Phil Bolger, An influential and open mind


When I am asked who was the largest single influence on my work with Corvairs, the answer invariably surprises, because Philip C. Bolger was not an aviator, he was one of the worlds most prolific boat designers.


He was an iconoclast, a man of very strong personal philosophy, a first rate historian, and a very entertaining writer.  He designed more than 600 boats, several hundred of these were specifically designed for amateur plans construction. Had his talent been directly applied to homebuilt aircraft, the EAA might be far larger than it is now.  It would certainly have more options than we have today.


Bolger’s thinking and method of design was unlike anyone else: when designing a boat, he often wrote a short story, something he called a ‘use scenario’, and this wasn’t a mission statement of facts, it was a dramatic piece, focused on the mindset, expectations, adventures and experiences of the people in the event. Only then, did he go back and design a boat that would fit into his story.


This is the exact opposite of a plane designer like Rutan, who so loved canards, that he designed every plane as a canard, and suggested them no matter how poorly they served applications like STOL planes.  Conversely, Bolger had no loyalty to any layout, he was so well versed in all types of design, the best boat emerged, not just an ill fitting permutation of a single layout.


I built an number of Bolger Designs over the years, including a 29′ “Tennessee”  The man detested speaking on the phone, but he was a prolific corresponder, and he would return lengthily handwritten answer letters to any well thought out question. His answers would include references to everything fro Thor Heyerdahl to Voltaire.  Over the years I read every book he wrote, many, many times over., and built up a little stack of letters from him. Boats were his life, but he loved planes also, I once noticed that he had donated a lot of rare photos to the EAA museum.  He was not a zealot, his life was broad.


In 2009 he walked out into his yard and killed himself with a .45 automatic. Both his father and grandfather has succumbed to horrible deaths from Alzheimer’s. Phil was 83, and had undeniable symptoms. It was the last act of a man who defined himself as his ability to think clearly. The last letter I got from him was written shortly before the end. It contains no trace of the decay he dreaded.




Phil Bolger

Phil Bolger in 1949


The best book Phil Bolger ever wrote was 1994’s “Boats With an Open Mind.” It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about designing boats, planes, houses or cars, the book is a priceless examination of how personal values are woven into the best designs at the DNA level. Warning, after you read this you will no longer be able to tolerate mass produced consumer items aimed at appeasing idiots with short attention spans. Be prepared to look at everything you use, from vehicles to furniture to art, in a different light.  Among designers of the last 50 years, he is the ultimate advocate of simplicity. The common connection is that sailing small boats at sea is unforgiving, just like flying.


You can read Bolger’s New York Times Obituary here:


For builders who are wondering, yes I write many of these stories months or years earlier, and often publish them when some event makes the subject relevant. This is  true of biographies of people I found particularly important in my life.  Today we are working to prep for CC #35 in four days, and I brought this story, and the one on Bernard Fall out of incubation to provide food for thought while we are working long hours in the shop.


About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at and in more than 50 magazine articles.

3 Responses to Phil Bolger, An influential and open mind

  1. Truly said. (Ever check out Bartender Boats?)

    • Jackson,
      I have never seen a Bartender in person, just on their website and in the pages of Wooden Boat. There is a lot to be said for very seaworthy small boats. Florida doesn’t usually have that kind of conditions, except running inlets between the inter-coastal and the ocean. Check out films of the Jupiter inlet in south FL, I have been through it when it had a 7′ standing wave from a 15Kt outgoing current. I wouldn’t do it again for a cubic foot of $100 bills.

  2. Joe McLaurin says:

    I share your appreciation of Philip C. Bolger and enjoyed reading about your personal contact with the man. Spent many enjoyable hours studying his eclectic designs in Wooden Boat.

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