A Conversation With Jerry Montgomery

by · November 6, 2008

Tell us how you became a boat designer and a little about your relationship with Lyle Hess.

I first met Lyle when working for Richard Arthur, the originator of Balboa boats. I made a deal with Arthur to work nights and weekends with Lyle tooling the Balboa 20, which Lyle had designed. Lyle and I hit it off from the start and he put me right to work studying Skene’s book, and we made a bunch of spline battens one night. He carved out a mold for molding cast lead ducks for me, which I still have although I design with a computer these days. Learning to draw boats was a long process for me. Trying to make all those lines from different views intersect with each other was too much for my little mind for several years, and I would have never progressed without Lyle’s help. Lyle was a true gentleman and tried to make everyone around him feel good.

Hess was quoted as having said, “I guess that if there is a unifying thought behind my designs it is to bring skipper and crew home, in one piece, no matter what.” Have you always shared his passion for seaworthiness?

Yes, I have, but probably not to the extent he did. I have a little different slant on it. I’ve never done any real offshore sailing, but I’ve crossed the Sea of Cortez a number of times, and sailed to Catalina Island (from Newport) and back many times, often singlehanded. From that limited aspect, I would say that any time you are out of sight of land you might as well be a thousand miles out because you know with a certainty that you’re on your own, and it would be terrible to have the boat as one of your worries. On the other hand, to contrast just a little bit with Lyle, I always strive to get every bit of speed from the boat and I’m probably willing to get a little closer to the edge than he was. If the boat calls for a mast section that weighs 2 pounds per foot, then a 2 .1-pound mast just becomes antiballast and slows the boat down. Lyle would opt for 2.5 pounds. But we both despise cheap, poorly made boats.

When did you first sit down with Lyle to design the 17? How was the boat received? Are any of the original fixed-keel 17s still out there sailing?

Well, before the 17 came the 12, which was a little daysailer. I’d been working away on the drawings for the 12 for many months, sometimes with Lyle’s help, and kept going in circles. I had been in business for about one year, and although things were going OK financially I had two new babies (twins), and felt I could not afford to make a mistake, so I turned it over to Lyle. He helped me loft it and and I learned from that whole process that things are not as easy as they might seem and it was only then when I realized how much talent and knowledge he had. When the 17 started forming in my mind Lyle was in on it from the start. The actual concept for the boat; how it is going to fit into the market, (and simply the question of “What’s it gonna be for?”) was as much his as it was mine. It took shape in our minds and sketches for about a year before I really got up enough nerve to make a commitment, so he probably actually started drawing the winter of 72-73. The first two boats went to the Newport, RI and the Annapolis, MD boat shows in October, and I sold 36 boats at those two shows.

The first 17s were fixed-keeled, and dealers started clambering for a trailerable version from the start so we redesigned over the winter. There are still fixed-keel boats around; one that I know of in the Seattle area, and several around Salt Lake, I believe. The fixed keelers were very stiff but hobby-horsed a little on the wind in a short chop, much like the Cal 20. For thirty years I’ve been carrying around a box of about 30 pounds of keel bolts for these, but it’s not getting any lighter.

With regard to their relative seaworthiness, you once told us you’d take an M-15 anywhere you’d take an M-17, you’d just take along less stuff. Do you feel every bit as secure in an M-15 as you do in a 17 when conditions get a little rough?

Maybe not every bit, but close. I sailed a 17 in 42 knots of wind once with gusts of 50 these are the Coast Guard’s figures. We made it to Catalina, upwind all the way. We were airborne once when a wave come over on us. I don’t know how the 15 would do in those conditions, because its stability depends so much on the crew’s placement. The 15 is half the weight of a 17, so crew weight is twice as important in terms of stability.

Downwind, the 15 actually handles better than a 17 in a blow, even though it has a fractional rig as opposed to a masthead. Once in Mexico in a 15 we were flying a spinnaker on a dead run in 30 knots of wind with excellent control, with pretty big waves, many of them breaking. Not a problem and wehad some great surfing. In a 17 we would have had a reefed main and a small jib, otherwise white knuckles. The 15 carries its sail area as well or better than a 17, and I’m sure its of equal strength.

Of the 15, 17 and 23, which would you rate as the best for its size and why?
The 17. It’s way faster than it should be, especially in the extremes. The masthead rig gives it a great advantage upwind over it’s competition, and in my racing experience you have to get up into something like a well-rigged Catalina 22 to go any faster, and the 17 will beat it in a drifter and also if it gets heavy. Thirty years later, there is nothing about it I would change. The 15 would be better with a little more ballast and a masthead rig, although at considerable cost.

