I first interviewed the irrepressible Bob Dougherty more than 20 years ago. He had retired from Boston Whaler in 1990, after 30 years of involvement in every Whaler designed since he began working for Dick Fisher in 1960. Fisher and Dougherty were bitten by the fiberglass bug of the late ’50s, but went in different directions.
Following in his father and brother’s footsteps, Dougherty became a teacher in the 1950s, teaching industrial arts in Boston’s public school system. Bemoaning his small salary, he began working for Brunswick Manufacturing (not the same Brunswick of today) in 1959, when the company had 15 employees in North Quincy, Massachusetts, making medical devices such as artificial eyeballs and hips. Arthur Godfrey had his hip made there.
At the same time, Fisher, along with naval architect Ray Hunt (that name again!), started experimenting with a foam-filled fiberglass sandwich boat based on the 1913 Sea Sled design of Albert Hickman with refinements to the basic shape that made the boat ride softer.
Fisher and Dougherty met at the 1960 Boston Boat Show and decided to partner. During the ensuing 30 years Dougherty evolved the Whaler concept from nine feet to 27 feet, constantly tweaking and improving the ride.
However, it was the way Whalers were and still are made that makes them unique. The decks and hulls are laminated in strong, heavy metal molds that are designed to fit together like a clamshell. At key points, liquid foam is forced into the space between the laminations, expanding to fill all the voids. The molds have to be clamped tightly together because, when the foam cures, it puts tremendous heat and pressure on the molds. The foam adds strength, and in cases when the outer hull is compromised, even sheared in half, it will continue to be buoyant. Thus, Boston Whaler became known as “The Unsinkable Legend.”
When Irwin Jacobs tried to perform a hostile takeover of Boston Whaler from then-owner Charlie Leighton in 1989, Leighton decided to sell the company to Reebok. The shoemaker had ideas on how to move the company forward. They did not mesh with Bob Dougherty’s. He retired.
In 1992 Bob once again had an idea that would change boat design. Most production boats at the time (and today, in fact) were built on the “shoebox” principle. The hull is the box and the deck is the lid. Like a shoebox, the top and the box are not terribly stable by themselves and can twist easily. As the theory goes, when the top is placed on the box, there is greater stability. However, as Dougherty states, that puts a lot of pressure on the joint between the deck and the hull, often causing failure of the joint.
Daugherty wanted to build boats with inherently stable hulls that did not need the deck for strength. He developed a grid system out of fiberglass that bonded into the hull, creating a solid structure that would handle seas without a deck. Bob along with his son, Steven, formed a new company, EdgeWater Boats, which began delivering center-console models in 1992.
After five years Dougherty left EdgeWater Boats and started making strong, lightweight hardtops for several boat manufacturers using a new technology he invented called Rapid Molded Core Assembly Process, or RAMCAP. The process starts with high-density foam that is precisely shaped and then placed in a mold that has the gelcoat applied and the fiberglass pre-laid. Resin is then added, and a vacuum system clamps the assembly universally and precisely controls the glass-to-resin ratio.
Dougherty decided that he could make a complete boat with this method of hardtop construction that would be stronger and lighter than its predecessors. He sold the idea to his former company, in the form of the EdgeWater 14, the first RAMCAP boat. It was so successful it won the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) Innovation Award in 1999. Dougherty then founded Everglades Boats, which currently builds both recreational and commercial vessels using the vaunted RAMCAP construction.
The New Frontier
Reflecting upon the thoughts that Deknatel, Codega and Dougherty shared, several themes emerged. All three related how designing boats requires a mastery of multiple disciplines, from hydrodynamics and mathematics to manufacturing and more. All three recounted how safety, reliability and good performance on the water rank higher than accommodations in a design’s priorities. All three maintain that there are still new frontiers to explore, and new discoveries and refinements to make, in the ever-evolving world of recreational boat design.