The history of Columbia Yachts, one of the earliest, largest, and most successful American builders of production fiberglass sailing yachts, (the company did offer a line of power yachts at one time) in many ways, mirrors that of the industry as a whole, from around 1960, until the late-1980’s. PRE-COLUMBIAN ERA: Glas Laminates, (later called Glass Marine Industries) was a small company that produced camper tops, shower stalls, and portable chemical toilets (for Sears & Roebuck among others). The founders of the company were Maurice V. Thrienen, and Richard Valdes (who would figure prominently in the fiberglass boat industry). In 1961 Glas Laminates was approached by boat builder and designer, Joseph McGlasson who had the the idea of building a fiberglass version of his own Catalina Islander 24 that he had been building of wood. (Another version of the story is that McGlasson was already building fiberglass boats but couldn’t keep up with the demand and was looking for more capacity.) Using one of his completed hulls as a plug, a mold was built, and the ISLANDER 24 was born. Apparently, no effort was made to mask out the seams between the wooden planks of the plug so that the final product came out with the imprint of a traditional wooden hull. Whether you believe this story, or the effect was simulated in some other way, this became a signature of the Islander Line, an offshoot of the original enterprise. Immediately, the company discovered that it couldn’t build these yachts fast enough to keep up with demand and had a backlog of at least a year. EXIT JOE MCGLASSON At this time Glas Laminates modified, or created a new mold for themselves (without the planking imprint) and built their own version, the COLUMBIA 24. Shortly afterward, McGlasson went his own way to form Wayfarer Yachts which later became Islander Yachts. COLUMBIA YACHTS IS BORN In 1962, Glass Laminates expanded its line to include the Sparkman & Stephens designed COLUMBIA 29 which they adopted from a project begun elsewhere and had run out of funds. (Several other later boats built by Columbia, such as the DEFENDER 29 seem to have derived from this particular design.) The 29 was also a big seller and inspired the company to take on Columbia as the corporate name. By 1964, Columbia had opened another plant on the East Coast. COLUMBIA BUYOUT #1 In 1967 Columbia became a subsidiary of the California based conglomerate, the Whittaker Corporation. Company headquarters and the West Coast plant moved to another site in Southern California. Richard Valdes became a member of Whittaker Board of directors.. Columbia acquired Coronado Yachts at some time in the late 60’s. Though Columbia produced Coronado’s as a separate brand, most Coronado’s were built from Columbia molds. Between 1971 and 1973, Columbia launched Sailcrafter Custom Yachts which sold a line of kit boats. EXIT RICHARD VALDES By 1972 Richard Valdes had ended his association with the company and went on to build boats elsewhere. In an effort to cut costs, Columbia moved its headquarters to Virginia in 1975 and sold its Irvine, CA and Portsmouth, VA plants. The separate Coronado line still existed but became even more closely integrated into the Columbia product line. In 1978 Columbia Yachts closed it’s doors. ENTER HOWARD HUGHES A year later, Howard Hughes, from Hughes Boat Works and no relation to the billionaire aviator, purchased all the molds, brought them to a plant in his native Canada and began producing many of the original Columbia’s under the name Hughes-Columbia. All models were available fully finished or in kit form. This lasted until 1982 when the company went into receivership. AURA YACHTS - A FOOTNOTE TO THE STORY At this time, an entity called Aura Yachts, also located in Canada, purchased the Columbia assets and built a number of boats under the Aura name. HOWARD HUGHES REDUX (IT ENDS IN FIRE) In 1986, Howard Hughes bought the assets back again. More boats were built for some time until it all ended with a fire in 1991 that destroyed the Hughes factory, and apparently most of the Columbia molds. (It is said that some of the original molds for the larger Columbia models that Hughes never purchased, still exist, or did for a number of years.) But none of the original Columbia’s were built after this date. Richard Valdes became one of the few survivors and became a major player with a number of other boat building companies including Gulfstar. Years later, his son resurrected the Columbia name and built a new COLUMBIA 30 (later 32) sportboat. Perhaps wisely, he limited his business to direct sales, avoiding dealer networks as they face a much more competitive environment with far less demand. The original MIC for Columbia Yachts was CLY (retired in 1983?) MIC issued to the new Columbia Yachts (2001): CYV.
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