In 1958, in a garage in Braintree, an eccentric Harvard grad named Dick Fisher revolutionized nautical design when he began crafting a little boat that looked like a blue bathtub.
He called his creation a Boston Whaler, and the unusual shape of the hull was only half of the radical design. More important was what was inside of the hull, the result of a cutting-edge foam-and-fiberglass construction process that allowed Fisher to make an unbelievable claim.
The Boston Whaler, he promised, was unsinkable. And to prove that his boat would stay afloat no matter what you did to it, Fisher — a philosophy major who was a born showman — would travel around to boat shows and saw the 13-foot boat in half. He would then motor around in the aft portion, or get in the front portion and row. By 1961, Fisher and his sawed-off boat were featured in a Life Magazine photo spread, sales took off, and the rest is maritime history.
It is also the maritime present. For as boating season begins again in the Northeast, tens of thousands of those classic Whalers are still afloat — they really were unsinkable — and remain perhaps the most popular boats in New England waters.
“They’re everywhere,” said Quentin Snediker, curator for watercraft at the Mystic Seaport Museum, which has one of Fisher’s original sawed-in-half boats in its collection. “They are the right combination of seaworthiness and fun, which continues to strike a chord.”
Today, the classic Whalers — built until roughly 1993, when the company was sold and then moved to Florida and pivoted to more traditionally hulled boats — remain prized for their nostalgia factor, but also their “affordability.”
Classic Whalers come in various sizes and models, including many that were steered standing up from a center console, a Whaler innovation. Today, they can usually be had for between $5,000 and $25,000. With many new center consoles retailing for well north of $100,000, those old Whalers remain the top recommendation for people looking to get into boating safely, without a lot of experience or deep pockets. In addition, the lightweight construction means they can be towed by the average car.
“It’s the blue-collar working man’s boat for getting out on the water,” said Chris Megan, publisher of On the Water Magazine, the largest fishing and boating publication in the Northeast, which was conceived during conversations Megan and his co-founder had while fishing from a 17-foot Whaler off Cape Cod in the ’90s. “For the guy without a lot of money or experience, you knew you could go out with the family and come home safely, so they became the fiber of New England boating.”
Jeff Rohlfing, who runs “Everything Boston Whaler” on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, said that for people who have spent a lot of time on the water, the classic Whalers carry with them a nostalgic feeling of youthful freedom.
“For so many people, their first tangible experience of being on the water was in a Whaler, and the fact that you can grow up and buy the boat your grandfather had means something. It’s a feeling worth replicating.”
And for many, that feeling is a wildness. The “cathedral hull” of a classic Whaler — named because the bow, when seen from below, is shaped a bit like a medieval cathedral — makes the boat skip across the chop, an experience that is mostly fun, but with the occasional hard slap or outright slam. As one person put it: If you’re 6′ tall when you go out in a Whaler, you’re only going to be 5′9″ when you return.
“I started as a sailor, but we got a little Whaler for a dinghy and it was so much more fun ripping around in that little thing that I quit sailing,” said Jim Hebert, who now runs ContinuousWave.com, the most comprehensive source for Whaler information online. “And that all comes down to the unusual construction Fisher patented, which was two really thin layers of fiberglass, filled with liquid foam that expanded, to create a boat that was very strong and lightweight and, ultimately, incredibly durable and safe. I’ve done things in a Whaler you probably shouldn’t print in a newspaper, but that’s the confidence you feel when you know you’re not going to sink.”
Federal law now mandates that all boats under 20 feet designed for ocean use must be “unsinkable,” but it’s a term still closely identified with the Whaler brand, all due to those early images of Fisher sawing the boat in half, according to Matthew D. Plunkett, the author of “Unsinkable: The History of Boston Whaler.”
“Fisher cemented this image of safety into the brand in the same way Volvo did with cars, even though all cars are very safe nowadays,” Plunkett said.
But for the old-timers who populate classic Whaler forums online, it’s all about nostalgia, especially for that generation who grew up watching “Flipper,” the mid-60s television show about two young boys who explored the Florida Keys in a little Whaler, accompanied by their pet dolphin. It’s no accident that when Jerry Seinfeld took Jimmy Fallon for a ride on his classic 13-foot Whaler in a 2014 episode of the show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” the “Flipper” theme song was playing in the background.
“That was the boat I wanted when I was 15. I could never get the money together,” Seinfeld told Fallon. “I think it’s the greatest boat in the world. I love the logo. I used to draw it in my schoolbooks just dreaming of getting one someday.”
And while Massachusetts is the ancestral home of the Whaler — for many years, the Whaler factory was in Rockland, at the site of what is now a Home Depot, and a former Boston schoolteacher named Bob Dougherty served as the longtime chief designer — those little boats long ago went global.
“I’ve got members from 98 countries,” said Tim Terrebonne, who runs the Classic Boston Whaler Owners group on Facebook. “I’ve got people in the Marshall Islands, in Indonesia, in China. There are loads of them on the Venice canals. They just last.”
Which is why Terrebonne always gives the same advice to anyone interested in getting into boating: Buy the most beat-up Whaler they can find. Put a little money into it. And then, in the future, pass it on to the grandkids.