and when I went out to change sail, I went clear under. But that old man didn't slack off a bit—not one bit."
Lyle also continued to sail the little boats that formed the cornerstone of his designer's education. He built a 16' sloop for the run to Catalina Island, 26 miles SSW. His friends built other boats, and together they'd race and cruise and compare.
More formal training in design came to him through a kind of one-sided correspondence course he took from back issues of the British Yachting World and Yachting Monthly magazines. His curriculum, according to Lyle, centered on "beautiful little boats, all weatherly craft under 30' long that made so much sense, that could go out there at all times of the year, and could handle those tides."
His teachers were men with the soundest credentials: the designer-cum-artist Albert Strange, creator of design drawings whose detail brought the boat alive, even down to the drawn-in grain of backbone timbers; the good doctor T. Harrison Butler, master of maximized accommodations; Dixon Kemp, whose book Yacht Architecture later provided Lyle with a mathematical procedure—tedious and mechanical, to be sure, but adequate—for calculating his weights, centers of gravity, and so forth. The dean of Lyle's design course and, above all, his master of inspiration was Maurice Griffiths, the young editor of Yachting Monthly. (Many books from that era, long out of print and hard to find, have reappeared in recent years, including Lyle's favorite Griffiths works—Dream Ships, Little Ships and Shoal Waters, and Magic of the Swatchways.)
By the time Lyle left school, both formal and self-imposed, ready for full-time boatbuilding and design work, there was none to be had. Movies, oil, and the California yacht business had collapsed in the Crash of '29. Instead, Lyle found himself in a line of hundreds of hungry men competing for his first job—ditch digging with pick and shovel. "The superintendent, a big Finn, came and stood on the bank over us and said, 'OK, you bastards, the first man that raises up goes home.' " It was an ominous introduction to the difficult period ahead.
"It took a war, finally, to get me back into boatbuilding.. Bomb target boats first, over at Harbor Boatbuilding Co. on Terminal Island. Then Vosper Victory PT boats for Britain, triple planked. They had maple plywood watertight bulkheads and triple Merlin engines—beautiful, big things. Then 138' minesweepers. My end on the minesweepers was planking them. Plank, plank, plank...you got awfully tired of planking. But they were fine boats, fir on oak frames. John Wayne's WILD GOOSE was one of them, converted over to a yacht."
At the war's end, Lyle had an order for a 36' ketch of 24,000 lbs. displacement. He set up a small boatyard with partner and wartime shipyard colleague Roy Barteau, who had apprenticed in Bath, Maine, and had worked for a decade at Boston's famed Lawley yard before moving west. ("Roy put up with my being a young man. He was in his 60s, a good craftsman, patient. He was a big help to me—a wonderful, wonderful man.") Lyle's first big design commission, WESTWARD HO, went on to perform well in local races, despite a last-minute insistence by the owner, Mark Hulsman, that her rig be changed from ketch to cutter. Lyle complied, but it meant that her pronounced sheer, appropriate for the original ketch rig, now seemed exaggerated and out of proportion. Lyle also designed, and together with Barteau built, a 44' motorsailer for Ernest Palmer, one of the leading technicolor cameramen of the day.
Postwar Hollywood once again fed the builders with orders for new yachts, and some show-biz boat aficionados also dropped by the Hess-and-Barteau yard just to talk shop. "John Sturgis [the musical director] came by one hot, hot afternoon when we were eating our lunch under the shade of a great, big old tree by our mast bench. It was just hotter than hell, and he had two beautiful girls sitting in the front of his Cadillac. He came over and sat on the bench with us, and he just left those girls sitting out there in the hot sun. So, I said, 'Mr. Sturgis, why don't you have them come on over and sit in the shade?' 'Lyle,' he said, 'those girls are dancers. Dancers are artists, and artists aren't happy unless they're suffering.' "
"Hollywood was the best pay in the world for a boatbuilder," Lyle recalls. "I never saw one bat of an eye over a bill." But the Hollywood clients didn't share his passion for the simple little English cutters. Not until 1949 did he finally get his chance to consummate that affair, and then it proved to be a short fling.
Hale Field had the money and shared the interest. Hale was a friend of Lyle's and something of an amateur designer, too, so they struck a deal: Lyle would do the lines and construction plans, and Hale would design the sail rig and interior accommodations.
The resulting RENEGADE, says Lyle, was a "typical British boat" modeled after the little cutters that Maurice Griffiths had declared "a type so English that one instinctively associates it with bulldogs and roast beef."
Both Hess and Griffiths oversimplified the matter. For Lyle, there had been no single, simple source of inspiration, just as there was no single quintessential British model. The able little working boats that excited him varied considerably in design, according to local needs and conditions. There were yawl-rigged Falmouth Quay punts with loose-footed mainsails, developed to lighter cargo from ship to quay. These generally had deep buttocks, a high freeboard, and blunt ends, and were half-decked for ease of cargo handling. Then there were the pilot cutters that, in servicing the ships entering the Bristol Channel, were required either to proceed in haste or to wait offshore as long as necessary in any weather. Compared to the Quay punts, the pilot cutters showed considerable hollow to the garboards and somewhat longer ends. They were rigged for singlehanding when necessary and often carried massive roller-reefing equipment. The boats from Itchen Ferry, on the river below Southampton, were shrimpers and oyster dredgers. They had coastal shoals to navigate and fishing gear to haul over the side, and so they were beamy, shoal of draft, originally plumb of stem and transom, and typically carried inside ballast with an outside iron shoe for impact protection.
