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Blackman Boats Part 3 – bold but battered

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The “Golden Years” – the 1970s and 80’s – had been extraordinary decades for Blackman. They had established that Blackman Boats was here to stay … and not only were they staying, but they could deliver even larger boats than the 23- and 26-footers.

Old customers were beginning to upgrade and new ones were impressed with what the Blackman offered. Blackman Boats was more successful than its owners had ever dreamed.

This is where the third and final part of our story begins.(Part 1, Part 2)

Family was important to the Blackmans. They were close, a team, and were there for each other. Don adored his “Grandbrats,” as he humorously referred to Travis, Lindsey, Tyler and Sydney. He and Shirley attended countless events of soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, wrestling, Aikido, and theater productions to cheer them on.

Steve worked full time in the business and Donna (Blackman) Blumer and her husband Stu taught at San Dieguito High School District (San Dieguito High, La Costa Canyon High, and Oak Crest Middle School) while raising their two sons, Travis and Tyler. She also worked at Blackman Boats off and on during summer breaks, helping Shirley with the accounting and helping out at Boat Shows when she could fit it into her busy schedule. Donna continued teaching Home Economics until she retired in 2013.

Stu retired in 2010 but continues to operate a palm tree business. He operated a successful Woody Restoration business until 1989 when it was sold, but he has continued his lifetime interest in old cars and still restores classic cars for fun, including a pristine ’29 Ford.

When Don and Shirley celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000 in Costa Rica, the trip was a gift from their children, Donna and Stu and Steve and Kristen. The trip was for the entire Blackman clan! “It was the adventure of a lifetime,” the family agreed!

Interest in the popular new 26-foot model and growing interest in larger models was strengthened by the real estate bubble that lasted until 1989. Then, the unthinkable Savings and Loans Crisis put the financial well-being of millions of Americans at risk, requiring a bailout from the federal government to the tune of $200-billion, and the bubble burst! Savings and loans that had been part of the fabric of the San Diego economic landscape disappeared. Left in an unprecedented failing economy, the Blackman Team proceeded with cautious optimism as the new decade unfolded.

Searching for ways to bolster the sales of the 26-footers and increase the growing interest in the larger models, Don decided it was time to rebrand slightly. The “Fish Machine” logo was replaced with the “Blackman” logo on every boat delivered beginning in 1990, though all brochures still continued to use the slogan:

“Blackman Boats – We build Fish Machines.”

Their cautious optimism was rewarded when Tom Pfleger strolled by the 48-foot “Retriever” and asked Don and Shirley if he could tour the interior of the boat at the Kona Kai Marina. At the time, that was where he kept his Elliot, captained by Steve Lassley. Pfleger admired the concept of an enclosed pilothouse sportfisher and approved the design and layout.

Pfleger and Don met to discuss his needs. While he had enjoyed the luxury of the 65-foot Elliott, it was larger than he could manage comfortably without a captain; he wanted a boat he could personally operate with only one crewmember. And he commissioned a slightly larger boat, a 51-foot model that could accommodate a larger master stateroom up forward. Blackman thought the additional three feet improved the appearance and performance of the original design.

With the 51-foot “Hana Pa’a” order on the books, along with a steady stream of orders for the 26-foot in a variety of configurations, Blackman hoped the workflow of the employees in the shop would be more manageable. (The name is slang frequently used throughout Hawaii to mean “hook up” or “fish on.” Thus, whenever a fisherman has a strike, he yells, HANA PA’A!)

It is an accolade to Blackman’s design and workmanship that nearly a quarter century later, Pfleger still owns the “Hana Pa’a” that was completed in 1992.

Pfleger’s purchase also reinforced Blackman’s belief that many of his satisfied customers who had purchased trailer boats in the past might also be ready to move up to a larger platform, offering more range and comfort.

But the sluggish recovery of the construction, savings and loan and real estate segments of the economy was an unexpected blow to the Blackman operation. It not only stalled the production of the larger boats, but also caused a drop in sales in the 26-foot boats for several years during the early to mid-part of the decade, requiring a significant reduction of employees in the shop.

Once the 51-foot boat was well underway, and still believing that many of his satisfied customers might also be ready to move up to a larger platform, Blackman completed the design and drawings for the first of a new 29-foot model. But, due to the economic times, he was cautious and understood the need to be selective in deciding which projects to take on since they were a small shop and the construction project could be extensive.

It didn’t take long before Carl Nelson, owner of an insurance company in Hanford, Calif., impressed with the performance and quality of Blackman’s workmanship, became the first to order one of the newly designed 29-foot models in 1991. He named it “Ofishall Business.”

