Gwen Hinckley practically had a bed-and-breakfast going for the clients, friends, and tradespeople associated with the boatbuilding firm of her husband, Henry Rose Hinckley II.
“If you were able to find some of the old customers, they’d laugh about staying with Henry and Gwen,” says Hank Hinckley, their youngest child. “Dad would get up and go to bed at 8:30. If we were still at the dinner table, it didn’t make any difference. The president could be sitting there, and he’d go up and go to bed. And Mom would do her best to carry on the conversation. That’s probably how Bob got to be a good salesman. He’d have to pick up the conversation. Us kids would be” – amazed look – “Dad’s gone! He’s just gone! But you could catch him on his way out at 4:30 in the morning. He’d get up, have zwieback and milk. Then he’d rattle around some, and off he’d go to work. I’d roll over and go back to sleep.”
Recently, Hank was at his boat shop, not far from the Hinckley yard, refurbishing several yachts with his crew and a 13-year-old apprentice, Nicholas, who wants to be a naval architect and is currently scrubbing the deck of a spec boat his boss designed.
I’ve swung in to ask Hank warm and fuzzy questions about his family, which was not a warm and fuzzy family, but was rock-solid and certainly exciting in many ways. An approachable guy prone to itemizing all his professional misadventures (“I’ve cut things three or four times and they’re still too short”) while praising everyone around him, Hank started at his father’s yard, lugging stuff and helping at the dock, when he was eight.
“For a kid, it’s an ideal way to grow up, if you like boats,” he says.
Back in the day, his dad’s yard opened at seven, but guys were down there at five in the morning, banging out ideas.
“There was incredible skill – not just hand skill, but talent and engineering and design – and a lot of it happened sitting under the cradles in the morning. Dad wouldn’t miss those morning meetings, because those guys would talk about ideas and problems they had and they’d solve them there. The design crew went a lot farther than the third floor of the office. Dad would throw in a concept and it would get banged around, and couple of days later it’d be fine-tuned and it’d be in a boat. No two boats were ever the same.”
The Hinckley boys – Bob, Bud, and Hank – hung around the yard from the time they were kids, doing odd jobs and helping with boat deliveries at first, then graduating to the nitty-gritty of production and sales. Their father, founder of the Henry R. Hinckley Company, in the tiny seaside village of Manset, was busy living up to his own impeccable standards for the design and construction of luxury yachts.
Henry came to the field with previous experiences – his love of boating, his well-off family’s social connections, and his college education in mechanical aeronautical engineering – that combined to make him one of the great innovators in high-quality, mass production techniques and technologies, first in wooden boats and later in fiberglass. And he enjoyed pitching his products.
“He was a good leader. People loved him,” says Bob, the oldest child. Bob was instrumental in the company’s development from the start of its fiberglass era, and was particularly well known for his superb marketing skills. He and his wife Tina have a lovely home on the Manset shore, not far from the Hinckley yard. “He attracted a lot of high-end customers. He grew up in that atmosphere. He was very comfortable in country clubs, jumping into his airplane and flying to Detroit to see somebody about a boat. He used the plane a lot. He’d just jump in to go see somebody and come back with a contract. He was ten steps ahead of anybody else. He brought a huge amount of business to this area.”
Henry could not have done it on his own. The company’s free-ranging exchange of ideas, and his relationships with leading designers of the day, made the yard the sort of experimental lab that continues today under his successors.
Bob and Hank are 14 years apart in age and had discrete experiences with their father. But they share fond recollections of many people on the crew.
“George Emmett. Norm Farrar, Ray Young,” Bob says. “Lou Norwood, he was a great guy, I used to go trout fishing with him.”
“I remember the customers, the business owners, the Rockefellers, all the cool people,” says Hank. “They were all really nice to me. But my heroes were the guys on the line. Herschel Norwood, quiet peaceful guy. His son Richard and I shared the job lugging ice, and Herschel taught us how to tune the boats and make sure we were polite so we’d get good tips. He was one of my greatest heroes alive. Al Wentworth, another local guy, took me under his wing, and was the first carpenter I worked for on the line, on the 40s and Pilots. Eddie Hamblen – when I became service manager, he kept me out of trouble. It was a real joint effort. Russell Dolliver, Charlie Kramp – incredible talent. The Ward family, Willy Ward – maintenance down there for years. I’m sure they did not love having the boss’s son there. But they were really patient. They were outstanding people. And when I screwed up, which was a lot, they’d pick me up, dust me off, and say, ‘Well, we’ll do it again.’ If you’re a boat nut, what could be better?”
In the misty past, there was a good chance the Hinckley company might have gone under a different moniker. In the early 19th century, the name almost died out.
