Hall of Fame Interview: Carl Eichenlaub

Not only was he an outstanding racer in his day - winning Snipe, Star, and Lightning championships, including the Lightning Internationals - but Carl Eichenlaub also made a career of building boats for these classes, and his boats have been among the best, winning countless championships. And over the last 25 years as the US Sailing Team's shipwright, Eichenlaub has been able to repair the U.S. fleet in a competent and timely way at high-profile events; his generosity and skill have been apparen

Carl Eichenlaub

Sailing World Archives

When did you realize that putting boats together (or back together) was something you liked to do? What was the first boat you built?

When I was a kid, about junior high, I got a magazine called "How to Build 20 Boats" - it had lots of boats and plans, some of which became famous. One thing led to another and I gravitated towards the boat business. The first boat I built was a "Stormy Petrel." My father was a cattleman, so we loaded the boat onto his cattle truck and took it to Mission Bay YC. It's sort of a natural thing to want to see if your boat is faster than the other guy's, so I sort of got into racing by just wanting to be faster than other boats out there.

Why were your Stars & Lightnings the best? What's the fastest boat you ever built?

In the case of Stars, I had a big boost from Lowell North - he had innovated on the Starboat lines, went to a major regatta, and won nearly every race, but he got thrown out for a rules infraction before the start. He didn't want to build boats. He wanted to be either a snowski maker or a sailmaker. I figured I could probably build him one, so he gave me his lines, and I modified them over the years to make even more competitive Stars. It was about '63 or '64 that I hit the jackpot with people winning all the time in my boats. Lightnings - that was a strange one. I built one for my dad and took it to the Internationals in New Orleans I built it right from the plans, didn't change anything within the tolerances. We were clearly faster than everyone, but I'm not sure why. Thought I could do better in terms of design, but each year got worse. One time I went to the Internationals, and the guy who was doing as badly as I was, did better. I asked him why, and he told me, which was about what we were doing with Starboat lines. I won the 1960 Internationals, and then helped Tom Allen learn to build Lightnings. He then did better than me, so I had to keep innovating, and then beat Tom again in '63.

At your best as a competitor, what were your strengths? What was your best victory?

I was probably at my best in Mission Bay-type wind - moderate wind. I was lousy in really light air, not very good in a gale. The best sailors on Mission Bay in the '60s were the Barber twins (Manning and Meritt, who invented the Barber hauler), not the best racers, but the best straight-line sailors. They are the ones who helped us get going really fast. The Lightning 1960 Internationals was my biggest win - I tried and worked so hard to get to that point, drawing a different boat to the tolerances. I had to become a better sailor, so I got in a Sabot and practiced every day at Mission Bay YC for six months against a woman, Mrs. Lynch, who was really fast. If you can sail a Sabot well, you can sail anything well. I remember one race really well. It blew really hard, the maximum amount they'd sail a race in. We got to the weather mark second to last, but if there was one thing I knew how to do really well, it was to make a boat plane, because of my experience in I-14's. We got back to third on a great downwind leg. It was a matter of knowing when and how much to move the crew weight. That was the race that won me the Internationals.

Why did you decide to become the U.S. Sailing Team shipwright?

I didn't decide. One day I got a phone call from Dick Sterns, the President of Murphy & Nye. He called me out of the blue, saying a new position had opened up on the Sailing Team, he thought this position would be right up my alley. He asked me to take on the job (he was going to be the team leader) and I almost turned him down. But a friend told me that if I ever had the chance to go to Olympics I should go. That was in '76. I've done it every Olympics, Pan Am, and Goodwill Games since.

Have you ever had a real conflict between helping a U.S. sailor with a minor problem or fixing something major for a sailor from another team?

I've always worked on helping out with other countries. Some of our team leaders like this, some didn't, but I always cleared it first. The Canadians didn't take Dirk Knuelman (their shipwright) to Athens and their women's board got crushed in shipping. I fixed it, and it came out beautiful and she won the first race. A lot of people were sort of unhappy about that, but then Lanee Butler won the next race, so it was OK.

What's the most creative repair you've managed during a major event? Hardest?

The hardest repair was in the Paralympics in Australia. I got back to Sydney the day before the Games started because I had been given the Herreshoff Award by US SAILING and had to be at their meeting for the presentation. So after flying all day, I went right from the plane to the club and had to fix the floor timber in the Sonar, because it had been left out when the boat was built. The team had sailed the boat without the floor timber and the boat had a huge crack. I only had a piece of plywood, and even had to plane that down to size to meet the class specifications. I would have rather used oak, but I got it in, used 6 or 8 layers of mat and roving and glassed it in. It took all night to put that many layers in and then I epoxied it all up. It was a miracle to get done on time. It was a difficult job with limited time. The most creative was when Bill Buchan came to the '84 Olympics, he had a boat that was too narrow, more than a half inch too narrow at the stern, both at the deck and chine. Bill had built the boat himself, and I was surprised he let me fix it. So I took a Skil saw, made four three-foot long cuts, put some wedges in, fixed it, and he won the gold medal.

Are there any repair jobs, or anything else about boatbuilding that you really don't like?

I'm not a glass man, but when you are in my line of work, you get exposed to it because some of the glass work is involved - like one time a guy shows up at a pre-trials with a hole in the transom of his Starboat that looked just like the bow of another Starboat and I had to fix it quickly.

What's going on at your yard now? It's rumored that you're building wooden boats again.

I built a PC (Pacific Class) for my daughter Betty Sue, who is going to be commodore of SDYC next year. I told her she needed a flagship, but if I built a modern race boat, it would be obsolete before it was done. It's all built and in the water; everything is done with the exception of the mast. I have the wood for the mast, which is Douglas fir, 40 feet long, that has to be scarfed together. It's all built according to the exact plans as accurately as I could to duplicate what Kettenburg had built. The hull is varnished mahogany. This is the first one that has been built in probably about 50 years.

How long have you been a member of San Diego YC?

I grew up sailing at Mission Bay YC, but when I started sailing boats that couldn't get under the bridge to the ocean, like Solings, I joined SDYC. I've been a member of SDYC for 30 years. I am member #2 at Mission Bay YC currently.

Who was your biggest early influence in sailing?

Probably the best guy who ever sailed at Mission Bay YC, except for Earl Elms, was Bob Gales. It was always felt that if you could beat him, you could beat just about anybody in the world. I crewed for him a few times, and learned more from him than anyone else. When I first joined Mission Bay, the boat of choice was the Skimmer which is what I really started racing on with Bob.

Besides San Diego, where are your favorite places to sail?

Tawas Bay, Michigan of course, because I won the Lightning Internationals there. Naturally San Francisco; you just get addicted to sailing in a gale. And of course, Buffalo, with all its Lightning sailing, - it has to be a great place to sail, because so many great sailors come from there, and great places make great sailors.

Will we see you at the Lightning Masters in Mission Bay next summer? Will you build your own boat out of wood for this regatta?

I think you will see me there, but no, I probably won't be building a wooden boat; that would sort of be going against the trend.