Forty years ago I was on a plane heading back ‘home’ to South Africa. The gent in the seat next to me introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “My name is Rodger Martin.” He was also heading back ‘home’ having grown up in Johannesburg. We chatted for a bit. It turned out that he was a yacht designer working for a mutual friend, David Pedrick. At some point in the flight Rodger excused himself. “I was chatting with some black people at the airport” he said. “They are on this flight. I want to go back to my conversation with them.”
In the early 80’s South Africa was racked by the scourge of apartheid. Looking back on it now I think that this simple gesture by Rodger sums up precisely who he was as a person. He wanted to reach across barriers and to try and understand who people really were and how they lived their lives. And I say “was” because I was beyond sad to hear that he passed away a couple of days ago.
I could write a book about his talent as a yacht designer and I will come to that in a bit but I want to stay with his character. Rodger, along with his wife Patty, were two of the most welcoming people you will ever meet. Their hospitality and kindness shone through in everything that they did. My wife, Sally, and I stayed with them at their lovely home in Newport, Rhode Island, on numerous occasions and they were beyond generous with their time and, if I may say, their good cheer.
On one visit Rodger was plying us with whiskey then thought to ask, “why are you guys in Newport this weekend anyway?” I replied that we were there to run a half marathon in the morning. He was gob smacked. “But you have nearly finished a whole bottle of whiskey.” The next morning he was there at the finish line to make sure that we were still alive.
One of the things that I remember about visiting them is that there was always classical music playing from some speaker hidden somewhere in the rafters. When you walked into the house the music was playing. If you got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom the music was playing. I am sure, although we never spoke about it, that this beautiful music informed who he was as a yacht designer.
A few years after my chance meeting with Rodger, back when I was a budding sailmaker with Hood Sails, I made contact with him. I had heard that he had designed a boat for a young, ambitious sailor by the name of Mike Plant. Rodger took me to the shed where Mike was toiling away building a boat for the upcoming BOC single-handed around-the-world-race.
We talked about the design and some of its innovations. Mike Plant was Rodger’s first client after he started his own yacht design firm. Mike went on to win his class in the 86/87 BOC and came back to Rodger for a new design for the Vendee Globe. The boat, Coyote, was clearly ahead of its time. Sadly the Mike never made it to the start of the Vendee. He was lost at sea.
Rodger and his design partner Ross Weene were prolific and the boats that they designed were some of the most beautiful and successful of the last three decades. Rodger was not one to follow any rules, in fact he told me that he had a huge disdain for rules.
He said that they curbed creativity and put yacht designers into a narrow box. Instead Rodger drew outsides of the lines and came up with some really innovative and beautiful yachts. He and Ross worked closely on a project that I was involved in called SpeedDream – the quest to build the world’s fastest monohull. His input and design expertise was beyond invaluable.
A few years ago Rodger told me that he was taking some time off to go sailing. “Life is too short,” he said. He and Patty took an extended cruise and sailed the tropical waters (I am being vague here because I don’t really remember where they went). He came back refreshed and dove right back into designing boats, which, other than Patty, was his true passion in life.
I hope that right now he sailing some turquoise waters looking down on the beautiful sailboats that he first imagined, and then designed, and I am quite sure that there is classical music playing in the background. – Brian Hancock.