Maritime Museum of San Diego
Excerpts from Interview with Jim Underwood
Interviewed by Mark Allen at Mr. Underwood’s home,
Rancho Bernardo, California, 10 October 2005
[Jim Underwood worked with brother Charlie, a Kettenburg Boat Works partner, and father Jim, from 1936-1941. He later went into business partnership with George Kettenburg in developing a marina at Shelter Island, 1952]
"George [Kettenburg] usually was a hard person to find—he was so busy, you know, here, there, and everywhere.
"I have something to show you. We have to drive to it." And he said, "my car is out in front." We got headed for Shelter Island; there was no fill dirt…over the hydraulic fill. There was nothing but just the sand there. And we drove out, through ruts, and got to the place where I wanted to build a marina…When we got there, I says to George, "Turn off here," and we turned off…got out, and I said, "I want to build a marina right there." "What a great idea," he says. "How do you propose to do it?" I had no idea—I didn’t know what I was doing….I said, "I don’t know—I thought you might know someone who was interested." "I’m very much interested," he said. "I can raise the money. How would you like a partner?" He said, "You build it the way you want it, and I’ll make sure you have the money."
…George knew me well.
[Racing with George Kettenburg in the 1930s]
George was a wonderful skipper, and a terrific person….before we ever started in the race, he would say, "Now, I’m gonna get excited and say some things I don’t mean."…If you’ve ever done any sailboat racing, you know what I mean. George wasn’t one to use profanity—but he’d get the idea across.
[Dick Hershey] was one of the finest boat builders on the coast.
a nice person to work with—however, he always said, "Take your time—but hurry up!" (Do it right, but remember; it has to come through on budget.)
Working in that yard you had to, number one, think of quality.
By the time I left, we were building quite a bit of our own hardware for sailboats.
"If anything happened to you," he said, "I could finish this marina," but if I should die you would be in a pretty bad predicament—you’d better have a little life insurance on me."…I remember George Hartley writing the application for insurance, and he said, "Jim, you’ll probably never need this, but George is a good businessman, and this is good business practice." So we went ahead with it…
George had been going to a doctor, trying to cure up what he thought was a cold—nose kept running—and he changed doctors, and this doctor recognized his problem immediately, and put him in the hospital. He had cancer in his sinuses. They pretty much disfigured him. Cut his nose, laid it over…dug out the roof of his mouth, sewed the nose back on—the poor guy was just in misery. But he would walk out onto Shelter Island once a day, and he would stop by to see how I was doing, and encourage me, which I thought was pretty darn nice. He just withered away…of course there was an investigation by the insurance company, who thought there was kind of a fraud going on, but it was proved that George didn’t know about his problem.
My dad noticed an ad in the paper for a painter; someone was building boats for the movies on Point Loma, and they needed a painter. …The boats for the movies that they were building turned out to be runrunners….I remember my dad saying, "building boats for the movies—but I have to camouflage ‘em so they can’t be seen too easily against Point Loma." They built those (they don’t like to talk much about it) but that was really something that really got the boat building going down there.
My dad was a little man…but he had kind of an Irish temper. He was a nice guy, but he could blow up…he would make up for his small stature with profanity. (He had to fight back some way.) [laughter]
"He was an excellent painter, and he could make a boat just shine like a mirror. And people would bring their boats from all up and down the coast to be painted by him.
[brother] Charlie had wanted to be a bellhop
he became a really terrific boatbuilder, and a good production man, as you know.
As the three of us worked there, every once in awhile, one of us would want to quit—do something else—and the other two would talk him out of it.
Gerry Driscoll told me, "Your dad taught me all I know about painting. He taught all of us kids who had Starlets to maintain our boats." He was really good that way.
George was—number one—a really nice, good, good to the marrow—I mean, he was just a great guy, and honest as they come. And, of course, he expected people who worked for him to be the same way. Very loyal to his employees. He was a perfectionist, actually. I used to enjoy watching him. When a boat was just about finished, carpenters would say, "It’s done." You would see him up on the scaffold, and he’d be looking down the lines of the boat—looking at the deck line. And he’d go to the other end. He’d call Dick Hershey over, and say, [whispered] "A little bit off right there." He’d get his plane…and get it just right, and go ahead and finish it. But there was a point where he wanted to make sure everything worked just exactly the way he wanted it.
Things were tight, matter of fact, so tight, in order to sell boats George had to have the price right down…cut to the bone. And more than once, we’ve gone back at night—without charging for our time—and worked like beavers trying to get a boat…up to a point where it wasn’t going "in the hole."
We really worked.
We did this on several occasions, where a boat was falling behind. We’d just go on in and make sure it came through.
[racing with potential PC buyers] I felt awkward—I was a poor kid from Pacific Beach, and our circumstances were pretty meager, and here I was over there with people of means, y’know? I was George’s regular crew, and we’d take out prospective buyers, and they’d be crew. And that was how it worked.
I remember one time, there were a string of us—I guess there might’ve been six PCs in a row—behind a Navy tug. And that Navy tug was putting out black smoke and we were first in line, and it was coming back, and we were out in the ocean, and…I got really, really sick that time. We were just off Newport Harbor…and we were cut loose, and George hollered to me, "Get the sails out!" And I’m down in the bunk…and I put my hand over on the sail, and I couldn’t move, and he looked down there and said, "Omigosh! Jimmie’s sick!"
