Professional BoatBuilder Magazine Online

A Visit With George Cuthbertson

George Cuthbertson
Dan Spurr

George Cuthbertson was a founding partner of Cuthbertson & Cassian yacht designers, one of four companies that in 1969 formed C&C Yachts in Ontario, Canada. The year before, his 40′ (12.2m) Red Jacket, said to be the first boat ever built with a balsa core, won the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. Its racing success helped propel C&C Yachts to astonishing growth and a domination of the North American sailing market. For detailed histories of C&C Yachts and Red Jacket, see Professional BoatBuilder No. 92, “C&C—Then, C&C—Now,” and PBB No. 115, “Red Jacket Revisited.”

Now retired in Burlington, Ontario, Cuthbertson has donated his papers and drawings to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, in Kingston. I visited with him in the spring of 2012, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation.

—Dan Spurr

Cuthbertson & Cassian
Cuthbertson & Cassian
George Cuthbertson designed the Viking 33 (10.24m) in 1973. He says he did not design a swept-back keel, but to reduce wetted surface simply “removed” a triangular aft section of keel from an earlier design, retaining the same leading edge.

 

DS: Professional BoatBuilder is working with Mystic Seaport, the MIT Museum, and the Mariners Museum on a project called Wood to Glass [www.woodtoglass.org]. Our intent is to create an exhibit, online and at the museums, chronicling the transition of boatbuilding materials. Your career spanned this period.

GC: I’ve been fortunate enough to go back to the last days of wooden boats. You didn’t mention steel and aluminum. We did a number of metal boats. And then fiberglass evolved.

My partner Peter Davidson and I had the Canadian Northern Company. Beister in Germany built boats for us, up to and including the 50′ [15.2m] Galatea. My first major commission was Inishfree, which launched in 1958. Mahogany on oak frames. And Elsie D. was and still is the Royal Canadian Yacht Club race committee boat, still serving. They were all launched in 1958. Elsie D. is 36–37′ [11m–11.3m]. Been through numerous engines. Works 10 months or more a year.

Inishfree was double-planked mahogany on oak frames with a teak deck. About 54′ [16.5m]. Sadly, she’s at the bottom off Elizabeth City, New Jersey. Do you know Frying Pan Shoals? She was on a passage south and hit something real hard. Nearby was a Texas tower. She started to leak heavily; the crew ran her over and into the Texas tower, which did her no good. Lashed her there for the night. Radioed the Coast Guard, which flew over and dropped some pumps. A Coast Guard cutter eventually came and towed her but she didn’t make it; went down at the end of the towline.

DS: Did you have a particular interest in metal?

GC: Call it interim. Peter Davidson and me were making our living off brokerage at that time. Peddling boats. Imported a lot from Europe. At least 100 boats from Denmark and Scandinavia in general. Some from England and Ireland. Most from an agent in Copenhagen. Then Norm Walsh kind of made the decision for us when he ordered Inishfree. I had worked for him on previous boats, Eight- Meters, rig changes, and things like that. He won the Canada’s Cup in ’54 with Venture II. Definitely to my surprise he asked me to design an ocean racer for him. That was Inishfree. She was a keel/centerboarder.

We had to make a decision. We moved our premises to an office in Port Credit, Ontario, to provide me with a drafting room. Previously we just had a workshop.

DS: Who were the designers you admired growing up?

GC: Of course you start with Olin Stephens, then you have to think about Phil Rhodes.

DS: [Looking at a half model of Galatea]: That’s a pretty sheer on Galatea.

GC: Olin looked at that, nodded his head, and said, “That’s okay.”

Another designer I admired was Knud Reimers [1906–1987] in Sweden, who we knew quite well. We bought a number of boats from him including the 78′ [23.8m] Mir, in which Peter and I made a transatlantic crossing to deliver her.

DS: What concept did you have in mind with Red Jacket…light weight, reduced wetted surface area?

