If you go to a lake on a sunny breezy day in summer, you might see droves of Hobie Cat catamarans cruising around. The casual observer would think Hobie dominates the catamaran industry and sets the standard with its trendy and colorful boats, much like Harley-Davidson with motorcycles.
While high-visibility companies like Hobie occupy their rightful place in the catamaran world, they're far from the only game in town. Indeed, long before Hobie and other companies even came about, Frank Meldau began developing boats that influenced the world of small catamarans and helped create a market for the recreational vessels.
Meldau, 68, heads International Fiberglass in Durham, North Carolina, where he hand-builds his 14-foot Cheshire Cat and 16-foot Isotope catamarans. It's a small operation, but one that has had a profound influence on catamaran design. As evidence, if you go to a catamaran race, you'll probably find owners of his boats taking home more than their share of the trophies.
Appropriately enough, Meldau was born on a sailing yacht off Charleston, South Carolina. He developed an interest in sailing as a ninth grader in Raleigh, North Carolina, when a friend would invite him to his family's place at a nearby lake to spend weekends tooling around on a sailfish, a small sailboat.
During a hitch in the Air Force in the early 1950s, Meldau lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and went to engineering night school at the University of New Mexico. On a break with a friend, they visited the friend's parents in Corpus Christi, Texas, "and that was the first time I ever saw a catamaran," he recalls. His friend's father had bought a 40-foot boat built in Hawaii. "That thing would scoot by boats bigger than it was. It just flew by them." This spurred his interest, particularly in small catamarans. "I thought what is true for a 40-footer would be true for a 16-footer."
After getting out of the Air Force and returning to the Raleigh-Durham area, Meldau set out on a mission. "I just started digging and getting as much information as I could about catamarans, and I started putting it all together one day. I was studying geology and geography at the University of North Carolina, and in my spare time, I started working on catamarans." He began by drawing up designs based on his friend's parents' boat. In 1960, he built and tested a 24-foot cabin catamaran made of plywood. Then came a second one, a 21-footer.
Upon graduating from North Carolina, Meldau didn't want to pursue a career in geography and geology, so he remained at the school working in the campus engineering department. He met his wife Rhoda, a drama major, at the Carolina Coffee Shop. "We had about a thousand dollars in the bank, and she was pregnant. I quit my job, and we started building boats," as he describes his bold move.
The experimental 21-footer Meldau built incorporated most of his ideas and served as a prototype for the Isotope and Cheshire Cat. Observing that, unlike traditional monohull boats, catamarans don't have ballast weight in the lower center portion for stability, "It was obvious in the very beginning that the boat should be light but very strong." As a result, "it wouldn't have to carry much sail area."
"The hull shape was very, very important to me," Meldau says in explaining how he pursued his design. He developed an exaggerated ellipse shape, as he calls it, for the pontoon. "A lot of catamarans make their hulls a certain thickness all over to carry dynamic loading. I developed a fiberglass tubular structure inside the hull." He compares it to a formula race car with its tubular frame for strength and a thin shell for a body. "That way, I could keep the skin of my boat relatively thin and only thick and strong where it needed to be. It makes it very light and extremely strong."
Meldau's hull design supports more weight with less wetted surface and drag than other designs, giving his boats distinct advantages. They go faster in low to moderate winds, when most people prefer to sail, and they exhibit responsive handling and stability. Because the Cheshire Cat and Isotope are light in weight and don't have huge sails, they don't require as much effort to handle as other boats; they can actually be rigged, sailed, and righted by one person.
Another element factored into Meldau's design equation: "the ability of a catamaran to point into the wind was very important." When catamarans originally came onto the scene and vied for legitimacy, monohull boat proponents scoffed at them saying they couldn't tack, or sail upwind, because of their width -- sailboats tack by heading into the wind as much as they can and zigzagging back and forth. Aided by center boards in the hulls, Isotopes can point into the wind more than other cats of comparable size, enabling them to tack more efficiently.
Meldau's company builds boats by special order. "We don't mass produce anything," he says. But yet, "All the boats come out of the same mold," meaning hulls and the basic boat are produced identically. The difference comes in the assembled package, as customers can mix and match accessories, hardware, and colors of their choice.
The most intensive part of building a catamaran involves laying fiberglass by hand in multiple layers to form hulls. "I never intended to be a fiberglass expert," Meldau says. A friend showed him everything about the craft. "I've slowly picked up the skills and perfected the art of making things out of fiberglass." Employees range in number from three to 10, depending on the work load. They often use college students from nearby Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State for summers. An outside sheet metal shop build masts and booms, and they either buy most hardware or have it made at a machine shop.
Rhoda has accompanied Frank as a partner and soulmate in the business since the beginning, and she works at it fulltime. She handles the necessary chores of running a business, such as bookkeeping, receiving, taxes, office managing, advertising, and bill paying as well as marketing. As Frank explains, "All I do is engineer and build things out of fiberglass. I'm an engineer, not a salesman. Rhoda's a saleperson."
Initially, they generated sales by going to boat shows in places like Annapolis, Maryland and Chicago as well as local ones around North Carolina. Business also fed off testimonials from owners. Meldau says they don't go to boat shows much anymore. "We sell most of our boats today by word-of-mouth. We do very little advertising."
It's not a hard sell to knowledgeable sailors because Meldau's offers the unique package of a virtually hand-made, affordable, high-performance boat. When asked how he keeps his price down, he replies, "We're not really greedy." It helps that they also don't sell through dealers, meaning they save $1500 to $2000 a boat in dealer markup.
But even with the success of his boat designs, Meldau has had to learn some hard lessons. "We found out early on that the boat business is very seasonal. You did a lot of boat building during the winter and early part of the summer, and then it sort of died about fall," he recalls. Orders would pick up in January or February after they went to boat shows. "Back in the 60s and 70s, we were building lots of boats." But then the sailboat business dropped like a rock about 15 years ago, causing many companies to go under. Most of Meldau's customers were yuppies working at companies like IBM, which has a large plant a mile away in Research Triangle Park, and they began laying off people. "Boat sales just plummeted."
Between these two problems, Meldau realized "we had to diversify." International Fiberglass actually began in 1966 as an entity to fill a need for custom fiberglass fabrication in the area, and today they have customers around the world. "Now it's mostly fiberglass work and about 25 percent boats." They've produced a wide array of one-of-a-kind items for industrial, commercial, architectural, and research applications including molded fiberglass furniture, truck bumpers, a geodesic dome for a greenhouse, molds for concrete casting, fish collecting tanks for a research vessel, aircraft propeller blades, and a gondola for a NASA balloon.
Even with the success of their diversification efforts, sailing remains at the heart of Frank and Rhoda's lifestyle and mission. As a testament to their interest in sailing and success building boats, they have shelves full of trophies they've won racing the Isotope and Cheshire Cat, and the two models have been on the market continuously for longer than most any stock boat.
"It's really a labor of love," Meldau says. He thought about growing to become a big company at one time, and outsiders expressed interested in investing in the business. But he prefers the hands-on way of doing things inherent in a small operation. "I like what I do, and I enjoy building my boats." And he adds, "It's been a wild trip."