Charley Morgan 1929 -2023

Charley Morgan steeringPhoto by John Morgan

Charley Morgan steers his 12 Meter Heritage on Narragansett Bay. He liked to wear vests with big pockets, probably to hold all the big ideas he had.

A bright, kindly bear of a man who seemed like he might live forever finally gave up the good fight on January 6, at age 93, reportedly just hours after the passing of his second wife, Maurine. Timing is everything and Charley, as he was affectionately known by just about everyone, seemingly aced it even at the end.

His timing for entering mass production of fiberglass boats was also excellent. He founded Morgan Yachts in 1962 with a 28′(8.5m) sloop called the Tiger Cub. Aided by Dick Valdez and Vince Lazzara—who at the same time were running Columbia Yachts in California, and who purchased the plans to the Tiger Cub (which became the Columbia 31) and Morgan’s 38 (11.6m) Sabre (which became the Columbia 40)—Morgan kept a watchful eye on their success, particularly on the business end, and more specifically development of a dealer network akin to the auto industry. Key to the growth of both companies, Morgan told me years ago, was that unlike wooden boats, which he termed a “wasting asset,” banks were willing to finance fiberglass boats, which enabled the middle class to become yacht owners. To support his dealer network, Morgan worked with banks to “floor plan” dealer inventories. Emulating another aspect of the automobile industry, Charley’s first wife, Sally, collected car brochures and used them as a guide for their own promotional literature, substituting key words like “yacht” for “automobile” and “icebox” or “locker” for “trunk.”

There are still hundreds if not thousands of Morgan yachts afloat in all corners of the U.S. and around the world, which will make the name familiar to a young generation of sailors. In total, Morgan produced more than 40 models. The look of a 1968 Morgan 41 (12.5m) today, pretty as she is with low sweeping sheer and graceful overhangs, belies the layered story, Charley’s story, that fills in behind her and the thousands of other boats bearing his name.

Charley Morgan’s Impact on the Industry

Though born in Chicago, Illinois, Morgan grew up on the west coast of Florida and attended the University of Tampa, where he majored in economics and pre-engineering. A man who loved words and always seemed to search for a clever and precise way to say something, he liked to quote one of his professors, who told the class, “There is no economic advantage that cannot be duplicated or nullified.” Those became Charley’s watchwords.

He built model airplanes as a kid, and got a pilot’s license, but during World War II something shifted, and in Charley’s words, he “went queer for boats.” He fell in love with sailing and recognized that speed is a combination of hullform, construction, and sails. So, after graduating in 1951 he moved to St. Petersburg and opened Morgan Yacht Sails in an airport hangar. With no time for formal education in naval architecture, he soon taught himself the other ingredients in the recipe for speed—design and boatbuilding skills.

In 1956 he commenced his first build, the 31′ (9.4m) Brisote, constructed of plywood, with a scavenged Star-class keel, a Thistle mainsail, and a modified Penguin mizzen sail. He took third in fleet and second in class in that year’s St. Petersburg-to-Havana race. Encouraged, he designed and built the 40′ Paper Tiger with a steel backbone, fiberglass skin, and wood decks. Pundits at his St. Petersburg Yacht Club mused that it would “rust, shatter, and rot.” What it did do was win the SORC (Southern Ocean Racing Circuit) in 1961 and ’62, a damn impressive start to anyone’s career.

Charley’s successes caught the attention of yachting’s elite, and in 1962 he was invited to crew on the 12-Meter Columbia for the America’s Cup trials in Newport, Rhode Island. “I was in the cockpit with Glit Shields [Cornelius Shields Jr.] steering and Olin Stephens navigating,” he said. “Olin took me under his wing, and we had a lot of good conversations. Olin was so generous…without giving away business.”

Heritage 12M by Charley Morgan12-Meter Charters

The 12-Meter Heritage—designed and built by Morgan, who also skippered her in America’s Cup trials—cruises at sunset on Narragansett Bay.

Eight years later, in 1970, Charley decided to have a go at the Cup with his own boat, embarking on a project never done before or since: designing, financing, building, and skippering a 12-Meter. Oh, and he built the sails, too. Heritage was sailed from Florida to Newport on her own bottom. During trials she had a few noteworthy wins but did not perform well enough to earn the right to defend. Heritage, the last American 12 to be built of wood, still sails Narragansett Bay as one of several Cup veterans operating as day charters.

During the heyday of Morgan Yachts in the 1970s Charley built what was at the time a modern production boat facility, with several model lines moving simultaneously, with chain falls and gantries to move hulls and decks, and scaffolding to elevate crew. Their capabilities landed contracts with Disney World to build all its large fiberglass structures for the new amusement park in Orlando, including a 120′ (37m) submarine ride and jungle cruise boats. At the time, Charley believed the sub was the largest fiberglass structure in the world.

In 1968 Charley thought about going public with a stock offering but instead was enticed by the Beatrice Foods conglomerate to sell, staying on for four years. In 1984 Catalina Yachts bought Morgan Yachts, mainly to obtain an East Coast manufacturing facility, and to get the tooling for the hugely popular center-cockpit Out Island 41, which helped popularize the bareboat charter industry in the Caribbean.

After Morgan Yachts, Charley says he retired but not really, trying his hand at designing trawlers and expert witness work. He and wife Maurine took up painting, and the last time I visited their Treasure Island home Charley was packing one of his works for donation to a local charity. He spent hours with me aiding my research for Heart of Glass, the history of fiberglass boatbuilding, because he loved boats, loved the industry, and felt it was important that the pioneers be remembered and properly acknowledged.

And because it was his nature to always give more than he got.