Thomas C. Gillmer, Naval Architect - Remembrances of his “Last Student”
My relationship with Tom started long before I knew him personally. My formative years were a
bit like Tom’s, albeit somewhat more recent - we both grew up on and around boats. We both
started on Lake Erie, and later gravitated to the east coast, myself to New England, he to the
Chesapeake. I love his story about seeing for the first time the Annapolis harbor full of skipjacks
getting underway in the early morning . . . his love of boats now confirmed, he said, he was going
to become a naval architect. (By the way, the first boat I sailed on as a young kid on Cape Cod: a
I first became aware of Tom during my 20's. I was working at a major Vermont ski area as a
professional ski patroller, spending some of my off-time doing yacht design study with YDI. I
remember sitting in my mountaintop patrol shack on many a cold gray day, cramped and
shivering, waiting for the phone to ring to announce the next injured skier, with a C.E. Ryder
color brochure opened up before me showing tropical waters, palm trees, and white sand, and,
more importantly, these really pretty and very nicely designed cruising sailboats called the
Southern Cross series. They were designed by Tom Gillmer.
I spent hours trying to figure out how I could afford one, how I would set it up, where I’d go with
her . . . My favorite was the 31, as she and the 28 both reminded me of the Monomoy sailing
whaleboats I grew up and learned to sail on, and absolutely loved. No, I never bought a Southern
Cross then, but I put a lot of vicarious miles on those boats, and learned a lot of good design in
I decided then to go sailing full-time, and moved to Newport, RI, then to the Caribbean, and did
the delivery and charter captain bit for about 5 years. I was good at the sailing part, the weather
was certainly better, but I decided I had neither the patience nor the temperament to do the
charter thing, so I moved to Annapolis in the spring of ‘86. Since I had already done a fair bit of
drafting and yacht study, I put a small notice up on a bulletin board in a local copy shop
advertising my drafting services at “reasonable rates” – and promptly forgot about it.
Months later, in the fall, the phone rings. A raspy voice asks, “Is this Iver Franzen?” “Uh, yes it
is,” I reply. The voice says, “This is Tom Gillmer, you’ve probably heard of me.” Many
thoughts occur all at once: The Tom Gillmer? Is this for real? Why would he be calling me?
How does he know me? I realize I probably ought to say something, which he confirms by
asking, “Iver, you still there?” I sputter something like, “Yeah, uh, sure, I think,
Southern...Allied...Pride...Cross, uh, yes, hello, Mr. Gillmer,” or something equally articulate. At
which point he tells me he spotted my note at the copy shop, and would like to talk with me
about helping him draw up the plans for the new Pride of Baltimore II. No real thought was
required now on my part - absolutely, when can I be there?
We meet the next day, go through my own history a little bit, and I show him a few of my old
drawings. He doesn’t say much about those. We then discuss the tragedy of the Pride’s sinking.
I can tell already he’s not an overly demonstrative man, but it’s clear this was a real blow to him.
I tell him about seeing the Pride in St. Thomas just before we both left on our respective
passages north, about hearing the crew speak very warmly about their ship, and about the squally
weather we both sailed through on our way back to the States. (Fortunately for my boat and
crew, we had no real problems.) He tells me a few thoughts about designing the ship, and of his
satisfaction in the crews’ and owners’ feelings about her . . .
He shifts the conversation quickly then to the new ship. He’s clearly gratified that the prevailing
sentiment is that a new ship is appropriate, both for the program, and as a fitting memorial to the
lost ship and crew. We discuss some of the mission statement changes for the new ship, and
some of the design details he’s thinking about incorporating in her. Apparently he thinks my
drawings are OK after all, because then he asks me, “When can you start?”
Well, right away, of course, and so I immediately began work on Pride of Baltimore II. I know
Tom was, and had every right to be, particularly proud of this design, as I think it is probably the
best example out there of how to do a replica vessel that performs as well as she does, has the
proper look and function of her forebears, and is still able to satisfy all of the present-day
regulatory requirements that can sometimes hobble the performance of other replica vessels.
