By Russ Hoadley
A Personal Introduction
The first time I met Gerry Douglas, he stood cross-armed—lean, bespectacled, thoughtful—appraising my C380 at St. Petersburg Yacht Club in Florida.
I was preparing for a 450-mile race to Mexico in 2011. A shy smile played across his face.
“Welcome aboard,” I extended my hand. The man who designed and built my boat in 1997 stepped across, surveying her with a knowing eye.
In minutes, he agreed to join me and three others for the four-day hike down through the Yucatan Channel to picturesque Isla Mujeres (near Cancun). Highlight of the trip was the chance to sail with this design - and the designer of my C380. Our late-night cockpit talks revealed a man both philosophic and pragmatic – an artist, poet and engineer.
Fast forward to April 2015. I was privileged to have Gerry join me on another race to Mexico. This time the late-watch conversations – faces outlined in the dim red light of the compass – were more riveting than ever.
Gerry clearly loves boats and comes by his lifelong affection naturally. Gerry started with Catalina in 1976, and by 1980 he was V.P. and Chief Engineer.
Turns out Gerry was planning a new boat. Had started some early sketches. Wanted something that would fit in the lineup between his 38-footer and the current flagship C445. Something around 40 feet, more or less, to raise the curtain on a new generation of the storied Catalina 42.
“I’m thinking of it as a ‘terminal boat’,” he mused, “… but not with any negative connotation. What I mean is an ultimate boat … for those who have been in sailing awhile and are ready for a new, more refined Catalina experience.”
“Someone like you, Russ,” he added, flashing that shy smile.
A New Boat
I laughed off the notion. I was pretty happy with our C380 Blue Heron, which my wife Mary Anne and I had purchased in 1998, right out of the shipping cradle at Turner Marine in Mobile, AL. It had served us well, cruising and racing the upper Gulf of Mexico, from our New Orleans home port.
Since 2008, we’d brought her to Tampa Bay, FL, for longer-distance races as well as cruises in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas. She’d done 25,000 for us, mostly in hundreds of weekend cruises.
But the seed was planted. In August, after returning from our 1,200-mile circuit of the southern Gulf, I wrote to Gerry. Said we would be interested. Hoped it might be ready for the 2016 Mexico race.
He invited us to the Catalina “skunk works,” his R&D warehouse tucked in a corner of the company’s plant in Seminole, FL (near St. Petersburg). We saw the full-scale plugs being built for the sweeping hull and deck, taking shape under the hands of skilled carpenters. Eventually, from these handsome wooden templates, massive molds would be fabricated, and from them, the new design would become reality.
It was the most exciting Catalina I had ever seen. Like no other before.
The sweep of the side-decks was liquid-smooth. The cabin, a low, sleek profile bordered by wide, clean side-decks. The cockpit, an expansive synchrony of form and function. Altogether, it seemed a break-through look for Catalina … more modern and more-muscular than any previous. Electrifying ... (and one hoped, fast).
“Gerry,” Mary Anne said enthusiastically, “We want it.”
“But we want Hull Number One!”
When she said it, I could hear my father’s voice echo down the years. He’d always been an “early-adopter” of new technologies of his day -- Polaroid Land camera, 25" black & white TV. But he did not believe in buying “the first one.”
The first of anything is, well, probably a bit experimental … a learning experience for the creator.
And, Mary Anne and I are a couple “of a certain age.” We should have wisdom to our credit, right? But, here we were … ready to sign up for the very first Catalina 425 ever.
We had been permitted to climb over the carefully crafted plywood plug ... admired its distinctly European lines, cleverly incorporated into Catalina’s classic American look.
We had listened raptly as Gerry enthused about some of its new and novel features – clean side-decks with no foot-tripping lines; both sheets led to the helmsman; a self-tending jib; a “chaise lounge” in the cockpit; novel counter-weighted drop-away companion slides.
I joked that Catalina had been saving up all his “goodies” for this boat – the clever line-storage cockpit well; the central “mechanical room” down below; the space-age deck-to-hull junction, and much, much more.
Well, we wanted it. Never mind mature wisdom. We went for youthful enthusiasm. We were ready to reach out for Catalina’s “heirloom quality.”
After a little hesitation, Catalina and Massey agreed we could have Hull #1, even though usual practice was to keep the first one for testing for several months.
