The Life of Boats

By John C. Harris
October 2012 

We lost Ed Frick last Saturday, much too soon.  At my house and at CLC I am surrounded by mementos of Mr. Frick's talent and generosity, and I'd like to share the story.

I met Mr. Frick when I was a sophomore at Brandywine High School in Wilmington, Delaware.  I was already actively designing and building boats. My classmate Gretchen Frick picked up on this and said, "My dad's into boats, and he's a draftsman.  He could take a look at your drawings."  I sent a roll of smudgy pencil drawings for his review, and a lifetime friendship with the Frick family was under way.  

Ed Frick was a draftsman of the old school.  He once described it as the "armband and green eyeshade" age of mechanical drafting, and he was enormously good at it. For an aspiring designer, this early connection marked a major orbital correction in my career trajectory.  My drawings came back heavily annotated with suggestions for drafting style and boat design.  His editing was sharp and sometimes unsparing.  "This kayak will need all of Lake Michigan to turn around," he wrote on one drawing in his perfect block lettering.  He was too nice to say how genuinely awful my own lettering was. 

The Fricks invited me over for dinner, and a genial pattern was established that lasted through high school and college and far beyond.  It helped that his daughter Gretchen was tall and blond (she's married with children now), which is why he will always be MISTER Frick to me.  He clearly perceived a kindred spirit, and we could talk about boats until the wee hours, boring Gretchen to tears.  In addition to correcting my drawings, Ed and the entire Frick family pitched in with my teenaged boatbuilding adventures.

Flipping Over Bolger "Oldshoe"

This was a little ballast-keel yawl designed by Phil Bolger that I built around age 19.  ("Now THAT is ugly," was Ed Frick's assessment.)  Standing in the back are Sandy Frick, Ed Frick, and Gretchen Frick.  Kneeling is Doug Peterson, a college roommate. They were on hand to help me flip the boat over.

As a certified boat nut, Mr. Frick had an enviable collection.  At a weekend home on the Elk River, he had a barn and boathouse that contained an original Beetle Cat, an ancient Penn-Yan wood-canvas dinghy, a Folbot, and various other treats. He'd once owned one of the rare Applegarth-built Chesapeake Bay skipjacks.  When Chesapeake Light Craft got going, he purchased and built one of the earliest kayak kits.  With Gretchen he built a lovely skin-on-frame canoe which escaped the barn and is now on display at CLC.  

Like nearly all of us, he had more boats than he could use, and in later years demonstrated a formidable talent as a woodcarver and boat modeler.  This allowed him to be prolific with his hobby, as he'd run out of room for the full-sized articles.

John's Sharpie 

This magnificent 1"=1' model of John's Sharpie, an early CLC design of mine, is typical of his attention to detail.  At 18 inches long, everything is exactly to scale and I love the carved boatbuilder wielding a tiny paintbrush.  I cherish this model.

Shovelnose Skiff

Another 1"=1' model by Ed Frick, for a 15-foot skiff design I entered in a WoodenBoat Magazine competition, around 1990.  I can't say much for my "tombstone bow" feature on this one---it certainly didn't win a prize.  But it's a beautiful and faithful model.

John Harris Boatbuilder

He did a great many other things well, too.  Early in his career he had been a sign painter and boat name painter (this was before you could have vinyl lettering cut on computers).  He drove a Model A Ford around to upper Chesapeake marinas, painting boat names and applying gold leaf.  

Before I graduated from college, Mr. Frick presented me with this wonderful name plate, demonstrating his ability as a sign painter and woodcarver.  Note the rope-edged carving around the perimeter.  The half-model is a Windmill Class sloop, three of which I'd built as a student.

Miniature Plane

Mr. Frick was always bringing around whimsical little creations like this, a name board about eight inches long.  The really clever bit is the model-scale block plane mounted on top.  This has been on my desk at CLC for years.


Another creative little piece, smaller than the palm of your hand.  

Among a great many accomplishments as a wood carver, Mr. Frick was on the team that created beautiful carvings for the reproduction of the tall ship Kalmar Nyckel.

It is difficult to articulate how much I appreciate Ed Frick and his family.  The early boost to my drawing chops was great, of course, and I wouldn't understate the effect the Frick family's encouragement had on CLC's eventual success.  But truly priceless are the years of Sandy Frick's cooking, Gretchen's willingness to get sticky with epoxy (and on one occasion pour a lead keel in the driveway), and the many sailing adventures on the Elk River.  The material things like boats bring us together, but it's the friendships that last and shape us. I am so very lucky to have had a friend and mentor like Ed Frick.

John C. Harris