Editor’s note: I received this comment on my Gulfstar Review article and thought the information deserved its own space. The below article is written by Larry Walters who came up with the brand name Columbia and built their first 29.
From my memory some fifty years ago, and I may remember thing from a somewhat colored view.
In 1959, I was a boat carpenter building Lapworth L-36 sailboats for Chapman and Kalajian Boat Works in Costa Mesa California. We built on a semi mass production line. The hulls were formed with strips of 1.5” X 2” mahogany edge glued over a form making a single skin hull ribs were added as stiffeners. This was strange work for me when I had both a building contractor and real-estate broker licenses. However, I need a steady income with a new 4-month-old baby at home on Balboa Island. In addition, it gave me time to keep on sailing with Don Chilcott on his M-Boat the Pursuit.
My long time sailing companions and room mates at 885 Bridgeway in Sausalito, prior to all of us getting married, wanted me back north. Commodore (Warwick Tompkins) called telling me that he, Derrick (Derrick Baylis), and Marion (Marion Spaulding) had recommended me to build a new fiberglass sailboat. Not only had they got me the job, all I had to do was phone this guy Les Bitney in Palo Alto and tell him I would take the job.
Les was an armchair wannabe sailor. He just read all the sailing magazines and was not a sailor or yachtsman himself. Les had a successful small builders hardware store, that also sold moldings together with pre hung doors and windows which he produced on site. This is where Les’s son comes in. He worked for his dad on the assemble line as overseer for about five Workers. I do not remember his son’s name. He was a about 5 years younger than me at the time. This would make him about 78 today. Both Les and his son were big game hunters and loved guns. The idea Les had was to build a little bigger Bear Class sailboat out of fiberglass. All that he knew about boats was from all those magazines. He hired Sparkman & Stephens to design a boat.
He went to near by MASA at Moffat field and talked to a few of their model builders. He hired them to come on the weekends and build him a male plug. From there on, he had no idea how to continue, and needed help. Again, he turned to those magazines and contacted Marion. He was not interested in going into fiberglass. Next, he turned to Commodore and Derrick. That is when they contacted me. I called Les, and made a deal, moved my new family to Mountain View and took over.
It all started in an open field behind his door company. I needed a building to work in. Near by was an old Country and Western dance hall that had been closed for years, it was big. As I remember the structure, it was right on San Antonio Rd near the 101, between Middlefield Rd and the Bayshore Hwy where it just all open fields. We leased the dance hall. The floor was about 60ft by 100ft and had so much wax put on it over the years when we swept it clean of about 2 inches of dirt and dust and it was in perfect condition. I was pretty sure the old building would not pass any kind of inspection. Fortunately, all the 220 power lines were still in good shape coming from the old woman owner’s house by the entry gate. I made a deal with her where we would pay all her power bills if we could hook directly through the old meter.
Soon I had all of Les’ materials from the field and the plug setting on the dance floor. I, was able to start building the mold and lay up hull #1. Unfortunately the hull got stuck in the mold, it would not release. Les showed up with a skill saw and cut off the only part of the hull showing that we could pull on. A few week later, I finally got the hull out and saved the mold.
In Santa Clara there was a Boat Company building fiberglass 18 to 20 ft trailer boats. This is where I found experienced help. Luckily, at the time this company was laying off some of it best workers. And were able to hire two of them full time and some others were willing to come over and help on weekends.
The plans were almost no help at all. Fortunately, I had a direct line to Sparkman & Stephens. Bill Tripp was at the time was working for them, and the designer of our boat. Little was known about just how far you can push or go the these new compounds. When I called him for some ideas about lay-ups he referred me over to Rod Stephens. Rod was reluctant to give positive answers about what Glass cloth I should use. Therefore, I just copied the way the Bounty II was being laid up. Owens Corning Glass Co as I remember was the only one manufacturing Fiberglass cloth and mat and all resins came from General Electric. Rod was lots of help he came out and spent a few days with me every few weeks. Les did not want to spend any time with Rod, so I had him all to myself for 3 or 4 days. Thank God, he took me under his wing and treated me like a son. It was like having a private tutor. Some of things I learned from Rod served me well years later while I was riding out three different Super Typhoons on the Island of Guam aboard my Tayana 37.
