Lyle Hess: A profile

By Chuck Malseed

Reprint of Cruising World Feb 1977

Lyle C. Hess
Lyle C. Hess: "...bring skipper and crew home,
in one piece, no matter what."

Viajera's mast described small arcs in the warm evening air as the big fantail motor yacht came to anchor less than 50' from her stern. Young Lyle Hess and his brother Lee sat in the little sloop's cockpit taking their evening meal as they always did--pork and beans heated over a Primus stove and eaten under the stars.

The spanking beam wind which had carried them over to Catalina from Long Beach had also set up a short wet chop, and the boys were pleased with the warm land breeze that funneled over them from Casino Point. The Hess brothers were a bit awestricken looking up at the smiling well-dressed guests lining the rail of the fantailer, which now loomed almost directly above Viajera. The yacht was owned by Lewis Stone, who had achieved fame and fortune playing the part of Andy Hardy's father in the Hardy Boys series.

"How different it must be, thought Lyle, "to have a huge yacht with a paid crew and plenty of room." Just at that moment one of the guests, great in both years and in the wisdom of the sea, looked down and whispered, "God, boys, how we wish we were you."

Night fell and all hands turned-to, but the message of the meeting stayed with Lyle for many years, and would later play a major role in his attitude about the proper size for wholesome cruising boats.

"All I've ever wanted to do is design boats"

Lyle was born in Blackfoot, Idaho in 1912, one of 12 children of a Mormon general contractor. His father, Frank, was a man who undertook any construction project, whether it was building telegraph poles for the railroad or using tons of black powder to move mountains. Lyle spent his early years whittling model boats out of native pine and floating them on the backwater eddies of the Snake River, while his father was blasting a channel for the Patterson Canal in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

He had a dream of someday seeing the Pacific Ocean, and one day he got his wish when his father was transferred to a job in Long Beach, California. "I was the first one to spot the Pacific, and it looked as sweet to me as any long-awaited landfall does to a sailor returning from months at sea." He was most impressed by the size of the ocean and by the beckoning shape of Catalina Island rumpling the straight line of the western horizon.

In 1928, he designed and built his first "real boat." It was Viajera, a 16' hard-chine sloop with "a little cuddy cabin to keep dry in and 400 lbs. of lead ballast to get me home safely." During the three years that Lyle owned her, Viajera made over 40 trips between her mooring off the Chalker and Whiting Boatyard, near what is now the Desmond Bridge and the coves of Catalina. "In those days if you needed a mooring, you simply hunted up an abandoned railroad wheel and sank it with a length of surplus oil field cable attached, and you were in business."

Lady Elizabeth
Lady Elizabeth under construction at the L.A.
Yacht Yard, which he founded in 1946 in Harbor
City, California.
partner, owner & hess
From left, yard partner Roy Barteaux, Technicolor
movie pioneer Ernest Palmer, Lady Elizabeth's
owner, and Hess in 1948.

Lyre was fortunate in being in such close proximity to George Chalker and Bill Whiting, for they were of a rare and vanishing breed of master shipwrights. In addition, they were wonderfully patient about explaining the details of joinerwork to a wide-eyed kid from Idaho. Many of the boats under construction at the yard were from the design board of Edson Schock. Lyle gained great insight in talking with the famous designer when he stopped at the yard to review construction progress with Chalker and Whiting.

In 1938, Lyle married Jean "Doodle" Searing, who fortunately shared a love of boating and became not only mother of his four children, but a trusted shipmate as well.

As the dark clouds of world war swirled up the Catalina Channel Lyle started working as a shipwright at Harbor Boatworks in San Pedro, building wood torpedo boats and minesweepers for the British Navy. When the war was nearly over, Lyle moved his family to Eureka, California, where he built fishing boats for the Humbolt Bay Boat Company. After a brief stint in Eureka, he returned to Southern California and spent a year building 168' British-designed steam tugs for delivery to Australia and Singapore.

In 1946, Lyre realized a long awaited dream when, with a partner named Roy Barteaux, he founded L. A. Yacht Yard in Harbor City, California. "Roy received his design training at the Bath Iron Works in Maine, and he was probably the finest wood craftsman on the West Coast," said Hess, adding, "He knew the exact way that a wood boat should be built, and he wouldn't deviate from that standard, even going against a customer's wishes if he felt that it was in the best interest of the boat. I probably learned more from Roy about the art of designing and building in wood than from any other man."

The first two boats to slide down the ways at the newly-opened L. A. Yard were both Lyle's designs: West-ward Ho, a jib-headed cutter 36' on deck, and Lady Elizabeth, a 40' motorsailer. "I designed Lady Elizabeth for Ernest Palmer, who was one of the pioneers in Technicolor movie making. Roy, was he a stickler for detail! Roy and I had to build a full scale mock-up of each part of the boat before construction even began. Palmer wanted to be sure that everything fit just so. The boat was built for his wife whose name graces the stern to this day. She was very English, and the name Lady Elizabeth exactly fit her bearing. Even the seat for the inside steering station was chosen with Elizabeth in mind. It came from one of the little red cars that the Pacific Edison ran down the coast. It was exactly the eight height for her."