Give us your thoughts on the M-23. She seems like a lot of boat for her weight.

The 23 is a good boat, but I listened too much to what my dealers wanted. Too much freeboard for the sake of interior room, and another foot of beam would have done wonders for it. Lyle warned me about these things as he was drawing it, but was I smart enough to listen? That was before the maximum width was opened up on highways and the 23 was to be a trailerable boat that was good for family cruises of a couple of weeks or so, which was what the market wanted at that time. The 23 was a bomb in light air, both on the wind and with a spinnaker. We were first to finish in a big race in Minnesota once (Leach Lake; something like 160 boats if my recall is good), sailing at the invitation of the owner of the boat. We started 20 minutes after the largest class of boats, which included boats like C&C 36s, and passed them all. A long race in light-to-no wind, very flukey conditions; the spinnaker up and down 20 times. The 23 was very easy to sail fast in those conditions. We had a lot of blind luck in missing some of the holes that caught some of the other boats, but I’ve been on the other end of that many times so I’ll take it.

Why did you cease production of Montgomery boats, and when?

I think in about 93 or 94. The market was going away more every year, and even though my competition were dropping like flies it was getting harder every year to make a living. I went through a divorce, with the usual loss of assets, and it just wasn’t fun any more. So I shut things down and never looked back and went fishing. I am very fortunate to have spent many years of my life doing something I loved, but it was time to go. For the last few years I have been designing and tooling boats for a successful and rapidly growing builder of racing canoes and kayaks, which is a big interest of mine. In ’92 I won firsts both in the world sprint championships in outrigger canoes and a national championship (both were age-group divisions) in long distance outrigger canoe racing, which is a race from Catalina Island to Newport. In maybe ’90 I won the Northern CA sprint championships in both open and masters divisions. I’ve always been as interested in physical competition as I have been in sailboat racing.

Can you tell us about Mike Mann and his voyage to Hawaii aboard the 15? How was his boat modified? Was it a rough trip?

I met Mike Mann through his friend, who had worked for me for several years, and Mike bought one of the first 15s. At that time he didn’t have much sailing experience but wasn’t short on nerve. Mike was a marine biologist who wanted to be a merchant seaman, and had just been accepted into the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. His starting date at the academy was about a year off, so he wanted to do something noteworthy with the boat because he would have to sell it when he entered school. He decided to sail it to Hawaii (I heard that a lot over the years) and asked what he should do to the boat first. He brought the boat in on a weekend and we pulled the centerboard and put it back in, installed the hardware for twin jibs, set it up for running backstays (simply lashed off on the stern mooring cleats), put lanyards on all the hatch covers, beefed up the drop hatch, and put in two (or was it four I can’t remember a damned thing since I turned 60) 1 1/2″ cockpit drains. Later, he fitted a foam block that eliminated about 60% of the cockpit volume. I suggested that he sail the boat from Marine Del Rey, out around Catalina, ending up at Dana Point. Single handed, nonstop. That’ll take the starch out of him, I thought. Wrong. A week later he came by and said he was ready to go. He left about a week after that.

His voyage took 34 days, I think, including being becalmed for a week. The twin jibs worked fine except he remarked that they were too big in the trades and he had a few tense moments. I remember that he went 5 days and nights without touching either the sails or the tiller. I think the voyage was fairly usual in that he was cold and wet for the first 10 days or so then hit the trades. I saw Mike a few years ago and he was second or third in charge of an Exxon tanker; not the Valdez, he said.

You came to the second SCA Cruiser Challenge and sailed an M-15 (with Tom Smith) to victory in the small-boat division, then you took the medium-boat division’s top prize in Cruiser Challenges III and IV aboard an M-17 (with Bob Campbell). Why are you so damn fast?

When I first started sailing, which was in Newport Beach in the ’60s, I was obsessed with going faster than the others, and I started buying and reading books on the subject. I’ve had a lot of experience in good competition, mostly in dinghies, and I have a good technical background because of all my reading. When I lived in Newport, we had club races all summer on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday nights, and weekend regattas at least once a month. I would come home from a race and read everything that applied until bedtime. When you race that much, boat speed is on automatic most of the time and you can concentrate on what’s going on way ahead of the boat.

Rumor has it you’ve only lost one sailboat race ever. Is that true?