Nelson joked that when customers called his office, his secretary could simply say, “I’m sorry. He is out on official business today.”

Throughout the remainder of the nineties, the models in the Blackman Boat’s line grew to meet demand. In addition to the 29-foot, by the end of the decade, the larger boat line included the 32-, 34-, 37-, and 39-foot models. As he had anticipated, returning satisfied clients dominated the list of those ordering the new models.

In addition to the actual boat building, servicing the growing number of sold boats became an important part of the business … not only from a maintenance aspect, but also many of the used boats needed retrofits and upgrades as well. This became another part of the mix for the company. And the number of members in the Blackman owners’ family grew.

Don and Shirley fished as often as possible as Steve took on more and more of the responsibilities. In addition to remaining very active in the local clubs and conservation causes, annual winter Baja trips were eagerly anticipated and thoroughly savored by the team.

Steve and his family also shared an interest in Baja, spending memorable vacations at “Rancho Deluxe.”

“The trip was one of the best we ever had in Baja,” Steve recalled recently. “My wife, Kristen and daughter Lindsey thought trips to Rancho Deluxe were fabulous and riding the ATV’s on a deserted Baja beach was wonderful! We will never forget them … never!”

In 1992, Steve received his California Yacht Sales license, adding yet another important service to the Blackman Company. By the late 1990’s, Steve was basically overseeing the entire operation. Don continued focusing on the design of the boats and was at the shop every day until he became ill in 2003.

Blackman Boats spawned several generations of satisfied boat owners who consider themselves part of a small, tight-knit band who were eager to expand their fishing and boating far beyond their expectations.

Well-known San Diego contractor R.E. “Togo” Hazard, visited the shop in 1999 and ordered one of the 29-foot models to be taken down on its own bottom to Hotel Buenavista Beach Resort, the hotel he visited frequently located only a mile north of “Rancho Deluxe” at East Cape.

During the construction, he would stop by with his progress payments and always hand-deliver them to Shirley. Then, Don, and later Steve would escort him to view the progress on the boat. One peek and he would be gone until time for the next payment and inspection.

Togo was delighted with the first boat and how it handled on the Sea of Cortez! His second 29-foot boat was delivered in 2004 and Togo proudly felt he had become a member of a group of who had purchased multiple models over the years.

“A ‘tell me when the boat’s finished’ sort of a customer, Togo was a pleasure to work with,” confided Steve Blackman. “He was cool … a great guy who completely trusted Blackman Boats.”

Another member of the multiple Blackman buyers club, Ed Waldman elaborated about his final purchase. “It was late 2000 when I ordered a Blackman 29-foot which was delivered in early 2001. Mine was Hull Number 7 in this series. These are not fiberglass hulls, but are made from rigid AIREX® foam. A plug is made of wood and the sheets of AIREX are applied to the outside and fiber glassed for protection. The hull is then rolled over and the plug is removed and discarded.

“The inside is then glassed for protection,” he continued. “The result is an extremely strong, lighter-weight boat with little need for internal structural bulkheads. The finished color is no longer a gel coat, but a high-gloss, durable linear polyurethane in various colors.”

Waldman boasted, “The 29-foot model was the best boat by far. It is economical, fast, stable, dry and runs down-swell like a dream. The electronic controls and twin Yanmar diesels make it very agile and easy to handle, and, like all the others, it raised plenty of fish!”

Bill Holmes, a charter member of the multiple Blackman buyers club, purchased a total of four models; a 23-foot, “Hot Shot ll” in 1980; a 26-foot, “Katie M” mid-1980s; a 32-foot, “Katie M” in the 1990s; and had his final 39-foot boat, “Our Toy” built in 2002.

His first encounter with Don was in the late 70’s at the shop on Kettner and could be titled, “From dumpster diver to boat buyer.” Holmes recalls, “I was working undercover narcotics in the area then with long hair, straggly beard and old clothing.” “After my shift was over one day, I decided to visit the Blackman shop to look at the boats. Since no one was out in the yard, I’m climbing up on the boats, looking at the cockpit layout and inspecting the boat.

All of a sudden Don comes out and gruffly demands, ‘Hey, what do you think you are doing’?”

I replied, “I’m just looking at your boats.” Blackman retorted firmly, “Unless you want to order one, get out of here. We don’t need bums like you hanging around.”

Holmes laughing replied, “I’m not a bum, I’m an undercover policeman working narcotics.” Blackman had seen Holmes in the neighborhood digging through dumpsters and angrily responded. “Like hell you are!” Finally, after Holmes produced his badge and ID, Blackman grudgingly showed Holmes the various models. This encounter led to Holmes purchasing not one, but four Blackman boats, but more importantly, a mutual friendship grew that Holmes still recalls fondly.

