Anybody remember the old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?” Well, feast your eyes on this. Tucked away in the hilly back-country near Fallbrook, California, resides Harlan Orrin, on a five acre parcel of land with a modest house and a separate barn out-back he built himself over 30 years ago. From the narrow one-lane street that runs in front, a stand of avocado and palm trees do a good job of camouflaging the “treasure” below.
“Out back” as Harlan calls it is a boneyard of old boats, some are very old. Most people would probably hope they just disappeared, but not Harlan. As a master wood-worker and a pretty darn good designer of boats that go fast, Harlan Orrin has undoubtedly had his hand in helping to create more classic boats in the last 50 years than anyone west of the Mississippi. And what’s even more amazing, at the age of 75, Harlan still has plenty of zip to tackle at least a dozen projects still awaiting his expertise.
Harlan’s resume reads like the “Who’s Who’s” of the west coast performance boat building industry. He’s seen and done it all. Hulls, decks, complete boats, plugs, prototypes and special projects for the likes of Mandella, Rayson Craft, Aqua Craft, Hallett, Sanger, Eliminator and more. Where many of today’s new performance boats take birth on the monitor of a sophisticated CAD machine and a giant five-axis router, Harlan still does it the old fashioned way…a pile of wood, an old band saw, a belt sander, a pencil, a tape measure and a large sheet of paper. Here’s a slice of classic boat history that can’t be duplicated.
What got you into the boat building business?
During World War II my dad and uncle worked in a boat yard here in Southern California making a variety of 30 to 35-foot wooden rescue boats for the Army which held about thirty passengers. In their spare time at home they also built some small pleasure boats for the family. My uncle owned a 1954 Mandella and got to know Joe Mandella real well. Two years later, Joe passed away and my uncle liked building boats so much that he bought Mandella Boats as a business for himself. In January 1957 I went to work for my uncle at Mandella building their wood boats. That was really my first experience in wooden boat building although I did build a crackerbox style boat in high school as a class project. Back then I worked half the time on the Mandellas and the other half was helping with the pest control business that my uncle also owned and my dad was the manager. He also split his work time between Mandella and the exterminator business. From 1957 to 1960 we built a total of 54 boats. The last two we built were the plug boats for the fiberglass Mandellas. One of those boats, the 16-footer, also wound up as the plug for the original Rayson Craft boats of Rudy Ramos.
When and where did you learn about performance boat design?
When my uncle bought the Mandella business in 1956, there was a boat about half-built, it was framed and didn’t have a deck on it and we also had my uncle’s ’54 Mandella so we had a full-sized running pattern. From there we just sort of looked at other boats and shapes that seemed to run good and we tried to make ours a little better.
You have been involved in the creation of dozens of classic performance boats over the years. Who are some of the boat companies you have worked for?
After my uncle closed down the wood Mandella part of the boat building business, Lou Brummett was just starting to make fiberglass Mandellas, I went to work for Rudy Ramos at Rayson Craft in Gardena, California in 1960. My job was putting the wood decks on the fiberglass hulls. I also built some plug boats for Rudy. One was an experimental ski hydro which won some major races on the east coast, and then I built the plug for Rudy’s 19-foot semi vee-bottom marathon boat which became the “Hot Rod Magazine Special” that Rudy and Ed Olsen raced and won with at the Salton Sea 500 with an Allison engine and a V-drive. That boat, which is all original, is still around today. John Fells restored it and it’s running and appearing at some of the nostalgia regattas. Another famous marathon boat that I did the deck on was the “Tiny Tim” boat of Tim Wallace. Tim was originally a customer at Mandella before he got into Rayson Crafts with Rudy. In fact, the late 1940’s Mandella named “Whimsy” that Bob Nordskog of Powerboat Magazine raced was originally a boat owned by Tim Wallace.
After working for Rudy for about 3-1/2 years, I decided to open my own business doing wood decks in 1963. Before that I was doing wood decks and a few special boats for people at home in my spare time for a little extra money so it was kind of a natural progression to try and make it on my own. One of those boats was a 266 hydro for Chuck King. I had my own business until 1967. That’s when they started building the 91 Riverside Freeway and the county wanted to buy the property I was on in Bellfower so I sold it.
From flatbottoms to sailboats.
I knew Skip Volk at Aqua Craft and told him I was available. It wasn’t long before I started to work at the Aqua Craft factory here in Southern California. I had previously built a couple of plugs for Skip like the 18 flatbottom, the outboard and the 27-foot deep-vee offshore boat that won a couple of POPBRA (Pacific Offshore Power Boat Racing Association) class championships in the early 1970s. After a couple of years, Skip sold a part of the Aqua Craft business and moved it up to Clear Lake, California so I moved with them.