During the construction of Westward Ho, a young fellow named Hale Field Became a regular visitor to the yard, and he soon formed a fast friendship with Lyle. "Hale wanted me to design and build a small boat which preserved the lines of British working sailboats, but which would be suitable for cruising. We worked together on the lines, and it became apparent how closely parallel our thinking was. The 28' cutter that evolved was a true reflection of both Hale's and my appreciation of traditional sailing craft."

The war had made materials both expensive and hard to get, so Hale asked Lyle to build a smaller version of the 28-footer. Accordingly, one fine day in 1950, Renegade of Newport was launched at the L. A. Yacht Yard. She was similar in some respects to the Itchen Ferry workboats of England, but had a finer bow, more·beam and a turn to the garboards. At just under 25' in length, the little five-tenner carried 2,700 lbs. of ballast to steady her 461 sq. ft. of sail, set on a gaff cutter rig.

"As I watched Hale sail away in little Renegade," Hess mused. "I recalled all of the good times that I had aboard Viajera and wondered if, with labor costs becoming so high and wood becoming so scarce, small boats might really be the answer for putting cruising within the reach of the average man." It would be years later, and only after the advent of fiberglass construction and steel boat trailers, that the ultimate wisdom of Lyle's observation would be felt. But then, in the early 1950s, he had to make some hard decisions about his boatyard.

Contracts for wood boats were becoming more scarce, and the income needed to raise a family had greatly increased. With a heavy heart, Lyle decided to sell out to his partner, Roy, and go into the construction business with his brother, Ray Hess. "At least people had to have a house to live in, so I was hopeful for a steady market for the product."

During the ensuing years, Lyle continued to work at his drawing board, putting into line form the ideas that came to him as he built homes for the post-war housing boom in Southern California. About this time, a young Canadian named Larry Pardey bought a set of Renegade plans and introduced Lyle to Richard Arthur.

port tack 1
port tack 2
Hess designed the Balboa 8.2, a trailerable 27 footer.

Arthur liked Lyle's work, and asked him to design a 20' trailerable fiberglass sloop that wouldn't break the budget of the average family, but that would be a good sea boat. He did, and it was this boat, the Balboa 20, that got Lyle back into the design business full-time. Arthur Marine began production on the 20-footer, plus a larger Balboa 26 and the Ensenada 20, which had the Balboa hull with a different house.

While Lyle was hard at work designing for the new medium of fiberglass, Larry Pardey was knee deep in wood shavings as his dream ship, based on Renegade's plans, took shape. He launched Seraffyn in 1968, and sailed away with his new bride, Lin. The successful cruise of Seraffyn from California to England, and the subsequent articles written about her, kindled interest in small boat cruising and, in particular, in the Renegade design. Lyle sought to answer that interest by designing a 28' version, the Bristol Channel Cutter, for construction in fiberglass by the Sam L. Morse Company of Costa Mesa. (See "Down The Ways" in this issue.)

Lyle was then approached by Dean Wixom with the idea of designing a cruising sailboat capable of standing offshore in most any weather, but which would be legally trailerable. Dean felt that big-boat seaworthiness, combined with trailerability, would open up many interesting cruising grounds to people with limited vacation time. Accordingly, with the majority of the trips accomplished overland, a California family, for instance, could easily cruise the San Bias Islands on the Caribbean side of Panama, and New Yorkers could spend a summer cruising among the fjords of Alaska's Inside Passage.

Lyle met and exceeded Dean's requirements with a husky 27' trailerable, lapstrake double-ender that has some of the flavor of the Spitzgatters of Scandinavia. The boat currently (1977) is being built by Heritage Marine of Long Beach, California (in 1998 the boat is build by Nor'Sea Yachts of Dana Point the Nor'Sea 27). That same year, Lyle designed the Balboa 8.2, a comfortable 27' trailerable for Coastal Recreation.

Today Lyle is busier than ever. Currently on his design board is a 23' lapstrake cabin sloop for Montgomery Marine, a 22' version of the Renegade that will be legally trailerable. a 7' half-decked dinghy with a loose-footed sprit rig, and a 33' trailerable rim-stern fishing boat with a 1,000 mile range, designed for a husband and wife crew.

Even though he is swamped with design work, Lyle still finds time to sail his own boat, Genesis, a Balboa 20, from her berth in San Pedro to the many Catalina coves he has grown fond of over the past 38 years. He and Doodle hope to move soon to the little Gold Rush town of Julian, snuggled in the mountains of San Diego County and build one of the 22' trailerable Renegades for themselves.

When asked if there is a common quality running throughout his designs, Lyle thoughtfully answered, "I feel that any boat that points her bow out to sea should be designed so that the crew need not worry about a safe return--no matter what tricks the weather may play. I guess if there is a unifying thought behind my designs it is to bring skipper and crew home, in one piece, no matter what."

"As for me," he added, "even though there are many easier ways to earn a living, all that I ever wanted to do is design boats."

Lyle C. Hess
Lyle C. Hess

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