“At one time, there weren’t going to be any more Hinckleys,” says Mary Anne (Hinckley) Mead, the daughter of Henry’s youngest brother, George. (George was a pilot for Eastern Airlines from its earliest days, and was also a great sailor and loved his brother’s products; he owned a succession of Bermuda 40s.) “There was one generation in which none of the children had male children. There was one relative, a woman, who promised her father that, if she had a son, he would carry on the name. And she did have a son. She was married to a man named Lyman. When he came of age, he changed his name to Hinckley.”
The obliging fellow’s name was Samuel Lyman Hinckley, born in Northampton in 1810. Samuel’s father was Jonathan Lyman. Like his 11 siblings, he had the Lyman surname through his childhood. But because of the promise made by his mother, Sophia Hinckley, he swapped the two surnames and became a Hinckley.
Samuel married Henrietta Rose. After that, there was a whole bucketload of Benjamins and Henrys. Sam and Henrietta’s only child was Henry Rose Hinckley, a Civil War officer who went to law school but ended up in the cutlery trade. Henry settled down in Northampton and married Mary Barrett, the daughter of Dr. Benjamin Barrett. Dr. Ben bought one of Northampton’s oldest houses, which was called The Manse, which is apparently what a minister’s residence is called in certain denominations. (Much of the material here regarding the family’s time in Northampton and Manset is taken from The Hinckley Story, published in 1997 by Henry II’s brother, Benjamin Barrett Hinckley, Jr. For detailed information regarding Hinckley products, read that book and Hinckley Yachts: An American Icon by Nick Voulgaris III.)
Henry and Mary went to live in The Manse, where they raised six children. One of them was named Benjamin Barrett Hinckley, in honor of Mary’s father. Young Ben went into his father’s cutlery business and stuck with it throughout his career.
Ben married an independent-minded woman, Agnes Chamberlin Childs. Agnes graduated from Smith College in 1901, became a graduate student in physics at Clark University, an instructor in physics at Newton High School, then a physics teacher at Smith. As today’s descendents understand it, Agnes may have done some engineering with the Wright brothers on their flying machines.
Ben and Agnes had four children. Henry Rose Hinckley II was born in 1907, Frances Hinckley, called Franna, in 1909, Benjamin Barrett Hinckley Jr. in 1913, and George Lyman Hinckley in 1921.
When Mary and Henry died, Ben and Agnes turned The Manse into an inn. By 1924, it was time for a vacation. Ben hadn’t taken any time off from the cutlery business in years; Agnes told him she wasn’t going anywhere without him. Ben knew Southwest Harbor from his college years in the 1890s, when a group of buddies had spent the summer at a hotel called The Stanley House, in Manset. (The Hinckley Story)
Sticking to what he knew, Ben rented a cottage close by the hotel. By the following summer, they had bought a summer home in the same neighborhood. The house, on a small cove that provides fine protection for boats, had storied associations. A small part is one of the oldest buildings in town, built sometime before 1784. In 1830, the property was sold to Andrew Haynes, who enlarged it. This is where Haynes lived with his second wife, The Prussian Lady – Hanna Caroline, from Germany – whose first husband, explorer and showman Captain Samuel Hadlock Jr. of Great Cranberry Island, disappeared on a sealing expedition to Greenland. (The story is told in Rachel Field’s book, God’s Pocket. Information regarding The Moorings Inn history comes from the inn’s website.)
Agnes named the summer home The Moorings, because so many boats moored in front of the house.
The family loved to be on the water. In his book, Ben Junior reckons the seeds of that love could be seen in an 1859 letter that his grandfather, the first Henry, wrote to his mother Henrietta, about a yachting party out of New Haven, Connecticut: “The wind soon shifted from several different points but finally brought up with a steady southeaster. At sundown I again took my place at the tiller (Orton and I being the only ones who knew how to manage the boat) and the wind began to blow a regular young gale. I don’t think I shall ever forget the pleasure I felt when perched upon the stern of the boat with both hands managing the oar (which is a rather ticklish thing to steer within a high wind) and a long cigar sending its cheerful glow and fragrant aroma over the surrounding waters. I sat listening to the talk of the fellows and watching the New Haven lighthouse…We had hardships but on the whole I think I never enjoyed two days more in my life.”
Henry, Ben Junior and, later, their baby brother George became addicted to boating:
“Mother learned to sail in her early years and felt we should all be exposed to sailing,” Ben Junior writes. “One day we traveled to Perry, Maine (on the U.S. side of Passamaquoddy Bay), where our cousins the Frank Lymans had a summer home and a Marblehead ‘O’ boat which they weren’t using. Father bought the ‘O’ boat for $100. Now we owned our first sailboat, which was 25 feet long, and beamy, with a centerboard. Henry had already sailed at Camp Norridgewock on the Belgrade Lakes where he had spent two years.”
