Van Collie. Originally published in Latitude
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It would be difficult to find a designer who defies stereotyping
as well as the Bay Area's Tom Wylie. Consider the four projects
in which he's currently engaged: a 21-ft single-handed ocean racer,
a 60-ft aluminum cruiser, a 30-ft production fiberglass catboat
and a 52-ft wood-composite cruiser.
Any way you cut it, variety has definitely been the spice of a
40-year career in boat design and construction for the tall, rangy
58-year-old who favors worn jeans and plaid shirts. And that's just
the way he likes it. "All four of these boats are just different
ways of skinning the same cat," says Wylie. "In each case,
I'm responding to the client and trying to marry what he or she
wants with the wind, the water - and the budget."
As one of the local yacht design "hall of famers" - a
roster which includes the late Gary Mull, Carl Schumacher, Jim Antrim,
Bill Lee, Ron Moore, and George Olsen - Wylie is perhaps a bit more
low key than his colleagues. Tom himself admits he's not a whiz
in the business promotion department. Nevertheless, he has produced
an amazing number of high quality boats, many of which are still
sailing actively and a high percentage of which are still with their
"If I wanted a boat for myself", says Sausalito boatyard
manager and former grand prix sailmaker Steve Taft, "Tom would
be at the top of my list as the designer. As well as being one of
the more intuitive and pragmatic designers around, he has a very
good eye for the boat.
didn't grow up with salt water in his veins. Raised in the University
of California Village off San Pablo in Berkeley, a teenage Tom just
turned up one day at the John Beery basic sailing class at Aquatic
Park. Up until then, he had had minimal exposure to the sport, building
a couple of simple boats which he sailed with his father (he also
helped his dad build a family cabin up at the Russian River), but
those were more "my father introducing me to as many things
as he could think of" than true introductions to sailing. His
siblings, an older sister and two younger brothers, expressed minimal
interest in the sport.
However, after learning the basics and sailing out of Richmond
for a while, Tom became fascinated with how the notion of wiggling
the rudder and pulling some strings made the boat go. Predating
the local junior Laser scene, he just grooved on the wind and the
water. Racing was a means of learning more about the interface of
these fluids and eventually, he developed some considerable talent.
He also had some great teachers along the way, including Jim Dewitt,
Don Peters and Commodore Tompkins. "In the middle and late
1960s," he recalls, "Commodore was the leading edge of
the sport. If you were a good sailor, you could learn a lot from
him. His obvious skill and his generosity in sharing it were pretty
Ocean racing was the next step in Tom's development as a sailor,
and he attacked it with a passion, racking up miles with quality
skippers like Ted Turner and Bob Derecktor. He campaigned his first
Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC), which was then the World
Series of the sport, in 1968 on George Kiskaddon's Spirit. A year
later, he served as watch captain and sailmaker for another version
of Spirit called Esprit, which won her class in the TransPac.
In 1969, Tom started working on his first design, a 24-ft Bay boat
that he wanted to go upwind well in a breeze and still be fun and
fast downwind. With the help of friends like Robert Flowerman, Tom
coldmolded the hull in a barn in Davenport. He then moved the project
up to Tito Rivano's shop at the Pacific Marina Boatworks in Alameda.
"We worked out a trade," Tom says. "I got to use
Tito's shop rent-free in exchange for letting him build a mold and
produce the boat in fiberglass."
In 1971, Nightingale hit the water. With more than half of her
4,200 pounds of displacement in the keel, the boat proved to be
slippery through the water and a winner on the race course. Rivano
raised the flush deck for a cabin on the production version, which
sold more than a dozen boats. As a designer, Tom Wylie had put himself
on the map.
Looking back, Tom sees those days as sort of his "Jurassic"
period. He breaks his design career into separate eras, the first
of which began with the Nightingale and culminated with him designing
and helping build the half-tonner Animal Farm in Tito's shop in
1973. Chris Corlett and Bill Carter finished the boat off and went
on to win a couple of North American championships with it.
Another success of the early days was the 31-ft, flush-decked Moonshadow,
a boat that still brings a wistful look to Tom Wylie's eye. Built
to the Midget Ocean Racing Circuit (MORC) rule, she weighed 7,500
pounds and had a ¾ inch balsa deck with mat and roving on
either side. Characteristically, many of Tom's friends took part
in the project, including Don Peters, Dave Wahle, Chris Benedict,
Bard Chrisman, Kim Desenberg and Caroline Groen. To symbolize their
communal spirit, the group painted a small star at the bow of the
"She was a sailing machine," Wylie says of Moonshadow.
"The deck plan would still be considered modern today. I remember
going against Panache (a 40-footer) in one race down south and we
just pounded her. We commuted the boat between the Gulf of the Farallones
races up here and the Whitney series in Southern California. We
won both of them."
In 1974, Tom opened his own shop under the rubric Wylie Design
Group on Willow Street in Alameda. This second era of design included
boats like the 28-ft Hawkfarm (a marriage of ideas from Animal Farm
and another Wylie half tonner called Hawkeye), a pair of identical
31-ft, coldmolded sloops designed for match racing called the Gemini
Twins, the Two Tonner No Go 8 and the 40-ft fractionally rigged
IOR racer Lois Lane.
In the grand scheme of things, Lois Lane, built for Bill Erkelens
late in 1977, was supposed to be Wylie's ticket to the major leagues
of yacht design. Tom crewed aboard the 40-ft Imp, designed by Ron
Holland, during that same year when the Bay Area boat won sailing's
triple crown: SORC, England's Admiral's Cup and the St. Francis
YC Big Boat Series. Lois was slated to appear at the big regattas
as well, but the program never really jelled, and while Ron Holland's
career blasted off, Wylie's seemed to fizzle on the launching pad.
Tom vividly recalls fixing Imp's rudder in England while Holland
was nearby taking orders for new designs.
The "what ifs" linger on about Lois. Steve Taft, another
Imp crewmember, remembers that when Lois Lane finally got sorted
out, the boat was incredibly fast. On one race to the Farallones,
Lois blew by Imp on the way out of the Gate and never looked back.
In another Bay race, Wylie's boat was chewing the butt off Imp until
the mast fell down. "Imp was a great boat," says Taft,
"but here was one in our own backyard that had even more potential."
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