Rhumb Lines: Eight Bells for Charley Morgan


Legendary sailor and yacht designer Charley Morgan passed away on January 6, 2023. He was 93 years old. Outspoken, self-assured, indefatigable, Charley was all that you’d expect from a man who’d sell his booming yacht-building business to take the mickey out of the New York Yacht Clubbers who clung to the America’s Cup as if they owned it (which they did until ‘83).

In the end, his Florida home-grown underdog Heritage, sailed on her own hull to compete in the 1970 Defenders Cup races in Newport, RI, met her match. Olin Stephens’ Intrepid proved far more slippery. But this was not the end for Heritage. The boat had a storied career racing on the Great Lakes. And Charley, who’d already succeeded as a sailmaker, a helmsman, yacht designer, and businessman, was just hitting his stride.

In an extremely shorthand version of his 93 years, Charley’s sailing life could be summed up in four boats.

Brisote – A hard-chined, 32-foot yawl Charley dreamed up with Tampa Bay designer Charlie Hunt, Brisote had a boxy cabin top, and a rig, sails and keel scavenged from other boats. The plywood mongrel vessel went on to trounce all comers in the now famous race from St. Petersburg to Havana in 1957. The win helped launch 28-year-old Charley’s career.

Paper Tiger – The only back-to-back winner of the Southern Ocean Circuit (1961-62), the powerful sloop was deemed a “rule-beater” for the way it used structure as ballast without being counted as such. The phrase does no justice to the boat’s elegant lines, or her striking appearance when beating to windward under the big overlapping genoa. The boat engendered my own favorite Morgan, the 1960s-era Morgan 41 sloop, a surprisingly quick centerboarder with a healthy balance-displacement ratio (see “Morgan 41: Used Boat Test” March 2007”).

Out Island 41 – Tapping into the nation’s collective urge to escape, this boxy battle-wagon propelled the Caribbean charter trade toward big success in the 1970s. One of the most popular 40-foot cruising boats of all time, the shallow-draft, center cockpit sloop (also sold as a ketch) tacked like sand barge, but boy, could it swallow up people and provisions. Even
today, the chunky cruiser is prized as an affordable alternative to a palapa in Mexico, or a condo in Florida. It was upon the great success of the Out Island 41 that Charley’s next boat rose on the horizon.

Heritage – After selling his successful boatbuilding business in 1968 to Beatrice Foods (everyone wanted in on the boat craze back then), Morgan had funds enough to launch his audacious America’s Cup crusade with the 12-meter Heritage. The boat is now a star in a 12 Meter Charter fleet in Newport, RI that includes America’s Cup winners Intrepid and Weatherly.

It was no surprise to me that Charley took up painting later in life. He had an eye for a beautiful line. Whenever I come upon a Morgan design from his early years, I pause to admire how the backstay and semi-ellipse of the transom share the same invisible plane slanting from the sky to the sea.

“Charley sure new how to draw a pretty back end,” a photographer friend once said.

And he sure left a memorable wake.

Darrell Nicholson
Darrell Nicholson is Director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division and the editor of Practical Sailor. A lifelong thalassophile, he grew up sailing everything from El Toro dinghies to classic Morgans on Miami's Biscayne Bay. In the early 90s, he left a newspaper job to sail an old gaff-rigged ketch across the Pacific and has been writing about boats and the sea ever since. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.