At the all-too-young age of 62, master builder Robert Fournier, affectionately called by his friends “Boston Bob,” died last April in Pompano Beach, Florida. Fournier’s expertise working with advanced composites has been well documented in the pages of PBB, notably in No. 62 (December/January 2000), when our then-technical-editor Bruce Pfund toured Fournier’s employer, Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works, a top-of-the-line builder of sportfishermen. In business since 1955, MBEW made the transition from cold-molding to composites in 1996, led by Fournier and well supported by his boss, Roy Merritt. David Jones, who then ran the engineering firm and lab D.E. Jones and Associates, executed the engineering for the first “new” hulls.
Fournier’s and Jones’s association goes back to their days together at Lazzara Marine Corp. in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Fournier’s first job there was “scraping masking paper off the shop floor and then putting down new paper.” Eager to learn, he practiced spraying expired gelcoat on weekends, letting it kick, blowing out the mold, and spraying it again. “I learned so much at Lazzara,” he told Pfund, “and not just wet-layup methods, either. We were bagging and baking hotmelt prepreg boats in a huge oven in 1984 and ’85. After Lazzara I moved on to Revenge Yachts, where we built Cookie Too and other advanced-composite sportfishing boats.”
When Revenge went down, Fournier thought about retirement, but his wife persuaded him to see what was going on at MBEW, not far from where they lived. He was hired, beginning a 25-plus-year run and enabling the shop to make the move from wood to glass. The boats were far from conventional glass construction. With Jones’s assistance, the decision was made to use epoxy resin (from Shell) rather than vinylester, a custom 40-oz Kevlar/ E-glass hybrid reinforcement (from Johnson Industries), run through an impregnator and the laminate stack vacuum-bagged. Fournier duplicated building the same part on a table so that if there were ever a question about the laminate, such as the fiber-to-resin ratio, it wouldn’t be necessary to cut up the hull. “Nobody’s ever got to cut a hole in one of my boats to find out if it’s okay,” he boasted.
The quality of a product is the direct result of crew training, and Fournier was tough. “Something that drives me crazy is sloppy tailoring that leaves open gaps or ‘windows’ in the darts. I hate it. When you’re cutting expensive fabric for an upholstery job, you don’t just ram the scissors into a pucker and start cutting. It’s the same for a laminate. You’ve got to get your hands in there, see how the material wants to overlap, and then make the cuts—in the right place, and only as far as necessary.”
Jones’s admiration for Fournier’s workmanship couldn’t be stated more clearly than in this quotation from Pfund’s article: “He’s absolutely the best composite fabricator I’ve ever run into. People love to work for him.”
When told of Fournier’s passing, Dick Lazzara was saddened. “Boston Bob started in the lamination department of Gulfstar in the ’70s. When I moved to Tampa to open Lazzara Marine Corp. in the early ’80s Boston Bob came with me. It was at LMC that he learned about advanced composites, and we built the first large prepreg boats…the Frers 50 Morning Star for the SORC. Bob was a tireless worker, always willing to learn and do new things. He always said what was on his mind. We were both young and didn’t know the word can’t. Boston Bob, with that heavy Boston accent and bull-in-the-china-shop attitude, would will his way to succeed. Boston Bob was a friend, and I will miss him.”
Fournier’s passing was brought to our attention by Bob Vernese, who runs a boatshop in Perry, Florida, building small custom boats. He told us that Fournier’s son, Robert Fournier Jr., had worked with him for some years before becoming general manager of Perry Boat Works, which manufacturers Sport Craft and other brands. Robert Jr. learned from the best, his father, who told this anecdote to Pfund:
“My son works from here [MBEW], and one day he asked me, ‘Dad, why do we spend so much time tapping and scraping every square inch of the cores after we install them, checking for voids? There are hardly ever any at all.’ ‘Listen,’ I told him. ‘Would you want to know that you were responsible for building—or even worse, not finding—voids in the otherwise flawless topsides of a magnificent six-million-dollar yacht?’ He never asked me that again.”