By DENNIS MCLELLAN
JULY 8, 1988
TIMES STAFF WRITER – LOS ANGELES TIMES
When the Coast Guard posts small-craft advisories, most 20-foot sailboats head for the safety of their home port.
Not the Flicka.
But then, the Pacific Seacraft Flicka, one of a line of boats ranked among the best in the world, is not like most 20-foot sailboats.
Most 20-foot sailboats don’t have a full galley with a double-burner stove, a deep sink, an icebox and a slip-up dining table. Most 20-foot sailboats don’t have almost 6 feet of headroom, berths for three, abundant storage cabinets, an enclosed head and a diesel engine. And most 20-foot sailboats don’t have teak interiors, solid bronze hardware and a classic turn-of-the-century, full-keel design so distinctive in a boat its size that other sailors are constantly asking to take a peek inside.
But, above all, most 20-foot sailboats aren’t built for open sea cruising, to be sailed with confidence anywhere in the world and to withstand the rigors of the oceans.
The Flicka is.
That’s why, when Al Lehman and his 17-year-old son, Al Jr., hit a near gale on a cruise from Marina del Rey to Hawaii in 1982, Lehman was not too concerned.
“One thing about the Flicka is it’s a very heavy boat: It weighs 2 1/2 to three times what most 20-foot boats weigh,” said Lehman, 49, a manufacturer’s representative from Paradise Valley, Ariz. “That does two things: For me it makes me feel comfortable about the construction of the boat, that it is solid and well-built, and additional weight sometimes makes it more stable in heavy winds and seas. It can certainly take the punishment.”
Lehman and his son made landfall in Maui in just under 20 days.
“It was an adventure and it was something I had in the back of my mind to do for a number of years,” Lehman said. “One of the things about the Flicka is it’s a boat I felt was capable of doing that type of trip.”
With the sleeves of his blue work shirt rolled up to his elbows and a tape measure clipped to his belt, Michael Howarth climbed the wooden stairs to the scaffolding overlooking the cavernous, resin-scented building in an industrial park in south Santa Ana.
From his vantage point, Howarth could observe a dozen dreams in the making.
Below, a team of 35 craftsmen were hard at work building sailboats bound for places such as Boston, Mass.; Rowayton, Conn.; Annapolis, Md.; Raleigh, N.C.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Seattle, Wash., where many of their new owners will fulfill lifelong dreams of sailing to exotic ports of call around the world.
“If you can equate boats to cars,” Howarth said above the din of saws, grinders, routers and vacuums, “what we are trying to build is a Mercedes-Benz as opposed to a Chevrolet.”
Indeed, since Howarth and partner Henry Mohrschladt built their first boat in Howarth’s garage on Ball Road in Anaheim 12 years ago, Pacific Seacraft has become one of the most respected names in boat building.
Over the years, Howarth and Mohrschladt have grown accustomed to their line of boats being critically praised in trade magazines and nautical books such as the “The World’s Best Sailboats” by the renowned sailing author Ferenc Mate, who wrote that he selected “the most beautiful and well-built boats” he could find.
But the most recent critical hosanna came unexpectedly this spring when Fortune magazine named Pacific Seacraft the maker of America’s “best” sailboats 37 feet and under.
Seated behind his desk in his tidy office, company president Mohrschladt grinned boyishly when asked for his reaction at being the only boat manufacturer to be included in Fortune’s March roundup of “What America Makes Best”–a list that included Steinway pianos, Steuben glass and Apple computers.
Mohrschladt, 43, said he was “ecstatic.”
“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “It was the first real recognition that we had had outside the marine industry.”
British-born Howarth, the company’s vice president, is characteristically understated in his reaction.
“I guess it’s a big compliment,” said Howarth, 36. “In going to a boat show I’ve always known we can build a top-notch boat. I’ve got 100% confidence in that.”
What exactly goes into building a top-notch boat or, more specifically, blue-water cruising sailboats deemed America’s best?
“Quality materials and craftsmanship,” said Howarth, who supervises the actual construction of the boats while Mohrschladt tends to sales, advertising and accounting.
They buy top-grade teak lumber from Burma and have all the bronze hardware on the boats–the ports, cleats and hinges–custom made. “Through the years of purchasing this stuff we’ve realized a lot of things can be improved on,” said Howarth, adding, “We’ve designed a lot of the hardware.”