These and other types had appeared in the British yachting press, as a rising middle class converted them to pleasure boats after World War I. Lyle studied their lines and liked what he saw. But his cutters are more complex than their British forebears in a number of ways. Lyle uses a wide keel, 15" or so. This has allowed him to concentrate his ballast in a short chunk amidships, and provides additional foundation for his big garboards. He introduced a lot more hollow above the keel than was customary, even on the channel cutters, and gained speed by reducing wetted surface, at the expense of some load-carrying capacity. He flattened the buttock lines amidships more than tradition would command, improving the motion. He cut away the forefoot for further reduced wetted surface, and increased quickness in stays. He gave RENEGADE, and subsequent derivatives, powerful quarters with a firm turn of the bilge just above the waterline. With increased stiffness, they could carry more sail than British boats. When RENEGADE twice won the Ensenada Race, she was, as they say, proof of Lyle's pudding.
In a kinder, or perhaps more British world, RENEGADE would have cemented the design career of Lyle Hess. Instead, she arrived too soon. It was the 1950s, and the American middle class was just climbing out of the GI Bill and postwar prosperity into permanent waves, finned automobiles, and fiberglass boats. This was the decade of rinse-it-off convenience, of synthetic alternatives to the labor and decay of the natural world. You could sell these people fin-keeled, spade-ruddered, roller-reefed and autofurled boats that all looked alike and smelled like north Jersey, but you could find nary a buyer for the massive hackmatack quarter knees, the lovely sheer, and gaff-rig splendor that was RENEGADE. She was able, but she wasn't slick.
Lyle and his partner Roy Barteau realized that they couldn't fight the turn to fiberglass. And they had already shown an uncompromising dogmatism that didn't bode well for boatbuilders in a rapidly changing marketplace. They had turned down a multi-unit production job which required strip planking, and had declined to build the boats of another designer who insisted that Hess not design in competition with him. Five years after Lyle and Roy had built WESTWARD HO, and soon after RENEGADE's launching, they realized that their business could not support two owners. Lyle bowed out to Roy, and Barteau quit not long after.
As in the Depression days before, Lyle fell back on construction work. This time, though, it was with family— two brothers who owned a construction company. "One of my brothers asked me, 'Lyle, can you build a bridge?' I said, 'Sure, a boatbuilder can build anything. It might take him longer than it would anybody else, but he can build anything.' "
Fifteen years of bridges and foundations later, Lyle met a young Canadian named Larry Pardey who had come down the coast searching for an able world cruiser. RENEGADE had caught his eye.
Lyle drew Pardey a hull similar to RENEGADE's, and together they worked out a marconi rig for it. The resulting SERAFFYN carried Larry and his wife, Lin, around the world. Through their travels and writing, the Hess message went out to an American audience that had rediscovered its respect for tradition and now seemed more inclined to listen. Lyle was back in the business of boat design.
The meeting of these two wooden boat purists, Hess and Pardey, both meticulous craftsmen with strong, uncompromising personalities, had ironic results. It got Lyle into fiberglass.
Through Larry Pardey, Lyle met Richard Arthur, a young man with money and energy and a desire to produce fiberglass boats. Would Lyle design him a boat that would sell? Sure, he would. The resulting finkeeled Balboa 20 chalked up some 3,500 sales, and its Hess big sister, the Balboa 26, followed with another 1,500 units.
Also in glass, Lyle designed a trailerable 17' boat with a long skeg and a drop keel. The boat proved tractable and could handle weather. `He developed a trailerable 27' shallow-draft cruising boat that has lapstrake molding and a round stern—250 of these Nor'sea 27s have been sold. (A Hess designed Nor'sea 35 is soon to follow.)
Perhaps the best-known Hess designs in glass are the 28' Bristol Channel Cutter and 22' Falmouth Cutter produced by Sam Morse in Costa Mesa, California. Some 140 of these beautifully finished boats have been sold, and Morse enjoys a current backlog of orders. Probably least well-known of Lyle's production designs are a pair of catamarans—14' and 17'—that appeared in the mid-'70s, but which couldn't make a dent in the market already dominated by Hobie. About 100 of these were produced in California before a South African company bought the molds. And of Lyle's little Fatty Knees dinghies, over 2,000 have been sold, at last count.
Compare this 8,000-plus-unit glass production record to the number of wooden Hess boats in the last two decades, and you might wonder why this article was commissioned by WoodenBoat.. Just 53 of Lyle's wooden cutters have been built or are a-building. And one 16' catboat is in the works now, the first of its line.
