Sunsets: Thomas C. Gillmer, Naval Architect
My relationship with Tom started long before I knew him personally. My formative years were a bit like Tom’s, albeit somewhat more recent. We both grew up on and around boats. We both started on Lake Erie and later gravitated to the east coast, myself to New England, he to the Chesapeake. I loved his story about the first time he saw the Annapolis Harbor full of skipjacks getting underway in the early morning and how it confirmed his love of boats, thereby inspiring him to become a naval architect.
I first became aware of Tom during my 20's. I was working at a major Vermont ski area as a professional ski patroller, spending my free time doing yacht design study with YDI. I remember sitting in my mountaintop patrol shack on many a cold day, cramped and shivering, waiting for the phone to ring to announce the next injured skier, with a C.E. Ryder color brochure open before me showing tropical waters, palm trees, white sand, and, more importantly, these really pretty cruising sailboats called the Southern Cross series. They were designed by Tom Gillmer.
I spent hours trying to figure out how I could afford one, how I would set it up, where I’d go with her. My favorite was the 31, as she and the 28 both reminded me of the Monomoy sailing whaleboats I learned to sail on and loved. No, I didn't buy a Southern Cross then, but I put a lot of vicarious miles on those boats, and learned a lot of good design in the process.
I decided then to go sailing full time, and I moved to Newport, RI, then to the Caribbean, and did the delivery and charter captain bit for five years. I was good at the sailing part, the weather was better, but I decided I had neither the patience nor the temperament to do the charter thing, so I moved to Annapolis in the spring of 1986. Since I had already done a fair bit of drafting and yacht study, I put up a small notice on a bulletin board in a local copy shop advertising my drafting services at “reasonable rates”…and promptly forgot about it.
Months later, in the fall, the phone rang. A raspy voice asked, “Is this Iver Franzen?”
“Uh, yes it is,” I replied.
The voice said, “This is Tom Gillmer, you’ve probably heard of me.”
Many thoughts occurred at once: The Tom Gillmer? Is this for real? Why would he be calling me? How does he know me? I realized I probably ought to say something, which he confirmed by asking, “Iver, you still there?”
I sputtered, “Yeah, uh, sure, I think, Southern...Allied...Pride...Cross, uh, yes, hello, Mr. Gillmer.”
He had spotted my note at the copy shop, and wanted to talk about helping him draw up plans for the new Pride of Baltimore II. No thought was required on my part—absolutely, when can I be there?
We met the next day, went through my history, and looked at a few of my drawings. He said little. We discussed the tragedy of the Pride sinking. I could already sense that he was not an overly demonstrative man, but it was clearly a real blow to him. I told him about how I'd seen the Pride in St. Thomas just before we both left on our respective passages north, about hearing the crew speak warmly about their ship, and about the squally weather we both sailed through on our way back to the States. He shared a few thoughts about designing the ship and of his satisfaction in the crews’ and owners’ feelings about her.
He shifted the conversation quickly to the new ship. He was grateful that the prevailing sentiment was that a new ship was appropriate, both for the program and as a fitting memorial to the lost ship and crew. We discussed some of the mission statement changes and some of the design details he was thinking about incorporating. Apparently he thought my drawings were OK, because he asked, “When can you start?”
I immediately began work on Pride of Baltimore II. I knew Tom was, and had every right to be, proud of this design, as it was the best example of how to do a replica vessel that performed well, had the proper look and function of her forebears, and was still able to satisfy all of the present-day regulatory requirements that can sometimes hobble the performance of replica vessels. From that day on, my work with Tom became an adventure that wove from project to project, each one enhancing an already priceless education.
We worked together on Kalmar Nyckel, another replica design in which he was able to strike a similar balance between authenticity and modern safety requirements. She was handsome, impressive and successful, especially considering the original sailed in 1629.
Our work together on the refit for USS Constitution was particularly interesting, gratifying, and a real honor. The Navy asked Tom to do a thorough structural assessment, which formed the basis for our proposed structural remedies and which also needed to be true to the time period. We were tasked with researching and documenting her 1803 and 1812 configurations, including determining the actual original design and designer. From our research and work, Tom wrote an excellent book called Old Ironsides, The Rise, Decline, and Resurrection of the USS Constitution which described her operational and maintenance histories, with a discussion of this most recent refit, including efforts to return her to her 1812 configuration. Tom was invited to her return to sea on that July day in 1997, but he was greatly disappointed he couldn’t be there.
In addition to a growing friendship, my time working with Tom allowed me to study his earlier designs. Of his 60+ designs on his summary list, 15 are of a wide variety of historical vessels, from many periods of history, illuminating his lifelong interest and his contributions to the understanding, education and scholarship of maritime history and naval architecture. These contributions also include his numerous books. His early books are about subjects such as airfoils and weather. Later books include A History of Working Watercraft of the Western World, an excellent journey through the evolution of workboats and commercial craft in different parts of the world. Pride of Baltimore, The Story of the Baltimore Clippers is a history of the development of the Baltimore clipper type, and discusses in depth his two specific ships, Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II.
Tom is perhaps best known for his dozens of cruising designs, some of which have very noteworthy histories. Those that stand out in particular are the Seawind and Seawind II, the Southern Crosses, and one of his best known designs from early in his career, the Blue Moon. He was one of the first designers to recognize fiberglass as an excellent boat-building material, of which the Seawinds were made. It was a Seawind that became the first fiberglass boat to circumnavigate the globe. Many of his designs were originally meant for wood construction, later to be modified for fiberglass. Some show definite historical influences, with “clipper” bows, traditional rigs, or carvings on the quarters or trailboards. All, however, are very good cruising boats. He knew how to give them the proper balance of stability, seakindliness, ease of motion, performance, dryness, and livability that have made them the standards by which other designs are measured. Just studying those designs alone was a remarkable education.
One day, back in the beginning, a few weeks after I’d started working for Tom, after I’d done a couple of drawings and peppered him with questions, he asked, “Iver, are you really serious about becoming a naval architect?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And you’re ready to get into the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of it?” he persisted. I hesitated, but only for a second, “Yes, I am.”
He mulled this over for a moment, looked me in the eye, smirked and said, “Well, I guess you’ll be my last student, then. Let’s get to it.” Whereupon he handed me a copy of his textbook Modern Ship Design (yes, he wrote that, too) and said, “Start reading, I need floodable length calculations for Pride II by Friday.” That’s when I learned that, for many years, he had been a Professor of Naval Architecture at the US Naval Academy. Oh my, I thought, this is going to be one helluva ride!
His mentorship commenced, as did my education, and it continued through many projects: Pride II, Kalmar Nyckel, the Constitution refit and many more. It also resulted in my induction into The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in 1992. He wrote me a letter of recommendation in which he said, “I am therefore confident in recommending Mr. Franzen as an exceptionally capable Naval Architect.” I consider this letter my Naval Architecture diploma, and it hangs proudly under glass on my office wall. He not only oversaw my learning of the science of naval architecture, but he also helped me expand my appreciation and understanding of the art of designing boats. I consider my education in the historical research and replica niche of our business a uniquely rewarding bonus for which I will always be additionally grateful to him.
As for that textbook he gave me, it is now very tattered, and the spine is very stressed, and I still use it.
A great teacher, a great mentor, and a great friend, he will most assuredly be missed.