An Eye for a Yacht – a SAIL Magazine feature
Boatbuilder Chris Hood is doing a fine job carrying on the family legacy
In 1967 The New Yorker published a now-famous profile of the late sailmaker and America’s Cup skipper Ted Hood. The story noted how, even as a boy, Hood had an aptitude for recognizing yachts at a great distance, with his father, Stedman Hood, recalling how he’d once identified the New York 50 Andiamo on a distant horizon sometime in the 1940s.
“If you loved boats as I did, there was no mistaking her,” Ted later wrote in his autobiography.
Today that same eye for a beautiful yacht—and the love of all things maritime that makes it possible—endures in Ted’s nephew Chris Hood. It’s also being given physical form at Chris’s Marblehead, Massachusetts-based company, C.W. Hood Yachts, where he’s been designing and building boats for over 20 years, including the award-winning daysailer, the C.W. Hood 32.
“When I was a kid growing up in Marblehead, I was always excited when my Uncle Ted came over,” Chris says. “Before he could even get through the door, I would bring [him] my drawings. I felt like I was presenting a gift to the King of England. I knew it had to be right.”
Another 32-footer takes shape at C.W. Hood Yachts. Photo by Craig Davis
Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Chris’s Uncle Ted owned and operated the Marblehead-based company Little Harbor Yachts, which included his famous sailmaking business Hood Sailmakers. Ted’s success, in turn, made Marblehead one of the leading yachting technology centers of the world. In 1974, when Chris was riding the bus to elementary school, he would sometimes look out the window and see 12-Meters match-racing off Marblehead. In fact, it was during those years that Ted and others like Dennis Conner and Ted Turner perfected the art of two-boat testing, a practice that continues to this day. Ted Hood ultimately won the America’s Cup in 1974 at the helm of Courageous. Then in 1977 he campaigned Independence, his second 12-Meter design (the first was Nefertiti, which lost to Weatherly in the 1962 defender’s trials), against Courageous, which he’d recently redesigned, only to finish second Turner, who went on to successfully defend against Australia.
“I was pretty young when my Uncle Ted won the America’s Cup,” Chris recalls. “But I remember there was a big parade through town, and our school went on a field trip down to the boatyard.”
Bruce Hood (in the hat) and his brother, Ted, relax in the Bahamas. Photo courtesy of C.W. Hood
In those days an America’s Cup skipper might win the Cup on Sunday and be back to work by Monday, which for Ted Hood meant running his growing marine business in Marblehead. Unfortunately, for a young Chris and the town of Marblehead, as Ted’s business grew, he realized he needed a better marina to launch and service the bigger yachts he was building, but the town fathers voted down his proposal to dredge or alter Little Harbor, and in 1986 he had no choice but to move his operations to Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The last boat he built in Marblehead before moving was the 60-foot American Promise, aboard which Dodge Morgan set a solo circumnavigation record from Bermuda and back of 150 days. A number of Hood alumni stayed and continued to keep Marblehead on the yachting map—sailmakers like Robbie Doyle, Jud Smith, Bruce Dyson and Dave Curtis, and yacht designers Jim Taylor and Dieter Empacher. But without Ted Hood the town was never quite the same.
Then along came Chris, who first set up shop with fellow boatbuilder Chris Stirling in Ted’s Portsmouth complex before moving C.W. Hood Yachts to his hometown. As his business grew, Chris says “People would often say to me, ‘Oh, your father was Ted Hood’ and I would say, no, my father was Bruce, and without really listening they’d insist that he was. There is no doubt in my mind that in the marine industry his legacy gave me a kind of instant credibility that I feel I need to live up to–and that is always about doing the best possible work to make you, your team and your family proud.”
In fact, when it comes to the Hoods, their creativity and hard work is not limited to the marine industry. Ted Hood may have been the first sailmaker to weave his own Dacron cloth and to design innovative items such as grooved headstays, roller-furling jibs, and the Stoway mast. But the family legacy also includes Chris’s great grandfather, R.O. Hood, who invented an electric starter for Henry Ford, and Chris’s grandfather, Stedman “the Professor” Hood, who worked as a chemist for Monsanto in the ‘30s and ‘40s, where many of his inventions remain in use today.
