2015 Article: The De Kleer Brothers: Builders of Fraser Sailboats and Endurance 35s

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The De Kleer Brothers: Builders of Fraser Sailboats and Endurance 35s by Mary Anne Hajer 2015

Zephyr Zephyr (Photo from the Mary Anne Hajer collection.)

While the history of wooden boats has been comprehensively chronicled from the earliest prehistoric dugouts to 20th century fishing boats, tugs and yachts, the same cannot be said of fibreglass boats. In fact, without Daniel Spurr’s extensively researched book, Heart of Glass: Fibreglass Boats and the Men Who Made Them (published in 1999 (McGraw Hill) and available as an E–book from Google), it is likely that much information regarding the industry’s early years would have disappeared forever from public records.

Even so, as Spurr himself admits, his book is far from complete. He acknowledges that it would have been impossible for him to list all the pioneers in fibreglass boat building, and that he had to be selective. Unfortunately, his selection of early builders did not include any from British Columbia.

Yet starting in the late 1950s, for two to three decades fibreglass boat building was a thriving cottage industry on Canada’s west coast. Here, as elsewhere in North America, the improving post-war economy that led to an increase in both disposable income and leisure time also led to an interest in recreational boating. But wooden yachts were out of reach financially for all but the affluent. With the increased viability of fibreglass as a boat-building material, however, those of modest means suddenly found that they too could sail off into the sunset, or at least across Georgia Strait, in a boat of their own. And there were many potential entrepreneurs who recognized a business opportunity when they saw one and hurried to meet the demands of this burgeoning market, sometimes in their own garages or back yards.

As George Marsh points out in his 08/10/2006 online article, 50 Years of Reinforced Plastic Boats, you didn’t need much in the way of equipment or experience to get started. He says: "The 1950s and 1960s saw an influx of new constructors who, attracted by the low starting investment needed, were happy to satisfy the public’s desire to get afloat. Many built boats in conditions that would be laughed out of court now. An enthusiastic entrepreneur could acquire a draughty shed, assemble a few semi–trained laminators, build a mould from inferior materials, buy some fibreglass and a drum of resin, and be in business. Personnel, devoid of protective apparel, would lay up by hand layers of chopped strand mat and roll and/or brush resin into them, having first mixed the resin with catalyst and accelerator in a bucket. Cure would take place under whatever ambient conditions offered. Not surprisingly, the quality of fabrication varied wildly between constructors and with the same constructor on different days.

Numerous small boat yards sprang up along the south coast of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. It was in one of these, on the south bank of the North Arm of the Fraser River in Richmond, that our own sailboat, a Fraser 30, was built by the De Kleer brothers. But when we tried to find out more about them, we discovered that although many in the boating community were aware of the Fraser line of boats and seemed to think they had a good reputation, nobody remembered many details about the builders. Curious, I decided to find out as much as I could about the Zephyr, and the men who built her.

With the help of the phone book, I located one of the brothers, Arie De Kleer, in Langley, where he and his wife, Elsie, are enjoying retirement. When I explained that I was interested in learning more about how our boat was built, he kindly invited my husband and me to their home and told us the history behind the Fraser boats.

Arie and Len De Kleer grew up in Holland, where, like many Dutch, their family had a history of connection to boats and water. Their grandfather owned three barges on which he brought gravel from Germany and ore from Switzerland down the Rhine, and it was on one of these that their mother was born. Arie was born in Noordwijk aan Zee, a seaside village in west Holland. His home was so close to the water’s edge that its windows would regularly be covered with the foam whipped up by the high winds that came howling in from the North Sea. One of Arie’s jobs as a youngster was to polish them clean again, and another was to sweep off the sand that the same wind blew onto the porch.

Len’s and Arie’s first foray into boat building came after the Second World War when Arie was just 12 years old. 22-year-old Len designed a 17 foot sailboat and Arie helped him build it, using scavenged materials. They even made the sails from bits of found cloth. When it was finished, they launched it off the beach right into the North Sea and taught themselves to sail. Arie’s three older brothers followed their father’s example and studied architecture, although Len was always more interested in the engineering aspect of construction. Arie studied carpentry in a trade school in Leiden. However, in the post–war years in Europe, there were few economic opportunities, and the family decided to emigrate. Although the two older boys first tried their luck in Australia, by 1953 the whole family was united once again in Vancouver, lured there by the moderate climate and proximity to the sea. Before long they were all busy in the family construction business.

Omega Omega (Photo from the Mary Anne Hajer collection.)

But Len and Arie were more interested in building boats than houses, and soon they were using their free time to turn out Flying Dutchman-class racing dinghies, 20 ft. Olympic–class boats with a wooden deck and a fibreglass hull. They built 36 of these dinghies in Arie’s back yard on a half acre site on River Road between No. 6 and No. 7 Roads in Richmond BC.

As the brothers’ families grew, so did the need for a bigger boat. In response, Len designed the first Fraser 30, a fibreglass sailboat with an outboard engine. That boat, the Flying Cloud, was also built in Arie’s back yard, in 1969, and is still in the family.

Arie’s sister and brother–in–law liked the Fraser 30, but the cabin was too low to accommodate his tall brother–in–law comfortably. So with their next boat, the brothers made the cabin into a pilothouse. They also installed an inboard motor. That first Fraser motor–sailer is also still alive and well, as Arie recognized it in the picture of a Fraser 30 offered for sale in the July 2011 issue of Pacific Yachting magazine.

