Gary Mull in retrospect
In English or engineering, this talented yacht designer loved a sweet line
by Steve Henkel
(Reprinted from Good Old Boat magazine, with permission of the author)
One day in 1985, a yacht designer, the late Gary Mull, wandered into the Connecticut office of Sailor magazine, where author Steve Henkel worked as editor-at-large. Whether he came hoping for some coverage of his work (successful naval architects are often good self-promoters) or just wanting to visit, Steve doesn't recall. But presently Gary and Steve found themselves facing each other across a table in the office. Steve clicked on a tape recorder, and Gary began talking about himself.
Afterward, the tape was transcribed, and Steve began to put Gary's words into some semblance of order for publication. Before Steve could finish, however, the magazine ran into financial problems and folded. The interview was packed away and forgotten.
Recently, while browsing among his old manuscripts, Steve, now retired and living in Florida, came across a copy of the interview. Gary Mull died of cancer in July 1994 at the age of 55. "After rereading the record of our conversation," Steve says, "it seemed appropriate to make an effort to get his story published, as a sort of minor testimonial to his well-lived life."
By any measure, Gary Mull was a successful designer. His credits include the Santana 22, 27, and 37; the Ranger 22, 23, 26, 29, 32, 33, and the SORC-winning Ranger 37; the Newport 30 and 33; the Kalik 44; the Freedom Independence, 28, 30, 36, 42, 45; a variety of winning raceboats from the Half-Tonner Hotflash, built by the Gougeon Brothers in 1976, to Two-Tonners like Carrot (1976), to the 12-Meter
USA; the Capri 22, which he designed with Catalina's Frank Butler in 1983 (more than 800 sold); and custom designs including the light-displacement speedster Improbable, the 6-Meter match racers St. Francis IV, V, and VI; Ranger, built by Goetz Custom Yachts and raced by Ted Turner in the 1979 6-Meter Worlds; and the maxi-boat, Sorcery. His boats were built in numerous other countries, including
Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, and Yugoslavia. He also served as chairman of the International Technical Committee of the Offshore Racing Council, the group that administered the IOR (International Offshore Rule).
Another measure of a designer is the number and record of people who apprentice under him and then go forth on their own. Over the years, Gary Mull trained many others who established their own enviable portfolios, among them Carl Schumacher, best known for his Express series. Other well-known yacht designers include Jim Antrim and Ron Holland.
Besides being a good designer, Gary Mull was characterized as "one of the best storytellers of all time."
Bay Area boat boy
It isn't easy to make a living as a sailboat designer, and most aspirants to such a calling find other sources of income to support their chosen lifestyle. But Gary - after a number of false starts - made it big as a full-time designer. He was born in the small California town of Beaumont, which he was fond of describing as "right next to Banning . . . and that's not too far from Ukipa." Later, his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he lived the rest of his life. As a teenager growing up in the 1950s, he discovered his vocation when he joined the Sea Scouts.
"I have a good friend named Wayne Love," Gary said, "and he and I, as far as I know, were the only two guys in our group who wound up doing what we wanted to do. Wayne wanted to be a cowboy, and he is a cowboy - a real honest-to-God John Wayne, spurs-and-a-buckle-the-size-of-a-hubcap cowboy. And I wanted to be in
"Wayne was in the Sea Scouts, and one day he said, 'Do you want to go on a cruise?' I said, 'Yeah, great, what's a cruise?' It turned out to be on the Sea Scout 'ship,' they called it, which was a 26-foot whaleboat. The cruise consisted of rowing the whaleboat against the flood tide about 12 or 15 miles, beaching the boat and having lunch, and then rowing back against the ebb tide. I came back with a sunburn and blisters all over my hands, but discovered that I really liked boats, I mean really liked boats." As he grew up, Gary began racing on other people's boats and took jobs as a paid hand setting up boats and crewing.
In college, however, Gary started out as an English major, because he wanted to be a poet. "I had a lot of fun," he said, "and it serves me well. I enjoy the language. It frustrates some of the people who work for me because I try very hard to use the word that means what I am trying to say - and I always try to say what I mean. Many people are pretty loose with the language. I hear a lot of people say 'it is exactly the same except that . . . ' and it can't be 'exactly the same except that . . . ' "
Gary went for a year to Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Southern California. "Then I had the choice of going to school the next year, or going on the Tahiti race," he said. "When you're 17, which would you pick?"
