Com-Pac Yachts / Hutchins Co., Inc. Company Profile

The beautiful lines of the Sun Cat are evident even during the construction process. The beautiful lines of the Sun Cat are evident even during the construction process.

The trend these days seems to be to bigger and bigger boats. But don't tell that to the people at the Hutchins Company, Inc. who build the Com-Pac line of small sailboats — they almost can't build boats fast enough to meet the demand.

The Hutchins Company is a family owned-and-operated corporation founded in 1957 by W.L. Hutchins Sr.. Les Hutchins, or "Hutch" to everyone who knew him, was a self-made man from a farming background who became a successful inventor and entrepreneur. His inventions ranged from automobile accessories to a unique folding high chair. The "Ah-ooo-gah" horns popular on Model A Fords were made by him too. A tool and die maker by trade, Hutch initially owned and operated a successful metal-stamping and fabrication shop in St. Louis, Missouri, which subcontracted work from the major automobile manufacturers. Eventually the Hutchins Company, Inc. developed its own line of automotive products incorporating many patents and registered trademarks held by Les Hutchins.

In the early 1970's the desire to turn a personal interest in sailing into corporate diversification was realized when Les focused his talents on boat manufacturing. In 1970 Hutch commissioned master boatwright and designer Clark Mills to put a big boat into a small package. The result was a 16-footer appropriately named "The Com-Pac Yacht."

Designer Clark Mills is best known for his Windmill and Optimist pram designs. There may be more Optimists in the world than any other one-design class. Yacht designer Robert H. Perry recently referred to Clark Mills as "one of the unsung heroes of the yacht design world."

The concept for the original sixteen-foot boat came from an idea of Hutch's to build a boat that could be shipped in a box sixteen-feet long, five-feet high and six-feet wide. Clark Mills didn't feel this was any way to design a boat, nevertheless he and Hutch worked together until they came up with the original Com-Pac 16. It took two years to properly shape and fair the plug and another eight months to build the first boat which was completed in 1974. The box idea was eventually scrapped, but Mills and Hutchins put as much boat into those dimensions as possible.

The Com-Pac 16 was designed to neither a traditional nor contemporary standard. Its hull's compound curves provided strength and stability — more or less along the lines of a good safe lifeboat. The bow design is full for seaworthiness and the keel is scientifically designed to provide hydrodynamic lift as it moves through the water. It was a boat that was easily rigged and easily sailed. By keeping everything simple, it could also be built and sold relatively inexpensively.

Another key figure at the Hutchins Company back then was Buck Thomas. Buck was an experienced boat builder who formerly built the Southern 21. He consulted closely with Les Hutchins during the building process. After the first Com-Pac 16 was built, Buck was the one who traveled around the country "beating the bushes" promoting and selling the boat.

From the beginning the Hutchins Company took pride in its quality of production and finish. All Com-Pac yachts are constructed of hand-laid glass, and use only the best quality materials and hardware.

Les Hutchins' goal for Com-Pac Yachts was, "to build a small but highly efficient sailboat that would appeal to people who didn't want to invest too heavily in a boat, yet one they could easily trailer behind a compact car." In fact, Hutch trailered his Com-Pac 16 all over behind a Ford Pinto with an automatic transmission.

Hutch always felt the market for the Com-Pac 16 would be the retiree — the guy who moved down to Florida from the Great Lakes or the Chesapeake Bay and wanted to do a little sailing when he felt like it without having a lot of money invested in a boat. He really had no idea the boat would sell all around the country in the quantities it has.

After the success of the Com-Pac 16, the Hutchins Company introduced the Com-Pac 23 — also a Clark Mills design and basically a larger version of the Com-Pac 16.

Next came the Com-Pac 19 (SCA issue #1), a nice compromise between the first two boats and a more logical step up from the 16 as a trailerable than the 23. While there is no mistaking the 19 as a member of the Com-Pac family, her designer was Bob Johnson of Island Packet fame.

One of a whole new genre of catboats — the Sun Cat. One of a whole new genre of catboats — the Sun Cat.

Later, the Hutchins Company expanded the fleet to include the Com-Pac 25, Com-Pac 27 and Com-Pac 35. Bob Johnson also designed the ComPac 27, while the Com-Pac 25 is a product of the Hutchins Group design team. The largest boat in the line, the Com-Pac 35, is from the drawing board of Charlie Morgan. Although the fleet is a blend of four designers, there is no mistaking the good looks of a Com-Pac Yacht.

While I have always admired the Com-Pac line, what really got me interested in doing a story on the Hutchins Company was Com-Pac Yachts' new line of catboats. I had seen the 14 foot Picnic Cat at a boat show in 1999, and I thought it would be the perfect boat in which to while away lazy afternoons of retirement. Then I saw the new 17-foot Sun Cat at the Strictly Sail Show in Chicago — and I must tell you I was absolutely smitten. Because I was working the show, I had an opportunity to revisit the boat a number of times and talk with (pester?) Richard Hutchins about the various aspects of the Sun Cat. Not only is she a terrific looking boat, but she's elegant, roomy and well made. Both the Picnic Cat and the Sun Cat feature recent innovations developed by the Hutchins Company to make them easy to rig and sail — especially short handed.