Suddenly it seemed that everyone wanted one of these boats.

"It went over so well that we sold one after the other. At that time there weren’t any others available," says Arie. In all, 36 Fraser 30s were built, although the De Kleers didn’t see them through to completion. They only built the hull and deck, after which the new owners would trailer them away to be finished.

Eventually Len and Arie were building boats full time and had outgrown Arie’s back yard. They moved their operations to an industrial site on Trite Road in Steveston BC, where they also began building Fraser 42s, and then 41s.

The Fraser 42 was designed by Doug Cook, a pilot for CPAir who wanted a boat big enough to accommodate himself and six friends on a trip to Hawaii. Gene Rufer, another pilot, constructed the molds which he and Doug used to build two boats that they called Vancouver 42s. The De Kleers leased the mold, modified it somewhat and used it build eight Fraser 42s. These boats were sloop’rigged and had a centre cockpit.

However, the design was considered a bit old–fashioned, so Len altered it to provide a longer aft cockpit, as well as slanting the transom forward. This resulted in some loss of space on deck, changing the Fraser 42 to a Fraser 41. They built 87 of these boats, including Arie’s Omega, which he captained in the 1988 Victoria to Maui International Yacht Race where he was declared the fleet overall corrected time winner.

Besides the Frasers, the De Kleers also built Endurance 35s, which were cutter–rigged sailboats designed by Peter Ibold. They built the first one in response to a request from a prospective customer, but went on to build 86 more.

Like the Fraser 30s, the Fraser 41s and Endurance 35s were sold as kit boats. The buyers could take anywhere from six months to five years to finish them, and the skill levels of those doing the work varied. Some did the work themselves, while others hired tradesmen to complete the job. Thus, no two Fraser boats are identical inside. Some of the Frasers boast beautifully crafted interiors, while others have a definite DIY look to them.

But whatever the quality of the interior finishing, Fraser owners know their boats have an exceptionally solid hull of pure fibreglass. The De Kleers’ reputation for ‘overbuilding’ originated at an ad hoc boatyard located on a garbage dump in the vicinity of Triangle Road and No. 6 Road in Richmond. About two dozen boats in varying stages of construction were propped on supports there. As holes were drilled for through–hull fittings, the builders were amazed when they saw the thickness of the hulls built by the De Kleers.

"My brother insisted in building like that," explains Arie. "He felt that because we didn’t know how well the boat would be finished, we had to build it strong to begin with. We didn’t want our boats sinking if they hit a rock."

He is proud of the fact that when a number of boats were driven up on the beach in Cabo San Lucas some years ago during a hurricane, two of the four that were salvaged were boats that he had built. One of these boats, an Endurance 35, the Ayorama, was damaged when it was pushed off the beach with a bulldozer. However, the owner, Grant Nichols, was able to sail it north to Baja California where he could execute repairs. He then took it home to Comox, where it is reportedly still sailing.

The De Kleers returned to their old shop on River Road to build five Fraser 51s, which were also designed by Doug Cook with molds built by Gene Rufer.

After Len’s death, Arie and Elsie moved to Vancouver Island, thinking their boat–building days were behind them. But before long, a customer appeared requesting a new Fraser 41. Arie brought over the molds from the mainland, found a place in Coombs where he could work, and built his last boat. (After it was finished, the owner of that boat sailed it to England.) He sold his molds and the rights to the name to Spencer Yachts in Richmond, but only a few more were built.

Arie retired in 1992, but by then almost all the small builders had disappeared. A few are still around, such as Monaro Marine Ltd., and Hourston Glascraft, which produce power boats, but most of the boatyards that still exist concentrate on repair and refitting.

So what happened? Why did this once vibrant industry die out? A number of factors contributed to its decline.

Arie De Kleer says, "During the oil crises of the 1970s, everybody wanted a sailboat because of the high cost of fuel. Then when the price of oil dropped in the 1980s, people went back to power boats. There was a glut of second hand boats on the market, and no one wanted to buy a new one."

Besides, finishing a boat and learning to sail it took time, an increasingly rare commodity in modern life. With both husband and wife working, weekends became filled with errands and housework, not to mention kids’ hockey games and dance lessons. Spending a leisurely day on the water had become an unattainable luxury for most people. Ironically, they might now have had the money to buy a boat, but they no longer had the time to use it.

Another factor was the economic downturn of the early 1980s coupled with rising inflation. Interest rates were rising as high as 22% on bank loans, and the cost of fibreglass materials was also going up.

To make matters worse, foreign manufacturers such as Beneteau, Hunter, Catalina, Tollycraft and Bayliner flooded the market with mass–produced, fully–finished boats, immediately available. Small shipyards producing only a handful of boats a year could not keep up.

However, many, if not most, of the boats built during this era are still afloat, not only locally but all around the world. And if our Fraser 30 is anything to go by, with a little regular maintenance, they will be around for decades to come. And perhaps with the help of this article, the story of the De Kleer brothers and the boats they built will not be forgotten.

The Author: Mary Anne Hajer and her husband, Frank, first set foot on a sailboat when they were in their fifties. They bought their Fraser 30, the Zephyr, in 1999, and have spent a large part of the subsequent summers exploring the south coast as far north as the Broughtons and south into the San Juans. They feel their boating experiences have enriched their lives immeasurably.

To quote from this article please cite:

Hajer, Mary Anne (2014) The De Kleer Brothers: Builders of Fraser Sailboats and Endurance 35s. Nauticapedia.ca 2014. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/DeKleer.php