So he raced to Tahiti. On his return he went to Oakland City College for a short while. He "did English for a little bit," and then he signed on to help bring Good News (a well-known ocean racer of the time) back to the States from Bermuda. After that, he applied for a transfer to the University of California at Berkeley. He had all the credits, and making the switch, he figured, would be no problem.
"Then," he explained, "at Berkeley, I met an old girlfriend of mine from Pomona College, who now was an English teacher at a Berkeley high school. Her view was that, if you are going to be a poet, you have only a few options. You either have to come from a wealthy family, marry a wealthy wife, or get some real job to support
yourself while you are dealing with your poetry. The most common job for would-be poets is as an English teacher in a high school. There are a lot of frustrated poets teaching grammar to kids who don't want to learn it.
"Then she began teaching at Berkeley High and telling me of all the problems of teaching. I asked her if she wanted to go out to dinner, and she said she couldn't because she had to grade a bunch of papers. I said, 'I'll help you grade the papers, and then we'll go to dinner. I'll grade for spelling and punctuation, and you can grade for
content.' So she gave me a red pencil, and I started whittling away. These kids were juniors in high school, and they had never heard of punctuation. There was an occasional period, and commas were not in evidence; their spelling was freestyle, I guess you'd call it.
"She looked over and said, 'My God, what are you doing?' I said, 'Are these kids Americans? Are they boat people or something?' She said, 'You can't grade this one badly because he happens to be black, and if you grade him down I'll get a visit from his mother and father and the NAACP. You can't grade this one down because he happens to be white, and if he is graded down I'll get a visit from his mother and
father and the minister saying, 'How come my white kid is getting graded down?' One other kid couldn't get bad grades because he was a football player, and another girl couldn't get bad grades because she was supposed to go to some hotsy-totsy women's college. My friend said she'd never been so frustrated in her life. She was, at this point, actually crying, and that sort of soured me on the teaching process, at least for high school."
Instead of teaching, Gary decided to shift into engineering at Berkeley. He signed up to take a qualification test, given during the summer, to get into the College of Engineering. All summer long he expected a letter from Berkeley to arrive advising him when he was supposed to take the engineering test. But the letter never came.
"Finally," he said, "I went up to Cal (UC Berkeley) and told them I hadn't gotten the notice.
" 'Well, what's your name?' I was asked by an official.
" 'Mull.' They got out my file.
" 'Well, what do you want to take the engineering test for?'
" 'Because I want to study engineering.'
" 'But you are down here as an English Lit major.'
" 'No, no, I was an English Lit major; I transferred into engineering.'
" 'No, no, no. Here it says your intended major is English.'
"And there it was on the form: 'ENG.'
"I said, 'No, that's engineering, that's the abbreviation for engineering.'
"The official said, 'Not here. The abbreviation at the University of California is ENGIN, and the abbreviation for English is ENG.'
"Well, I had been taught that you never abbreviate the word English if you can avoid it, or you do ENGL. But Cal had its own abbreviations. Without the qualification test you can't get in the College of Engineering. So I was essentially stuck in English Lit for my third year." A linguistic purist, hoist by his own petard!
Eventually, he earned his mechanical engineering degree with an option in naval architecture. "I did all sorts of stuff by the time I finally got out of Cal," he said, "which was at a pretty late date. I went to school for a year, went to Tahiti for a year. I worked as a sailmaker for a year. I went back to school. I was in the Coast Guard. I got married."
The real stuff
He worked at Lockheed Shipbuilding as a consultant for a while and ran the engineering department of a shipyard for about four years. He got to know the commercial - what he called "the real" - naval architecture. "At the time," he said, "I sometimes wondered why I had to learn how to design general cargo ships and tankers and that kind of stuff, but even that has served me well since then."
Then he raced to Honolulu on the celebrated 33-foot ultralight S&S-designed Spirit, which he was in charge of setting up. After the race, with a small crew that included his new wife, he brought Spirit back to San Francisco. "The boat had no engine," he said. "We sailed her back."
