After a storied career that seamlessly blended the creation of small sailing craft, tall ships and modern naval vessels, Thomas Gillmer, the legendary designer of our treasured Privateers, died Dec. 16, 2009 in Annapolis, Maryland. The retired U.S. Naval Academy professor and author was 98.

Gillmer’s professional lifetime recalls the story of the blind men and the elephant. His fields of accomplishment were so varied and so distinct that he became an iconic figure in separate arenas of the maritime community. Too often, those in one arena had no vision of his accomplishments in the others.

Thomas Gillmer
Thomas Gillmer
1911-2009
Have the U.S. Naval Academy students who still use his texts been aware that he designed the first fiberglass sailboat to circumnavigate? Probably not.

Do the sailors who crew aboard the Pride of Baltimore and the Kalmar Nyckel know that the lines of their tall ships were laid down by the same man who set engineering standards for some of the modern naval vessels they occasionally pass at sea? Doubtful.

Do we in the small sailboat community know that the man who designed our Privateers was the naval architect entrusted with creating the specifications for the last major refit of the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides? Most of us don’t.

Gillmer was born in 1911 in the landlocked Ohio town of Warren. A boyhood interest in ship models set him on a course that led to the U.S. Naval Academy. When he donned a midshipman’s uniform in the early 1930s, the school had just begun to allow some flexibility in a rigid curriculum where every midshipman took the same courses. One of the new electives was naval architecture. Gillmer stepped into that class, and it set the course for his life.

He did his time as a naval officer, but after the guns of World War II fell silent, Gillmer resigned his commission in 1946 and stepped into the Naval Academy’s Marine Engineering classrooms. In time, the professor would become a respected expert on historic sailing vessels, modern ships and contemporary small craft. View him as an artist, and you could say that he worked in all mediums — wood and steel and plastic.

Well before he joined the academy faculty, Gillmer was indulging his interest in small sailboats, most often with traditional lines. In 1943, he designed the Blue Moon 23, trailed a few years later by the Calypso 37.

Pride of Baltimore
The Pride of Baltimore II races across Chesapeake Bay with all canvas up. The Pride II and its predecessor, Pride I, are perhaps the best known of Thomas Gillmer's tall ship designs.
Other wooden boat designs followed. Many of the designs offered a variation familiar to Privateer owners — a basic sloop with an alternate ketch or yawl configuration. Gillmer found time to draft those boats outside his day job at the academy.

“I more or less designed these early cruising boats on the side,” Gillmer told Steve Mitchell of Good Old Boat magazine in 2002. “It was a nice occupation.”

Ever open to new ideas and new materials, Gillmer stepped into the fiberglass era in the 1960s. His 30-foot Allied Seawind, a stout bluewater vessel first produced in 1962, that would establish him as a premier designer of American small craft. In 1968, sailor Allan Eddy completed a five-year circumnavigation in his Seawind, Apogee, the very first of thousands of fiberglass boats that would eventually make the round trip. Seawinds would be produced in one version or another until 1981.

The Eddy circumnavigation had a huge impact on U.S. sailing, underscoring the strength, capability and affordability of first-generation fiberglass boats.

In 1966, Gillmer delivered the Privateer 26, followed in 1968 by the Privateer 35. The lines of the two boats are the most traditional of any of his fiberglass designs.

Other than the Privateers, most of Gillmer’s production designs were manufactured by East Coast builders. Little is know about how Gillmer’s Privateers wound up in Arkansas shops of the Kenner company; most likely it was a case of the long-time powerboat manufacturer seeking a design with which to explore sailboat production.

The Lady Maryland
The Lady Maryland, a replica of a classic Chesapeake Bay "pungy schooner," is one of Thomas Gillmer's earliest tall ship designs. Gillmer said that the pungy schooner was his inspiration for the lines of the Privateer 26 and Privateer 35.
At the academy, Gillmer rose to become chairman of the Marine Engineering department, a post he held until his retirement in 1967. He then turned his talents full-time to small sailing vessels and historic wooden ships. From his hand came the Southern Cross series at 28, 31, 35 and 39 feet. The Seawind II also went into production, as well as the Aries 32, the Roughwater 33, the Passage 24 and, finally, the Weatherly 32, which sailed off of Gillmer’s drawing board when he was 72.

