Friday 15 March 2013

Requiem for a Spork

   "...and it brings back those old emotions..."
                                  -The Spoons

      Roger MacGregor is retiring.

     And he's taking his Spork with him.

      Or maybe not.  More on that later.

     In January, Mr. MacGregor surprised the boating world  by announcing his retirement, and the imminent closure of MacGregor Yachts, builder of  what may be the most controversial pleasure boat on the planet, the MacGregor 26M "powersailer".

   aka "The Spork."

   Roger MacGregor is to boats as Steve Jobs was to computers and Colin Chapman was to sports cars:  he's a game changer.
    This guy has been bucking convention since he started building boats, way back in 1961.  Back then, the common methods of getting into the boat business were to either inherit a yard and continue a tradition, or splash a mold in your backyard in your spare time and buy an ad in the back pages of  Popular Mechanix, hoping to sell one or two.
   In other words, most boat builders were romantics and dreamers-  few were businessmen.

   MacGregor Yachts began as a class project when MacGregor was studying for his MBA at Stanford.  Roger realized that if a business is going to be successful it has to be run as a business- find a market, serve that market  and change as the market changes.  He thought  that the time was right to bring sailing to the masses.
   He wasn't wrong.
    The early 60s was the dawn of an era of upward mobility.  Incomes were stable, the economy was stable,  the middle class was growing and life was becoming easier with the damn-near universality of labour-saving devices.  Most homes had telephones, televisions, washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, and cooking appliances that didn't require fueling with wood or coal.
    All this extra income and all this extra free time meant that Joe and Janet Suburbia could now indulge in pastimes previously the preserve of the idle rich, like golfing and tennis...
    ... and boating.
    Not only were the masses ready, but the industry was ready as well.  With the revolutionary new material, fiberglass, boats could be produced much more quickly, and more cheaply, than ever before, while also being relatively maintenance free and more durable.

  Low maintenance, affordable, and fun- ideal for the Suburbia family.

     Established yards like Trojan, Chris-Craft and Morgan began to utilize fiberglass in hulls alongside their traditional wood-hulled craft, while new companies like Bayliner, Sea Ray, Grampian and O'day sprouted overnight to meet the demand for boats to get the middle class on the water.

    Few of those companies are left, and none are left in their original form, with their original owners.
    Except Macgregor Yachts.

    From the beginning, MacGregor set out to do things differently. He had no interest in doing business the same old way, building the same old boats, with the same old market.  He was a man of his time, and understood that there was a whole new marketplace of Suburbia families that wanted fun that was fast and easy.  This was the Atomic Age- when folks weren't being scared shitless by the idea of commies looming just over the horizon, they were looking for fast, easy, affordable family fun.

    Roger realized that the key to success was weight, or lack thereof.   He understood that, next to the initial purchase, the most expensive part of owing a boat is storing the boat.  Slip fees, yard storage fees and  hauling costs were limiting factors for many would-be new boaters.    Wood boats are heavy boats, and many early fiberglass boats were splashed to the scantlings of their wooden older sisters, making the hulls really thick, but also really heavy.
  Unless you owned a big truck, your weren't towing your boat anywhere.
   However, if the boat was light enough to be towed behind the family sedan, then that boat could be used whenever and wherever desired and stored in the driveway at no cost.

   Further, MacGregor understood that light means fast, and fast means fun, and if it wasn't fun, the Suburbia family would move onto something else.  So, he started building boats that were easy to trailer, easy and fast to set up, and that sailed fast enough to be fun.

   Further to the previous further, the Suburbia family was looking not just for fast fun, but for affordable, fast fun.  Mr. Macgregor theorized that lighter means lower material cost and lower labour cost, allowing boats to be built for less and offered for less, making them more affordable while still being profitable...hopefully.

     Starting with a small catamaran, MacGregor Yachts found their market... and listened to it.  When the market asked for a small cruiser, MacGregor launched the very successful Venture series, starting with the Venture 21, in 1966.

                                                                                         -image courtesy of

     The Venture 21 became the Venture 22, then MacGregor launched the MacGregor 22, which is apparently the same, but different.

  A smaller boat, the Venture 17, was introduced, then came the salty looking cutter-rigged Venture of Newport 23, which is a completely different boat from any previous MacGregor or Venture offering...
                                                                                     -image courtesy of

    ...and then came the MacGregor 24 and the Venture 24 and the MacGregor 25 and the Venture 25 which,  as near as I can tell, are all pretty much the same damn boat:

                                                                                -image courtesy of

     Which looks a whole lot like the earlier 22, and the later Venture 2-22, and the MacGregor 25 and...

    I'm not even going to try to figure out the  tangled family tree of Venture boats and MacGregor boats  and MacGregor Venture boats and Venture of Newport boats. MacGregor built a whole bunch of boats that were a lot alike in a buncha different lengths under a buncha different names.

    And he sold a buncha them over more than 3 decades.