When the couple got back to the mainland, they had no home, and Gary had no job. In fact, he hadn't interviewed for any jobs. So he and his wife stayed with her parents for a while. He remembered his father-in-law repeatedly asking about his plans.
"He'd say, 'Well, when are you starting work?' And I would say, 'Well, I don't really know.'
"'Don't you have to call and let them know you are back?'
"Well, it's a little bit more complicated than that because I don't have anyone to call. I'm going to have to start looking for a job.
"'You didn't interview before you left?'
"I'm sure he was thinking: 'Here is this lout that my daughter is married to, an absolute ne'er-do-well.' "
Finally Gary started working for a company in San Francisco that had a contract to redesign the antenna array on a couple of carriers for the U.S. Navy. Not long after, "the boss walks up to me one day and he says, 'Well . . . err, umm . . . err, umm, I don't know how to tell you this . . . umm, err, umm . . . I have to let you go.'
"I had only worked there three weeks. I said, 'Jeez, Bill, what did I do wrong?' And he said, 'No, no, no, your work is fine, but we lost the Navy contract, and last hired, first fired.' He felt so embarrassed he gave me three months' severance pay."
Gary used some of that severance pay to fly east. He interviewed with a number of yacht design firms, including the prestigious Sparkman & Stephens, where he was offered a job. He worked there for several years, and then his father-in-law suddenly died, leaving a family business. Gary and his wife drove back to California to try to help save the business, but by the time they returned to the West Coast, other family members had sold the business.
Gary again had no job and only "20 cents-worth of savings." But the company that he had worked for redesigning antenna arrays for the Navy rehired him right away, farming him out as an engineer to Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle.
While he was in Seattle, Gary's mother sent him a newspaper clipping of an engineering firm's ad looking for a naval architect down in the Bay Area. He responded, and as Gary explained it, "We sat down and the manager asked me my general background, where I went to school, and what I had been doing, and then I asked what the job would be. He said, 'Well, right now we just got the contract to do a12-inch, self-propelled, suction-cutter dredge for the state of Bahar, India.'
"I said, 'A what?' And he said, 'A dredge.' And I said, 'Gee, I'm afraid you've got the wrong guy, I don't know anything about dredges. I don't even know how they work.'"
Thinking there would be no job offer, Gary went back to Seattle. About a week later he got a call, asking when he could start. Gary answered, "I think you must have me mixed up. I'm about six feet tall, I'm the guy who doesn't know anything about dredges."
The manager's response was, "Yes, and you are the only one who admitted it." They negotiated a deal, and he worked there for a couple of years.
In those days, Gary spent time with a bunch of sailors who got together in Oakland for lunch on Fridays to talk about boats. There, in 1965, he met the owner of the W. D. Schock Company, a pioneer in cored construction, based in Santa Ana.
This is how Gary described the ensuing events: "Bill Schock kept saying, 'What would you do if you were going to draw a boat that would be faster than a Cal 20?' That was the real yardstick boat at that time. We were sketching on the backs of napkins, as we do.
"Right after that lunch, I had to fly to New York, and when I came back, there were all these messages on the desk, 'Call Bill Schock; Call Bill Schock,' so I called and said 'What do you need?' And he said 'Where the hell are the drawings?' I said, 'What drawings?' He said, 'You said you were going to design a boat for me.' I said, 'No,
you said you were going to call me if you wanted me to.' And he said, 'Well, I called.' I said, 'Oh!' And that got me started designing sailboats. The first one was the Santana 22."
It was a very successful first design, and W. D. Schock sold several hundred. Then Gary designed the Santana 27 in 1966. Before long both the Santana 22 and the 27 started cutting into the sales of the big competition, the Cal 20 and the Cal 25 and 28.
The Ranger story
As a result, Jensen Marine, builders of the Cal line at that time, saw both a problem and an opportunity. Jack Jensen already had a mutually exclusive agreement with Bill Lapworth, designer of the Cal 20 and others in that line, which stipulated that Lapworth couldn't design for anyone else and Jensen Marine couldn't build anything but Lapworth boats. So in 1967 Jensen started a new company, Ranger Yachts, with the same sort of exclusive arrangement with Gary.