We felt privileged.
The design was already turning heads since a low-key unveiling at the Annapolis Boat Show in October 2015. Other clients were already lining up. Behind us.
“Let’s do it,” Mary Anne said with a grin.
When your wife tells you to buy a new boat, can you argue? (smile).
It was clear, as we toured the Catalina plant, that the building standard for the “5 Series” boats introduced in 2009 was measurably above our 1997 vessel. Attention to detail, systems improvements, fit and finish – all had been taken to a new level. We admired it.
This 42-footer would weigh a full ton less than our 38-footer, systems that were not two decades old.
This advance to more refined design and fabrication was Gerry Douglas’ strategy to bring Catalina through the hard times of the ugly “Great Recession.” Contrarian as it seemed, he proposed to his two partners – founder Frank Butler and Marketing Director Sharon Day – that they build a more-expensive, more-distinctive craft. It would be to exacting ABYC standards, with special safety features like his patented No-Strike Zone bow. This, while others in the industry appeared to be “de-constructing” – stripping things away, down-shifting to lower-quality systems and accessories – to save money.
The Right Strategy?
Was it the right strategy? Well, Catalina today does not produce the thousands of vessels each year that it did in the past. But in the depths of the downturn, it never halted production as did some others. The flagship of this new standard, the Catalina 445, introduced in 2009, was a “Messiah boat,” in the words of the late Ron Frisosky, Catalina’s longtime sales representative. Some thought it may have saved the company.
The 425 now on the drawing board looked to us like another significant step in this strategy – a break-through design unlike any previous at Catalina.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had over the years to exercise my craft here,” he said softly one day. “I take my job seriously.”
“We do things over and over sometimes, experimenting. I know I must be a pain to the crafts-men and -women, but we want to get it right.”
And, it’s clearly a two-way street. Daily, he gets many good ideas in the plant where his fabricators are cutting, sanding, fiberglassing, installing wire and plumbing, engines and electronics. “They often show us how to do something better.”
Doing It Better
“Better” is what Mary Anne and I had a chance to watch during the months of design and construction we were permitted to witness a relatively rare look into the building of a modern fiberglass yacht. At every stage, we were invited to the plant to watch, and each time we came away more excited than before. We were being permitted to witness -- take part in -- the creation.
As the months passed, and we watched the progress together, we pestered: “When do you think it will be finished?”
To his enduring credit, Gerry never flinched. He smiled the shy smile we had come to know and explained what they were doing now. Took our thoughts away from “later.”
Eventually, the day came when the pristine white hull was carefully “popped” from the mold. Now we knew we were well and truly on our way.
Gerry and his able design assistant, Jonathon Ames, walked and crawled with us over the emerging boat, as the weeks went by. Never mind the sanding dust, never mind the myriad cables, the equipment stacked nearby, waiting to go in.
This was “like having a baby,” Mary Anne reflected one day, smiling.
It Gets a Heart
One big week, we saw the diesel engine being installed … long before bulkheads or port lights. It was a moment of intense satisfaction. This hull now had a power plant … a heart, so to speak.
Thereafter, cabinetmakers worked to test-fit bulkheads, galley millwork, bins, bunks and cabinets. One day, we watched as Gerry lifted a cabinet in the main salon that eventually would house the wine cooler. “Too heavy,” he turned to Jon. “Let’s talk to the shop tomorrow. We need to get some weight out of it.”
How Much Does The Baby Weigh?
Throughout the build, Douglas was obsessed with weight. This boat – though 5 feet longer than the C380 – would weigh about a ton less.
As the liner was installed, chunks were carved out where it could be tabbed to the hull to stiffen it, and further save weight. Fascinating.
We Take a Break
In May 2016, we took a break for a month. Raced our C380 to Mexico (the 450-nm Regata del Sol al Sol; 3rd in class) and then cruised to Havana, Cuba, before returning to Key West and a leisurely passage back to Tampa Bay. After this 1,200-nm circuit, we were anxious to see how Hull #1 was growing.
She was doing well -- now on the eve of launch.
She’d been “tank tested” in a big swimming pool at the Catalina plant. Her systems had been run and checked. Looked over by experts. Cleaned and polished.
A Thoroughbred is Born
She’d been transformed while we were away from foal to filly.
