In 2022 an iconic American design, the grandaddy of the modern American runabout, the Boston Whaler, will turn 65. The Whaler is a boat that evokes a Boomer generation’s memories of mid-summer cruising and dedicated fishing action. It was in fact an early product of the powerboat design genius of one C. Raymond Hunt, inventor of the deep vee hull that revolutionized open water powerboat design.

boston whaler
The Boston Whaler is a boat that evokes memories of mid-summer cruising and dedicated fishing action. Photos courtesy of Conversations with Classic Boats

The Whaler’s design heritage dates to a 1914 design, the Hickman Sea Sled, a plywood 17-footer from the Hickman Sea Sled Company in Boston, MA. In the archives of the Mystic Seaport Museum sits the story of this pioneering 20th century runabout, told by its chief designer, John S Barry. 

The Sled’s design, from an eccentric Canadian immigrant, William Albert Hickman, was a radical departure in design and construction. The shape and propulsion package was derived from a 54-foot, high-speed motor torpedo boat delivered to the Navy for World War I. The forerunner of the famous World War II PT boat, it could maintain sustained speeds of 34.5 knots in a wintry nor’easter with 12- to 14-foot seas.

The mass market version of the Sea Sled departed from a generation of elegant launches, steam and gas powered, from the boards of Gilded Age designers such as Nat Herreshoff, who supplied their planked designs to moguls of the time such as JP Morgan. The Sea Sled was a boat for the masses featuring economical plywood construction and power from a gasoline power precursor of the stern drive.  

boston whaler
The Hickman Sea Sled was a boat for the masses featuring economical plywood construction.

Produced in models from 17 to 40 feet, the Sea Sled’s twin hull configuration was built into the 1940s. The pictures show an oak ribbed hull in dark mahogany sheathing. Original models had a stern mounted inboard gasoline engine driving Hickman’s patented “surface piercing propellors.” Later models had outboard motors. Hickman hyped his designs relentlessly, beginning with a 1914 Scientific American article singing the praises of the stability and speed of his beloved Sea Sled.

Forty two years later, a Boston inventor had his own idea for a boat for the American post-war boater. Dick Fisher, the godfather of the Boston Whaler, worked with Ray Hunt and Rob Pierce to conceive the Boston Whaler 13. Fisher wanted to build a super stable boat using foam coring and fiberglass. The design in his mind was based on the Sea Sled. When Ray Hunt approached Hickman for a collaboration, the 79-year-old designer said no. So, Hunt, maverick that he was, went ahead on his own and tweaked the Sea Sled twin hulled configuration to create the iconic Whaler cathedral hull; unsinkable, wet, and long lived.

First built in Rockland, MA, by the Fisher Price Company, better known as a toy company, the Whaler has set the course for the modern American outboard. Ray Hunt went on to develop his deep vee concept in offshore racing boats like Moppie, winner of the Miami Nassau powerboat races of the early 1960s. 

By Tom Darling of Conversations with Classic Boats