Philip C. Bolger, whose hundreds of boat designs, from classic schooners to sportfishing yachts to simple dories and dinghies, ranked him among the most prolific and versatile recreational boat designers in the world, died on Sunday in Gloucester, Mass., where he had lived nearly all his life. He was 81.
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Philip C. Bolger experimented and did not mind failing.
Mr. Bolger's Gloucester light dory.
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His Brick sailboat.
The cause was a self-inflicted gunshot, his wife, Susanne Altenburger, said. His mind had slipped in the last several months, and he wanted to control the end of his life while he was still able, she said. They had discussed the matter of his death, she added, but he had not told her of his intention. “He wanted to make sure to leave me out of the loop,” Ms. Altenburger said.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for the Essex County district attorney, said on Friday that the medical examiner had not yet determined the cause of death.
Mr. Bolger, something of a cult figure in the world of recreational boating, was a bit of a mad scientist, an experimenter who did not mind trying things and failing and then acknowledging his failures. Though he thought a boat could be perfect, he never thought a boat needed to be perfect to be useful or fun.
One of Mr. Bolger’s foremost interests was making boating easier and more accessible for people who were not full-time enthusiasts. For them he created the so-called instant boats, plywood craft that an amateur could build in a matter of hours. Often referred to as Bolger boxes, many were criticized as being out-and-out ugly — “They looked like floating packing crates,” Dan Segal, a boating writer, said — and Mr. Bolger acknowledged as much. But if you wanted to be able to build your own 12-foot boat and have some fun with it, the Bolger box was it.
Among Mr. Bolger’s nearly 700 designs were power boats, rowboats, fishing boats and sailboats, including many of the long, narrow, flat-bottomed sailboats known as sharpies. He designed, on the one hand, what has been called the world’s smallest dinghy, a novelty boat that actually folded up. On the other hand, he designed a replica of the H.M.S. Rose, an 18th-century British frigate, that was used in the 2003 film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which starred Russell Crowe. The replica is now at the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Mr. Bolger was an iconoclast, a designer willing — eager, actually — to part with tradition, especially if it meant solving a practical problem. He had no loyalty to symmetry, for example; if necessary, he would move the mast, or even the centerboard, from the center of the boat. Indeed, instead of modifying existing boats, which is how boat design has largely evolved, Mr. Bolger liked to design on the basis of problem solving.
“If you said to him, ‘I want an inexpensive cruising boat for two people that I can put on a trailer,’ he’d design around the criteria,” said Mr. Segal, the former managing editor of the magazines Small Boat Journal and The Yacht. “He was, as far as I know, unique in this approach.”
That is not to say Mr. Bolger didn’t have a fine eye for a boat’s lines. In fact, he created several boats considered beauties, if not masterpieces — his Gloucester light dory, for example.
“His influence was gigantic,” said Sam Devlin, a boat designer and builder in Olympia, Wash., who as a young man some 25 years ago made a pilgrimage to Gloucester just to meet Mr. Bolger. “There were not many segments of the market he didn’t touch.”
Philip Cunningham Bolger was born on Dec. 3, 1927, in Gloucester, where he grew up whittling boats and watching real ones being built in a harbor boatyard. His older brother gave him his first boat when he was 7. His father died when he was a boy, and he was raised largely by his mother, Ruth, who encouraged independent thinking and guided him to books. (Mr. Bolger was a voracious reader.)
As an adult, he lived with his mother until her death in the late 1980s, after which he moved onto a boat. He and Ms. Altenburger were married in 1994. She is his only survivor.
Mr. Bolger’s grandfather had been an inventor who specialized in sheet metal and whose business, the Success Manufacturing Company, made its reputation producing steel iceboxes. When Philip was young, his grandfather lost his mental faculties, Ms. Altenburger said, leading not only to his company’s demise and changing what Philip thought would be his future, but also making an impression on him that affected the way he ultimately chose to die.
Mr. Bolger served in the Army just after World War II and graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he studied history. He then turned to boat building as a career, serving apprenticeships with Lindsay Lord, a premier designer of recreational power boats, and John Hacker, a leading designer of racing boats.
Mr. Bolger wrote about boat design as well. Of his many books, the best known is “Boats With an Open Mind” (1994), an explication of 75 different boat designs, written in precise, personal prose. “The sides are too high to row comfortably, but she’ll carry four men and a big, frightened dog,” he wrote of a boat called Brick, one of his inelegant but practical boxes, “with plenty of buoyancy left, still able to sail though with lots of noisy waves.”
That insouciance was typical of Mr. Bolger.
“He was not held by any strings to conventional wisdom,” Mr. Devlin said. “He broke the boundaries. He allowed us to believe nothing was heresy