GC: I was convinced that the days of full keels and attached rudders were over. I guess Bill Lapworth’s Cal 40 initiated that. I’d raced against Cal 40s in the Southern Circuit…her name was Venadis out of Chicago. I was convinced that a fin keel and spade rudder was the way to go. The objective had to be something that could handle a Cal 40, hence Red Jacket. She was successful in doing that, particularly in a couple of Southern Circuits.

Who was influential getting her into the SORC was Jimmy McHugh in Chicago. We’d done two Infernos for him, 42′ and 52′ [12.8m and 15.8m]. Jimmy came to Toronto with his first Inferno and raced for a major trophy here, administered by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, called the Prince of Wales Cup, which had been presented to the club in 1860 when the prince at the time, Queen Victoria’s son, was making a trip to North America.

Anyhow, Jim won the Prince of Wales cup and took it home to Chicago; it’d never been out of the RCYC before that. The next year I expected Jimmy to say, “Well, if you want it back, you’d better come down here and get it.” But he was a real gentleman. He put Inferno on a truck again and brought her to Toronto to defend the cup here. He came in second. Red Jacket was out of sight. That evening, sitting on the upper verandah of the club, Jimmy said to Perry Connolly [Red Jacket’s owner], “From what I’ve seen today, you should take this to the Southern Circuit.” Perry said, “What’s that?”

Perry decided he’d do the Circuit provided Jimmy came and provided half the crew. Navigator was Bill West from Chicago. She looked to have it wrapped up. She did very, very well. The first three races she got first, second, and first. Then came the Miami–Nassau Race, and she tacked to the east when she should have tacked to the south, and ran into a flat spot. That dropped her to 23rd and destroyed her point score. But Perry took her back the next year, 1968, and there was no fooling about it. She won it. In ’69 he still owned Red Jacket and was part of a three-man syndicate for Manitou [also a Cuthbertson design], which successfully defended the Canada’s Cup that year.

DS: She beat the S&S designed Niagara that year. It must have been quite a thrill to beat an Olin Stephens boat.

GC: Four-zero.

Here’s what also made ’69 outstanding: In October we put C&C Yachts together and floated a public issue on the Toronto Stock Exchange, so to the best of my knowledge we became the only yacht-building company ever to be listed on a public stock exchange. That depends on what you think of Pearson, which was a subsidiary of Grumman [a publicly traded company]. We were listed by our name: C&C Yachts.

DS: What prompted you to seek capital?

GC: A chap named Bob Sales owned one of our boats. Bob told us that through his several years of ownership he became interested in our industry and in particular the several firms building our designs. He noted that there was one thing in common with all of us. In his words: “None of you guys has any money!”

I could only agree and reply that his remark was very perceptive and correct.

Bob went on to say we should consider floating an issue of shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange, in today’s terms, an IPO.

DS: How much did you raise?

GC: C&C Yachts on October 15, 1969, came into being with an issue of 350,000 common shares at $4.50, providing the fledgling company with working capital of $1.5 million. Not big money today.

DS: Were you able to hire staff?

GC: C&C was a combination of four companies [Cuthbertson & Cassian, Belleville Marine, Hinterhoeller Yachts, and Bruckmann Manufacturing]. You know all that. We were all functioning profitably. We didn’t need to hire staff. The sale of stock enabled us to build inventory in the off-season, like through the fall, which would then go out to dealers in the spring and early summer. It allowed efficiencies which were otherwise impossible.

DS: When did your group of distinguished designers, like Rob Mazza, Rob Ball, Mark Ellis, and Steve Killing, come on board?

GC: Rob Ball and Rob Mazza joined as summer employees, when they were still in school. Mazza has a degree in naval architecture from the University of Michigan. Officially you’d better ask Rob Ball as to his degree. As soon as they graduated, I hired them. We got along fine. I think they were a year apart. We’re talking late ’60s.