Ben Senior contributed to the cause. In 1928, the stock market booming, he ordered a new 32-foot cabin cruiser from the Rich Brothers, in Tremont, along with three new cars. With this larger, faster boat, named Scamp, the family could cruise from Portland to the Bay of Fundy. (The Hinckley Story)
Next-door to The Moorings was a little business for boat storage and repairs. A Swedish sailmaker named Erasmus Hansen, who was called Hans, had bought an old fish wharf around the same time the Hinckleys had their first visit to Manset as a family.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the wharf belonged to James Parker who, with his four sons, “developed the largest wholesale fish business in Maine, with a fleet of 15 to 20 vessels, about 150 men, and distributing about $100,000 in payroll annually,” according to Mount Desert Island: Somesville, Southwest Harbor, and Northeast Harbor by Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. and Lydia B. Vandenbergh. “During this period, fish curing and canning businesses in Manset and Bass Harbor were flourishing,” as was the summer resort industry.
(Andrew Edward Parker, James’ son, would in 1912 establish the Andrew Parker Boat Yard across the harbor. In 1938, purchased by Bink Sargent and Henry Hinckley, this would become Southwest Boat.)
After Parker’s death, his sons conducted the business for a while, then it became the property of the Union Trust Company of Ellsworth, who sold to another large processing concern, J. L. Stanley & Sons Co., and they to Hans, according to Nell Thornton’s Traditions and Records of Southwest Harbor and Somesville, published in 1938.
“The land was just a narrow strip along the shore of the cove,” writes Ben Junior. “Hans moved several old sheds off the wharf and placed them along the shore for storing pleasure boats. He constructed a railway along the wharf for hauling out boats for repairs, and he left two large buildings on the wharf for storage, in addition to the ones on the shore. It was a one-man operation, and a nearby garage did the engine work. Hans and his helper did the painting, launching, rigging, and carpentry. Hans lived as a bachelor on the corner of the cove and took to drinking too much. He would be out of commission two weeks sat a time.”
Agnes seems to have left a negative impression with her grandchildren (the story goes that she poured out a couple of bottles of scotch her husband got from a local rumrunner, during Prohibition; she was “difficult,” Bob says). But she also used to take a pot of food and leave it on the porch for Hans, so he’d have something to eat. Ben Senior, who gets the grandchildren’s accolades, was nervous about what might happen if Hans ever sold the property, so he obtained first refusal. (Ben Senior died at age 65, in 1940, and Agnes a year later, age 64. “Heart attacks, both of them,” says Bob. “A few drinks might have been good for the heart.”)
By 1927, Hans was ready to quit. His retirement was short-lived. Hans got drunk, fell off the wharf, and drowned.
“So my grandfather had to start running the d**ned place,” says Bob. “He said ‘Well, okay, the boats are here. We’ll launch them in the spring, and then I’m tearing the business down. That’s the end of it.’ Nobody in the family had any intention of going into the boat business. He ran it for a year or so. Everything was a dollar. An hour’s labor was a dollar, a can of varnish was a dollar, a can of bottom paint was a dollar. He had it very simple.”
Growing up in Northampton and shipped off to a series of boarding schools, Henry was bright, capable, independent-minded, but averse to formal education. He liked mechanical things, automobiles, planes, crystal radio receivers, and engines. He was into photography and developed his own prints. He liked camping, canoeing, and fishing in remote areas. He was “a rugged individualist and thought that sort of thing was great. He was not much for social activities.” (The Hinckley Story)
“My dad loved cars,” says Bob. “He sold cars when he was at Deerfield. He worked for a dealer and he had them hidden away on these tobacco farms. And on weekends, he’d go out pedaling cars.”
After Deerfield, Henry went off to the University of Cincinnati to study mechanical aeronautical engineering. He took flight training at the Dayton airfield, secured his pilot’s license, eventually owned his own plane, then spent several years studying at Cornell. (The Hinckley Story)
Bob recalls his father also designed and tested airplane instruments for a little while.
“In those days, you take an instrument, you frig with it, you put it in, you take it up and fly it and see if it worked,” Bob says. “Very rudimentary. That’s what he liked. Always a good pilot, always had an airplane.”
Henry soon found out why no one stayed with the job.
“The airplanes they were flying weren’t very good, so they had a lot of crashes,” says Bob. “You’d take off in this rattletrap and, a lot of times, you couldn’t get back to the runway. You’d land in fields and all kinds of things. This Ford Trimotor was a big airplane. He was flying that thing and he landed somewhere and a wheel broke. He had to get out and jack it up, and he was down there jacking it up, and it fell on him. They came along and got him out. He was really lucky.”