Unlike many other boat builders, Pacific Seacraft does its own wood milling and is one of the few boat builders in the country still offering teak decks as an option. The company’s teak interiors are standard and, while most boat builders build dining and chart tables out of plywood and veneer, even the tables made by Pacific Seacraft are of solid teak. Howarth said no nails are used on the interior woodwork: everything is screwed together and plugged so there are no exposed screws. Workers also spend up to 150 hours sanding–by hand–all the interior and exterior woodwork.
Howarth said he spends a lot of his time “making sure new employees know our way of doing things.” That even extends to the choice of screws used on the deck hardware: Slotted, rather than Phillips-head screws–with all the slots on the screws turned to face the same direction. Such attention to detail, Howarth said, “just shows somebody took the care to do that.”
Howarth said Pacific Seacraft is one of the few boat builders that offers “as many options as you can get” on a boat–several hundred, ranging from sail plans and choice of hull color to all-teak hatches and a choice of chrome-plated or solid bronze hardware.
Most of Pacific Seacraft’s customers are middle-aged, second- or third-time boat owners, many of whom share what Mohrschladt describes as “a dream of sailing a boat across oceans to distant islands and exotic places.”
“A lot of people who race” have that dream, Mohrschladt said.
During the six to eight weeks it takes to build a Pacific Seacraft boat, many customers stop by to watch.
Actor William Hurt, who recently bought a Crealock 37, is typical. Mohrschladt expected Hurt not to really care how his boat was built, but to Mohrschladt’s surprise the New York-based actor came out five times during construction.
“He’s one of these guys (for whom) this is the culmination of a dream,” Mohrschladt said. “He was probably more excited than any customer we’ve had come out. He was like a kid in a candy store.”
Said Howarth: “It’s good to be a small enough company to where you can get somewhat involved in people coming by and looking at their boats being built. We’re dealing with people with a tremendous amount of experience and we listen to their ideas and suggestions.”
Although Mohrschladt and Howarth build a line of six blue-water cruising sailboats, including the Orion 27, Pacific Seacraft 31, Crealock 34 and Crealock 37, a major part of Pacific Seacraft’s reputation has been built on pioneering the category of boats known as pocket cruisers.
They currently build two pocket cruisers: the Dana 24 and the Flicka 20.
Despite their size, the Pacific Seacraft pocket cruisers aren’t cheap. The $40,000 price tag for a fully equipped Flicka is about triple other similar-length craft, but its makers say its solid construction and seaworthiness compares to that of a $175,000 40-footer.
Mohrschladt sees “self-sufficiency” as being the primary appeal of all their boats, “but even more so with the smaller boats because a guy isn’t even relying on a crew. A sailor of average ability can sail one of our smaller boats themselves.”
It was a 25-foot pocket cruiser that led to Mohrschladt and Howarth’s partnership in 1975. At the time, they both were working at Pacific Trawler Corp. in Costa Mesa.
In its own way, it was as fortuitous a meeting as when Rodgers met Hart, Abbott met Costello, or Sears met Roebuck.
Mohrschladt, a 30-year-old engineer at the power boat-building company, had received a bachelor’s degree in economics at UC Irvine, where he spent most of his spare time in the library studying yacht design and reading yachting magazines. As a boy, Mohrschladt built model boats and watched Gardner McKay in “Adventures in Paradise” on television, dreaming of one day sailing off to the South Pacific.
Howarth, the 24-year-old production manager at Pacific Trawler, was a former wood shop whiz at Western High School in Anaheim who had been named California Industrial Arts Rally champion in his junior year and had won the sweepstakes prize at the Orange County Fair for an 8-foot sailboat he had built in his senior year. When it comes to working with wood, Howarth is a man who modestly says, “I think I’ve got some natural talent.”
One day Mohrschladt, who had designed a line of sailboats for another boat company, showed Howarth a drawing of a boat he was designing: a 25-foot, double-ended cruising sailboat based on a turn-of-the-century New England fishing boat with incredible handling characteristics and a reputation for seaworthiness verging on legend.
“It looked great; I just fell in love with this boat,” said Howarth, who had made some money off the sale of a house he had renovated and was interested in building a boat on his own. “We decided we were going to build this thing.”
