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Lyle Hess dies at 90

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #126 November/December 2002

From Ocean Navigator #126 November/December 2002

Lyle Hess, the Southern California boat designer who inspired an enthusiastic following for his quirky, seaworthy designs, died in July at the age of 90. Hess designed numerous traditional-looking small craft, notable for their ability to handle rough weather and also be slippery in light air.

Lyle Hess, left, with Larry Pardey, developed boats that were known for their ability to handle all weather, light air or severe ocean storms.

"Lyle was a great man, a real artist as a designer and someone who absolutely loved boats. He was one of my heroes," said Larry Pardey, who had been friends with Hess since the late 1960s and built two wooden boats to his designs, from his home and workshop in Kawau, New Zealand. "The thing about Lyle's boats is that they were so good in light air. All I can do is rave about the two boats he designed for me (Seraffyn and Taleisin), which almost never lost steerage in light air, despite several circumnavigations. This one factor of the designs is why we felt comfortable sailing the world without a motor."

Several companies still actively build Hess designs, including Samuel Morse Co., based in Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as Nor'Sea and Montgomery Boats of Ontario, Calif.

Friends and colleagues of Hess described a man devoted to boatbuilding and assisting others in their projects. Although well known in certain circles, Hess never achieved wealth from his work, perhaps because of his lack of interest in developing the business aspect of his work. He never advertised, relying on word of mouth to gain design contracts. "He was really proud of that fact," Pardey said. "He wasn't a very good businessman, but I think he had a clear conscience."

Born in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1912, Hess moved with his family to Southern California while still a boy, becoming immediately entranced with the ocean and boats. From a young age he began hanging around shipyards and was "the kid who always asked questions," according to Pardey. Hess apprenticed to several shipwrights in the Los Angeles/Long Beach area, eventually founding his own company in the 1940s, L.A. Yacht Yard in Harbor City, Calif., with his partner Roy Barteaux. His first two vessels were a wooden motor-sailer and a 36-foot cutter called Westward Ho, which still sails today. Hess cultivated an interest in British designs, most keenly in the Bristol Channel pilot cutters. He made the underbodies finer, hollowing out the garboard area and cutting away the forefoot. His Nor'Sea 27- and 37-footers and his 28-foot design for Samuel Morse Co. represent this work. Hess never received formal training as a naval architect but relied on his contact with master builders of the early 20th century for his finely tuned eye.

"Lyle worked closely with Charlie Weckman, a shipwright who built Henry B. Hyde, the last American square-rigger. Weckman would build these 150-foot oceangoing tugs, which he would hang the rudders for. Lyle told me you could move these massive rudders with one finger," Pardey said. "I learned 90 percent of my boatbuilding skills from him; when I was building Seraffyn in the late 1960s, he would loan me his tools, his adze and slick, which were very personal tools. He was always that way."

It was publicity stemming from the Pardey's success with Seraffyn, a 24-foot engineless cutter design based on the popular 25-foot Renegade, that rekindled an interest in Hess' designs, following their debut sail from California to England in 1968. Hess developed what he described as a go-anywhere trailer-sailer, a series of designs that included the Balboa, a 20-foot double ender. "He worked thousands of hours to get that boat right," Pardey said. "But he worked equally hard developing all his designs. He worked just as hard on developing Fatty Knees, his 8-foot dinghy, as he did on Taleisin, our second boat."

Roger Olson, former owner of Samuel Morse Co., had similar respect for Hess. "He helped me get my first Balboa, helped me get to know it and gave me enough information about how to sail it around Baja," Olson said. Olson wrote up his adventures in a 1977 issue of Yachting, an adventure story that was also a tribute to Hess. Olson spent 13 years voyaging in a 28-foot Hess pilot cutter.

An irony of Hess' life is that he was not an ocean sailor, perhaps as a result of his interest in cultivating his building and design skills and having a family to support. "He was an accomplished coastal sailor. But to my knowledge, he never did an ocean passage," Olson said. "He was devoted to his wife 'Doodle' and their kids. He chose to stay around."

In his later years, Hess was doted on by former colleagues and friends, including Olson, Pardey and Bob Eeg, a principal at Nor'Sea. "We would go over to his house, even after he went blind, and take him sailing, take him to the boatyards," Eeg said. "He was a magnificent man."

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