Paul Kettenburg, 92; ran family boat building company

By Jack Williams
May 29, 2006

Paul Kettenburg was barely old enough to know a stem from a stern when he saw the first boat take shape in his family's Point Loma backyard.

As his father and older brother built a 24-foot speedboat in 1918, the young Kettenburg eagerly played the role of gofer, handing them tools, pieces of wood and fasteners.

It was a valuable lesson in boat building for the future president of Kettenburg Marine, which became known nationally for designing and manufacturing superior sailing and racing vessels.

Mr. Kettenburg, a lifelong sailing enthusiast who became commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club and president of the San Diego Maritime Museum, died May 21 at his Point Loma home. He was 92.

The cause of death was heart failure, said his son, Tom.

Known for his hands-on mastery of all things nautical, Mr. Kettenburg brought technical and engineering skills to his family business.

He joined what was then Kettenburg Boat Works on Shelter Island in 1943 as a systems engineer after working in the heating and air-conditioning business for nearly a decade in the Chicago area.

When his brother, George Jr., died of cancer in 1952, Mr. Kettenburg became the senior partner in the family-owned company.

Teaming with Charles Underwood, he designed a series of boats beginning with the K-38, a cruising yacht.

"He had a gift as a designer and was a very fine sailor as well," said Mark Allen, an author who is chronicling the history of the Kettenburg business. "His boats were exceptionally designed, won a lot of races and are still very much treasured today."

Whittaker Corp., a Los Angeles-based technology and chemical company, bought Kettenburg Marine in 1969. Mr. Kettenburg remained as president until his retirement in 1979. The company, sold in 1985 to La Jolla Thompson Fetter, was dissolved in 1993.

Mr. Kettenburg served as commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club in 1965 and headed the Southern California Yachting Association in 1966. In 1967, he received the San Diego Association of Yacht Clubs' Alonzo de Jessop Memorial Award for outstanding services to yachting.

In 1976, he served on the crew of the Star of India when the ship made its first voyage in 50 years. For many years, he also took the helm of the vintage steam yacht Medea, based at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

"He was very active in sailing until the late '90s," his son said. "One of his last sails was aboard the Star of India in August 1998."

For many years, Mr. Kettenburg mixed sailing with restoring automobiles. The hobby dated to his teens, when he "took two beat-up Model Ts and made one good one out of them," he told The San Diego Union in 1964.

He finished his last car " a 1912 Model T " about 10 years ago, his son said.

In the 1960s, Mr. Kettenburg flew a single-engine Cessna 172 for recreation. He later became a recreational vehicle enthusiast.

Paul Albert Kettenburg was born Dec. 10, 1913, in San Diego, about a year after his father retired from a successful business career at age 45 and brought the family west.

His brother, George Jr., nearly 10 years his senior, persuaded their father to turn a passion for boats into an occupation. After building a William Hand-designed speedboat in 1918, the Kettenburgs formed a partnership in the early 1920s, Kettenburg Boat and Engine Co.

Despite enduring seasickness during some of his childhood boating experiences, Mr. Kettenburg loved going on his family's first boat as his father and brother trolled for barracuda.

He graduated in 1933 from Point Loma High School. After graduation, he went to Chicago to attend the World's Fair.

He wound up staying for 10 years. After attending a trade school, where he studied heating and air conditioning, Mr. Kettenburg worked for General Electric.

He put in some of the first air-conditioning units during the Depression, his son said. "Some were in theaters and some in the homes of wealthy people."

During World War II, Mr. Kettenburg installed furnaces and was involved in war production projects.

"He kept active in sailing in Chicago by taking a speedboat out on Lake Michigan," his son said.

In 1947, Mr. Kettenburg married Dorothy Johnson, an Indiana native who had come to San Diego serving in the Coast Guard. She died in August 2002. Survivors include his daughters, Carol Dubbs of Williamsburg, Va., and Gretchen Belloff of Detroit; son, Tom Kettenburg of San Carlos; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Agnes Catholic Church, 1140 Evergreen St., Point Loma, followed at 2 p.m. by a graveside service at Singing Hills Cemetery, El Cajon.

Donations are suggested to the San Diego Maritime Museum and the San Diego Yacht Club Junior Sailing Program.