In 1932, Henry was 25 and had finished his studies at Cornell. The Depression had hit its peak and was about to turn, but both Henry and Ben Junior were scrambling for ways to make money. Henry headed to Manset and made an agreement with his father to run the boatyard. Ben Junior got his parents’ permission to turn The Moorings into an inn. (The Hinckley Story)
Soon, Henry was able to put his inquiring mind, his boating and engineering experience, his ambition and energy to excellent use when he designed and built his first craft, a 36-foot fisherman named Ruthyeolyn, trimmed in Philippine mahogany. “Her owner, Les Morrill, chartered to summer people for the summer, fished the boat himself for nine months, then cleaned her up and chartered for the next summer,” Ben Junior writes.
The family presumes Henry designed the boat himself, perhaps with input from others.
“Dad was fascinated by the engines and the boats,” Hank says. “There were some pretty neat boats in the 1930s. Rumrunners – he would have been perfect to really hop those things up.” He laughs. “I remember him telling me about the boats sneaking out of Greening Island. He seemed to know more about those boats than he should have. He would have been perfect for that.”
Henry met a young lady named Gwen, who had a wonderful personality that triumphed over adverse circumstances during her childhood. Her mother, Margaret May (Williams) Bracy, grew up in New Brunswick, Canada. Through a relation who worked for the railroad company, Margaret got a job, possibly as a ticket agent, at the station in Portland, then married Ervin Grant Bracy, who had roots on Mount Desert Island: Bracy Cove, in Seal Harbor, is named after the family.
They had a daughter, Thelma Gwendolyn Bracy, called Gwen, then twin boys. Gwen was six when the influenza pandemic of 1919 struck. It killed her mother, who was 33, and one of her infant brothers; the other brother was rendered deaf.
Ervin was a salesman for the Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil) and traveled quite a bit. So Gwen and her little brother spent much of their early lives with their mother’s relatives in New Brunswick. In high school, she moved to Southwest Harbor to be with her father’s family. Gwen thought she’d go to normal school to be a teacher. Instead, at 21, she met Henry, a good-looking young man of 27 whose up-and-coming business provided some stability after the hardships of the Depression. They married in 1934, without fanfare or celebration. He brought her to live in the old house that had belonged to Hans, next to The Moorings, and babies started coming straightaway – Bob, in 1935, followed over the next 14 years by four more children – Edward, who was called Bud; Ann, Jane, and Hank.
In 1939, they moved to a nice Victorian house built by old Captain Byron Mayo, a fish dealer and town leader, in 1883 at the head of the harbor. It was nothing huge, but it came with a hundred acres.
“My mother was not impressed,” says Hank. “Dad thought she was going to be so excited. The view was wonderful. She’s looking. There’s a hand pump in the sink. No inside plumbing. Not impressed.”
Gwen didn’t have any particular aspirations, aside from being a good mother, wife, and host. She played a little golf, did a little painting, played canasta with friends, attended church. She had a nice voice and sang a lot as a kid, at church and parties.
“She always hoped some of us would show some talent,” says Hank, adding ruefully, “She was terribly disappointed. Tone-deaf doesn’t even begin to describe my lack of musical ability.”
Mostly, she ran the house. She had a lot of friends and had a busy social life though Henry, who often brought folks home on the spur of the moment. They loved to sail together.
“Gwen was a really strong person, physically and emotionally,” says Tina.
“Oh, yeah, very stable,” says Bob. “Had to be, to live with my father.”
Tina: “Henry was crazy, in a way…”
Bob: “…like a genius…”
Tina: “…running around, all over the place. She raised the kids and saved the money and kept everything going. This was before the age when women felt they had to fulfill themselves in other ways. She thought what she did was fine. She was Mrs. Henry Hinckley and she enjoyed it, really.”
One of Hank’s fondest memories of his mother involves her righting a wrong. A client’s wife was complaining about the help, a woman Gwen knew. Gwen dressed down the wife in front of the woman, saying, “I don’t know where you came from, but around here we don’t treat people like that! This person is working d**ned hard, for not much money!”
“I think because she was that way,” says Hank, “a lot of people were comfortable with her. And Father, because of his habits, would provide a lot of good fodder. He’d get up from the table and she’d have a lot of good stories to tell.”
Unlike his wife, Henry was not a warm kind of guy. He was difficult and exciting. Bob recalls peacefully playing with the family’s train set, in the basement with his brother Bud, when their father suddenly slammed open the door to his darkroom and flung out trays of prints.
“Whirr! Crash! Slammed the door, back in there again. Something went wrong, and he got mad, and he had a wicked temper, and these things just came scaling out. We ducked and got out of there.”