No, that’s a lie spread by aliens. I’ve lost dozens; maybe close to a hundred. When we started racing the Montgomery 10 in Newport Beach, the Armstrong brothers, sailmakers all, and a few others, would beat me so badly that they would be so far ahead I couldn’t even see what they were doing differently. It took me a year to become competitive, and another year to beat them most of the time. Then we all started sailing Montgomery 12s, and I started all over again.

Can you give us slower folks a few speed tips?

Look up the Armstrong brothers! Seriously, you get out what you put in. You have to get out and do it, and you have to acquire the knowledge to go with the experience. There are also “boat” things like good sails, getting your boat tuned to the utmost, good controls, a slick bottom (the boat’s), and well-shaped rudders and keels. Nothing makes you look as good as a fast boat. Sails are very important; when I get asked to sail with someone at a race my first question is “how old are your sails, and who made them?” I know that that’s getting pretty anal, but life is too short to go to a race in a slow boat.

Learn how to make good starts. You know how important it is to get out at the start and get clean air, giving dirty air to everyone behind you. There is a chapter in Small Boat Racing by Stewart Walker, who is one of the old gurus, (WW Norton, 1960), that has a chapter on starting that is so good the reader can readily visualize the start and the 10 minutes preceding it. I’ve reread it 50 times at least. If you can find a copy, the rest of the book is terrific also.

What other trailerable sailboats do you like? What would you sail if you couldn’t sail a Montgomery?

Assuming trailerables include daysailers and class boats, I really like most of the old classics, like the Snipe, the Thistle, etc.

Now and then I think about building a Malibu Outrigger, which is a 18′ Warren Seaman design from the 60s, but still a match for most of the modern cats, especially in waves.

Regarding trailerable cruising boats, wow, I’m kind of a snob there. The old original Balboa 20s were good boats but swing keels scare me. Maybe I’d try to get something like a Holder 20, which was designed by a good friend of mine and is a fun boat to sail, definitely out on the performance end of the scale.

After I shut my business down I was in on the building of a 43′ carbon-fiber cat, a high performance cruiser that would be capable of world cruising, that got my imagination going. That was a half-million dollar boat, way out of my league, but it got me to thinking about a lightweight tri, 25′ or so. Something I could take down to the Gulf and zip around, drink some beer, and catch a fish for dinner.

You were manufacturing in the 70s and 80s, which is viewed as the small-sailboat heyday of sorts. Do you think we’ll ever see another period with so many active small-boat manufacturers?

I doubt it, unless maybe we have a period of real prosperity. In the early days sailboats were cheap, even compared to inflation, now they cost far more to build. Another factor is the cost of environmental controls; nowadays a company has to deal with air quality controls, hazardous waste control, hazardous materials controls, uniform fire code and the EPA in some places. Small companies can’t afford this. They all want time and money, especially money. If I were still building the Montgomery boat and wanted one, I’d go find a good used one because I could buy one for way less than the cost to build one today.

Tell us what you’re up to these days. Are you still building kayaks?

No, I only do design and tooling for them the fun part of boat building. I make some laminated wood parts under contract, and I do more sailboat rigging all the time, especially standing rigging and that sort of thing. That part of my business is slowly growing. In general, I work about half the 60 hours per week I used to in the sailboat business. Which isn’t bad.

Any plans to design another sailboat? Any innovations you’d like to try?

I got a specialized line drawing program a while back that I use for designing canoes and kayaks and I’m getting pretty good with it; you can’t complain about doing the calculations at the punch of a button. I’ve been working on a drawing for an M-14; just smaller than a Montgomery 15, with the selling of plans in mind. I sell a few plans for canoes but have never gotten very aggressive about it. In general, I’d rather go sand on something than sit at a desk.

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Discussion1 Comment

  1. Allan Magee says:

    Hi and thanks for this article. I grew up sailing on a Montgomery 17 Flush deck named “Coyote” out of Tucson Arizona together with Neil Clark and others. Indeed, this boat was faster than it should have been and we won a fair share of races in both light and heavy conditions, including 2? National Championships. Thanks in
    part to Jerry, this experience inspired me to study fluid dynamics and eventually to obtain my Masters and PhD in Naval Architecture at The University of Michigan. Long story short, I am now Director of Operations at a phenomenal new model test basin in Singapore, for which I contributed significantly to the design. I am now the Principal investigator for the Centre for Autonomous and Remotely Operated Vessels (CEAOPS) which is using the basin to help validate and testbed next generation smart vessels. Shout out to Jerry for all the Love and Encouragement. Thanks!”

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