By Richard Gaines
Phil Bolger was a renowned and prolific boat designer, author and eccentric — with a playful creative streak and a penchant to make boating easy.
Sunday, he killed himself by handgun behind his West Gloucester house overlooking the Jones River where decades ago he perfected the wooden kayak.
His wife and business partner, Susanne Altenburger, said yesterday his decision to take his own life was a long-contemplated, reasoned and principled act — though Bolger gave her no advance warning or hints in recent behavior.
"How he died is part of his narrative," Altenburger said. "He died an extraordinarily violent, purposeful and soberly considered death."
Gloucester-born and raised, Bolger designed 680 boats, including the world's smallest dinghy, "the folding schooner," a novelty innovation of convenience, as well as the HMS Rose, which was given celebrity in the 2003 movie, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." He was in reasonable health for his 81 years, but felt himself slipping mentally, Altenburger said.
"He was perhaps the best and most diverse small boat designer in the world," said his friend, the Gloucester and naval historian Joe Garland.
Altenburger said she was not prepared for his suicide. She said she awoke Sunday morning — perhaps to the sound of a gunshot — and when Bolger did not respond to her call, she discovered his body outside along with a .45-caliber pistol.
"He made sure I was not in the loop; it keeps me out of trouble," she said.
Suicide and assisting in a suicide are crimes in Massachusetts.
"We had discussed final issues many times," she said. "He was very clear about the finality of these things; he would leave on his own terms."
The .45-caliber pistol was one of a small number of guns that the libertarian and weapons-trained National Rifle Association member owned. The police confiscated the guns when they responded to the scene Sunday morning.
As recently as last Wednesday, the Bolger-Altenburger boat designing-business team participated in the annual meeting in Gloucester of the U.S. Commercial Fishermen's Association, where they preached on behalf of his latest design innovation, a light, narrow, shallow draft, fuel-efficient commercial fishing boat.
It was his last crusade — pitched as an antidote to old-fashioned, diesel guzzlers that were encouraged by federal regulations — and after years of frustration, Bolger had finally been successful in getting a small prototype built and fishing.
Thirty-one years Bolger's junior and his wife for 15 years, the German born-Altenburger described Bolger as "an independent, unorthodox, free spirit as reflected in his work.
"In his family ran certain health issues — aging and losing faculties — he was alert for not hanging in there if it were not a good thing," she said.
Altenburger said Bolger was a serious libertarian, even a passive member of the Libertarian Party, such that he considered the right of gays to marry to be at peace with his absolute belief in the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.
In addition to his work as a boat designer, Bolger was a prolific writer. He published numerous books on boats and a science fiction novel about apartheid in South Africa, written and published before the racial separation system ended, along with countless magazine articles.
He also left three unpublished manuscripts, which Altenburger said yesterday she would see published.
In 2008, Watercraft magazine saw fit to reprint his first magazine piece — "Tokyo Bay Fishing Skiff" — from a 1948 edition of The Rudder.
Written while Bolger was in the U.S. Army of occupation in post-war Japan and already obsessed with boat design, it outlines the unusual solutions the Japanese had found to the problem of building seaworthy boats that "can lie flat on their bellies in the mud or float in a few inches of water."
Along with the original text from '48, Watercraft featured Bolger on Bolger, in which he chastised himself for issuing a sophomoric absolute in the earlier piece. "The remark in my text then that this was the first written description of these boats is, of course, nonsense," he wrote, "though it may have been true of the American yachting press."
Behind all his work, said Altenburger, was a desire to make boating available to the masses.
"The best boats are either small enough to carry home or big enough to live on," is an aphorism of Bolger's often cited as getting to the essence of the man.
He was whittling boats at the age of 7 while growing up in the house at 250 Washington St., the younger of two boys raised by their mother after their father, a successful businessman, died of a stroke.
His grandfather, an emigrÃ© from Prince Edward Island, invented the steel ice box.
Bolger attended Bowdoin College in Maine, served in the Army and returned to Bowdoin to get his bachelor's degree in history. Afterward, he apprenticed to John Hacker and Linsdey Lord, who were among the elite naval architects of the years around World War II.
Bolger's tastes tended to the more practical and innovative, though he maintained a lifelong friendship with the wealthy yacht-builder Stanley Woodward.
"Bolger's knowledge of practical boating history is encyclopedic, including not only what the boats were but also how they were used and built, and why," wrote Don Segal in Small Boat Journal in 1989. "His designs range from the 115-foot full-rigged ship Rose to production motor cruisers to ocean-crossing rowboats to working lobster boats. A few were total failures; many were spectacular successes. Every one of them makes us look just slightly askance at our priorities and at boats as we think we know them. Every one makes us think."
His designs — especially his weird innovations — were validated by the masses, who built and raved about the Bolger Brick, a ultra-small, squared-off sailing skiff; the Bolger Pirogue, a sprite of a sailboat; and the Bolger Sneakeasy, which looks like it was made for use in the '40s gangster movie, "Key Largo."
"Brick started as an exercise in how much boat could be built of out three 4-by-8 foot sheets of plywood," he wrote in his 1994 book, "Boats With An Open Mind."
"It's a simple pleasure to come out even with no scrap left over," he wrote. "I try not to let this game become an obsession, there's an 8-inch by 32-inch rectangle here for which I didn't strain to find a place."
Joseph Gribbens, writing about Bolger in Nautical Quarterly in 1983, noted that his bigger projects were favored by Stanley Woodward, who hired Bolger as the in-house designer for Majorca Yacht and Boat Construction Association (MYABCA), the yard he established in Spain's Balearic Islands.
Bolger considered himself fortunate in the business connections he made.
His nephew Ben Bolger said he heard his uncle say he preferred to "charge less and have lots of work."
"He had very few clients," Ben Bolger said. "He made sure they never owned him."
He and Altenburger lived modestly in a house on Atlantic Street, whose front lawn was taken with a Bolger-designed boat that sits permanently in dry dock.
His most spectacular creation was the replica of the 18th-century HMS Surprise — a modern tall ship, with 20 guns, built at Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Canada, as "Rose" to a Bolger design. It was based on the original British Admiralty drawings.
Bolger got the commission to build a tourist boat for Newport, R.I., and kept it authentic except for the required restaurant and such concessions to modernity.
The Rose was selected to be Russell Crowe's domain in Peter Weir's movie "Master and Commander," which became a blockbuster hit, and brought the designer of the war ship belated notoriety.
Robin Hubbard said she decided to invest in building the prototype, 21st-century fishing boat which Bolger had conceived and he and Altenburger had been trying to market since 2003.
"It's fuel-efficient, fast and economical," said Hubbard, a former Gloucester mayoral candidate. The building project was given to the Gloucester fisherman Davie Mero and his brother, Dan Mero, a master carpenter.
The Robin Jean was completed in February and now awaits the reopening of the inshore fishing grounds on June 1 to begin its work as the platform for hand-held gear, tub trawling.
Hubbard said she decided to invest in the project because of "everything my father ever told me about Phil Bolger, because of the respect he had for Phil and his designs."
Richard Gaines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org