Rip Rap April 1, 2001 Issue

Ray Greene: 1913-2001

The father of fiberglass boats died of natural causes, at the home of his daughter, Tina Kauffman, with whom he lived the past few years, in Indianapolis, Indiana, on January 19. He was 88. 

Ray Greene built the first polyester-
fiberglass boat.

During the 11 years I spent researching my book, Heart of Glass: Fiberglass Boats And The Men Who Made Them, I had a number of long conversations with Ray. We also corresponded by mail and exchanged photos. Ray is one of three persons who merited his own chapter in the book (the others are Bill Tritt and the Pearson cousins, Everett and Clint).

Certainly Ray was a pioneer in the use of fiberglass for boatbuilding, but the question at hand was: Did Ray Greene build the first fiberglass boat? In our Guiness Book of Records culture that places (perhaps inordinate) value on firsts, longests, largests (the television program bearing the Guinness name is a freak show of the worst taste), we want to know the answer.

Pete Smyth, former editor of Motorboat and Florida Waterways, and a student of boatbuilding history, interviewed Ray in the 1970s and concluded that he was indeed the first to combine polyester resin and fiberglass for the molding of a boat hull. Nothing I could uncover contradicted this claim. As Pete wrote in his seminal essay, “The Fiberglass Revolution” (Nautical Quarterly, No. 8, Fall 1979), “The year was, for the record, 1942.” I did come across a few references to Ray creating his landmark hull in 1941, but no proof of other experimenters predating him.

Ray picked up his interest in chemistry from his father, Herman Greene, who moved his family from Canada to Toledo, Ohio, to take a job as chemist with Willys-Overland Co. As a kid, Ray was always mixing things, sometimes with disastrous results, like the time he tried to make root beer by filling a 5-gallon jug and then adding 2 pounds of dry ice. The explosion dropped the kitchen sink six inches. “We had to repaper the whole kitchen,” Ray said.

Herman suffered from hay fever and in an effort to escape the itching and sneezing he bought a summer home near Traverse City, Michigan. Here Ray learned to sail. He built his first boat at the age of 12.

In 1931 Ray entered Ohio State University, pursuing degrees in mechanical and industrial engineering. Soon his work led him to synthetic resins and the construction of autoclaves to cure them.

In 1934 Herman Greene died, forcing Ray, the oldest of four children, to pay his own tuition and contribute to the education of his siblings. He started a small boatbuilding business in his garage. At first, the boats were built of wood but quickly he began using melamine and urea resins with ordinary cloth as reinforcement.

In 1937 he wrote a thesis for mechanical engineering suggesting a plastic for boatbuilding. His advisors were skeptical and advised him to change the word “boat” to “large object.” It was with great pride that Ray recounted how at a reunion years later Professor Moffit told the gathering, “Will Ray Greene stand up? We thought the basis of your thesis was silly, but because of your enthusiasm we let you go ahead with it. We all thought it was nuts. It turned out to be one thesis that was the beginning of an industry.”

That beginning occurred because Ray was doing some work for Owens-Corning Fiberglas in Toledo, and so had access to glass fibers. And when he got his hands on an early batch of polyester resin from American Cynamid, all ingredients were in place. The first boat was no doubt small, probably a dinghy, because it had to fit into his homemade autoclave, an “electric box with heaters.”

It was the 16-foot Rebel, however, introduced in 1947 or 1948, which established Ray Greene & Co. on firm ground. He built many one-designs and some larger boats, including the 25-foot New Horizons, the first fiberglass design by Sparkman & Stephens (1957).

In the years that followed he built early fiberglass auto bodies, composite buildings for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and boats for the US Navy in Vietnam.

Ray retired at 72, spending summers near Traverse City and winters in the Florida Keys. He remained active, continuing to water ski and even buying a sailboard the next year at the age of 73!

A good, elfin man with a twinkle in his eye, he never lost his sense of humor, nor his understanding of life. “Things have to grow old, get mature, and die,” he said. “I made mistakes about 49 percent of the time, and 51 percent of the time I had the right answers. I survived the way I wanted to. And I sure had fun.”

—Dan Spurr

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