With his early professional baseball connection, it was predictable that he would become a staunch Padres fan, first at the Pacific Coast League at Lane Field, then at Westgate Park in Mission Valley. When the new Petco Park was being built downtown, Shirley and Don carefully researched the perfect seat, finally deciding that Row 2, behind third base was the best spot for season tickets.

In July 2003, Don was diagnosed with Lymphoma. After extensive treatment throughout the summer and into late fall, he was declared cancer free before Thanksgiving Day, allowing the entire family to enter the holiday season with joy and optimism. Sadly, in early January, the illness flared up again and Don Blackman, 74, surrendered to the insidious disease on January 17, 2004.

San Diego Union Tribune writer Ed Zieralski‘s echoed the standing-room-only crowd’s sentiments in his column: “Marlin Club loses anchor: Don Blackman dies,” at the memorial held at the Marlin Club.

Escorting the “Retriever” with close family aboard, a large fleet of boats, including many that had been built by Blackman, motored out for the spreading of ashes off of Point Loma on the Pacific Ocean that was such a huge part of Don’s life.

“Don Blackman is irreplaceable,” mourned Dr. Marty Morris, a fellow member of the Marlin Club.

Longtime Marlin Club member Steve Williams added, “Don was a great craftsman, a devoted family man and a fisherman who had great respect for the resource. It’s a tremendous loss to San Diego and the Sportfishing Community.”

The production of the larger 29- to 39-foot boats had begun with the first 29-foot model in 1991 and continued until 2005. Steve supervised the construction and delivery of two 29-foot boats and one 34-foot boat after Don passed away.

Shirley continued to work in the shop while Steve supervised the employees and dealt with the customers. Since many of the Blackman boats were purchased by individuals in the construction industry, the business continued until the huge recession of 2007 hit, causing the business to slow to only a few new boat orders plus requests for servicing of existing boats and a few retrofits.

In the latter part of 2008, the recession caught up with Blackman Boats. From that time on, the operation struggled to survive, accepting any kind of work as the new boat orders shrunk to zero. Reluctantly, in April of 2012, the inevitable happened – Blackman Boats closed.

Molds, tooling for the smaller boats plus all the dead tooling for larger boats, plywood sheets with frame lines and lofting tooling, are in storage. “The boats will be built again,” confided Steve Blackman confidently. Even to a casual observer, the influence of the Blackmans and Blackman Boats is remarkable in equal parts. Don and Shirley’s contributions together were significant. Sportfishing, conservation and hunting were supported with countless hours and thousands of dollars over the years making a huge impact on all of the groups they supported.

Shirley’s avid pursuit of excellence in sportfishing paved the way for younger generations of women to compete confidently in sportfishing on a level playing field. Don’s integrity and unfailing desire to stand behind his work was reflected by a plaque that sat on his drawing table:

“Perfect is good enough.” Living by the words on that plaque, he earned the respect of all of those who came in contact with him.

Some, like Bill Holmes and Bill Woodard, felt comfortable taking their respective 26-foot Fish Machines on a journey down the West Coast of Baja all the way to Cabo San Lucas.

Dick Medve, who discovered the Blackman’s original 20-foot Orange skiff in someone’s backyard, restored it from the bottom up, and renamed it the Captain Hook. His son, Doug, fishes it regularly in San Diego underscoring the belief that Blackmans are timeless.

Charlie Watson, who ordered his boat in the mid-2000’s, created a forum for Blackman Owners Club of America that remains in existence today, maintained by Mike Jones.

Blackman Boats and the Blackmans have earned the respect of family, friends and their peers.

Their legacy is part of the rich Californian history that will remain etched there forever. Today, if you visit any of the many launch ramps dotting the West Coast from Washington to Baja, you are bound to see at least one Blackman Boat.

The mortality rate for both large and small boat manufacturers in the last decade has been devastating. In California alone, Cabo Yachts, Davis Boats and Radon join Blackman Boats in discontinuing production, indicating that a resurgence of small boat manufacturers is unlikely in the near future.

Previous Articles:

Part 1

Part 2

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Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world records and in his first year as a member of the Tuna Club of Avalon, he received more angling awards than any other first-year member in the club's 109-year history. He's been involved with many California angling clubs and is the Baja California Representative for the International Game Fish Association. 
Gary's a conservationist as well as a writer and photographer. In addition to two books on saltwater fly-fishing, hundreds of his articles and photographs have appeared in publications around the world. Graham has devoted his life to finding new fisheries and developing new techniques — all of which he shares through his guiding, speaking, photography and writing.