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The Quiet Innovators in Boating (Part 5)

Formula 382 FAS³Tech designed by John Adams
The Formula 382 FAS³Tech designed by John Adams

In this Part 5 of The Quiet Innovators, I want to introduce two more individuals who are somewhat different than the quiet icons in the first four parts of this series. The designers here have devoted a significant portion of their careers to designing primarily for one boat manufacturer. As with the others, they are well known inside the industry, but largely unknown to most boating aficionados.

John Adams

It is likely that there never has been nor will there ever again be a boat designer that has been with one company as long and has had such an influence over a single company’s design and branding as John Adams has had with Thunderbird/Formula. Adams started with the company in 1971 and has been there ever since as the head of design. That is over 50 years.

Fuqua Industries purchased Thunderbird/Formula in 1969. In 1973, Fuqua purchased Signa Boats and Vic Porter became President of both Signa and Thunderbird/Formula through to 1975. By this time, a young John Adams, a freelance designer, had become the fulltime designer for Thunderbird/Formula and its boats were being produced in California as well as in Florida. Signa boats were built in Decatur, Indiana.

In 1976, Vic Porter created Porter Inc. and purchased Thunderbird/Formula/Signa from Fuqua Industries. He did business under the Thunderbird Products name building both Formula deep-V and Signa tri-hull boats. In 1975, the Formula 255 deep-V series of cuddies and cruisers was designed by John Adams and in 1979, the same year that production of the Signa lineup was cancelled, came the legendary Formula 302 LS high performance offshore model. The Formula name along with its classic lines was making headlines.

The classic Formula hullside lines may have slightly altered from model to model over the years, depending on whether a sport/performance boat or crossover/cruiser in terms of freeboard or transom treatment, but the principles have remained the same and contribute in large part to Formula’s recognition and success. The foredeck is not flat but just slightly convex, while the shear line runs almost flat from bow to stern with slight almost imperceptible downward tapering towards the stern and starting roughly at the cockpit.

There is very little bow flare and the hull sides are as smooth and as unencumbered as possible. These features combine to give Formula a classic, distinctive, and almost regal look in the same manner as a Rolls Royce does in the automotive world. Both brands remain identifiable year to year and both exude a signature look that is instantly recognizable.

John Adams Formula Boats
John Adams / Photo- Formula Boats

Into the 1980’s, Formula’s focus was mainly the elite end of the high performance and sport boat market. It had won several classes of offshore racing and had introduced the first curved glass windshields in the industry, which had allowed Adams and his team to further smooth and modernize the classic lines of his boats. The very deep-vee hull design of up to twenty-four degrees of deadrise offered a smooth ride that has been a Formula standard in all models to the present day.

The Formula design team started tinkering with stepped hulls in the late 1980’s but went at it full steam in the early 1990’s with John Adams supervising the endless placement and testing of wedges on hull bottoms. The result was the 1997 introduction of the FAS³Tech™ ("Formula's Advanced, Speed, Stability and Structural Technology") stepped hull design. It was first introduced on the 382, one of which I tested on a bleak wintry day in December on a lake near Decatur. The technology soon expanded for use on the 271, 312, and 419 which could be powered at the time with triple 500’s.

The high performance craze peaked and was very much weakening by the early 2000's. While maintaining its solid reputation in that market, Formula directed more of its attention to the upper echelons of the family performance boating segment where quality and luxury was demanded along with performance.

And so, while maintaining that Formula “look,” John Adams supervised Formula’s successful transition away from high performance boats and into smaller sport boats like the Super Sport series, cruisers, and most recently, the highly successful Crossover series of bowriders. Regardless of size or intended use, they all maintain that classic and classy “Formula look” and appeal.

John Adams is probably as deserving as any of the multi-generations of the Porter family for the success of Thunderbird/Formula over the past fifty years.

Neil Gilbert

Like most other boat designers, the name Neil Gilbert likely doesn’t resonate with many outside the boating industry, let alone many boaters themselves. But Neil Gilbert is arguably Canada’s most prolific designer of pleasure boats and his designs have helped propel two companies into the largest fiberglass boat builders of their time in Canada.