Soon after we started, Coleman Boats and Plastics Company (later named Aeromarine Plastics Corporation) of Sausalito, Ca. who were building the Phil Rhode’s Bounty II Sloops announced they were coming out with a west coast Triton. The Triton would be built by both Pearson and Aeromarine Plastics in Sausalito, California. The Triton and the Columbia 29 are very similar, I now had a really big marketing problem for the Columbia 29. Les had no understanding at all of what it takes to introduce any new yacht in to a very competitive boat market. Coleman was one of best at promoting and marketing of yachting in the world. Within a month, Triton was being written about in all the west coast publications and was the talk on waterfront. On the other hand, we had absolutely nothing printed about the Columbia 29 or what we were doing. I found myself, in a race with Aeromarine, to see who would be able to finish and have a boat ready for the Boat Show at Cow Palace. The RACE was on. I was ready to lay up my first hull and they were just starting their plug. Fortunately, a good friend Ron Wise got the contract to build their plug in his shop across the street from Aeromarine. On a visit, Ron had me helping him work on the Triton plug. At the same time I was able to watch and talk to the Pearson people while they were laying up a Bounty II hull. I called Rod for his okay before I started with my first lay-up. Telling him that I just going to copy their lay-up program with a little modification for the Columbia.
I remember putting in some long hours being more or less a one-man show. Commodore, Derrick and Marion all came down off and on to check on me and give me moral support. One person who was a big help and good sounding board for was Bruce Easom. He came by often. Ordering and getting supplies took a lot of my time. I had no library of catalogs of any kind. I just had to dig in and find what I could in the Bay Area. Les was very pissed at me having to spend so much time shopping. He did not have a clue about the hundred of parts it takes to put a sailboat together. In addition, while I was the only boat builder, I had to build the interiors and do all the finishing. Before laying up the next hull, I did not want to repeat the disaster of the first hull that hung up in the mold and would not release. We waxed and then waxed repeatedly with Carnauba paste wax. I was told to try spraying the mold with liquid floor wax as a releasing agent. This I was reluctant to do. This hull came out of the mold very easy
The boat was close enough to being finished that we went ahead and secured space at the boat Show. We had only 10 days to go before the show opened and those 10 days were pure hell. All this work was very hard on my new family and me. Here I was with a new baby that almost never saw, as well as my wife who was stuck in a town where she did not know a soul. Thank God for Gwen Tompkins and the Wonder Bird (Commodores mother). She would insist that we all come for Dinner, Commodore and Jan, Derrick and Stacie, Marion and me and Laura with our new baby Lisa. Gwen loved having Lisa onboard. It was like old times when both Commodore and I still lived on the Wonder Bird. Lisa was put in a berth in the main cabin as if she was crew and going to sea.
Remembering exact time of just when things happen when I was so damn busy is hard for me now over 50 years later. We were getting ready for the boat show and need a name for the boat. I ask Les what he wanted to name the boats. He said he had no idea and he did not think it matter very much and told me to name them. I had been following the Americas Cup and realized all sailors fantasized of sailing onboard Columbia. With Briggs Cunningham led Columbia to victory in the America Cup of 1958. He was one of American most popular sportsman and who raced cars and yachts. Every one knew the name of America’s favorite yacht the 12 meter Columbia. It came to me that Columbia was the perfect “Name for us and Les okayed it was the name of our new class of boats.
The boat was finally finished, and was ready with ever thing but an aluminum mast; the mast was a no show. I had Les bring me some redwood 2x8s that I glued together to be shape like a Mast and painted with aluminum paint. Les jumped in offered to help. He took over carving the mast. To my surprise, he was good with tools and I could tell he was enjoying it. Soon we were off to the Cow Place. I had the rigging company that hauled the boat from Mt View and step the mast and no one could tell it was not Aluminum. However, when Pet Sutter came in with the sails, some how I missed installing all the Halyards. I ran out to my car, grabbed my Bos’n’s Chair, and had the crew haul me up the mast. That little redwood mast did not have the strength to hold my weight, but some how I made it up and down before the mast splintered and speared me for a barbeque.
The show opened and the Columbia 29 was a big hit. Pearson and Aeromarine, did not make it with their Triton, we won.
I also began to recognize the warning signs. There was no way I was going to have any part of ownership as promised, and I was on my way out.
I remember hull number One was sold at the boat show to Joshua Slocomb’s grandson living in San Francisco. During my time with Les, I laid up four hulls. Unfortunately, my memory is not as clear as I want it to be about events that happen 50 years ago. The whole Les Bitney part of my life was not very pleasant, maybe that why I have put it out of my memory. I do remember the mast showing up the day the boat show was closing. In addition, having a sign painter come to the Cow Place to paint the boats new name “Spray” on the stern. I also remember making a deal with him to take delivery I think in Redwood City Harbor where I had the boat trucked together with the mast and had local boat yard step the new mast and launch the boat.
I remember being told very soon after my departure Les sold out everything and washed his hands of the whole project. From that time on, I do not think you will find that he had anything to do with the new owners. They came in, took all the molds and tooling, and were gone in just 3 days. I did get a call offering me the job of setting up a new plant in Costa Mesa California. The last thing I remember doing was organizing a photo shoot of our first boat. This is where the enclosed photo came from and no, I do not remember the photographers name or the boat owner’s name.
I hope this gives you a picture of how The Columbia 29 was born and what went on during the initial days of production.