Philip Bolger ’49, renowned boat designer and builder, died on May 24, 2009, at his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
He was born on December 3, 1927, in Gloucester, and prepared for college at Gloucester High School, Winchester (Mass.) High School, and Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. He spent one year at Bowdoin, followed by one year in the Army, then returned to Bowdoin to complete his degree in history. He was a member of Theta Delta Chi fraternity. He took his own life, having planned his suicide when he noticed his mind beginning to slip. A man who reveled in solving design problems and who had begun whittling boats at the age of seven, he left a legacy of unique and creative watercraft. In 1948, while serving in the Army in occupied Japan, he wrote an article for Rudder magazine marveling at the Japanese boats that float in just several inches of water. He went on to create nearly 700 of his own designs, ranging from the silly to the sublime. In the early 1960s, he began selling the Light Dory, which measured 15.5 feet long and 4 feet wide and weighed only 124 pounds. He is said to have perfected the wooden kayak, and he designed plywood boats – dubbed “Bolger boxes” – that could be built in a matter of hours. He also designed the Bolger Brick, an ultra-small, squared-off sailing skiff made of three 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood; the Bolger Pirogue, a tiny sailboat; and the Bolger Sneakeasy. His grandest vessel was the HMS Rose, a replica of the 18th-century HMS Surprise, built to his design specifications based on the original British Admiralty drawings. The 115-foot, fully rigged tall ship, complete with 20 guns, served as the stage for Russell Crowe in the 2003 movie “Master and Commander.” The ship now resides at the San Diego Maritime Museum. He was also a prolific writer who authored many boat-related magazine articles and books, including the 2004 book, Boats With An Open Mind, in addition to a science fiction novel about apartheid in South Africa. He was a staunch libertarian and member of the National Rifle Association. In 1970, he ripped his diploma in half and mailed it back to Bowdoin in response to the College’s tolerance for a well-publicized Vietnam War protest and student strike. He is survived by Susanne Altenburger, his wife and business partner of 15 years.