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George Olson

Eight Bells - George Olson
November 19, 2008 – Santa Cruz

George Olson back in the day. "I never heard him say a bad word about anyone, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him," said one admirer. "He was always a gentleman and a gentle man."

We're sorry to report that George Olson lost a long battle with cancer last weekend. He died on November 12 in Santa Cruz, surrounded by wife Lyn Neale, his two grown children Adrian and Kristina, and other family. George was 68.

Olson was a true renaissance man — a jack of many trades and master at more than a few. Antique car restoration, model railroading, surfboard maker, boatbuilder, landsailer and amusement park ride designer were just a few of the passions during his life. We don't know what sort of a mark he left on most of those pursuits, but the one he left on sailing is huge and indelible: George was a key ingredient in the primordial soup that gave the world ultralight sailboats.

George Olson was born in San Diego to a Navy family. He moved around quite a bit during his childhood, living variously in San Pedro, San Francisco, Hawaii and Japan — where he learned to sail at the Navy base yacht club at age 14. His father finally retired in the mid-'50s and the family settled in Santa Cruz. George got involved in local sailing right from the start. At 19 he had built his first boat, a trimaran. A decade later, he he was working as a hod carrier — the guy who carries bricks up the ladder to the mason — by day, while spending the weekends doing crazy things like `turboing' Cal 20s with bowsprits and outsized rigs. One day, low on money as usual, he and some buddies got the idea of building the longest-waterline hull possible to which they could attach a Cal 20 keel, rudder and rig. Two young boatbuilders named Ron and John Moore took notice of the result, a crazy-fast 24-footer named Grendel, and a few years later, the design was tweaked to become the Moore 24.

Later, George went to work for Bill Lee where he helped build boats and design tooling. While delivering Merlin back from the `77 TransPac, George, Don Snyder and Dennis Bassano put their heads together and birthed yet another Santa Cruz ULDB stalwart. They called the design the SOB 30 (for their initials), named the resultant boat Pacific High, and later went into partnership producing it as the Olson 30. Later still, he enlarged the design and the Olson 40 was born.

Through it all, George never finished his formal education and never got a naval architecture diploma. He was a 'natural' with an intuitive sense of how wind and wave interacted — with an artist's eye for designing pretty boats. In a Latitude interview way back in 1979, in response to a question about what calculations he used before changing the size and shape of the Olson 30 keel from that of Pacific High, he said, "I just look at boats. Everybody asked me what the NACA numbers are for the foil sections — that's a book of aircraft section foils where you can get all these drag ratios and laminar flows out of it. Well, I can't understand any of it. I tried, but it's way over my head."

George's ever fertile imagination eventually drifted away from sailboats (although he remained involved in landsailers and model boats), but his legend lives on. We'll have more about Olson's life and stories in the December issue. And we invite you to share yours for possible inclusion. Please forward your remembrances of George Olson to John Riise. But don't delay, we have only a few more days until our December deadline.

- latitude / jr

We're sorry we missed this and are sad to hear of his passing. We loved his boats, particularly the 30, and truly a part of west coast history as moved on...

Olson 30 San FranciscoGeorge Olson, iconic boat builder and boat designer, considered by many to be the father of the Santa Cruz ULDB's, died of cancer last week at age 69. Olson, a longtime surfer and surfboard maker in the early days of Santa Cruz ultralights, was the creator or co-creator of such designs as the Jester Dinghy, Moore 24, Olson 25, Santa Cruz 27, Olson 29, Olson 30, Olson 34, and Olson 40.

In 1969, starting out with a masthead maxed out Cal-20 plus named SOPWITH CAMEL, George Olson set out to create the longest boat for 2,000 pounds displacement he could. The result was the 24 foot GRENDEL, a 24-ft fiberglass rocketship built over a male mold. GRENDEL proved a terror on the water, winning the 1970 MORA season championship and that year's 500 mile MORA Long Distance, which finished in Ensenada.

Ron Moore rescued GRENDEL's mold from a canyon behind a burned out barn in the Santa Cruz hills, and a partnership was formed between Ron and John Moore and George Olson to create the ultimate Wednesday night race boat for Monterey Bay. By jacking GRENDEL's mold apart with 2x4's at Moore's Reef(boat shop) in Santa Cruz, a foot more beam was added and the glass and resin started flowing, ultimately creating the Moore 24 prototype, SUMMERTIME.

Wednesday nights would never be the same again. (Today, GRENDEL sits in a slip on "O"-dock, and with a casual glance, you cannot tell her dark green hull apart from a nearby Moore 24.) George Olson's other finest design was the Olson 30, a boat he designed in 1978. On a delivery of Bill Lee's MERLIN back from her record breaking '77 Transpac , Olson came up with the idea while sailing with Denis Bassano and Don Snyder, who lent their initials to the prototype's name, the SOB 30. The resulting boat was christened PACIFIC HIGH, and was launched in! 1978. Photo from Erik Simonson.

November 20, 2008


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