Kalmar Nyckel was another replica design in which he was able to successfully strike a similar
balance between authenticity and modern safety requirements. She is a very handsome, very
impressive, and very successful ship, especially considering the time frame of the original, 1629!
Our work together on the refit for USS Constitution was particularly interesting, gratifying, and a
real honor for both of us. Tom was asked by the Navy to do a thorough structural assessment,
which then formed the basis for our proposed structural remedies, and which also needed to be
true to the time period. We were also tasked with researching and documenting her 1803 and
1812 configurations, including determining the actual original design and designer. From our
research and work, Tom wrote an excellent book called “Old Ironsides, The Rise, Decline, and
Resurrection of the USS Constitution” which describes her operational and maintenance
histories, with a very informative discussion of this most recent refit, including efforts to return
her to her 1812 configuration. Tom was invited, but was unable to be aboard for her return to sea
on that July day in 1997. He was greatly disappointed he couldn’t be there.
My time working with Tom, in addition to a growing friendship, also allowed me to study his
earlier designs. Of the 60+ designs on his summary list, 15 are of a wide variety of historical
vessels, from many periods of time in history, illuminating his lifelong interest and his
contributions to the understanding, education, and scholarship of many facets of maritime history
and naval architecture. These contributions also include his numerous books. His early books
are about subjects such as airfoils and weather. Later books include “A History of Working
Watercraft of the Western World,” which is an excellent discussion tracing the evolution of
various workboats and commercial craft in different parts of the world. “Pride of Baltimore, The
Story of the Baltimore Clippers” is a history of the development of the Baltimore clipper type,
and discusses in depth his two specific ships, Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II.
Tom is perhaps best known for his dozens of cruising designs, some of which have very
noteworthy histories. Those that stand out in particular are the Seawind and Seawind II, the
Southern Crosses, and one of his best known designs from early in his career, the Blue Moon.
He was one of the first designers to recognize fiberglass as an excellent boat-building material, of
which the Seawinds were made. It was a Seawind that became the first fiberglass boat to
circumnavigate the globe. Many of his designs were originally meant for wood construction,
later to be modified for fiberglass. Some show definite historical influences, with “clipper”
bows, traditional rigs, or carvings on the quarters or trailboards. All, however, are very good
cruising boats. He knew how to give them the proper balance of stability, seakindliness, ease of
motion, performance, dryness, and livability that has made them the standards by which other
designs are measured. Just studying those designs alone was a remarkable education!
One day, back in the beginning, a few weeks after I’d started working for Tom, after I’d done a
couple of drawings and peppered him with questions, he asks me, “So, Iver, are you really
serious about becoming a naval architect?” “Yes,” I reply. “And you’re ready to get into the
nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of it?” he presses. I hesitate, but only for a second, “Yes, I am.” He
mulls this over for a moment or two, then looks me in the eye, smirks slightly, and says, “Well, I
guess you’ll be my last student, then. Let’s get to it.” Whereupon he hands me a copy of his
textbook Modern Ship Design (yes, he wrote that, too) and says, “Start reading, I need floodable
length calculations for Pride II by Friday.” That’s when I learn that he had been for many years
Professor of Naval Architecture at the US Naval Academy. Oh my, I think to myself, this is
going to be one helluva ride!
And so his mentorship, and my education, commenced, and continued through many projects in
addition to Pride II, Kalmar Nyckel, and the Constitution refit, and resulted in my induction into
The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in 1992, for which he wrote a very
complimentary letter of recommendation. I consider this letter my Naval Architecture “diploma,”
and it hangs proudly under glass on my office wall. He not only oversaw my learning of the science
of naval architecture, but he also helped me expand my appreciation and understanding of the art of
designing boats. And I consider my education in the historical research and replica niche of our
business a uniquely rewarding bonus for which I will always be additionally grateful to him.
And that textbook he gave me . . . it is now very tattered, and the spine is very stressed, and I still
A great teacher, a great mentor, and a great friend, he will most assuredly be missed.
With great affection,
Capt. Iver C. Franzen, NA
January 8, 2010