Neil Gilbert started out an ardent sailor and in 1981, along with his brothers, won the Shark Worlds Racing Championship. He came to the attention of C&C Yachts of Oakville, Ontario, at the time one of the largest and most respected sailboat makers in the world producing sleek and timeless designs. He earned his designer and builders papers while working with C&C and was Project Manager and lead designer for the C&C 27 Mark V which debuted in 1984.

The Canadian (and even global) sailboat market was tanking in the early 1980’s following one of the worst recessions and financial crises ever. Neil was picked up by powerboat maker Doral of Grande Mere, Quebec to help make over the company’s lineup as well as lead it into uncharted territories, namely designing larger cruisers designed not only for Canadians, but for the US and International markets as well.

After reworking some of Doral’s runabout lineup, one of Neil’s first designs was the 30-Prestancia. I water tested one of the original prototypes on an icy cold November day on the challenging waters of the Eastern St. Lawrence River. It was a miserable day but I was most impressed with the boat, which went on to be a winner and a mainstay for Doral as the company moved forward.

Neil was with Doral into the mid 1990’s, producing ever-larger cruiser designs including the popular 35-Boca Grande which helped create almost worldwide recognition for Doral. Doral became Canada’s largest fiberglass boatbuilder with dealerships throughout the world. Around this time, Neil also designed the Gilbert 30 sailboat, of which a number were built to positive acclaim by the sailors who owned them.

Gilbert left Doral and in 1994 became the Chief Designer for Campion Boats of Kelowna, British Columbia, an inland city on stunning Lake Okanagan. Neil personally reworked and renewed the entire Campion lineup in his first few years with the company. After the closure of Doral, Campion soon became Canada’s largest fiberglass boat builder.

Through his Gilbert Creative Group Inc. situated in Kelowna, Neil has freelanced design work with many boatbuilders. He contracted with Malibu Boats through its Merced, California facility to rework its rather staid line of wakeboard and surf boats into exciting new designs for the fully refreshed Malibu lineup. Gilbert also did design work for Cobalt, Kingfisher, as well as for the futuristic 40-foot Vector high performance powerboat with retractable wings, among other builders.

Family owned Campion Marine was sold in 2019 to KV Private Equity of Edmonton, Alberta. These new owners almost immediately called Neil back to be Chief Designer to refresh and redevelop the Campion lineup. One of Neil and his team’s first projects was the next generation of Campion’s proprietary APEX hull design into the APEX² HULL featuring a dual deadrise.

Campion Muskoka M284
The Campion Muskoka M284

In April, 2020, Campion revealed Neil Gilbert’s stunning new Muskoka M26, a 27-foot family day boat with watersports amenities, wake augmentation devices, large social-inspiring lounges, plus a most unusual vertical stem design. The design could be powered by outboards or forward-facing sterndrives in bowrider or closed deck configurations. The Muskoka M284 became the newest iteration for 2022.

But alas in 2022, the Canadian government announced a luxury tax to be imposed on boats costing over $250,000. KV Private Equity announced the closure after almost 50 years in business. The Campion Marine manufacturing facility was closed as of August 31, laying off its workers and putting the factory for sale. KV Private Equity will keep the Campion name and hopes to contract out the boatbuilding in the future.

Back at Gilbert Creative Group Inc., Neil Gilbert feels that electric power is coming to pleasure boating. According to him, electric power has several advantages in that ballast (batteries) is a known factor in terms of weight and placement within the hull whereas a fuel tank is constantly changing and shifting weight. Once electrical re-charging becomes readily available the cost to top up will be negligible compared to filling a tank with gasoline. Also, the weight of batteries and electric motors may soon be much less than V-8 motors with outdrives and even of large outboard motors.

Perhaps he may slow down and enjoy his well-earned reputation as Canada’s most prolific designer of pleasure boats. Perhaps he will undertake additional freelance assignments. Perhaps he will indulge in what could be called a personal project – that of putting a Canadian flag on a Canadian designed and built highly technical AC75 hydrofoil as seen in America’s Cup racing. Having studied aerodynamics as well as hydrodynamics, he has already produced some renderings showing a Canadian Maple Leaf on the foredeck of course.

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