Ellis was only in the design office about six months. He switched over to being customer rep for Erich Bruckmann, who ran the custom shop. When they’d be building a custom design it was Mark who dealt with the owner, and represented the owner on site as it were. [For a profile of Ellis, see PBB No. 138, “The Deep-V Refined.”]

Steve Killing was basically the same story as Mazza and Ball, just a year or two later. All were still very much in the design department when the company was taken over in 1981.

Frankly, after putting together that very trying year of ’69—a very successful year mind you—I was burned out. I’d started out on my own in 1951, [so] to ’73 was 22 years. I was out of gas. Come May that year I turned the design office over to Rob Ball. People wondered why I didn’t turn it over to George Cassian, and that’s a fair question. The answer is that Cassian was an excellent designer and draftsman and a god-awful manager. There was no way I could put him in charge of administering an office of half a dozen people. I don’t think it disturbed him at all. He stayed as a senior designer reporting to Rob Ball.

DS: I never met [yacht designer] Henri Adriaanse.

GC: Henri was in our design office about five years. He came out from Holland to work for George Hinterhoeller at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I don’t know if that was arranged. One day—we’re talking late ’60s—my phone rang and it was George Hinterhoeller. He said, “I have a young man here whose abilities would be much better served in your design office.” We had that relationship amongst us, to do what was best for the company.

So along came Henri Adriaanse, armed with drawings. About five years after that, he decided to move back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, for reasons I never understood. His family had never moved over here. That, in a nutshell, is why in the photograph [of the C&C design staff] Henri is not there. That’s because he’d just moved back to Niagara; otherwise he would have been front and center. I was sorry he decided to move back.

DS: What was George Cassian like?

GC: He was a good guy. A charming fellow. Very sociable chap. Pleasant, easy-going. Too easy to be a manager.

He was never a partner in the technical sense of the word. He owned one quarter of Cuthbertson & Cassian.

In late ’58 there was a very major plant, Avro up in Malton, Ontario, building aircraft. They had developed the Avro Arrow [Canada’s first supersonic aircraft], which was apparently superb. They built a half-dozen, the customer being the Canadian government. It was generally acknowledged to be the best aircraft of its type—a fighter—in the world at that time. For a variety of reasons that are still hotly debated, the prime minister at that time [1957–1963], John Diefenbaker, canceled the contract. Whoosh! Avro had no choice but to immediately shut down, they were so wedded to that program. Diefenbaker canceled the contract on a Friday and that laid off 17,000 people, including George Cassian, who was in the design department. On Monday this young chap walked into my office and introduced himself. Said we’d met once several years before at a party, which was likely. Was there any chance he could get a job?

He had drawings with him and I was impressed. I said, “George, I have two weeks of design work ahead of me. And if you join, that will be one week each.”

So he said, “Well, I haven’t got anything else to do.” So I said, “Okay.” He was with me for almost a year. His other interest was automobiles, racing cars. He decided to move to Detroit in the auto industry, but whenever he was back in Toronto, where his family was, he’d drop in the office to see how things were going. He told me he was moving home and getting married and would like to buy a share of the business. I was up to my ears in debt, having trouble paying bills, so I sold him a 25% interest. We incorporated as Cuthbertson & Cassian Ltd. In due course that 25% was increased to one third. We were never a partnership.

DS: C&C Yachts did eventually become financially successfully. What put you over the top?

GC: Through the ’60s we started to make money. What finally put us over the top, as you put it, was Red Jacket. She was so successful that we started to attract a lot of American business. I already mentioned Jimmy McHugh; there were others, like Ralph Ryder of Ryder Trucks, and so on. We started to make money, but it all dates from Red Jacket.