Stedman “the Professor” Hood at the helm of an R-boat back in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of C.W. Hood
Over the years, the Professor advised Bruce and Ted to “never work for someone else,” and eventually left Monsanto to help his sons in their respective businesses, where he perfected the looms Ted used to weave his race-winning sailcloth. Chris says he can still vividly remember his grandfather “fretting about” Ted’s Stoway mast and how the sail would need battens, shortly before he passed away in the early 1980s. “He was trying to work out how the sails could be rolled into the mast. I was on school vacation with him in Florida, so we puttered around and messed about with rubber cement and fabric tubes making inflatable and deflatable battens with a simple hand pump,” Chris recalls. “What a great time for a kid!”
As for Chris’s father, Bruce, although not as well known in the marine world, he was no less innovative as an MIT-trained expert in materials, as well as an accomplished sailor. One time, back in the early 1950s, Bruce, who would eventually form a successful company called Hood Molded Foam, and the Professor were attempting to produce pure titanium in Ted’s boatyard as part of a government contract. Unfortunately, when the reactor they built failed, the cooling tubes created a massive smoke screen that engulfed Little Harbor. Ted immediately kicked his brother and father off the property, but not before the “inventors” found a half-pound chunk of titanium in the rubble that Chris still has in his possession.
Although Bruce died in 2007, and Ted passed away in 2013, Chris says their legacy lives on in what can only describe as his good instincts—not necessarily for math or science, but for three-dimensional solutions that help him envision the shape of things before he puts it down on paper. “It’s strange,” he says. “I seem to know when I look at a hull how it will feel going through the water without sailing it.”
These instincts were very much in evidence when Chris decided to move beyond the powerboats he’d been focusing on and instead created a 32-foot daysailer. When the C.W. Hood 32 debuted in 2011 it became an instant classic and an inspiration to those who love traditional designs. In addition to being aesthetically beautiful, the hull also features lightweight construction and efficient foils that make it both nimble and strong—a joy to sail in the truest sense of the word.
“When you see something for the first time and you are awestruck by the beautiful shape, you can’t get it out of your mind. It creates a have-to-have-it mindset,” Chris says. “I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people tell me that’s the most beautiful boat they have ever seen. When we set out to design the boat, we thought, yes, there are some pretty ones already out there. But we really feel we built a boat that has all the curves in all the right places, is extremely quick and a joy to sail.”
Currently, C.W. Hood Yachts has five C.W. Hood 32s under build and on order in Marblehead, with 14 of these lovely sloops already in harbors from the Bahamas to the Netherlands and both coasts of the United States. At the end of 2011, SAIL recognized the boat as the winner of its Best Boats award for the daysailer category.
“I think our demographic is unique. We have everyone from young families to retirees,” Chris says. “They call me after a weekend and want to tell me about their latest adventure. The owners have a common thread that I think is key, and that is that they are enjoying the boat. This really lets me know I have done my job right.”
Hood’s current operations are on the site of the Marblehead Trading Company, near iconic Little Harbor and historic Redd’s Pond. In addition to new builds, C.W. Hood Yachts typically has 50 boats in the Marblehead boatyard for winterization and service, many of them the ever-popular Katama and Wasque powerboats that Chris has built for years. As a result, Chris and his small crew are flat-out busy these days, and he can often be seen making stops on a route that leads Hood around the small area of Marblehead called Barnegat overlooking Little Harbor. Still, he has no plans to leave anytime soon.
“Sometimes Marblehead is a very cramped place to run a boat business,” he says. “But when I walk out the door and look out on Little Harbor and the lighthouse marking the entrance to the larger Marblehead harbor, it is so beautiful, I realize I would not want to be anywhere else.”
Chris says the rewards of being a boatbuilder come at interesting moments. When C.W. Hood’s Scott Webber recently delivered the C.W. Hood 32 Coconut to its owner in the Bahamas, for example, he later reported, “There were people standing on the dock asking the new owner where the boat came from, and who built it. The owner actually had a crowd wanting to sail on her.”
Then there’s the simple pleasure of seeing the products of your work out on the water, doing what you’d hoped and planned they would do back when they still existed only in your imagination.
“As a kid you are always asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? I never hesitated…I always had the same answer: I want to be a boatbuilder,” Chris says. “I know my father would have liked me to go into a different industry like he did—or hoped I might have taken more interest in the molded foam business. I know that bothered him a bit. But as my business grew, my father was proud of my achievements, especially when he and my Uncle Ted would get together and my uncle would encourage my work. In the end, he was pleased that I was happy doing what I loved.”
“One of the proudest times I had was when I was standing on a dock anonymously and people were looking at one of my boats,” Chris says. “I heard one of them say ‘Is that a Hood design?’ The other man answered, ‘No, that is not a Hood, that is a C.W. Hood design.’”
Looks like the Hood legacy is in good hands.
By Laurie Fullerton