On August 1, 1943, the crew of PT (patrol torpedo) boat 109, with Lieutenant John F. Kennedy at the helm, set out from the Solomon Islands to halt the “Tokyo Express,” but their mission went awry. In the middle of the night, a Japanese destroyer collided with the smaller ship, knocking the crew into the water and setting the boat aflame. Kennedy’s valiant swim to shore (with an injured crew member in tow, no less) would catapult him to war-hero status. What you might not know is that a small Jacksonville boatmaker played an important role in this particular chapter of American naval history.
The U.S. Navy’s PT boats of that era were, in part, made possible by Frank Pembroke Huckins, founder of Jacksonville’s own Huckins Yacht Corporation. Invented by the man himself, the PT boats’ Quadroconic planing hull was revolutionary at the time, allowing the craft to “plane” above the water and, therefore, maintain greater speeds. Before this contribution, the boats would repeatedly pound into the waves, resulting not only in slower speeds but, over time, a gradual destruction of the boat. Huckins Corporation, a family-owned business established in 1928 in Springfield, built eighteen PT boats for the Navy during World War II.
So how did a small yacht company that specialized in pleasure boats get involved in the war effort? After many failed attempts to create faster patrol boats, the U.S. military put out a call for all private boat manufacturers who were up to the task. They needed to solve the PT boats’ problem of too much impact (pounding) and not enough speed. A competition was held, dubbed the Plywood Derby, in which the Huckins boats outshone the contenders. Unfortunately, the company did not have the manufacturing resources of larger companies, so their contract was limited.
This didn’t stop the navy from sharing Huckins’ planing hull trademarked design with the other manufacturers, and before long, all the PT boats were equipped with the Huckins’ revolutionary hull style. Although Huckins didn’t benefit financially from his innovation, he is quoted as saying, “If our contributing a form of hull that eliminated destructive pounding and saved the PT boat from failure or oblivion has contributed to
the war effort and victory by ever so small an increment, then such was my purpose.”
After the war, the Huckins Corporation headquarters moved from Springfield to the banks of the Ortega River where it has been in operation ever since. They also shifted back into the pleasure boat marketplace and continued making customized yachts in Ortega. Since then, the company has weathered three recessions and many ups and downs in the inner workings of the business. Today, Huckins’ granddaughter, Cindy Purcell, and her husband, Buddy, own and manage the thriving operation.
Walking into their offices is like taking a tour into boatmaking history. On the walls,
hang pictures from the last nine decades: family members, famous clients, local celebrities, and debutantes, all posing on Huckins boats. Old blueprints are on display, and Cindy says they still have all eighty-nine hand-sketched drawings of the original PT boat designs. All of the diagrams and instructions for every boat ever made is filed away in flat drawers. Not only do they indicate measurements in length and depth, but they also include the weight of every scrap of material. “You have to know all of the weights, each screw and bolt … if you don’t know that then your boat might not go very fast,” says Cindy.
Back when the plant was located on East 4th Street next to the train tracks, the freshly
constructed boats had to be hoisted onto train cars and sent to the nearby St. Johns River.
This was long before Cindy’s time, so she relies on records and family stories to fill in the narrative of the company’s history. Even memories of her grandfather are foggy, since she was only five when he died. She knows that he had a brilliant engineering mind and an attention for detail. He grew up in Boston and attended Harvard University. After working with his father in the family’s mill business, he came to Jacksonville to start his boat business. But he had started building boats long before that. He built his first boat when he was only sixteen, says Cindy, pointing to a framed photo on the wall. “He was an innovator,” she says. “My grandfather invented the very first planing hull … so he was very much ahead of his time.”
He was also a bit of an eccentric. By the time he started the yacht company at the age of forty-two, Huckins had been married three times. At age sixty-five, shortly before his death, he started an autobiography titled Boats and Women: The History of My Life. And indeed, he made sure that he and his boats were surrounded by attractive women, at least for the photo ops. In the office, many of the old pictures feature scantily clad debutantes and other bathing beauties. One, in particular, shows a topless, smiling woman wading in waist-high waters with outstretched arms; in the nearby boat, Huckins coyly leans over the side to catch a glimpse.