We hear a lot of moaning and groaning in Canada about how our exports are being damaged by the high Canadian dollar, which is worth more than the U.S. dollar. Well, through the ’70s, when we reached the stage of having over 20% of U.S. market share and more than 50% of the Canadian market [no other firm had as much; several, like Columbia and Cal, were close behind], this was accomplished with the dollar ranging from a dollar to a dollar three. I get very impatient when I hear complaints about how our exports are shot because the dollar is so high. Well, c’mon.

DS: The exchange rate didn’t stop you.

GC: No, it didn’t. We were determined to build a better mousetrap. We never tried to be the cheap one in the marketplace. We wanted to be recognized as the best in every way: on the race course, quality of construction, finish, and so on.

We were paying the highest wages of anyone in the industry, but efficiency entered into it, too. Here’s where people like George Hinterhoeller and Erich Bruckmann enter into it. Our boats took less man-hours. For example, George Hinterhoeller conceived building the boats in pits. In the conventional manner the men spend a lot of time climbing up and down ladders. Well, he put the boats in pits…that kind of thing…efficiencies in the shop.

Sadly, Erich died late October [see PBB No. 135, page 11]. He’d been sliding for about two years. I miss him. He was first class, and any one of his employees will tell you that—employees and customers.

DS: It’s not an easy industry to build that many boats.

GC: Mind you, we were also selling a lot in Europe, to the extent we eventually put in a plant in Kiel, Germany. We thought seriously about Ireland and Belgium, and ended up settling on Germany. That only lasted a few years; we really got on the wrong side of the exchange! When we put in the plan the deutsche mark was worth about 36 cents Canadian. Within a month the deutsche mark skyrocketed to about 65 cents. That was just too out of reach. We could handle a premium of a few percent on the U.S. dollar, but we couldn’t handle that. The Kiel plant was a mistake.

DS: How long did the Kiel plant last?

GC: Two years max.

The Rhode Island plant lasted right to the end [1986]. Barry Carroll was superintendent of the Rhode Island plant. When that evaporated he set up Carroll Yachts and was very successful.

DS: What was the hardest thing for you about running C&C? Managing people?

GC: No. There were several troublemakers you had to deal with. The hardest…I wouldn’t want this to be labored…but if I had to pick one instance, when C&C was formed, it was a separate organization. The four subsidiaries retained their identities. It was a holding company. Hinterhoeller was the production manufacturer. Belleville Marine was a smaller equivalent. Erich Bruchmann was the custom shop. And we handled sales and marketing as well as design. So when C&C Yachts was formed, that was left untouched. The only thing that was different was C&C Yachts, the parent, took over sales and marketing, leaving the design office just design. And it also took over financial management, thereby relieving us of keeping our own accounting. We were freed of certain burdens. And that was fine.

The first president was Ian Morch of Belleville Marine, not me. I had first known him as an engineer, a graduate of University of Toronto as am I. The primary reason Ian was the first president was because he went on to take a business degree at University of Southern California. He was the only one of us who had any education in business. He was the obvious choice.

I don’t know if this was his schooling coming through or not, but he decided we should go through a statutory amalgamation. And the four separate companies would disappear as separate identities. Belleville would be closed down entirely, and combined with Niagara-on-the-Lake, giving us a larger production shop.

When he first advocated that to the board of directors [60% of the stock was held by the six principals], the idea did not appeal. And that settled that for a about a year. Belleville was closed down. Then Morch came up with the idea of amalgamation again. To put it in the simplest words possible, I continued, as did most of the others, to oppose it. If asked for one reason, I said: “It’ll cost us George Hinterhoeller.”

When the subject came up…Helen and I and Nona, George’s wife, and George had dinner right down here at a good restaurant. George was absolutely adamant: “No way!” I was confident it would be defeated. To my surprise, at the board meeting the next day George voted for it.

DS: George told me it was a big mistake.

GC: You knew George? He’s been gone 10 years. [He died in 1999.]

DS: No, but I interviewed him for my book Heart of Glass.

GC: Yes, it was a big mistake. George’s vote carried the day. The amalgamation went through. George was done in a year and a half. Exactly as I figured it would. The rest of us stayed on.