But Henry took his role as provider seriously. He made sure the kids got everything they needed, and he took them water-skiing, hunting, and fishing. Winters, he flooded the backyard at the house, made a rink, and the family would have skating parties. Henry was a good figure skater and a great cook. Popovers on Sunday were a specialty.
“Whenever we went sailing offshore, doing a delivery trip, he would cook,” Hank recalls. “Usually, the first night out, there would be a great meal. We’d have potatoes and a roast, cooked on the boat. That was his thing. It was a nice part about cruising with Dad.”
Henry had a series of small planes – a Stinson Flying Station Wagon, a Piper Tripacer, an Aero-Craft Aero-Coupe, and a Cessna 182 – and some pretty fancy cars.
“During World War II, we had the farm up in Otis, and he had a big Packard, big god-d**ned thing,” says Bob. “I remember getting seasick in that thing. Hated sitting in the back of that. He bought an extra one, a pair.”
Henry was probably driving the Packard when he drove Bob at high-speed to Portland for an emergency operation.
“He picked up a pretty good-sized police escort on the way down,” Bob says. “They finally got him pulled over. He said, ‘This kid is going to die if I don’t get him to the hospital!’ ‘All right, sir. Yes, go ahead. Follow me!’ But that was the old man. He flew fast, drove fast, drank hard, smoked hard, a hundred miles an hour all the time. Nobody could keep up with him. My mother used to shake her head, ‘There he goes again!’ He bought her a Chrysler station wagon with the wood on the side, a pale green, very beautiful car. He bought himself a matching convertible, with spotlights on each side, same color, same wood on the side. My mother said, ‘Henry, what are we going to use for money to feed the kids?’” Bob laughs. “He’d just sold a big boat, you know.”
Crusty old coot that Henry was, he inspired devotion in his crew, not least because he would do anything to keep them employed. He had them build at least a couple of yachts on spec when the yard was out of work.
“He hawked everything in the world,” Hank says. “He knew he could not lose the talent in the shop. He’d drive my mother nuts. We’d sell everything. And the key guys knew he’d do that. That’s the way he felt, and it was reciprocated. I think he was standoffish, but they knew he listened to what they said. They knew he grew up in a stiff, old New England, rigid family. They took that into consideration, I think.”
One of the things Henry sold, behind her back, was his wife’s boat.
Hank was a young teen when his mother bought the boat, Gitana, inexpensively from a friend whose husband had just died. He recalls living with his folks on the boat one winter in Florida.
“It had all the china and the old, velvet cushions and a great back porch,” he says. “It was all varnish and brass and bronze. One of my jobs in the morning was to polish.”
The guy on the next boat over had a piano and could play like nobody’s business.
“There were girls coming and going all the time. I went to the local day school, and he came and picked me up on his big motorcycle. I was cool after that.”
Henry needed money at the yard. He sold Gitana to a candy-maker, Hank thinks, who renamed her Lollipop.
The alteration still rankles. “From Gitana to Lollipop?! Please! I’ve never seen her since. Whenever I see an old boat, I go looking to see if it’s her. It was some time before my mother forgave him. Admittedly, we needed a boat like that like we needed a hole in the head.”
That sort of scenario played out more than once in their marriage.
Says Hank, sardonically, “It was always fun to listen to the two of them.”
From early on, Henry was busy forging seminal relationships with exciting young designers of the day and well-off clients, and developing ancillary operations. A stickler for quality and honesty, an outgoing person who enjoyed schmoozing over drinks – these traits helped build his reputation and made him a superb salesman.
“Customers loved him because he was a great storyteller,” says Bob. “He always felt that he could do it. He could run a lathe really well, he did his own photography, he worked with other designers, he could run this, that, and the other thing. He was a character. He marched to his own drum and nobody gave him any crap. He was the kingpin. He was really tough, but he liked to have fun and party.”
During the first few years, the new yard built power pleasure boats and launches, ranging in size up to 42 feet. Sparkman & Stephens, founded in 1930, was making its name as an influential firm. In 1938, Hinckley had them design a 30-foot sloop, called the Islander. Twenty were produced, making them the company’s first mass production line. (The Hinckley Story)
In 1938, Hinckley partnered with Lennox “Bink” Sargent, a distant in-law, to buy a second boatyard on the opposite side of the harbor. The Southwest Boat Corporation became a major player in the design and construction of large fishing boats and transport vessels.
The second yard came in handy when World War II came along. Hinckley jumped on the opportunity to build boats for the armed services. He started going to Washington in 1941 to nail down contracts. (The Hinckley Story)
“During World War II, he was phenomenal,” says Bob. “Worked his a** off, got a lot of business for the area.”
