Designer George Cuthbertson crafted sleek, speedy sailboats
His company, C&C Yachts, became internationally renowned after one of his creations caught the yachting world by surprise
Between periods of a Toronto hockey game in the fall of 1965, two old friends retired as usual to a smoke-filled cranny of Maple Leaf Gardens. On this night, the yachtsman Perry Connolly had a challenge for George Cuthbertson.
"George," he said, "design and build for me the meanest, hungriest 40-foot sloop afloat."
In the following months, Mr. Cuthbertson's sketches became blueprints, a guide for builders constructing a hull with a lightweight balsa core covered by fibreglass. The resulting vessel, a fin-keel sloop as sleek as a dolphin's torso, cemented Mr. Cuthbertson's reputation as a yacht designer and gained an unknown Mr. Connolly triumph as a skipper. Both men would be forever associated during their lifetimes with the innovative sailboat Red Jacket, which won numerous international competitions.
Mr. Cuthbertson died of a heart attack in his Toronto home on Oct. 3. He was 88. He was predeceased by four days by Mr. Connolly, who died of lung cancer in a hospital in a suburb of Victoria, B.C. He was 90. The men had been friends since the 1940s.
Mr. Cuthbertson contributed the first of the initials to famed C&C Yachts, which became one of the top design firms in the world in the wake of Red Jacket's success. It was his ambition to provide first-class boats for weekend sailors and racing yachtsman alike, and his legacy includes the likes of such storied racers as Manitou, Inferno, Inishfree, and Bonaventure V, as well as the company's popular series of recreational sailboats such as the Redline 41 and the C&C 27, 35, 39, 43, 50 and 61.
"We wanted to be recognized as the best in every way – on the race course, quality of construction, finish, and so on," Mr. Cuthbertson told Professional Boatbuilder magazine in 2012.
The panache of Cuthbertson-designed sailboats attracted sailors both professional and recreational at home and around the world. Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan ordered a custom C&C 61 and raced Helisara in Mediterranean regattas in the 1970s. The Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt owned several C&C watercraft over the years. He used wind and canvas to sail sloops such as Lynx, Proud Mary, Dry Fly, Greyling and Dora Maar into the coves and bays he would later render onto stationary canvas. George Harding Cuthbertson was born on June 3, 1929, in Brantford, Ont. He was a second son for the former Elma Charlotte Ferguson, who had studied piano at the Toronto Conservatory of Music before becoming a homemaker, and Allan Edward Cuthbertson, who was general manager and later president of Harding Carpets, which maintained a factory in the city. The boy's middle name came from carpet company founder Victor Harding. As a lad, he heard the company's name at home so often he mistakenly believed his full name to be George Harding Carpets.
The father's management salary insulated the family from the deprivations of the Depression.
Young George became enamoured with boats at an early age, so much so his father once wrote his mother while away on business that he wished his son would abandon the sea for more serious future pursuits in the floor-coverings industry.
The elder Mr. Cuthbertson died suddenly of a heart attack in 1943. His widow and sons moved to her hometown of Toronto, where George completed high school before earning a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto. He gained pocket money by working as a race official during regattas.
The young graduate got a job with SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of ball bearings. In 1951, he formed a marine design firm with Peter Davidson, the pair becoming known for fibreglass dinghies called Water Rats. The struggling design business was supported by brokering the purchase of boats from Europe.
In 1954, Mr. Cuthbertson modified Norman Walsh's Venture II for use in the revival of a Canada's Cup challenge after a 20-year hiatus. The designer served aboard the eight-metre sailboat, which was skippered by David Howard to victory in course races held on Lake Ontario. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club of Toronto reclaimed a trophy that had been held by the Rochester Yacht Club since 1903.
Mr. Walsh then commissioned Mr. Cuthbertson to build a 53-foot racing yawl. Inishfree, a mahogany beauty, won a Prince of Wales Cup and four Freeman Cups in Lake Ontario competition.
When not at the drafting table or sailing on Lake Ontario, Mr. Cuthbertson spent his spare time at the Port Credit Yacht Club, just west of Toronto, where he asked a friend's sister on a movie date. On his second date with Helen Donaldson, he escorted her and another couple to Muskoka to see one of his boats under construction. It was on this date he told her he planned to marry her, which he did the following year, in 1959. He leaves her, as well as his daughter Jill, of Toronto, and sons Michael, of Guelph, Ont., and JohnKelly, also of Toronto. Mr. Cuthbertson also leaves five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brother, Frederick Hugh Cuthbertson, who died in 1993, at the age of 67.
In 1961, Mr. Cuthbertson offered a stake in his design company to George Cassian, an aircraft designer who wanted to try marine design following the demise of the Avro Arrow fighter jet project. Mr. Cuthbertson was known as Big George, his partner as Little George. A history of the company by the journalist Dan Spurr noted they were jocularly known by the staff as Cumbersome and Casual for their respective approaches to a task. The pair gained the respect of the sailing world as Cuthbertson & Cassian, merging with three other marine businesses to form C&C Yachts, a publicly traded company, in 1969. The fin-keel sloop Red Jacket caught the yachting world by surprise with a strong showing in Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC) races off Florida in 1967, winning the overall championship the following year.
Another notable Cuthbertson design was Bonaventure V, a $225,000 yacht commissioned by W. Bernard Herman, a Toronto lawyer and real estate investor. The Bonny, as some called her, became an immediate contender in Great Lakes races before claiming the 1972 SORC with a narrow victory over Charisma. The sailboat was profiled as "Canada's most exciting boat" on the cover of Weekend Magazine. "She has style, grace and beauty," the magazine noted. "And she is fast. It takes 14 men to handle her."
Mr. Cuthbertson served as C&C's chief designer until 1973, when he became company president. He later also served as chairman and chief operating officer before retiring following a corporate takeover in 1981. He then formed Motion Designs, continuing to bring innovation to sailboat design.
In 1974, the designer was elected to membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. The Canadian Sailing Hall of Fame inducted him in 2014.
Mr. Cuthbertson served as official historian of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and as an honorary curator at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, where he long served on the board of directors. He donated his papers and drawings to the museum.
His death was marked by the industry as the end of an era, as he was the last survivor of the founders of C&C Yachts. "It is difficult to say that without George Cuthbertson there would not have been a fibreglass sailboat industry in Canada," naval historian and former C&C designer Rob Mazza wrote for Canadian Yachting magazine, "but with George it truly was a Canadian industry with Canadian builders producing Canadian-designed boats."
In his retirement, Mr. Cuthbertson flew Cessnas and floatplanes, tinkered with furniture design and travelled widely. It was his practice to visit marinas to check in on the condition of the sailboats he had designed.
He maintained a soft spot for the dinghies with which he launched his career. The user name of his e-mail address was "waterrat."