Van Collie. Originally published in Latitude
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Tom Wylie's revolutionary American Express, the only American boat
to ever win the Mini-Transat singlehanded transatlantic race (England
to Antigua) in the history of the event. Read more about this breakthrough
Boats continue to emerge from the Willow Street shop in the mid
through late '70s, including Norton Smith's Mini TransAt winning
20-footer American Express, the ¾ ton Great lakes winner
Tortuga and the fractional half tonner Moving Violation. Over at
C&B Marine, two 36-ft Wylie-drawn cruisers were completed. Wild
Spirit was built for sailmaker-turned-cruiser Peter Sutter, and
a sistership, built on speculation, eventually became Mike Lingsch's
Alert. The former is still out cruising the South Pacific. The latter
has enjoyed success both as a racer and a cruiser.
In 1980, Tom relocated to his current digs, a hilltop workshop
near his home in Canyon, a small residential community just east
of the Oakland hills. For the past decade and a half, he's concentrated
on his design work there as well as making patterns, lofting designs
and fabricating small parts.
The Canyon shop ushered in the third era for Tom's design work,
one which expanded his repertoire considerably. First and foremost
was the 65-foot cruising yacht Saga, which he designed in 1980 for
the late Arlo Nish. Tom had met Arlo, who built the boat himself,
when he built sails for the Nish family's first world cruiser Sonic,
an Alden 56. Saga turned out to be a big, fast, comfortable yawl
that measured 18 feet in the beam, drew 6 ½ feet with the
centerboard up and sported a steel hull with a composite deck. She
also had a forward-thinking water ballast system for long hauls,
which allowed Arlo to level the boat out for more comfort. "She's
a serious passage making yacht," Tom says of the boat, which
completed a circumnavigation in the 1980s.
Tom harbors some pretty warm feelings about Saga, his friendship
with Nish (who died last year) and the crew that built the boat,
including Jeff Baker, Mike McCormick and Jeff Olsen. Another design
built by the same crew - right alongside Saga, as a matter of fact
- was the 60-ft lightweight cruiser Lightspeed. "I considered
Lightspeed one of my more beautiful designs," he says of the
boat. But, like Lois Lane, she never really distinguished herself
out on the water.
Tom's most successful production boat has been the 24-ft, 875-pound
Wabbit, which he designed in 1981. The idea behind the long, narrow
hull with a small cabin was to have a fun sailing boat that he and
his wife Cindy could also use for boat camping. Other people thought
it would be more fun to race it and, to date, 63 units have been
built and the sporty one design continues to enjoy a healthy following.
His recovery has been good, though he still experiences numbness
in his right leg much of the time and the herky-jerky movements
on a boat can be problematic. These handicaps haven't dampened his
design work, however. The 1980s saw more successful race boats,
including a pair of 46-ft IMS winners called Heartbeat and Kropp
Duster (with an assist on the lifting keel design from Jim Antrim),
and 1993 TransPac class winner Warspite.
A dozen 38-footers have come out of the same mold at Westerly Marine
in Southern California, with each owner customizing the result to
their specific tastes. The results range from Ciao Baby, a Catalina
cruiser with a big stateroom and a galley for overnighting, to the
cat-rigged Sabra, to the PHRF racer Absolute 88 to the racer/cruiser
Punk Dolphin. The latest boat of the series is Commodore Tompkin's
almost completed carbon-fiber-decked cruiser that's slated for an
extensive cruise in the near future. "I just produced a hull
shape and let each owner do with it what they wanted without having
to pay for a one-off hull," says Tom.
Rage broke course records for the Pacific Cup ocean race (California
to Hawaii) in both 1994 and 1996. Rage's elapsed time in 1996 was
7 days, 22 hours.
Currently, Wylie is into what he sees as the forth era, where he's
matching modern building materials with the client's desires. Perhaps
the signature boat so far is Rage, an ultraslim, ultralight and
ultrafast 70-ft 'cruiser' built and owned by Portland, Oregon, boatbuilder
Steve Rander. Described as a 'Wabbit on steroids', Rage was conceived
as just about the biggest cruiser that Rander and his wife could
handle by themselves - and fast enough to break the legendary Merlin's
TransPac speed record of 8 days, 11 hours. Rander also had serious
budget restraints. "He told me I couldn't put coffee grinder
winches on it," says Wylie, because he couldn't afford them!"
Rander adds that part of the success of the boat, which did break
Merlin's mark by almost four hours in the 1994 West Marine Pacific
Cup, was that he could talk to Wylie as both a designer and builder.
Rage's hull is made with wood veneers and a foam core, which were
both familiar materials to Wylie. "Sometimes I'll approach
a designer about ideas I have that could improve a boat's construction,"
says Rander, "and they'll just tell me to build it as drawn.
Tom's not like that. His flexibility allowed us to achieve the same
results at less cost."
"I was fortunate to get a lot of experience building in wood,
fiberglass, steel and aluminum," says Tom. "You couldn't
buy a comparable education at a university. Nowadays, there's so
little boat construction going on that it's hard to get diversity
and repetition like I had.
The four current projects mentioned earlier reflect more of that
diversity. With longtime friend and partner Dave Wahle, Tom's just
delivered two 30-ft catboats that are easy to rig and sail. Rander
is building the 52-ft wood/composite cruiser for sailmaker Keith
Lorence. This boat is similar to Rage, but has a fuller hull shape
and more cruising amenities. The 60-ft aluminum cruiser for Dr.
Tom Petty is now underway at Jim Bett's shop in Truckee. And the
21-ft single-handed racer should, at the time of this reading, be
making its way across the Atlantic for the Mini TransAt start this
fall. Skipper/owner Joe Cooper says he chose Tom as the designer
on the recommendation of people like Commodore Tompkins, and on
Wylie's enthusiasm for the project and his previous success in the
Mini TransAt with American Express. In fact, Wylie is the only US
designer to have drawn a winner in the race.
Coincidentally, Cooper has dovetailed his sailing efforts with
an educational project for school children that has also embraced
Wylie. Cooper's Sailing As Integrated Learning (SAIL) program involves
taking his boat to kids so they can actually see and touch it while
he gets into elements like weather, navigation, sailing and marine
For his part, last year Tom and his friend Jonathon Livingston
took a group of school children sailing to Angel Island for a sleep
over aboard Livingston's Wylie 38 Punk Dolphin. Among their passengers
was Tom's 12-year-old daughter Lindsay (for whom he assumed full
custody after a divorce a few years ago).
"We had a nonsailor-to-sailor ratio of about 15 to 1,"
says Tom, "and it was so exciting to these kids. For me, the
thrill was seeing people who weren't sailors having so much fun.
Those of us who've sailed so long tend to get lost in the technical
aspects, and we forget that this wind and water stuff is really
The concept of the sailing environment as a school setting has
become a pet project for Wylie. He's been talking with a client
about doing a 103-footer - sort of a Rage on steroids - that would
be a perfect platform for an oceangoing classroom.
In the meantime, there are more boats to be drawn and built. Even
though he hasn't achieved the reputation of some of his design colleagues,
Wylie knows he's added a lot of value and fun to what's going on
out in the water. And as proud as he is of the boats that bear his
name, he's even more pleased about all the friendships that have
been forged and maintained in the process.
"I may not have been the best at business," he says,
"but of all the people I've worked with over the years, I can't
think of one who I couldn't go up to today and shake hands. To me,
that's every bit as important as the career."
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