At the Clear Lake factory which also built the Wickens Whirlwinds, I built a new 18-foot Aqua Craft Shark model and another 18-foot semi vee jet model. The Aqua Craft Shark was built to be a circle race boat and I believe it was the first flatbottom to incorporate lifting strakes on the bottom. This was the model that inspired Rusty Biesemeyer to come out with his own lapstrake circle race boat which you see on the race course still today. The Shark really came from a Wickens Whirlwind that we had, but the Wickens didn’t have any rocker in the bottom so when we built the Shark we added some rocker along with the strakes.
I ran the Aqua Craft plant in Clear Lake for awhile, but Skip and his partner decided to sell the business to a big company called Leisure Enterprises. I stayed on with the company for a few months but the Leisure Enterprises group thought it would be a good idea to start building sailboats. Being a power boat kind of guy, I didn’t find sailboats very exciting so one Saturday I asked my wife what she thought about me calling up Jack Davidson at Sanger Boats and she thought it was a good idea. So at 10:00am that morning I called Jack, an hour later we were on the road headed to Fresno, got to the Sanger factory at 4:00pm and by 5:00pm I was working for Sanger Boats. That was June 1970. Then the following weekend we bought a house in Fresno. It all happened that quick.
The Fresno/Sanger years.
The first project I did for Sanger was a flatbottom circle race style boat since up until then, everything that Sanger was building was mostly for drag racing. I took one of Sanger’s 17’10” flatbottoms and modified the bottom so it would turn better and decided to make it look different so I built the first bubbledeck. The first boat out of the new mold went to an apricot farmer who campaigned it and won a national championship so it was a pretty good start. It didn’t take long for the bubbledeck trend to catch hold and within six to eight months, most of the other boat manufacturers had at least one bubbledeck model in their line.
Once Sanger got into the circle boat racing scene, we started experimenting with new flatbottom designs and we came up with the runner-bottom concept. We took the new boat to the boat races and was told it wasn’t legal for the class, but there weren’t any rules to prohibit it. Pretty soon new rules were passed that defined what a legal runner-bottom was so that’s what we built.
The next project that I worked on was the Sanger picklefork hydro which was a big success at the drags and then Jack wanted a bigger pleasure boat so I built a plug for the Sanger 19 Mini Cruiser which is one of my all-time favorites.
No gas, tough times for the boat industry.
Early in 1974 the country got its first taste of a gasoline crisis and boat sales and boat building just about stopped. Jack had to lay-off most of this workforce of which I was one of many that had to go because we weren’t doing any new models or plugs at the time. About that time I had built a pool table for our house in my spare time and there happened to be a large pool table manufacturing company in Fresno called Rebco. I went over there and got a job as the shop foreman so I built pool tables for a few years. My three daughters graduated from high school and soon got married so it was just my wife and I at the house. Since we both grew up in Southern California we thought it might be a good time to head back south.
Back to Southern California and avocado farming.
My uncle had some property in Fallbrook (just west of Temecula) and my wife had some friends in the same area so we started looking to relocate. In 1978 we found this five acre parcel and decided to move. Fallbrook is known for its avocado ranching, so I became an avocado farmer and a rep for the Rebo pool table company.
As luck would have it, I went to a local avocado growers meeting and saw Nick Barron from Hallett Boats there. I knew Nick from the mid-1960s when he was a customer of mine for wood decks. Nick had some property in Fallbrook and was avocado ranching too. Nick asked me what I was doing, and I told him not much, just growing avocados, a few small construction jobs and recovering pool tables. Nick said for me to come up to Irwindale and see him, he had some things for me to do.
Can’t stay away from the boat business.
Besides his boat business, Nick also had a company building fiberglass patio furniture, mostly tables, chairs and umbrellas. Nick needed some new molds for different sizes of furniture so I started doing that. Then pretty soon he wanted a new outboard mold and I built that. A little later, Nick had me work on a couple of more boat projects for him.
I decided I really didn’t want to work for anyone full-time, so ever since then I have just freelanced for different boat builders who wanted a new model or a different deck design. Sanger Jack got back in touch with me about then and had me do several boats for him; a Mod-VP style I/O and a couple of the Alley Cat tunnels, the 30 and 32.
I also had done some work for Cheyenne Boats and Norm Fidalgo about ten years before, and Norm called me from the Tige ski boat plant in Abilene, Texas where he was plant manager. I wound up doing doing several new models for them which had me traveling back and forth between Texas and California.
Bob Leach at Eliminator Boats got in contact with me in the mid-90s and wanted me to do a couple of deck redesigns on his 21 and 22 Daytonas. Once that got started, Eliminator was a regular customer. I’d work on a couple of new projects a year at their Mira Loma headquarters. Later in the 90s Sy at Commander asked me to give him some help and I built several new models for him too. Between Sanger, Hallett, Tige, Eliminator and Commander, I had about all the work I could handle.
To be continued: Part 2