The Rickborns: Two Generations of Design Innovation

Chris Rickborn doesn’t claim that his father invented the flying bridge, but he offers plenty of evidence that Commodore Harold C. Rickborn popularized it, beginning in the 1960s, when he patented a design, molded various configurations in his Bayville, New Jersey, shop, and sold them first to houseboat builders and later to many production builders, including Chris-Craft, Bertram, and Hatteras. Sounding like a paraphrase of a Doublemint chewing gum ad, early typewritten promotional material reads, “Double your pleasure, Double your fun, Double your Safety, By Adding one!”

Harold Rickborn’s patented flying bridgesCourtesy Chris Rickborn

Harold Rickborn’s patented flying bridges, like these ready for shipment to Chris-Craft in 1965, were sold to major builders.

Safety was, in fact, a major selling point for buyers of boats, including houseboats, that towed water-skiers. Common sense and, in some states, boating laws require the boat’s operator to have 360° visibility and direct voice communication with the skier’s onboard observer—virtually impossible from a wheelhouse but much improved from the elevated position of a flying bridge. The enhanced view was a benefit in itself, not to mention quieter, with cleaner air, and easier and safer close-quarters maneuvering. According to that early typewritten brochure: “The first impression one gets when using a flying bridge…for the first time is that it seems so much cleaner up there, pleasantly quieter, delightfully airy and surprisingly comfortable riding.” (Later, Rickborn developed a set of safety standards that were recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1976.)

Chris began working with his father at age 12, and recounts solving the challenge of developing flying bridge helm controls for steering, transmission, and throttle. They made the first Big-T Teleflex (now SeaStar Solutions) rotary cable that connected the flying bridge helm to the lower helm, and to the engine.

Big-T Teleflex steering cableCourtesy Chris Rickborn

The Rickborns solved the problem of steering from a flying bridge by developing the first Big-T Teleflex steering cable.

“Dad came up with the idea of the flying bridge in 1957,” says the younger Rickborn, who was born the same year. “The only thing he could patent was the self-setting feature. When I was four or five I remember taking Morse controls that had choke cables, and only one side had a lever on it. Dad and I made the first Big-T cable; we bolted two together with a resin-and-sawdust/fiberglass block between them. So you could put a cable upstairs.

“Prior to ’57, Dad was the second largest Evinrude dealer in the country. He’d been a chief petty officer with the Seabees during WWII. After the war he was working with Mercury outboards, and he and a friend attempted a Newark-to-Miami trip to promote the first 50-hp (38-kW) Thunderbolt prototype on a 19 (5.8m) aluminum boat named Can Do. They left Newark for Miami. Dad wanted Carl to drill holes in the bottom of the upper bearings for lubrication, but he wouldn’t do it. The motor seized and ruined the trip. So Dad made friends with Ralph Evinrude.”

Father and son had begun working on a new hull design in 1969 and built a master plug mold and a prototype. During the next 10 years they tested and corrected the bottom to stop the slapping and pounding common to nearly all boats. Making the 26 (7.9m) center-console ride better became Chris’s passion. Harold retired in 1983. In 1985 the younger Rickborn moved to Florida. “I took the 26-footer with the old 235 on it and drove it to every Coast Guard station and took them for a run. I got a call from the Coast Guard in ’86 and they wanted to go for a ride. They hugged me, said they wanted 50 boats. Wrote me a check for $4 million. And then asked me what my bid list number was. I wasn’t on the bid list. Nobody ever told me I had to be on a bid list. That was the happiest and saddest day of my life.

26-foot center consoleCourtesy Chris Rickborn (both)

Chris Rickborn and his son Spencer go airborne in the 26′ (7.9m) center-console. Chris and his father, Harold, began designing in 1969. Certain features, including the keel, are patented.

“I went on to build consoles for Mako, AquaSport, the first Ocean Master 34s, and the Carrysfort 19. I built five boats a week for a company called Exotic, based in St. Thomas. I’d gone from a 5,000-sq-ft [465m2] building to 15,000 sq ft [1,395m2]. I was being looked at by a company that was interested in buying my accounts, and everything was going great until the government imposed a luxury tax in 1990 and put me and a lot of other people out of business.”

Rickborn built a dozen of the 26s and had patented aspects of the hullform. But he changed certain features with each new hull, trying to improve speed, fuel efficiency, and seakeeping. “I put a lot of effort into shaping and fairing the bottom and perfecting my keel based on the way I see the water move around my shapes,” he told me. “Right now it’s as perfect as it can possibly be. It doesn’t pound. Doesn’t hurt you. Absolutely magical. Only draws about 7 [178mm] with a single engine. With twins about 13 [330mm]. It supports more weight than most boats and keeps the same speed.”

Ellipsoidal V-HullCourtesy Chris Rickborn

Chris Rickborn’s most recent patent was filed in March 2016 for an “Ellipsoidal V-Hull.”

Introduction to the No. 9,284,019 March 2016 Patent for an Ellipsoidal V-Hull reads: “An improved boat hull design includes a region of ellipsoidal fullness in the forward portion of the hull, ellipsoidal curvature over the remainder of the hull, a chine with a chine flat with an increasing width as it approaches the stern and one or more strakes. One of the strakes is located where the chine flat meets the V portion of the hull. The hull provides stability and a smooth ride at both high and low speeds in smooth and rough water and is highly maneuverable. The hull also has good weight-carrying ability at speed while not requiring excessive power. The hull minimizes rolling when stationary or at low speed in waves.”

The hull bottom was initially a modified-V with very wide chines and a 6-deep (152mm) keel that ended at the center of gravity. At one point in its development, Rickborn felt a vibration in his feet and called his father for advice. “The keel was square in the back,” Chris says. “It had a flat spot like most keels do. At 52 mph it made your teeth chatter. Dad called me 20 minutes later and said, ‘Grind the keel to a point; bring it together. It’s creating a vacuum.’ So I brought it back to a point and picked up another mile and a half, and the vibration was gone. Then we put 1⁄2 [12mm] steps in the back of the chines, which are 13 [330mm] wide at the transom, and picked up another mile and a half.”

The boat is now in service with Berkeley Underwater S&R in Bayville, New Jersey. Chief Diver Rick Pullen told me, “Even with these older motors [twin 250-hp/188-kW Yamahas] she accelerates 0–50 knots in under 5 seconds! Excellent seakeeping, stable, leaps off waves with ease, and lands painlessly and dry!”

Chris says, “With everything Dad and I designed, built, and produced, we were inventors and first-of-a-kind technology people as well as production people. We built thousands and thousands of flying bridges, hardtops, custom components on boats, and boats.

“I’m ready for the Coast Guard to come for another ride. And I would like to challenge every boatbuilder in the world to beat my hull design. This boat isn’t about calm water; this boat is about being in the water you shouldn’t be in.”

E-mail Chris Rickborn at cwrickborn@nullgmail.com or call him at 954–451–7133.