April 7, 2005
Sponge Boats and Sailing Yachts
Demo George, John Hanna and the Making of the
by Despina Williams
Star Staff Writer
It’s a story of ego and influence on the high seas.
Two boat builders, one a famed
yacht designer, the other, a Greek-born fisherman, cross paths, and one makes sailing history. Dunedin
Demo George’s double-ended sponge boats inspire the design of John Hanna’s
Tahiti ketch sailing cruiser.
George lives a life of quiet anonymity in
Apalachicola while Hanna and his ketch cause a stir throughout the world.
And then the controversy begins.
Accused of merely copying the form of the sponge boat in his Tahiti design, Hanna fires off letter after letter in a prestigious boating magazine, fiercely resisting any association with “those gosh awful tubs.”
The story of the
Tahiti ketch is the story of the clash between the old world and the new, of classic design and novel invention.
It is the story of Demo George and John Hanna.
The Unsinkable John Hanna
, on Oct. 12, 1889, John Griffin Hanna began his life struggling with twin handicaps. Galveston, Tex.
As a boy, Hanna contracted scarlet fever, a serious disease about which little was known at the time. The scarlet fever ravaged Hanna’s body and left him in a coma for several days.
When Hanna awakened, his family was shocked to learn that the infection had spread to his ears, and rendered him deaf.
Months later, tragedy struck again when, walking home from school and unable to hear the approach of the coming vehicle, Hanna was struck by a trolley, his right foot severed upon impact.
Possessed of a prodigious intellect and can-do spirit, Hanna bounced back quickly from the unforeseen events.
He adjusted to wearing a prosthetic limb and learned a rudimentary form of sign language, known then as the “finger alphabet.”
Hanna developed a passion for boats early in life, studying the vessels entering
, paying close attention to their lines and their behavior in the water. Galveston Bay
Hanna learned woodworking by tinkering in his father’s shop, and channeled his talent for craftsmanship into a career as a boat designer.
Hanna’s first published design, for the Pelican, appeared in the April 25, 1919 edition of Motor Boat magazine.
His design career launched, Hanna settled in the small, coastal town of
Dunedin, with his new wife, Dorothy Trask, at the start of the 1920s. Fla.
A Life-Changing Encounter
For any young boat designer in need of inspiration, the town of
Springs offered a harbor teeming with exotic sponge fishing boats. Tarpon
Hanna’s daughter, Helen J. Brown, a 75-year-old resident of
Goleta, Ca., remembered her father making the 12-mile trip from to Tarpon Springs frequently, bringing back baklava for her and her siblings. Dunedin
“He was going up there all the time,” Brown said.
In his day trips to Tarpon Springs, Hanna studied the work of the Greek sponge boat builders.
Not long after his move to
, Hanna acquired a 28-foot double-ended sponge boat named Seaward. Dunedin
In a Feb. 23, 1924 Motor Boat article entitled “A Study in Contrast,” Hanna called the purchase of Seaward “one of the most fortunate events” of his life.
Hanna worked for several years converting the boat into a cruising yacht, which he would later name Beachcomber.
The deeper Hanna went into the study of Seaward, the more fascinated he became.
“I hope I shall never become that awful bore, the man who thinks he has found the one best boat in the world,” wrote Hanna, who believed the double-ended model was ideal for the small auxiliary cruiser, a design avenue then largely unexplored by American designers.
Wanting to learn more about the boat’s genesis and history, Hanna discovered that the boat was built in Apalachicola around 1910, by “one Demo George,” who after many years in America, still did not “‘spik da Eenglis’ to any notable extent,” and found intercommunication difficult.
Whether Hanna ever went to
Apalachicola to meet George is difficult to say, but had he made the trip, he would’ve met a fellow boat builder who lived a life as accomplished as his own.
“One Demo George”
Demo George was born Demosthenes George Margomenos on March 10, 1874 in the fishing
. village of Trikeri
Immigrating to the
U.S. on October 27, 1900, George sailed on the S.S. Graf Waldersee to that famed refuge for immigrants everywhere, Ellis Island.
Upon his arrival in
America, George continued to ply the traditional Greek trade of sponge fishing, swapping the Mediterranean for the Gulf of Mexico, and working in the waters from Apalachicola to St. Marks.
A gifted boat builder, George crafted a number of sponge boats. It was his custom to build a boat each year, which he used for winter fishing and then put up for sale.
After settling with his wife, Mary Katsicogianni, in
Apalachicola, George founded the West Point Oyster Company, and later, the Standard Fish and Oyster Company, one of the most successful fish houses of its day.
To meet the needs of his burgeoning fish houses, George built a fleet of shrimp boats, naming boats such as the George D and Little Nick after his sons, and others after his wife and daughters.
George’s shrimp boats were widely admired for their distinctive shape, elegant lines and sturdy construction, features they shared with the sponge boats so admired by Hanna.
An Unusual Pair of Greek Spongers
In his study of Seaward, Hanna was most impressed by the modifications George made in the traditional sponge boat form. Seaward was, wrote Hanna, not of the “pure Greek type.”
Unlike traditional sponge boats, which dropped from high ends to a point in the center near the water line, a feature that made it easy for divers to load their sponges on deck, Seaward avoided this low drop.
