Boat designer triumphs over his trial by fire

November 17, 1994|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Tony Smith believes in fate.

Six months after he moved to the United States, his Mayo factory burned down, destroying molds for the Telstar, a three-hull sailboat he had designed in college.

He spent the next six months developing the 34-foot-long Gemini. Fourteen years later, the boats have made him the country's largest manufacturer of cruising catamarans.

"If something happens to you, you say, 'Why did it happen?' " said Mr. Smith, 50, an Anne Arundel County resident whose voice bears a trace of his native Britain. "If I simply retooled and remade Telstar again, then the fire wouldn't have made sense."

Mr. Smith, who runs Performance Cruising Inc. with his wife, Sue, took a risk in giving up his Telstar line. It had been one of the most popular trimarans on the European market. But the boat builder had already taken a risk in trying to sell multihull boats in the United States.

"We were told by the conservative yachtsmen that there was no market for a cruising catamaran," said Mr. Smith.

The Smiths have succeeded, however, during a time when a luxury tax and a recession have severely

shrunk boat sales. Last year, they made 40 Geminis and grossed $3.5 million. Each black-and-white Gemini costs about $100,000.

They also have marketed the catamarans as affordable, versatile boats that can be raced or lived on. Each has three bedrooms, a bathroom and a dining area that can seat up to eight people.

Frank and Dotty Williamson wanted to live on a boat and spent three years looking before settling on a Gemini in 1983. At that time, the boat cost $50,000.

They have been living on it ever since.

"We felt that we had more space for the dollar," Mr. Williamson said. "I still have yet to find a boat within the same price range that offers as much accommodation."

Mr. Smith, who was born in Lowestoft, England, started sailing when he was 8. At 19, he built his first boat out of plywood and went on to study engineering at several colleges, including the University of London.

Three years later, he entered the Round Britain race, a 3,000-mile sail.

A year later, in 1967, he again entered the Round Britain, this time in a trimaran he had designed. The boat became the prototype for Telstar, named after the first television satellite linking England and the United States.

Trained as a research engineer, Mr. Smith met his future wife while they worked for a British engineering firm. In 1971, he started his own boat-building business.

She joined the business when Performance Cruising Inc. moved to Mayo. Mrs. Smith, 47, manages the paperwork while Mr. Smith oversees the design and manufacturing.

The Smiths said they chose Annapolis because they had visited the area several times for the U.S. Sailboat Show. They also liked the mid-Atlantic region.

Geminis are built in three warehouses tucked away on the West River.

The glue-like smell of fiberglass fills the air around Caso Rio marina, where the Smiths and about 20 employees work.

It takes about six weeks to build a Gemini, complete with a teak-cabinet interior. Each boat is 14 feet wide and has a 45-foot mast. They have tinted black windows and white sails. For now, the Smiths say, there is no plan to design different catamarans.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.