For two years, Henry and Bink had non-stop production lines going at the two yards. By the end of the war, they and their crews had become star builders for the state of Maine, having produced 535 boats – mine yawls, tow yawls, aircraft personnel boats, picket boats, and lifeboats, for the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard.
Henry sometimes told stories about those trips to the War Department.
“Apparently the guy who awarded a lot of the bids would sit down, open his lower drawer, and there’d be a Coke bottle in there full of liquor,” Hank says.
For a while, Henry kept an office in New York City, to be closer to D.C.
“I got the impression it was important to be on site,” Hank says. “When things came up, you had to be there face-to-face. He loved traveling and he loved flying, so it was not a hardship for him.”
Francis “Mick” Fahey was a key player during the war years. An expert woodsman, Fahey’s income as a guide and timberman dried up during the Depression. In 1936, he went to work for Hinckley as a boat carpenter. By the time the war came along, he was yard superintendent, overseeing the company’s feverish production for the military.
Fahey “moved a bunk into his office at the yard and was available around the clock to any of the three separate shifts, should problems arise,” according to A Mentor Would Appear: Mick Fahey and the North Woods Way, by Jerry Stelmok, WoodenBoat, 1985. “To eliminate bottlenecks outside the company’s control, he set up a foundry enabling the yard to cast its own fittings for the first time ever. Having little firsthand knowledge of the process, he plunged into books and government publications and sought advice from metallurgists at the University of Maine. The operation of the foundry was initiated with a pair of recruited casters of some experience but was soon not only supplying Hinckley with the required fittings, but was accepting subcontracts from other yards as well. In a similar manner, custom lumber shortages were curtailed when Mick arranged to have sawmill set up right at the yard; and to fulfill government specifications for seasoned lumber, Fahey, once again seeking help from the university, designed and oversaw the building of a drying kiln that more than met the yard’s requirements.”
The two yards received the first combined Army-Navy E, for excellence, ever conferred in Maine. Thurlow M. Gordon, a New York attorney, was master of ceremonies at a ceremony held outside Southwest Boat. “He spoke of the changed conditions that have brought mechanized warfare on an increasing scale and have made men in production, behind the guns, as much an integral part of the war effort as those in the front lines,” a news report says. “In former years, decorations were won in battle; now they are also won in shipyards and munitions plants.
Another report says, “The latest honor definitely places the Pine Tree State in top rank among the present day shipbuilding states of the Union, for it attests to Maine’s prowess in building war craft of all sizes, types and construction, large or small, wooden or steel. Bath builds its famous destroyers; East Boothbay turns out wooden mine-weepers; and Maine’s latest recipient of war production laurels specializes in the small craft which both branches of our armed forces deem so essential as protective and offensive weapons against the Axis scourge.”
During those same years, Henry started a marine supply distribution company, additional storage facilities, and a lumber supply yard. Ben Junior joined the company in 1940 and tended to business administration and began a boat insurance business, while Henry oversaw boatbuilding operations. (The Hinckley Story)
The yard remained busy after the war, building sailboats, powerboats, and custom craft, including the last wooden yachts the yard would build.
But Henry had seen the future, and it was fiberglass.
“He wasn’t unique in that thinking, by any means,” says Hank. “I think a lot of people decided to go to glass about the same time, for the same reasons. And as we went into glass, a lot more people could afford boats than could before.”
In the 1950s, Henry began designing and building fiberglass dinghies to study the process. (The Hinckley Story) He made his great leap forward when William Tripp, another early experimenter, designed the yawl that would become the Bermuda 40. (Tripp’s son, Bill Junior, designed the Bermuda 50 recently debuted by The Hinckley Company.) The first B40, named Huntress, debuted in 1960. It was a turning point for the company.
Hank was 10. He remembers being aboard Huntress with the owner, his dad, and perhaps Bob, who would have been 25 and by that time stepping up as lead salesman.
“They launched it to sea trial her,” Hank says. “That was the first real Hinckley sailboat. She was a jump. We built custom boats before – Osprey, Saga – that were really nice wood boats. I saw both of those built when I was a kid. But a lot of our boats were Chevys. They were basic sailboats. Hinckley went from being Chevys, in wood, to more like a Cadillac or Rolls. When we went to glass, we shifted gear.”
Henry was constantly tinkering with the boats, looking for ways to make the next one better than the last. For his own use, he built a couple of Sou’westers, in wood and fiberglass; and two or three B40s. All were named Jaan – combining the names of his daughters, Jane and Anne. “He would build his boats as a way to experiment with making them better,” Hank says. “He would take one of his boats out for the weekend. He’d come back with a notebook full of ideas, and he’d rip off seven or eight pages and hand them to Herschel Norwood at the dock to see the little stuff got done. Then he’d wander up to Russell Dolliver, who ran the machine shop, and they’d commiserate a while on something. Then they’d come down and pull something off the boat and take it up to the machine shop to be welded and redone and put on the next weekend, and then he’d go out and try it again. It was hell trying to get the production work done.”