George Hinterhoeller [who soon replaced Morch as president in 1972] served only about 10 months. It was not his thing at all. His thing was the shop floor. It was the summer of ’73 you know about [when Cuthbertson retired to his farm to recharge]; following that, I took over [as president] for two years. That was understood by the board. My two years turned into eight. That, to answer your original question, was the worst thing.

Running it as president on a day-to-day basis, nothing leaps into my mind. We were full of headaches. That’s part of the job. I was lucky to have very good people.

DS: What are some other highlights besides Red Jacket?

GC: Red Jacket defined the direction we were to go for a variety of reasons. Not just fin keel and spade rudder. Spade rudder is a story in itself. Most designers, including Olin Stephens, hung the rudder on a skeg. We did not. We had a pure spade. The reason is it came out of tank-testing from Stevens Institute [of Technology]. There were hard reasons for it.

DS: Does that explain the scimitar-shaped rudder. How did that evolve?

GC: Red Jacket was tank-tested at Stevens Institute. The model was showing a very strong weather helm, which I couldn’t understand. So Peter Desaix said, “Why don’t you tuft the model and have a good look at the water flow?” So we tufted it with strings and so on, and it was obvious there was a strong cross flow under the counter as the boat heeled. It was from the windward side to the leeward side, because the rudder was impeding the cross flow, and the cross flow was driving the stern to leeward and the bow to windward and giving the appearance of weather helm. We took the rudder off the model, ran it again, and the cross flow was just the same, but the boat balanced fine. That told me to absolutely minimize the connection between the rudder and the hull. That’s why for years we had a scimitar-shaped rudder to minimize the breadth of rudder at the hull to allow the cross flow to pass under the counter unimpeded.

DS: What about the swept-back keels that were popular before appendages became more vertical?

GC: One of the primary objectives going away from the full keel was reducing wetted surface. If you look at a design of ours from that era and look at what immediately preceded, there was no difference. We just removed a lot of wetted surface; the leading edge didn’t change at all. Look at the C&C 43. We didn’t change the forefoot, just took all this [deadwood] away that gave the impression of swept back.

[Referring to the hull/rudder interface mentioned above:] I also tended to sometimes over-rake the rudder. I was interested in getting the lateral plane as far aft as possible. I overdid it at times. You run into these problems.

DS: What was the consequence of moving it too far aft?

GC: If I’d raked it more, it would have come out above the waterline.

Red Jacket was significant, but she wasn’t optimized. She showed the direction to go. When asked what boat other than Red Jacket I was most satisfied with in retrospect, I have to say the C&C 61 [18.6m]. There are various reasons for that, not the least of which is that the larger a boat is, the less the human beings count. At 61’ we didn’t have to have a cabin trunk, or deepen the sections to get the floorboards down. The 61 was large enough we could carry our thinking to where we felt it should be.

DS: How many were built?

GC: Nine. Robon was first to finish the Bermuda Race one year [1972]. That was a heavy-weather upwind race. One would have expected that with a half-dozen maxis in the race, going upwind, one of the maxis to have won.

I was always disappointed that there was never a 61 owned around here. They were all exported, some to the states, some to Europe. We built one for [Austrian] conductor Herbert von Karajan.

As for other highlights, we introduced the use of low-density cores. Red Jacket was the first in the world to have a balsa core in the hull. Everybody shook their heads and said, “Five years and she’ll be gone.” Fact is, she couldn’t be in better shape.

DS: Inferno had a double core with a thin layer of glass between them. I haven’t seen that before or since.

GC: That’s right. On a race across the Gulf Stream, she went up on the rocks in Lucaya [Bahamas], and pounded on the rocks. We named a drink after her: Inferno on the Rocks. The next day they were able to tow her back across the Gulf Stream. The damage was easily repaired. Her inner skin was still sound.