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For sailboat designer Charley Morgan, life's still a breeze

A self-portrait of Charley Morgan, who took up painting after his first wife died of cancer in 2001.
A self-portrait of Charley Morgan, who took up painting after his first wife died of cancer in 2001.
Published Sep. 9, 2014

Charley Morgan, who calls himself "the ancient mariner," felt like a kid again. Eighty-five candles will grace his next birthday cake, but when he noticed the palm trees swaying beyond the window, he marched outside to look at Boca Ciega Bay. Standing on his dock, he saw Blue Cloud prancing at the end of a rope like a rambunctious colt wanting to leap the corral fence.

"Let's go sailing," Morgan said.

He took hold of the tiller. Tim Horsman, his stepson and owner of the 24-footer, unfurled the sails. Catching the wind, Blue Cloud bolted toward open water. Seconds later, she — Morgan observes the traditions — was slicing through waves fast enough to lean over. The old man grinned.

"We're honking along."

He felt like a rambunctious colt himself. A year ago, he felt older than his age. He saw blood in his urine. He needed a nap after breakfast. A high-energy optimist by nature, he wondered if his friends might soon be reading about him — in the obituaries.

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"Let's get the jib up," he yelled to his stepson, who raised the forward sail.

In his younger days, Morgan was among the world's premier designers of sailboats, fancy ones for millionaires and modest ones like Blue Cloud. Self-taught, in 1960 he built Paper Tiger for famous New York yachtsman Jack Powell. In 1965 he founded Morgan Yachts, the company that made him famous. He was a renowned sailor as well, competing in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit and sailing's most celebrated event, the America's Cup. He was so aggressive at the tiller, a competitor once said, that Morgan wouldn't have let his mother win even an insignificant race. Fortunately, Mom didn't sail.

In 1968, Morgan sold his company and became an exceedingly wealthy man. Then he designed a 12-meter wooden boat for himself, Heritage, to race in America's Cup trials in 1970. He didn't advance, though Heritage won other races elsewhere. His masterpiece is still in use in Newport, R.I., to raise money for charity. Sometimes Morgan sits on his couch in Treasure Island with a legal pad and redesigns Heritage for fun. With tweaking, the still-driven Morgan is sure it could be faster.

"Charley isn't the type of person who is going to just sit there and relax," his wife, Maurine, always tells friends. "He always has something going.''

He was born in Chicago in 1929 but grew up in Tampa. He was a boy when his uncle took him sailing on Lake Conway near a sleepy town called Orlando. At 10 he built his first sailboat out of discarded orange crates and sack cloth.

Professionally built sailboats were a rare sight during the World War II era in Tampa Bay. He never saw more than eight at once. Sometimes he got a loaner and sailed to St. Petersburg. At 19 his confident parents let him sail on a boat called the Red Bird — to Havana.

The adventurous boy also was enamored by the romance of deep-sea diving. During the childhood summers he spent with relatives on Florida's Indian River, he built his underwater helmets out of tin buckets. "Kid, you're going to drown," yelled his uncle, hauling him from the water.

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"It was a different world," Morgan says. "So different from today's Florida. The old-timers ate turtles and turtle eggs. My aunt and uncle drank their water from a cistern — except for the time a cat drowned in it."

The future sailboat designer to millionaires made root beer money by catching toadfish on a cane pole and selling them as crab bait for a nickel a pound. His Cracker kin ate so many mullet their stomachs fluctuated with the tide.

At the University of Tampa, Morgan tried focusing on engineering. Then a sailing friend enlisted him in a sailmaking operation. Morgan quit college and opened a sail shop on the St. Petersburg waterfront. Sailmaking led to Morgan Yachts. His best-known sailboats ranged from 24 to 54 feet. He even built the submarines Disney World used in its 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride.

As a businessman, his credo was "You don't get your boat until I get my money." Even now he subscribes to the Harvard Business Review.

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"Luff up," he yelled to his stepson, who arranged the sails.

Blue Cloud headed into the wind, bucking like a bronco, though not enough to affect Morgan's delicate equilibrium. His thousands of nautical miles over the decades have included many spent retching over the side. How does he manage? Throw up and focus on what's important. On one voyage to Cuba, a sail split in a storm and he came inches from being lost at sea.

In 1956, he met Sally Crawford, who did all their marketing. Their marriage lasted until her death from cancer in 2001. In Europe he spent months grieving and looking at art masterpieces. Perhaps because he is Charley Morgan, he wondered about reinventing himself as an artist. After all, he had enjoying drawing as a kid.

He studied, took lessons from Tarpon Springs maestro Christopher Still, painted like a maniac. In 2006 he married Maurine Horsman, an artist who paints on one side of the Florida room while on the other side he works on a painting inspired by seeing a panther near the St. Johns River when he was a boy.

His bookshelf is lined with art books and volumes about sailing and design. He likes nothing more than discussing the engineering involved in boat building, using the word "theorem" or mentioning "the propagation of gravity waves" or puzzling over the "vorticity in trailing eddies" that slow otherwise fast sailboats.

"Charley Morgan is a vibrant young man who is so tense with ideas, thoughts, philosophies, ambitions and self-improvement projects that on a clear, quiet night you can almost hear him hum as though he were a human generator, which, indeed, he seems to be." The late sailing writer Red Marston published that elegant sentence in the St. Petersburg Times more than a half-century ago.

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A little more than a year ago he saw blood in the toilet bowl. Doctors were puzzled about his urine. Bewilderment frustrates Charley Morgan. Tell him what's wrong and how it can be fixed.

At the Moffitt Cancer Center, he got an answer. There was a tumor on a kidney. Doctors removed the kidney. He rested, felt weak, got stronger. Weeks and months passed. He started painting, started looking out the windows at Blue Cloud.

She is not the Heritage, and Boca Ciega Bay is not the North Atlantic. His days of sailing in the America's Cup are long behind him.

It didn't matter.

Out on the bay, the old man grinned and brought her home.

Contact Jeff Klinkenberg at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727. Follow @jeffklinkenberg.

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