  Starting in the late 70s, MacGregor Yachts brought their light, fast, affordable boat philosophy to bigger boats.  Their fist over 30' offering was the MacGregor 36 catamaran, a quick demountable cat with spartan accommodations for 4 in the hulls, from 1977 to 1983.  The numbers on this boat are crazy- 35'10" LOA, only 3000 lbs displacement, and disassembled on a trailer it is a package only eight feet wide.

    3000 lbs.

    That is less than half the weight of any other production catamaran.  This is a 36 foot boat you can tow behind a small pickup truck.

                                                                                                        -image courtesy of

        Then, in the late 80s, Roger really began to make folks talk, offering the MacGregor 65, a 65' (not a typo- sixty five feet) yacht dubbed a "ULDB"- Ultra Light Displacement Boat.

                                                                                                    -images courtesy of

   With only 22000 lbs displacement, "Ultra Light" is an accurate description. The boats were also quick.  MacGregor's "Fast Cruiser" set west coast race records which have stood for decades.  Turns out that fast and light and economical also spells success in big boats-  100 MacGregor 65s were built between 1984 and 1995.

    The Mac 65 really started the headshaking and tongue-wagging among serious sailors.  It was all well and good, according to conventioal wisdom of the day, for MacGregor to build small playboats and trailer cruisers, but it was another thing entirely for him to tread on turf owned by serious racers and engineers like Bill Lee, whose 68 foot ULDB, Merlin, set the standard, and who had amassed considerable racing success with his Santa Cruz line of boats.   Armchair yachtsman and dockwatchers point out that the big Santa Cruz boats like the SC 70 were long and narrow and light, and occasionally broke because they were raceboats, y'see.  The MacGregor 65s were long and narrow and occasionally broke because they were too lightly and cheaply built and as such were unfit for open water.
    100 built.
    The newest is almost 20 years old.
    Most are still on the water.
     They may not be the most attractive boats, the most luxurious boats, the most heavily built boats, but the M-65 has held up.
       It's typical MacGregor- know your market.  Roger understood that the vast, vast majority of big boat owners are cruisers first, racers second, and less than 1% of all big boat cruisers cruise very far.  While other builders cater to the dream of bluewater cruising, building boats that are rarely used to their intended capabilities, MacGregor catered to the pragmatic realist big boat owner, essentially saying:  "Look, you and I both know you're not going to sail the TransPac, but this boat will get you from San Diego to Ensenada and Cabo quick, at half the cost of other boats."

     What was that, patient reader?
      "What about The Spork, you longwinded bastard?"

    Hold your horses.  I'm getting there.

     In the early 90s, the game changed again.  The small and dormant water ski and Jet-Ski market blew up, almost overnight, with the introduction of tubes and wakeboards and sit-down personal watercraft.  Now you didn't have to be fit and coordinated and athletic to get pulled behind a boat or ride a jet powered water craft.  Anybody could do it... including kids.   While mom and dad may have wanted to sail, the kids wanted to jump wakes, and since any parent looking to spend quality time with their spoiled brat er, kids indulges their spawn, the Suburbia family who would have gone sailing were now looking at, and buying powerboats and PWCs.


     How does a sailboat manufacturer adapt to a marketplace demanding speed and versatility?  Some simply ignored the issue, others attempted to change the image of their offerings, some simply ceded the small boat market place to the powerboat industry and concentrated on building larger cruisers.

    MacGregor Yachts?  They just created a whole new marketplace with a whole new boat, the MacGregor 19 powersailer.
                                                                                                        -images courtesy of

  This boat was the first MacGregor spork, a sailboat that can be driven like a powerboat, and/or a powerboat that can be sailed.

  This was a water ballasted centerboard boat that was designed to have a large outboard hung on the transom.  Many sailors hated it because it wasn't a pure sailboat.  Many powerboaters hated it because it had a mast and sails.
      Joe and Janet Suburbia and their kids kinda liked it.  If only it was bigger...

      In 1995, MacGregor Yachts introduced the MacGregor 26X.

                                                                                                  -image courtesy

  Accomodations for 5-6 people,  the versatility to sail or zip along at up to 20 knots with a 50 hp outboard hung on the rear, trailerable behind a small truck, easy and quick to rig, available at a price point lower than similar sized keelboats and powerboats, with a full raft of features and options, what's not to like?
                                                                                                    -image courtesy of macgregor yachts.

  At this price point, you get a lot of shiny gelcoat and carpet and vinyl, you don't get a lot of teak, you don't get a lot of tankage, you don't get a full galley.
  But you DO get on the water.
  The mirrored bulkhead ahead of the dinette is a clever touch, making the cabin feel larger than it actually is.

The MacGregor 26X/M series became the most popular trailer sailer/pocketcruiser of the last two decades, possibly the best selling model ever, anywhere.  Thousands of these boats have been built and enjoyed.  The Mac 26 enjoys a solid grassroots Owner's Association that other manufacturers and classes can only envy.