At the time, there was an emphasis on world cruising and well-built boats that could withstand the rigors of the open sea. But while small, entry-level boats were plentiful, small boats capable of safely venturing out beyond Catalina were not. Their plan was to build a high-quality, small cruising boat that not only could be sailed to any port in the world but could be trailered overland if necessary.
In August, 1975, Howarth and Mohrschladt began building their boat, working nights and weekends in Howarth’s garage in Anaheim where he had a small woodworking shop. Their goal was to finish the boat in time for the Newport In-the-Water Boat Show in March.
Although they received a line of credit from the manufacturers of material and components to build their boat, money was tight. At one point, Mohrschladt sold his car to keep their boat-building enterprise afloat.
As the months wore on, their finances weren’t the only things that suffered. Mohrschladt underwent a divorce and Howarth broke up a relationship.
“All we had left to do was work,” said Howarth, “and we worked around the clock, so to speak, until we had this boat finished.”
Finally, on March 15, 1976, Mohrschladt and Howarth’s 25-foot cruising boat made its debut at the boat show, where it was well-received.
“It was an unbelievable thrill to build a boat, put it in the water and know people see it and like it,” Mohrschladt recalled. “We built it on zero market research. We really built what we liked.”
More than the thrill of seeing their boat in the water for the first time, Howarth remembers the last-minute rush to finish it in time.
“We were so busy and so hard-pressed for time there wasn’t any time to dwell on the achievement,” said Howarth, recalling that half the woodwork on the boat was completed in the two days before the boat show opened while the boat was already in the water.
By the time the show ended, a man from Seattle had bought the boat for $11,700.
With that success behind them, Mohrschladt and Howarth subleased space at Pacific Trawler and started production on three more 25-footers.
Today, Pacific Seacraft does $6 million to $7 million in annual sales. The company, which expects to build 120 boats this year, has outgrown its 16,000-square-foot building in Santa Ana and in August is moving to a 50,000-square-foot complex in Fullerton. The partners also recently signed an exclusive agreement with William Crealock, the well-known naval architect who designed the Crealock 34 and 37, the Pacific Seacraft 31 and the Dana 24. (Mohrschladt designed the Orion 27, and the Flicka was designed by naval architect Bruce Bingham.)
Pacific Seacraft has flourished at a time when other Orange County boat builders have either gone out of business or moved out of the area.
When Pacific Seacraft arrived on the scene in 1976, it was on the tail end of Orange County’s heyday as the boat-building capital of the world. Between the mid-1950s and early ‘70s, the county was home to at least a dozen boat-building companies. Most now are either out of business or have relocated.
Mohrschladt cites a number of reasons for Orange County’s decline as the world’s boat-building capital, chief among them pressure from city planning departments (“they just have you hamstrung and hogtied with what you can and can’t do”) and the Air Quality Management District, “which has restrictions on materials you can use and how you use them.”
Other factors include the rising cost of owning or renting building space in Orange County.
Actually, Howarth said, they benefited when other companies went out of business or left the area by “skimming off the cream of the crop” of those companies’ top craftsmen. “Our company is built upon the people that work here,” he said. “That’s why we never leave this area.”
Despite the popularity of boating in Southern California–there are about 15,000 boats docked in Orange County’s three harbors–Pacific Seacraft ships 75% of its boats to the East Coast, Mohrschladt said, where “there is a bigger market for boats.”
Mohrschladt said the sailboat industry went through hard times earlier in the decade, due to a surge in popularity of power boats and to high interest rates that made it difficult to qualify for loans to buy boats. “Just recently, the sailboat industry has regrouped and pulled itself together,” he said.
Although both men have sailing experience, neither Mohrschladt nor Howarth does much sailing anymore. They’re too busy.
In fact, they once kept a 27-foot company boat in Dana Point Harbor, but they sold it to a customer two years ago when they were having trouble keeping up with their backlog of orders. They hope to build another boat for themselves but, as Mohrschladt said, they’re more buried than ever in orders.
In an attempt to keep up, Howarth and their team of 66 boat builders work five 10-hour days a week plus a half-day on Saturday. Howarth even occasionally comes in on Sunday. But he said he doesn’t mind.
“There is nothing I’d rather do than build boats.”