The rugged, monocoque nature of fiberglass, and the repeatability and cost-efficiency of the process, appealed to Henry. It also allowed his skilled workers to concentrate on interiors and finish work. The hull styles and finish made Hinckley yachts stand out far more than other fiberglass boats of the day.
“There are a lot of really gorgeous glass boats now,” says Hank. “Not so much back then. You could walk along the Marblehead waterfront and look out into the harbor and you could pick out the Hinckley. Initially, I think, Hinckleys really stood out in the styling and the way they were finished off.”
Other production-line fiberglass boats came on line. The process required an initial major investment for the manufacture of a plug and mold. Hinckley, relying on his reputation for the yard’s preceding work – many customers were repeats from the yard’s wooden boat days – was able to line up orders before work had begun. (The Hinckley Story)
There were difficulties getting some of the crew onboard with the new material. This included Henry’s long-time yard superintendent, Mick Fahey, who was concerned had about possible health hazards and decided to leave the company.
“People just didn’t want to work with it,” Hank says. “It’s not hard to understand – the smell, the itchiness. Anybody who’s worked in glass knows it’s itchy. As I recall, there were people who just wouldn’t come to work for a while. They didn’t want to be around the stuff. The place didn’t empty out, by any means, but there were a lot of people really afraid of it. Dad decided the only way to get around it was to prove you didn’t drop dead from it.”
Although customer reception was mixed – Tina recalls her yachting relations were horrified – most had no problem shifting from wood to fiberglass. The cost of new boats declined, and they were easier and less pricey to maintain.
Some think Henry was a pioneer in the field. That’s a mistake. The technology was there. Fiberglass boats began to appear in the 1940s, courtesy of other tinkerers. (The Birth of Fiberglass Boats by Steve Mitchell)
“But I think everybody had to learn a little bit for themselves,” says Hank. “There wasn’t good documentation. The salesman would come through and say, ‘You add a little of this and a little of that.’ Sometimes it worked and sometimes it torched off.”
A messy, little lean-to on the back end of one of the carpenter’s shops, full of drums of resin, was the experimental lab.
“He’d mix this and he’d mix that, it would go smoking off,” Hank says. “I wasn’t there when it happened, but I guess they burned the darn place down, pretty much. Because it used to promote and catalyze right there, but it wasn’t such a controlled process. It would get hot and ignite. Today, you have to get pretty far off for that to happen. But back then, it was almost common.”
“All those chemicals,” muses Bob. “We had a fire a week down there.”
One Sunday, Henry and Bink, his partner at Southwest Boat, went down to the yard to lay up a little outboard.
Bink’s wife Mary called “and said, ‘Time to come home for Sunday dinner,’” Hank relates. “He said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go. We’ve got family coming’ and so forth. So Dad said, ‘I’ll finish up. You leave the beer.’ So Dad sat down and had a beer, then finished up, then sat back down and had a couple more beers, then tried to get up. He was stuck. His pants were stuck down.” Catalyst added to resin generates heat, which makes it harden. “He’d had so much to drink he didn’t feel the warmth. So he had to cut his pants. That’s the kind of thing that went on in that back room.”
Bob recalls his youthful years filled with sailing, boat deliveries up and down the coast, learning to fly his father’s airplanes.
“I could borrow the airplane, take a boat, take a car. He just said, ‘Go for it,’” Bob says. “Drove my mother crazy. We could basically do anything we wanted to. Very generous.”
“Bob and Bud were delivering boats when they were teenagers, up and down the coast,” says Tina. “They’d just go. Their father just assumed they knew how to do it. They learned on the job.”
“Never lost a boat,” says Bob.
“They just figured it out,” says Tina.
Bob started at the yard when he was 12 or so, summers in the mid-‘40s, cleaning boats and running errands.
He became a full-fledged employee in 1960, when he was 25. He loved the life. As vice president in charge of sales for many years, the culture of client care came naturally to him.
“I’d go fishing with a customer, down east, out to one in the morning , selling a boat. We’d come back with Atlantic salmon,” he says. “It’s a very seductive business to get into.”
Bud, the middle son, was involved with the company for many years and eventually became vice president in charge of production. Hank started at age 11 in the summer of 1960, as a dock attendant and rigger. When he finished school, he started a boat business in Florida, joined the Navy as a Seabee during the Vietnam War, then went back to Hinckley to work on the shop floor, working his way through the various departments.
