Bill Lapworth Interview
From Latitude 38 April 2002
An Afternoon With Bill Lapworth
It's not often that one has the opportunity to meet a legend; someone who has truly been an innovator in their particular field of expertise; someone whose name will forever be associated with their achievements. Such a man is Bill Lapworth, who spoke at a meeting of the Cal 46 Association at Balboa Yacht Club on March 9.
Our first contact with Bill was when my husband Erik consulted with him on the phone about our intentions to install a cutter rig in Seayanika, our Cal 46 bare hull whose building has been chronicled in regular Sightings installments for the last year and a half. The original drawings we got with the boat were for a ketch, and Erik wanted to find out if the mast should be relocated to accommodate the cutter. "Leave the mast in its designed place and add a couple feet to the boom," was Lapworth's confident and immediate response. We were soon to learn that Lapworth is always confident in his design decisions, and with good reason. It is simply because he knows of what he speaks.
That contact led eventually to his appearance at our association meeting. As soon as the word went out, reservations quadrupled, with many non-members calling to ask if they could come too.
Twenty-five of the 145 Cal 46s built were represented at the meeting. If this doesn't sound surprising, keep in mind that these boats were built between 25-35 years ago and are located around the world. Many attendees traveled hundreds of miles just to hear Lapworth's talk. An informal survey conducted by Dick Lawrence, the President of the Association, revealed another astounding figure. Of all the sailboats docked and moored at the Balboa Yacht Club, fully 11% were designed by Bill Lapworth. This speaks volumes about the popularity, construction and endurance of his designs.
On the day of the meeting, Lapworth appeared quietly and took a seat. At first impression, he appears thin and a bit frail. But when he got up to speak, one could easily tell by the intelligence in his eyes, the expressive use of his hands and the sometimes playful expressions on his face that Mr. Lapworth is in fine form. Here's a bit of what he had to say...
"Coming to the Balboa Yacht Club today is of interest to me because it was the first club on this coast that I ever joined. The Navy sent me out here after V-E Day to the Naval Repair Base in San Diego. I had a lot of fun in San Diego. I learned to love sailing on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years -- all those things that we couldn't do in Detroit where I grew up."
After the war, Bill -- who had received his degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1941 -- was approached by Merle Davis, who had a yacht designing office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Davis asked Lapworth to join the firm. Though Bill had received another offer from the American Shipbuilding Company in Cleveland, he decided to stay in California.
"It worked out pretty well with Merle, except that I started working with him in September and he died the next March," says Lapworth. "So there I was, I had an office and was ready to go. It's pretty hard to get started designing yachts when you don't have anything behind you, but we did surveying and in turn started meeting people in the shipyards. We managed to find people that liked us, and we like them, and things started going better."
"In my office one day walked Jack Jensen (founder of the boatbuilding concern Jensen Marine). Jack was the kind of guy that really didn't have to have anything formal. With just a handshake, we agreed to do the design for the new 24-footer he wanted to build. You could count on that back then. Jack wanted to call it the Lapworth 24 but I said, 'No, you can't do that' because we already did a 24 footer for somebody else. So that's when he decided to call the boats Cal boats. It really took off from there."
Bill Lapworth and Erik Vader discuss the
finer points of the 46.
Of all the various models produced over the years, the Cal 40 was Lapworth's most revolutionary design. It had a shallow hull, a fin keel, a low displacement/length ratio of 250, and most unconventional of all, a spade rudder. East coast designers considered it unseaworthy. But the design proved itself over and over, winning many races including the Bermuda Race in 1966 and the TransPac in 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1985. The 40 was so successful that it was inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame, and led Bill Schanen, the editor of Sailing magazine to hail Lapworth as one of the sport's greatest designers. "There are some revered names in that group, but Lapworth may be the only one about whom it can be said0 -- he changed everything."
Of all the boats that Lapworth has designed, what is his favorite?
"The one I currently own, a Cal Cruising 46. A fellow named Hale Field, who lived in the Newport area, had a nifty little sloop that he'd raised five kids on. He used to navigate for me on various boats. One day he came to me and said he had kind of a sketch for a boat 46 feet long that he wanted me to design. This was to be a one-off. It was built at Willard Boatyard. It was called Fram, and it's been around here on the West Coast for a long, long time." The next one -- the first 'true' Cal 46 -- was built at Jensen Marine for Wade Hill. When orders for more 46s started coming in, Jensen took a mold off Wade's hull and began production.
Jensen Marine built 15 (some say 17) of the original Cal Cruising 46s before the orders started drying up. Thinking that the accommodations might be the reason, Bill and Jack put their heads together and redesigned the interior. They moved the engine room forward to midships and relocated the aft cabin even further aft. The main salon and the forward cabin were enlarged. This 'new' design, dubbed the Cal 2-46, proved to be just what the public wanted and was a huge success at the 1970 Long Beach Boat Show. Ninety-five 2-46s were eventually built.
The boat went through a third iteration in the mid-'70s that included smaller cabin windows and a different interior layout. Around 30 of these Cal 3-46s (or "Mark IIIs") were built. Whatever their outward or interior appearance, all the 46s were built on the same hull.
Together, Lapworth and Jensen produced thousands of boats including the Cal 20 (the most successful with more than 1,900 boats produced from 1961 to 1972), 24, 28, 29, 30, 33, 34, 36, 39, 40, and 46. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. The Lapworth/Jensen association ended when Jack passed away in 1980. Jensen Marine closed up shop the next year. Bill and Peggy moved back east, settling in Maryland in 1986. That's where they found Merrydown, the Cruising Cal 46 (hull #7) that they still own today.
The Lapworths returned to California just last year, settling once again in Southern California. (For the time being they're leaving Merrydown in Maryland.) Having owned and extensively sailed his own 46 for more than 15 years now -- including being sideswiped twice by hurricanes -- was there anything the Master would change if he had it to do over again?
"No," he replied after contemplating the question for a few seconds. "I like it just as it is."
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