                                                                                                      -image courtesy of macgregor yachts
  This is a shot of an Owner's Association meet in Seattle.
 Count 'em.
 That's a lot of loyalty and camaraderie right there.

  The more popular the MacGregor powersailers became, the more vocal, and more numerous, the critics.

    I used to really dislike these boats.  I didn't like the cockpit, I didn't like the layout, I didn't like the rig, I didn't like the ballast system, I didn't like the ambiguity of the whole damn package.

  Then a couple of years ago, friends of mine who had been boatshopping for several months, were waffling between powerboats and sailboats and of course the 26M/X is on their list.

     Giving them my best old-salt-true-sailor sneer, I asked "Why?"
When they laid out their reasoning, it causing me to modify my opinion of the MacGregor 26 powersailer.

For what it is, it is absolutely EXCELLENT.

The problem is, most people don't know what it is.

It is NOT a sailboat- too tender, rigged too light, too big a motor, too many compromises and a weird hull shape.

It is NOT a powerboat- it's got a mast, boom, too small a motor, too many compromises and a weird hull shape.

What it is is a "happy family boat."

Sorta an iPhone of a boat.

Here's what I mean:

The kids want to get slaphappy silly getting the bejesus bounced out of them while hanging onto a tube for dear life and inhaling half the lake?
No problem. This boat has an app for that.

Want to enjoy a nice light wind sail and teach the kids about sailing, until they get bored and want to go tubing?
No problem. This boat has an app for that.

Wind picks up, storm clouds threatening, everybody is getting a little nervous and you want to get back to the dock quick?
No problem. This boat has an app for that.

Want to take the whole family on a sailing vacation for a couple of weeks in the Keys, but you live in Cincinnati?
No problem. This boat has an app for that.

Are you a novice boater, unsure whether you will like sailing, unsure whether you will like powerboating, don't want to guess wrong and buy a sailboat when you would rather have a powerboat?
 No problem. This boat has an app for that.

    How many of us have found our kids, once they reach a certain age no longer want to sail, instead they would rather hang out with their powerboat-owning friends, because "sailing is slow and boring?"

    How many of us have spouses who won't sail because they get antsy when they see storm clouds on the horizon?

     How many of us wish we could cruise our boat in new cruising grounds but can't because we only have two weeks of vacation available?

     It's not for me, but it may be the right boat for my friends, and at the end of the day, if you're on the water with a grin on your grille surrounded by a family grinning just as big, then it's the right boat for you.

  Those smarter than I, like Naval Architect, guitar player and curmudgeon Bob Perry explain why it is what it is, and why it works.

 Bob Perry reviews the Macgregor 26M

It's a spork: Neither spoon nor fork.  You can eat a meal with it, but it neither ladles soup nor picks up steak as well as either a spoon or a fork would.

   But it beats the hell out of going hungry.

  Now, the future of The Spork is up in the air.
 Production is being wound down at the plant in California, and dealers and the public were originally told  that the boats would no longer be built.   Roger MacGregor's daughter, Laura Macgregor Sharp, who along with her husband and family has had a life long relationship with Macgregor Yachts, culminating in becoming MacGregor's export dealer, has started a new company in Florida, Tattoo Yachts.

   Now follow along here:

   When Roger Macgregor announced his retirement in January, he informed dealers and the public that his daughter's new company would be offering a brand new trailer sailer.  A week or so later, Laura Sharp announced that the new boat would be the  Tattoo 22, available in the fall of 2013.

 Then, during the last week of February, Tattoo Yachts showed photos of their "new" Tattoo 26, "under development," which will be available May 2013, much sooner than the earlier announced Tattoo 22.  The 26 looks awfully familiar...

                                                                                                              -image courtesy of Tattoo Yachts

   It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  The Spork is dead.
  Long live The Spork!

   Happy Retirement, Mr. MacGregor.
  You've earned it.

                                                                                                      -image courtesy of macgregor yachts

"Talk the Dock!"



  1. As one who has listened to your "thoughts" about the MacGregor 26, I am shocked at your somewhat reluctant acceptance of its place in history. Long live the water-ballasted sailboat. I think the comparison to the Iphone is totally appropriate. Mr MacGregor was ahead of his time.

  2. I am a big MacGregor fan so after reading your article I stopped by the factory today. Mike Inmon gave me a tour and I'm happy to say MacGregor is actually not closing it's doors justing ending production of the 26M Trailer sailor. They have some amazing things in the works but I'm waiting for the okay from Mike before I spill more about what he showed and told me today. I also made a short vid while I was there. Long Live Macgregor Yachts! -Steve C

    1. Steve,
      Thanks for the comment. This is where things get confusing. Yes, boats will still be built at the same location, and they will be MacGregors, the updated 70...which will be, as it always has been, built by the MacGregor 65 Corporation, which, as I understand it, is a wholly separate enterprise, from a legal and accounting standpoint, from MacGregor Yachts.
      Two companies, two different products, one location.