Beyond the production boats were an array of stock designs for amateur builders and one-off vessels drafted for individual clients, in both wood and fiberglass. Variety was their hallmark. Some came with lines decidedly less traditional than Privateers.

“I got orders for my plans from all over the world . . .” Gillmer told Good Old Boat. “I did have different ideas at different times for my designs. My boats don’t all look alike. I like trying out different ideas.”

In his post-academy years, Gillmer’s talents and his contribution to small craft design were widely recognized among U.S. boat designers, many of whom felt comfortable using his name in company with some of the icons of American naval architecture.

“I think when you compare Tom Gillmer to others, you need to compare him to the likes of Alberg, Garden and Stephens in that they all had a conservative approach in their designs,” said Jack Hornor, an Annapolis naval architect and author. “Tom found a good formula for his production boats and stayed with it. I don’t know of any of his designs that don’t perform or handle well.”

In 1986, Gillmer took on an assistant, a 34-year-old draftsman and seasoned sailor, Iver Franzen. Their relationship was unique in modern professional circles, where degrees in advanced technical fields require years in college classrooms. Instead, Franzen worked under Gillmer until he acquired credentials as a naval architect in his own right.

Kalmar Nyckel
The Gillmer-designed replica ship Kalmar Nyckel is a re-creation of the Seventeenth Century Dutch vessel that brought the first settlers to what is now the state of Delaware.
“When people ask where I went to school, I say I studied at the University of Gillmer,” he said as he recalled his mentor. “When we started, he said, ‘I used to teach this stuff. You want to be my final student?’ It was very much an old-fashioned apprenticeship, the kind of thing that isn’t done anymore.”

Through his lifetime, Gillmer was a prolific writer. As late as 1997, when he was 86, he was publishing new books or revising old ones. Their range speaks to the man’s talents — four textbooks on modern ship design, two histories of working traditional watercraft and a pair of books on major tall ship projects in which he was involved.

His most famed tall ships were the two schooners known as Pride of Baltimore. Commissioned by the city of Baltimore to create a replica of a classic Baltimore clipper, Gillmer designed the first Pride in 1975 and was involved through its construction process. If the reception of the tall ship community was any gauge, the result was spectacular. But after 150,000 voyaging miles as Baltimore’s seagoing ambassador, the Pride went down under tragic circumstances in a 1986 Caribbean storm. Gillmer was the consensus selection to design Pride II; it was the moment when he brought Franzen under his wing.

In the mid-1990s, Gillmer planned the refit of the U.S.S. Constitution. Built in 1797, Old Ironsides had fallen into serious disrepair. For the U.S. Navy, Gillmer was the obvious choice to draft the specs for her rejuvenation. Franzen recalled that their work on the venerable warship involved extensive historical research into early design practices, which was Gillmer’s forte.

Gillmer also designed the Lady Maryland. The replica of a Nineteenth Century pungy schooner, a traditional Chesapeake Bay craft, sports a classic clipper bow that will look altogether familiar to any Privateer owner. In fact, Gillmer once cited the pungy as inspiration for the Privateer’s lines.
Tom Gillmer
Thomas Gillmer with "New Moon," the 27-foot version of the smaller "Blue Moon" that he designed in 1943. The photo was taken at Gillmer's waterfront home in Annapolis.

But perhaps his most spectacular replica vessel is the Kalmar Nyckel, an ornate re-creation of a Seventeenth Century Dutch three-master that brought early settlers to Delaware. Gillmer and Franzen designed the boat as partners. Among the replica ships of the world, the Kalmar Nyckel’s elaborate and intricate trim detail has few competitors.

Over the dozen years preceding his death, Gillmer wound down his practice, though he still teamed with Franzen on some projects and was a consultant on others. Moored at his Annapolis home was his 27-foot Full Moon, a Gillmer-Franzen collaboration that was an upsized echo of the 23-foot Blue Moon he had created 60 years earlier.

Like all the other Gillmer vessels, it was built to his creed.

“These days there’s a lot of emphasis on cramming more and more amenities into boats, which has really hurt some designs,” Franzen said. “But Tom always held that you made sure to design a good boat first and then put in a reasonable interior for that boat, instead of building the interior everybody wants and then trying to wrap a boat around it.

“That was his lesson. I try never to forget it.”

- by Mike Thoele