One time we finished the regatta up in Newport, and this beautiful boat…threw us a line and was towing us to San Diego so we didn’t have to sail home….I got on the big boat [NOTE: Joanne, not Jodaro as he recalls] instead of on the PC, and I’m lying on the deck in the sun enjoying myself. And another young guy about my age lying beside me. And pretty soon I said, "Who’s the old S.O.B. who owns this thing?" He [Wally Springstead] says, "It’s my dad."
What he [Charlie Underwood] did that was outstanding really was building boats upside-down. The way we’d always done it was building ‘em from the keel up. And you’re always working at a disadvantage. And when we were building those ugly plane re-arming boats for the Navy…the process had to be stepped up—a little more speed, a little more production, get ‘em out faster…
My mother and a neighbor lady were the screw fasteners [on PRBs]. These boats had double-thickness planking, and they put what they called quilting screws in, every four inch, every direction. And mom and "Rosie the Riveter"…would put in the screws all day long.
Charlie did an awful lot in perfecting fiberglass boatbuilding.
And all the while [Jimmie] was working there] there was a beautiful rumrunner stored in a shed by the side of the main building. I always wanted to get that boat out and give it a run—beautiful thing.
[Wartime] It was hard because there was so much demand for labor…especially in the aircraft industry. And for us to find workers was really a challenge. We had to get a lot of old timers who’d been retired. I remember in the machine shop, I had a guy named Fermin Artecci [SP?], who was a Basque. And he’d been retired from machinist [work] for years. He was slower than—but he did good work.
He’d do it by stations. Move a boat from one station, to the next, to the next.
The Navy was pretty demanding…They wanted it the way they wanted it—and that was it.
If you’re building a boat the conventional way, you have what you call stations, every so often [along the length of the boat]; you get the contour of the boat, and then you put these…strips around the boat, you put ‘em on with lag screws—into these members called stations—to get the shape of the boat. And then, to make your steam-bent frames, you would have a man inside the boat. You’d go over to the steam box where the oak would be steaming. You’d grab one of those hot pieces of oak, hand it to him—he’d press that down with a foot, and hands, into shape, and then the workers outside would clamp…to the longitudinal pieces and then also we would at the same time cut the butt end into the keel. That was some fancy chisel work we had to do. And then screw fasten that, and that frame would be left alone until it cooled.
Now building upside down, of course, you would have the inside shape of the boat instead of the outside. It would be much easier: you’d just lay the piece of oak…you’d have a notch cut in the keel, just about where you want it, and then you fit that in there, and just bend it down—and that’s all there is to it.
[Charlie] You darned well better do it his way.
When were were building Navy boats, and my brother had brought things through on some kind of fantastic goal they had, and done a wonderful job, and my dad said: "Well, with God’s help you did a good job." My brother said, "What did God have to do with it?" …He was pretty mad. He was lying on the floor, arguing with my dad.
George is what made it special.
I remember we built a boat for Samuel Dauschy…we built…a Rhoades something-or-other, a cruising-type sailboat: it was a gorgeous thing. And we built that, and somehow or other, something slipped, and the boat got cockeyed in the cradle, just as we were ready to launch it. So we had to put it in the water to straighten it up, and shore it up, and then pull it back up for the official launching the next day. I remember George, tactfully as he could, calling up old Samuel Dauschy—who was not exactly a curmudgeon, but a guy you wouldn’t want to fool with—telling him that "Your boat is temporarily in the water—we’re just checking the waterline. The official launching will be tomorrow." Well, that’s something you just don’t do…
You don’t make a good income as a boatbuilder, because it takes so many hours to do so little….it doesn’t show. It takes a lot of hours to build a boat. Consequently…a good boatbuilder is not "in the money."
[After his dad quit] I remember George coming over to the house. "I’ll give you anything you want," he says. [Jim grows slightly teary.] "What do you want? I don’t want you to quit!"…but George says, "I’ll give you part of the business—anything you want!"
[mis-launching a PC] It didn’t go so well. I jumped from the pier to the cradle and I missed, and I fell between the cradle and the boat, and "Red" Stanger, the ways man—whether he was trying to help me, or whether he fell in on his own, I don’t know—but the two of us, we’re floundering around in the water, and the PC was drifting off to the middle of the Bay, and George Kettenburg happened on the scene, and he was standing on the dock screaming his head off. And we felt kinda silly.
[38’ fish boats] They were terrific boats. They would carry much heavier load than most fish boats their size. We put good machinery in them, they were built right, and for a fish boat, they were pretty classy, and very popular. All the fishermen wanted them.
[racing PCs] Say we were gonna race in the Bay. He’d [George] know where the shallow water was, and he’d cut it—depending on the tide; he’d always take advantage of the tide, one way or the other. If the tide was going in and we were going out, he’d go over to the shallow as close as he could. And once in awhile, he’d miscalculate, and we’d feel the boat just sort of—UGGGH!—dig in, and then really quickly grab the spinnaker pole and start pushing in the mud, and then somebody else’d grab hold of the shrouds on the leeward side, and try to heel the boat over a little bit more, so it wouldn’t have quite as much draft…
[PC #1] That boat was accustomed to going into close places…and I can understand if George were at the helm, why that boat would’ve been in close to the beach, because he would be considering the tide, the wind, everything—working everything to his advantage—and, of course, when a swell comes in and actually lifts the boat and moves it bodily towards the shore—there’s not much you can do about it.