Hanna noted Seaward’s unusual upturn at the stern, stiff form and firm bilge, saying, “All this in a boat modeled by a man who knew less than nothing about the theoretical requirements of naval architecture.”
Seaward was not Hanna’s first encounter with one of George’s untraditional sponge boats.
Three years prior to his article on Seaward, Hanna described, in the pages of Motor Boat, his encounter with a sponge boat named American Girl.
The traditional Greek influence on the American Girl’s design was apparent, wrote Hanna, but so were “wide differences.”
Hanna called American Girl “much more heavily and soundly built than the Greek product,” and “much more of a ship and much more comfortable and seaworthy.”
From American Girl’s owner, George McConkey, Hanna learned the boat was built in
Apalachicola, for Greeks, but by American builders, which Hanna described as accounting for “the combination of good features.”
Hanna continued to believe American Girl was a sort of half-Greek hybrid vessel when he succeeded in buying the boat some time later.
What Hanna did not know was that the boat he’d first admired while strolling the docks in
was the sister ship of his own Seaward. Clearwater
American Girl is featured prominently in George’s Feb. 3, 1950 Apalachicola Times obituary, which states that the Greek-type sponge diving boat, “which will be remembered by many old timers here,” was built by George for a friend in Tarpon Springs.
Both boats which would figure greatly in the Tahiti’s design evolution were crafted in George’s
In his 1987 book, A Ketch Called Tahiti, John Stephen Doherty attributes the American Girl and Beachcomber (Seaward) with alerting Hanna to a new “type,” which would inform his design of the Tahiti ketch, and the
Tahiti’s immediate prototype, Orca.
Orca, whose design appeared in Motor Boat in October 1921, a mere six months after Hanna spotted American Girl, was a 30-foot double-ended cruiser with dimensions and a two-cabin layout reminiscent of George’s sponger.
Hanna would refine his design even further in the form of an improved double-ended sailing cruiser which he named Neptune in 1923, and changed to
Tahiti when the design was included in the 1935 edition of How to Build 20 Boats.
In his accompanying remarks to the published 1935
Tahiti design, Hanna stressed the seaworthiness of his 30-foot cruiser, demonstrating his point with accounts of the ocean-going voyages of five existing Tahitis.
Citing the testimonies of the five
Tahiti captains, Hanna boasted that his design was “easy in motion,” “obedient to her helm,” and “extraordinarily well balanced.”
Hanna acknowledged that double-ended models have existed in “all nations of the world, for several thousand years,” and noted that the
Tahiti design reflected this broad spectrum of influence.
Admired for its ruggedness, spacious living quarters, and inexpensive construction,
Tahiti quickly gained wide popularity. At least 1,000 were constructed in the 1930s and 40s, all over the world, with at least two Tahiti captains circumnavigating the globe.
Hanna’s popular design was, however, not without its detractors. In a phone interview from his home in
Shelter Island Heights, New York, Doherty noted that Tahiti “was never considered a sparkling performer” by the yachting community.
Though solid and seaworthy,
Tahiti was a slow mover.
“Hanna was criticized for making fat boats that were hard to go sailing fast,” said Doherty.
And then, there was that lingering question of influence.
Hanna on the Defensive
In the early 1940s, while a columnist for The Rudder, Hanna ferociously defended his
Tahiti against the charges of those who saw in the double-ended design the influence of the Greek sponger.
Hanna repeatedly insisted that
Tahiti was the product of years of studying double-enders throughout the world, and leveled a few cheap shots at the Greek sponge boat.
After calling the sponger a “gosh awful tub” in his Dec. 1942 column, Hanna wrote that not “one inch of one line” of the sponger ever entered into the
“Her utter unlikeness to [the sponge boat] is the chief reason why Tahitis have tasted the salt of all five oceans and come through their worst disturbances so brilliantly,” continued Hanna. “So that’s that.”
The Rudder columnist pounding frantically at the typewriter was no longer the young designer who could admire, without the corrosive intrusion of self-doubt and resentment, the craftsmanship in George’s untraditional spongers.
Gone was the designer who saw his future greatness in the timeless works of the past.
Believing it was Hanna’s “ego talking” when he denied the influence of the Greek sponger, Doherty noted that Hanna did make many modifications to the double-ended design.
“When Hanna was accused in many ways of simply building a Greek sponge fishing boat and building a cabin on it to make it a sail boat, he really resented it because he felt he’d changed the shape a great deal,” said Doherty, whose book on the Tahiti ketch has recently been reissued in paperback.
A young girl at the time of Hanna’s controversial Rudder columns, Brown noted that her father’s defense of his designs was characteristic of his strong personality.
“Dad had definite opinions,” laughed Brown, who described Hanna as a stern but loving father.
Though Hanna would take great pains to distance his designs from the sponge boats of Tarpon Springs, Brown acknowledged that her father learned a great deal from the Greek builders.
“When you look at those designs you’ll see,” said Brown, who continues to sell the plans for her father’s designs, at $45 a piece, from her
When Brown made a visit to the Greek isles several years ago, she came face-to-face with the ancestors of her father’s Tahiti design, as she peered into a harbor filled with double-ended sponge boats.
“It was heartwarming,” Brown recalled, “because I saw those boats that looked like my dad’s - or vice versa.”