Meade Gougeon, a sailing legend and industry innovator who pioneered the use of epoxies for boatbuilding, all while creating a culture of giving back at his Bay City business, died Sunday, Aug. 27. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Janet. The cause was skin cancer.
On Saturday, a day before his death, the Great Lakes Multihull Regata was held on the Saginaw Bay, near Gougeon’s Killarney Beach home. Understanding that Gougeon was dying, race organizers moved buoy race markers closer to his home, giving him one last race to take in. Reclined in his chair, he felt the Saginaw Bay breeze across his face and spoke his final words.
“The wind is coming up,” he said. “Tell the boys they can commence with the race.”
While he touted a distinguished sailboat racing career, including a North American championship at the age of 58, becoming the oldest person to ever win a major regatta, Gougeon was perhaps best known for making other sailors and boat builders look good with his special marine epoxy.
Gougeon and his late brother Jan’s home-baked epoxy was their secret weapon when building their race-winning boats in the early 1960s. The brothers kept it a secret from competitors for about five years, but word eventually got out.
The epoxy was born from a relationship with Herbert Dow, an avid sailor and the grandson of the Dow Chemical Co. founder. The Gougeons introduced Dow to iceboating, and in return, Dow connected the Gougeon’s with chemists in the chemical company’s epoxy lab in Midland to help develop resins and hardeners that could be used as an adhesive and coating.
“When it became obvious that we had an opportunity to make this epoxy technology available to others, it really became a revolution, especially for wooden boats, which were declining quickly because of carbon fiber,” Gougeon said in a 2015 interview with The Bay City Times-MLive.
In 1969, the Gougeon brothers, including Joel Gougeon, a former state senator, decided to go into business, selling ice boats under the Gougeon name and their world-class epoxy, later called West System Epoxy. Before West System, builders used ineffective materials to glue boats together that required clamping parts together for weeks at a time. West System filled all the gaps and dried overnight.
“It was huge,” said Ron Sherry, a North American DN Iceboat champion. “People use that epoxy for doing everything on the boat. You can always count on it.”
The epoxy and Gougeon’s engineering technology translated to other areas outside of boatbuilding, including Jon Staudacher’s Bay City airplane company. From 1988 to 1996, Staudacher built 36 airplanes with wings that used the same technology Gougeon implemented for wind turbine blades, essentially minimizing any risk for failure.
“The Gougeon brothers aren’t responsible for my career in aircraft building, but they are certainly responsible for my success,” Staudacher said. “I might have attempted it without them, but they were key to the success.”
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