“You’d come in and find me, likely as not, with a grinder in my hand, covered in glass. No protective stuff on other than glasses. That’s me. Bob is the salesman. He’s the one who cleans up pretty good. Bud was technical – computers, accounting – he was strong with that. I was the nuts and bolts. I was the guy they kept in the backroom building boats, happy as a clam.”
Hank became purchasing agent and manager, went to work for the Glastron Boat Company, rejoined Hinckley and became production manager and, eventually, president. In 1978, he left Hinckley to found Ocean Cruising Yachts, and now runs Hank Hinckley Boat Builders.
Some combination of children might have met the approval of many parents looking for someone to take over the business. But Henry wasn’t amenable to selling the company, nor to having his sons take over.
“Henry was a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on operator with an engineering background, capable of doing most of the processes himself,” Ben Junior writes. He “could not standby and let others make decisions.”
Says Hank, “It should have worked. But we just drove Dad nuts. We clearly did. I think he’d had all he wanted by the time he sold out.”
In 1969, Bob broke off to buy, with his wife Tina, the old Sim Davis boatyard in Bass Harbor and run it as a storage and service yard called Bass Harbor Marine. Ben, Bob, and Tina founded the Hinckley Yacht Brokerage Company a couple of years later.
Around the same time, Henry and Gwen started spending more time each winter in Florida. He had a bit of money for retirement and was getting used to the idea of slowing down, frustrating though that might have been. He sold the yard in 1978.
Henry was not well toward the end of his life.
“He was having episodes of passing out,” says Hank. “I can remember him and Mom being at the Seawall Dining Room, and he starts coughing. He passes out, face in the soup. Everybody went nuts. Mom pulled the soup away and said, ‘No, don’t touch him. He’ll be back in a second.’ And he would be. She got used to it after a while.”
Although he drank and smoked heavily, his faints were due to a medical condition that blocked off his oxygen, says Tina.
“He drank quite a bit, but I never saw him stagger or get sloppy,” she says. “But he did have this condition, and probably drinking and smoking exacerbated it. That’s how he died. He was choking, I think, and he passed out and crashed his car. “
“Dad was just gone in an instant,” Hank says. “It had only been two years since he’d sold the company. I don’t know if that was good, bad, or whatever. But for him it was probably good. The company was his life. It was his baby.”
It was 1980. Gwen fared well (she died in 2005). She was pretty independent, she had family to help her out, and she was not unaccustomed to being on her own, given Henry’s work and travel schedule. Plus, she was a great investor.
“She bought Chrysler at the bottom and sold it at the top,” says Hank. “She managed the same through a couple of cycles with the Ford Motor Company. She said, ‘I know the Fords. They’re going to need a little more money.’ I cannot follow the logic at all, but she was right. She’d often outperform my brother and uncle. She used to call it her cigarette money. She had a little bit of an inheritance, and when she stopped smoking, she saved all her cigarette money, and she invested pretty much every nickel of it.”
Two years later, Bob and a long-time friend, Shepard McKenney, later joined by John Marshall, bought back the company.
“I didn’t really want to buy it back,” says Bob. “But there was some pressure, ‘What’s going to happen to it?’”
“When Bob got into the business, he ran it like a business, not like an artistic endeavor,” says Tina. “He brought in people who were business-oriented. John Marshall’s wife was extremely good at finance. John was good at design. We had to run it like a business. You’ve got to make money in a business. His style had to be completely different from his father, because his father was artistic, creative, innovative – but not such a businessman. Henry would make five dollars and go buy something with it…”
“…another airplane, an expensive car,” says Bob.
In 1994, the company released the stylish and innovative jet-drive Picnic Boat, designed by Bruce King. It was the first time water jet propulsion, found until then on jet skis and ocean liners, was used on pleasure boats. It became phenomenally popular.
“It was Shep’s idea, but Bob took it and marketed it,” says Hank. “Bob and Shep made that company click way better, in terms of size and profitability, than we ever did as a family.”
In keeping with Henry’s complex personality, Bob and Tina have conflicting ideas about whether his brilliance would have survived in today’s world. For starters, could he have lived with today’s environmental regulations? What about all those seat-of-the-pants (literally), incendiary lab experiments?
“He just did what he wanted to do,” says Tina, “and people did what he asked them to do: ‘We need to work all night building this boat’ or ‘We need’ to do this or that. People just did it.”
But Bob invokes the 2013 America’s Cup, when four teams used catamarans with hydrofoils that allowed the hulls to lift off the water.
“My father would have loved that!” he says. “That’s where the aeronautical side came in. He actually would have loved the jetboats, too. He really was up here,” in the stratosphere, “kind of alone, in a way.”
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