The Man in the Ivory Boat
Bob Johnson is a boat guy. And he's a car guy. And he's an M.I.T.-educated thinker who also happens to be the founder, president, and chief designer of Island Packet Yachts. He's designed and built sturdy and seakindly offshore cruising boats for nearly as long as Cruising World has been chronicling the cruising life, and he's the undisputed Grand Poobah of the modern full-keel cruising-boat market. As Island Packet prepares to celebrate 30 years in business, I caught up with him to hear how it all happened.
"I guess I was genetically programmed to be a boatbuilder," he says from his office in Largo, Florida. "My ninth-grade civics paper was titled 'My Career in Naval Architecture,' and I was 14 when I built my first boat, a 12-foot, gaff-rigged, V-bottom catboat with a bowsprit. I built it in the carport, and Mom made the sails from muslin we bought at Sears."
Just as that freshman in high school predicted, Johnson went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, then a master's in naval architecture and marine engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but his start in the boat business took a circuitous route. At graduation, he was a prime candidate for the draft during the Vietnam War, so he took a "critical skills" job at McDonnell Douglas designing and analyzing missiles and rockets in Southern California before getting into the sailboat business, which was decidedly less critical to the war effort. And in between, he took a sidestep into the offbeat world of surfboards.
"I joined W.A.V.E. Inc. in Ventura, California, in 1970 to help introduce aerospace technology into the surfboard-manufacturing process. This chapter in my career lasted five years and was the equivalent of earning an M.B.A. in grad school." Or to put it another way, he took rocket science to the beach crowd.
"My partner and I designed and developed surfboards made with epoxy prepreg and an aluminum honeycomb shell. Hobie Alter bought the first 25 we built."
But by then, Johnson was married with two kids, and he was concerned that his career track was moving away from the boats he loved. So he and his wife, Jeri, took the kids back to Florida to be closer to family and so he could finally get into the boat business. Not long after they arrived, he says, "I landed a design job at Irwin Yachts. One of my first assignments there was to modify an existing one-ton design from a fin keel to internally ballasted with triple daggerboards and to incorporate hard chines. It was built with a new material-Kevlar-and it was campaigned in the SORC. Pretty cool stuff at the time."
He was soon promoted to plant manager of manufacturing, then hired away to be the designer/plant manager at the relatively new Endeavour Yachts.
"I was at Endeavour for three years, until 1979, when I left to start my own boatbuilding business, Traditional Watercraft." That remains the proper name of the company, but thousands of owners and boat-show visitors know the company by the name of the boats he builds: Island Packet Yachts.