For a while, things went swimmingly. Gary designed a broad line of Rangers: In chronological order the Ranger 26 (1969), 33 (1970), 29 (1970), 23 (1971), 37 (1972), and the 32 (1973). The Ranger 23 was used in the movie Dove, the story of Robin Lee Graham's single-handed circumnavigation (the real boat Graham started out on was a Lapworth 24). The Ranger 37, Munequita, won the 1973 Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. And the number of hulls coming from each model mold was
substantial. For example, 460 Ranger 33s were built before production was discontinued in 1978.
But as so often happens in the boating business, the scent of roses was not to last. As Gary explained with some bitterness, "They started getting aberrations because the corporate lawyers decided to run the boat business. What happened was that in 1973 Bangor Punta bought Jensen Marine and Ranger Yachts, and a new group of guys took over Bangor Punta. They were basically all attorneys - and I don't have any more against attorneys than most people have against attorneys, for the same reasons - but, anyway, they decided that they would begin to pull the corporate strings. They decided to change the corporate structure, and in so doing they committed suicide."
Under the original concept, said Gary, Bangor Punta had "O'Day boats, which essentially covered the low-ticket end of the market. They had Cal boats with an overlap at the bottom end that covered the medium-ticket end of the market. And they had Ranger Yachts, with some overlap, covering the high-ticket segment of the market. They had the market covered like a blanket."
Then management decided to change the structure. "I don't know what it's called," Gary said, "from horizontal to vertical (integration) or from vertical to horizontal, maybe on the diagonal, I don't know. But in any case they decided they would have one guy be director of the marine field in order to unify marketing."
That started some infighting. "O'Day wanted to improve their quality and build bigger boats," Gary said. "They wanted to encroach on the marketplace of the other two guys. They put a guy in Ranger who wanted to cut the costs at Ranger to get down to the low-ticket end. They began to mix up where the hell they were, and who they were, and where they were going."
It was a turning point in the designer's career. "That was a very bad thing for me because I had an exclusive contract with Ranger," Gary said. "I couldn't design for other production companies. I had cut myself off from the entire rest of the marketplace."
He had a bitter dispute with Bangor Punta's top brass, which ended with the termination of his contract and separation from the company.
Justice after all
"It was like going from a good business to no business in one day," Gary said. "But in the end, Bangor Punta's marine business went in the toilet, too, so maybe there is some justice after all. I had always had my own business designing production boats, so I just kept designing production boats, and I have been doing that ever since."
Bangor Punta moved the Cal division to Florida in 1981 and decided to pull the plug on Ranger. In 1983, Bangor Punta decided to get out of the sailboat business altogether and sold Cal and O'Day to Lear Siegler.
Gary's contract with Bangor Punta had given him some control over the Ranger molds, and he had a client who wanted to buy the molds for the Ranger 29, 33, and 37. A deal was struck but, according to Gary, Bangor Punta reneged and destroyed them all. That was the clear and final end of Ranger Yachts.
We got on to the subject of cruising boats. "We do a lot of cruising boats," Gary said. "But I don't like the word cruising boat. We do a lot of regular boats. Most of our designs are what I like to call 'really nice little boats.' "
When asked if he meant that he designed "club racer/ cruisers," he answered, "Ehhh . . . I think that every name that you give them other than 'good sailboat' shades what they really are. If you call one a club racer, what you are really saying is that it is a racing boat that isn't quite good enough to race against the real racing boats. It can only do club racing. If you call it a cruiser/racer, that's some sort of a hermaphrodite that is neither fish nor fowl, but it is probably slower than a racer/cruiser, which is also a hermaphrodite, but maybe looks racier than its cruiser/racer cousin."
When asked what kind of parameters he used when designing "just a really nice boat," he said, "It has to be good looking, and it has to sail well. It has to have good balance, and it has to have an airy, bright, pleasant interior so you don't feel like you are going to jail when you go down below.It's got to have a comfortable cockpit where you can work the boat without bashing your elbows or tipping over or whatever. It's a boat that, if you want to cruise it for a while, you can do it by simply
loading aboard the stores and some clothes, and just do it. If you want to race it, you can do that by off-loading some of the stores and gear and going racing. And, of course, it's not going to be a successful IOR boat, because it's not an IOR boat, but it's probably going to be a better cruising boat than 99 percent of the cruising boats on the market, which are caricatures of cruising boats."