But consider this: without the stable income of glass production boats Lyle Hess would still be pouring concrete. The glass menagerie subsidizes his wooden favorites. Anyone with cash or credit can own a glass Hess boat; that many do should be welcome news to the faithful 54, many of whom could not afford the design fees that Lyle would have to charge otherwise. The glass income also allows Lyle to choose his most select company with care. The builder who receives a set of wooden construction plans must first meet Lyle's approval.
Dreams sometimes overpower reality. Lyle understands that, and he doesn't want one of his wooden boat to be the cause of unhappiness. "I warn people, 'Don't [build a boat] if it's beyond your means, or if it's going to cause family trouble.' If the person is married, he had better have the full cooperation of his spouse. And it takes skill, or you'd better have somebody with skill nearby. I've told some people to go buy a good used boat and be satisfied with that...." Others he has steered toward finishing off a glass hull. Those who do receive his plans get a stack of detailed drawings that would make Lyle's early British mentors proud. And those clients who need additional help as work progresses have found Lyle readily accessible by phone or letter at no extra charge.
Lyle's concern for the well-being of his builders parallels an equally strong concern that his boats be built right. He doesn't insist that they be fancy, though many have turned out that way. But he does want them built correctly. "I insist on construction being done the way I want it done. I insist on it—that's written in my contracts. If a builder wants to change it, then he must get my permission. If something goes wrong, that's my responsibility.
"In my plans, I try to put things in so they can be built. Some architects design features that are very difficult to build, or impossible. They do so because they have never built a boat. When I draw a boat, I mentally build it. I know what the builder has to contend with, and I help him to the best of my ability. I'm not saying I'm the best designer in the world—hell, I don'' mean that. I just know how to build my boats, and that's what I put on m: plans. I draw all of the details basically at full size, so that the builder will have no doubt as to the scantlings and the way I want the boat to be built."
Though Lyle doesn't want anyone tinkering with his own designs, he encourages young people to learn to draw boats for themselves. There is no mystery, he says, about the fundamentals of design.
"The design of a boat is the control of compromises. Of course, the first thing you want in a boat is to be able to survive at sea. A man should be able to get himself back home—he shouldn't be depending on the Coast Guard."
To learn what makes a boat safe and able, Lyle recommends his own path: build a boat, and start small. "The smaller, the better. You want to get close to the water to learn about it. You can be your own model in a test tank. And you really don't know about the movement of a boat in the water unless you've experienced it for your" self." Then, "If you want to sharpen up what you're learning, take a design course. Design a bigger boat for yourself. Sail it. Prove that you're a designer, and go from there."
If you want to make design work your source of livelihood, Lyle speaks from experience when he advises you to keep a close eye on the needs of the market. "Our marinas and anchorages are crowded. Our boats must become smaller so that they can be pulled out of the water and stored, or trailered. That also forces us into appropriate types of construction—cold molding, triple planking, for instance."
The Speed Factor
"I don't design to a [racing] rule— never have, really," Lyle says on the way over to Cabrillo Beach, the site of his childhood races. "Now, the concept of one-design makes a lot of sense to me—it pits one man against the other under nearly identical conditions. But to have a measurement rule, to equalize us all? That isn't what we want in boats—yet we have a rule that penalizes you if you design a boat to go faster. I think that's exactly the wrong way to go. We ought to specify that a race will be between, say, monohulls from 50' to 60' long. If we have that simple agreement, we'll have progress. Sailboats haven't been developed to the ultimate yet. We're just scratching the surface."
A 15-knot breeze is rolling down from the Palos Verde Hills behind us, spilling out into "Hurricane Gulch" while the rest of L.A. stews in a foul broth of smog. We stand on the walkway above the beach, and Lyle eyes the efforts of a young man attempting to mount a sailboard in the surf below. Lyle approaches the rail and leans into the kid's corner like a trainer. "Let it get in the wind...that's the stuff; now haul it up, haul...." The kid falls off, and the sail spreads its rainbow colors on the water.
Farther out in the surf, boards in more experienced hands are tearing in toward the beach, snapping about, zipping off through the waves. "Isn't that neat?" Lyle is saying. "Doesn't that look like fun? You know, the world speed record for those things was set right here."
He is reminded of his own catamarans of a decade earlier, when a 25 mile-an-hour ride could be had on the big westerly swells. "You got up on top of one of those big seas, started on down, and then kept hauling in on that mainsail, sailing downhill with a following sea against the wind. It was weird—but it sure was fun." Below us the kid on the sailboard is trying again.
"Haul it up—bring your mast aft a little. That's a boy, now you've got it. " The sail fills with air, the mast stiffens, and the kid freezes in panic. Lyle grips the rail and bellows, "Put it forward! Put it forward!"
Too late. The kid is down, floundering in the water again. Lyle grins and shakes his head. Then he looks out toward a jet-ski that comes roaring toward the beach, banks in a wave-tossing arc, and throttles noisily away. "Those things," Lyle says, as if I might think that just any old kind of speed impresses him, "Those things are a damn nuisance."