A spirited filly.
Gerry invited us over one evening as the sun was setting. We were to see her before she went on the truck the next day to go to the boatyard where she would get her first taste of salt water.
This was a thoroughbred, no question. You didn’t need to be proud owners to appreciate her taut, athletic build. As we gazed in the dusk past the scaffolding, she seemed to dance impatiently in her stall, eager for the gate.
Wow. We were in awe.
The official debut of our Hull #1 came at a special viewing in May 2016 for dealers from around the country at an event sponsored by the company at the posh St. Petersburg (FL) Yacht Club.
Soon after, Gerry -- knowing how eager we were to see our new filly -- arranged a special introduction, even if she wasn’t fully out of the “training stable.”
We Meet Our Filly
It was sundown. He’d had the boat buffed up. Champagne flutes sat on the cockpit table. Aboard were his design assistant Jon Ames, Scott Alexander from Selden Masts, Patrick Turner, Catalina’s materials manager and Al Pollak, our salesman with Massey Yachts. The new boat, which would carry the same name as our C380 – Blue Heron – pulled quietly at her tethers.
It was a magic moment. Corks popped when we stepped aboard. We sat on the chaise longue in the cockpit. We talked and laughed over the delightful creature we had watched this talented group foal.
We appreciated many little touches we’d never known about …. The indirect lighting in the main salon. The colorful party lights changing hue around the cockpit table. The little 8-bottle wine-cooler. The mirror-like teak table surfaces. The queen birth that raised and lowered at the touch of the switch. The adjustable white/red reading lights.
Now too, we got a chance to try the ingenious hideaway companion slides. The clever cutaway stair that permitted the refrigerator door to swing open. The remote-controlled Fusion stereo and, OMG, the dual 16,000-btu air conditioners.
This was truly a magnificent vessel. Selden’s Alexander showed us how to pull out the in-mast mainsail with the electric winch. We dry-tested the self-tending jib. We sat at the twin wheels, turning them tentatively. Started the whisper-quiet 57-hp Yanmar. Started the even-quieter Fischer-Panda 6.5-kw Genset. Lordy, lordy, lordy.
This boat was going to lift our sailing to a new level.
A few weeks later, after her first coat of bottom paint, radar installation and other finishing touches, we had our first sail.
In a 10-knot close reach, flying the asymmetric spinnaker, we tipped the speedo at 8.5-knots. Ahhh …
And she handled so smoothly. Tacking was silky. Sight lines from cockpit to bow were extraordinary. The view, panoramic.
What a boat.
In mid-summer 2016, we were almost “there.” The bimini-dodger package was one of the last items. Many small adjustments and refinements were made.
Our Blue Heron now wore her new name – and a subtle “#1” -- proudly.
Massey Yachts of Palmetto, FL, finalized commissioning, added last-minute items we decided to include. Ed Massey, owner, is the most-detail-oriented yacht broker with whom we’ve ever dealt.
We stabled Blue Heron at his headquarters for a while, to “show off.” He and Catalina displayed her at the annual St. Petersburg Boat Show in December, 2016.
Through all this, we got acquainted with her – learning to handle a thoroughbred. We took a couple of “shake-down” cruises, one down Florida’s West Coast. Test-sailed her with the editors of various boat magazines. Showed her to prospective buyers.
In an early-February “tune-up” race – a 75-nm overnighter to Venice, FL – with only a crew of three, she placed second after a 14-hour spinnaker run.
We entered her in the 285-nm St. Pete-Habana Race (February, 2017) -- the first St. Pete Yacht Club event to that legendary island since the communist revolution. By the time you read this, that race will be history. We hope to do our filly proud.
Beyond Cuba, who knows?
That’s the magic of a sailboat … the horizons are limited only by one’s imagination. And with the new Catalina 425, our imaginations are running wild.
About the Hoadleys: Russ Hoadley retired from Louisiana banking in 2006 and wrote a book about Hurricane Katrina (www.hiberniakatrina.com). In the 1970s, he was Executive City Editor of the Daytona Beach, FL, News-Journal and wrote about boating. Mary Anne was a psychotherapist before retiring in 2012. After Katrina, she worked with U.S. Army troops, counseling them and their families in Louisiana, Germany and Kansas. The couple now live in Tampa, FL.
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