That first interview eventually ended. But the following January, at the 1986 Miami Boat Show, Gary delivered another lesson in engineering and English. He was sitting in the cockpit of his latest design, a shiny new Freedom 30. He was casually asked whether the maximum speed of his intriguing new boat design was 1.34 times the
square root of the waterline length.
"I wish people would quit saying that," he retorted with intensity. "There's no such thing as a maximum speed under sail. There's a point at which the speed-versus-resistance curve begins to get very, very steep. At low speeds, a certain increase in horsepower gets you a fairly good increase in speed - but at high speeds, doubling the
horsepower only gets you a very slight increase in speed. Usually somewhere around 1.34 times the square root of the waterline length - the sailing waterline, not the static waterline - that speed/ resistance curve starts to get very steep. But there's no absolute limit."
High quarter wave
"But," he was asked, "doesn't the quarter wave start to build up higher than the cabintop?""No! That's not so!" he exclaimed. "I've never seen such a thing.
That's all magazine talk. That's not naval architecture. I'm continually seeing this 'maximum speed under sail' or 'maximum speed-length ratio' or whatever-the-hell, and it's totally meaningless to naval architecture, as an absolute maximum. It does
have meaning, because the speed-resistance curve does get very, very steep, as I say; but it seldom gets absolutely vertically asymptotic."
The topic switched to a safer subject, the Freedom 30 rig, and the observation was made that "the mast doesn't have any standing rigging except the headstay . . . "
"Jibstay!" he shot back. "A headstay goes to the head of the mast; that's why they're called headstays. Forestays or jibstays go somewhere below the head of the mast. You have 'stowage' with a 'w' on boats, not 'storage,' which is what you have in your garage.
"I want to keep the language of sailing clean. Life jackets are life jackets, not PFDs (personal flotation devices). Heads are heads, not MSDs (marine sanitation devices). Calling them MSDs is just an example of the government not doing anything except generating words and not accomplishing anything. It's typical bureaucratese. Everybody knows what a head is."
It was pointed out that there are two definitions for the word "head": the toilet or, alternatively, the room in which the toilet is located. The Mariner's Dictionary says that a head is "the compartment with toilet facilities." But again Gary shot back: "Yes, but when I say 'the head is stopped up,' that doesn't mean the door is jammed, does it?"
Gary was, of course, involved in many more projects than described here.
He worked hard for several years on the Golden Gate Challenge 12-Meter program for the 1987 America's Cup ("The 12-Meter stuff is just a 12-hour day, seven days a week. I haven't had eight hours' sleep in the last year or two."). The result was the radical forward-rudder USA skippered by Tom Blackaller. She showed promise but failed to win the trials.
Another of Gary's unusual designs was an ultra-high-performance 35-foot, ultra-ultralight (2,000-pound) sloop for Ron Moore with not only a winged keel but also a winged deck ("People who [will buy it] are the same kind of people who get Hobie cats, which capsize, and . . . if a guy is crazy enough to buy this boat, God knows what he is going to do with it!").
And he owned boats himself, of which he said, "I name all my boats after Humphrey Bogart movie roles. I've got Fred C. Dobbs (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Richard Blaine . . . do you know who Richard Blaine is?"
Gary's creative signature is to be found in other less-conspicuous places, like the Dorade boxes built into the corner of the cabin trunk, which form part of the water trap; Gary called them "sunshine boxes."
Gary was nothing if not an entertaining conversationalist. Quickwitted and often humorous, he once asked, "How do you make a small fortune as a naval architect? Start with a large fortune." Fun was the operative word, in life and in boats. In describing the design objective of the Ranger 22 (the production version of his
near-legendary Pocket Rocket), he said, "The basic parameter was fun. When we had a decision to make in the design office, we always asked, 'Is it going to contribute to making it more fun?' "
Jim Donovan, who worked with Gary, summed up his former boss this way: "Gary Mull was the 'teacher' for many talented yacht designers, one of the best storytellers of all time, and an excellent cook. He had a very organized and systematic approach to the design process along with a great attitude on how to balance work and enjoy life. Although yacht design sounds like just a lot of 'fun,' it's usually just a tremendous amount of work. I was very lucky to work with Gary; he was an excellent person."