I later made arrangements with Rich Hutchins to visit the plant in Clearwater, Florida. Gerry and Richard have now taken over the operation of the Hutchins Company. However, Les, who is now a spry 86, still visits the plant from time-to-time to make sure the boys are doing it right. Gerry originally worked for Gulfstar Yachts and Richard ran the St. Louis-based metal-stamping shop.

Gerry Hutchins with the innovative stainless steel centerboard and trunk assembly. Gerry Hutchins with the innovative stainless steel centerboard and trunk assembly.

The Hutchins Company facility consists of two or three main buildings housing assembly areas, an excellent metal shop, and a quality wood shop. The plant is modern, open and well lighted. Not unlike a number of other quality boatbuilders, the Hutchins Company doesn't mold their hulls and decks in-house. They leave that aspect to a quality subcontractor they have worked with for many years — one who molds to their strict standards and specifications. The spar work is also done outside by a quality vendor. The company then brings all the parts together and assembles them to their high standard of fit and finish.

According to Gerry Hutchins, the company's goal is to satisfy its customers with a yacht of exceptional quality and value, while making a legitimate profit. Low overhead, tight quality control standards and attention to efficiency in production and administration ensure that outcome. A solid design and realistic approach to production and marketing enables Com-Pac Yachts to offer a quality boat that will hold its value for many years.

Gerry Hutchins told me that when they decided to add a line of catboats to the fleet, they again went to Clark Mills for the designs. The Picnic Cat and the Sun Cat are classic catboat hulls to which Com-Pac has added some new technology and ways of doing things — like the Hutchins Company's trademarked Mastendr Quick Rig Sailing System that makes raising and lowering the mast quick and effortless. Gerry feels that the Mastendrâ„¢ is a great marketing feature, "people really appreciate the quickness and ease of that system," he says. "It's a hinge within the aluminum extrusion — the boom, sail and gaff all push down below the hinge and rest on the boom gallows, then, with the forestay released, the spar is able to hinge back and rest on the boom gallows as well." For trailering or dropping the rig to get under a low fixed bridge, this seems to be the ideal set-up.

Another departure from traditional catboat design is the rudder. In place of the barn door rudder normally found on catboats, the Picnic Cat and Sun Cat feature a "kick-up" spade rudder.

A recent change in Hutchins' design philosophy is the addition of a centerboard to certain shoal draft keels. From the beginning, Com-Pac boats were designed with low drag, high lift shoal keels that give the boats the stiffness, security and feel of much larger boats. Only recently has Com-Pac offered specific boats with centerboards for superb upwind performance. The new Picnic Cat and Sun Cat feature a unique Hutchins Company designed and built stainless steel centerboard and centerboard trunk. This is an impressive design and a well-executed assembly that is much stronger and many times less susceptible to damage than traditional fiberglass centerboards. The original Com-Pac 16 is now designated as the 16CB and is being built with the centerboard assembly. The Com-Pac 19 may be special ordered with a centerboard as well. According to Gerry, incorporating the centerboard design came about as a result of constructive criticism over the years that the boats needed a little more lateral plane. Explaining the thinking that went into the original shoal draft design of the Com-Pac 16, Gerry told me, "At that time that it didn't matter. We admitted it was a compromise boat. You put it on a trailer, and it was simple. There was no maintenance, no moving parts, and it fit in the garage. It was everything a lot of people wanted, and they were selling terrifically. We told them how best to sail it under its particular constraints. This meant cracking it off a little, not pinching it too close to the wind, but letting it breathe a bit." Gerry admits that sales of the Com-Pac 16 have declined over the years. "Right now we keep that boat on primarily for nostalgia reasons. It was our first and the model we built the most of."

A Picnic Cat nears completion. A Picnic Cat nears completion.

During my visit to the plant in April, I found a Com-Pac 19 and 25 in various stages of production, but the majority of construction efforts were dedicated to the building of Picnic Cats and Sun Cats. Gerry explained that the new designs are proving to be extremely popular with buyers and at present make up the bulk of production. Business at the boat shows has been good, and orders for Com-Pac Yachts are up dramatically.

One of the advantages of being a small family-owned company producing a few hundred boats per year is the ability to discuss custom details buyers want incorporated into their Com-Pac Yachts. Gerry admits they may not be able to accommodate all requests, but at least they're willing to talk about them.

One of the many things that impressed me during my visit to the Hutchins Company was to learn that both Gerry and Rich spend time sailing the boats they build. I think this is certainly one reason why Com-Pac Yachts are as good as they are. There are other boats out there with poor sailing characteristics or badly executed design features where you just know that the designer or the builder has never sailed them or they most assuredly would have corrected those flaws. Gerry can be found most often sailing the latest of the company's small boats. "Small boats are the most fun," he says. While Richard also sails a variety of the boats, he has chosen the Com-Pac 35 as his liveaboard home.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Gerry and Richard Hutchins continue to explore new ideas of where to go next with the Catboat and Mastendrâ„¢ Quick Rig Sailing System concept. Gerry believes they may have created a whole new genre of catboats with the Picnic Cat and Sun Cat. He is actually quite surprised by the widespread popularity of the catboat. "There is quite a segment of boaters out there who appreciate the catboat concept," he said.

Com-Pac Yachts has endured and prospered through lean and boom times of the sailboat-building industry. The Hutchins Company's unique ability to meld classic design and high quality with new and innovative technology virtually assures its continued success.

By Dennis Boese
Courtesy of Small Craft Advisor