A Well Engineered Dream

Bob Johnson’s passion for sailing bloomed at an early age. He was only eight when he bought his own subscription to Yachting magazine, and fourteen when he wrote a term paper on his future career as a naval architect. That same year, he lofted his first sailboat on the living room floor, then sailed it down Lake Worth, with his brother holding a garden umbrella for a spinnaker. He was hooked for life.

Even though he became a mechanical engineer, ending up at McDonnell Douglas designing missiles, his heart was still with sailboats. With a master’s degree from MIT in naval architecture, he went to Florida and worked with Irwin Yachts and Endeavor, gradually becoming general manager. But he had a well engineered dream. He started Island Packet modestly in the mid-seventies by borrowing money to buy the molds for a 26 footer with a beam of more than 10 feet — a catboat proportion. He was everything at the company — engineer, purchasing agent, production manager and sales staff. Island Packet grew to a peak of two hundred employees in an immaculate, family-owned facility and has developed over the decades one of the most enthusiastic and loyal followings in cruising boat history.

As a dedicated observer, Johnson had seen boats go from full-keel, wineglass-shaped hull forms to the Cal 40 type with a fin-keeled, U-shaped underbody. He was struck by the fact that there had been no thoughtful, logical transition from one extreme to another. He felt that something sensible, seaworthy, and very manageable was missing. He wanted to utilize the best of both extremes by taking a modern U-shaped hull for performance and create a long keel for seaworthiness, not only by stretching the fin keel and making it shallower, but by making it an air foil shape. Instead of the big barn door rudder hung on the aft end of the keel, which generated huge turning radiuses, he separated the two and connected the bottom of the keel to the bottom of what was now a counterbalanced spade rudder. In this way, he maintained the stability and seakeeping quality of a long keel and gained a good shallow draft. Even in case of grounding, his internally ballasted hull would suffer little damage compared to the major repairs necessary for bent keel bolts or tornout bottoms, which some deep finkeelers might endure.