South Florida’s venerable yacht builder looks to be reborn
By Eric Barton
When yacht designer Michael Peters was a kid, there were two boats he coveted. He studied photos of the old Cigarette boats and the Bertram yachts, puzzling over the angled cuts of their hulls and the way they slid through the water. Someday he wanted to design boats like that.
Peters got part of his wish in 1978, when he began designing Cigarette boats. He ended up helping to pioneer the step boat, a novel design that now dominates the world of race boats.
But the Bertram eluded him. Instead, Peters bought a few. Twenty-five years ago he put a fortune into restoring a Bertram 25, which remains his family’s boat. He also started the restoration of a Bertram 31 racer.
Designing the boats himself, though, seemed out of reach. Until he got a call last year from the new Italian owners of the Bertram name. They had plans to relaunch the once-storied brand, which had faded in recent years. They wanted Peters to design a new Bertram that would bring the brand back to the top.
Bertram’s headquarters is based on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. The company will have an unmistakable presence at this year’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (Nov. 5-9), where it will reveal what’s next in its line of yachts.
“This goes all the way back to childhood,” Peters says from his design studio in Sarasota. “I had a passion for Bertram for many years. This was in my blood.”
The challenge, though, was to bring the brand back to what made it special. Richard Bertram started building boats on the banks of the Miami River in 1960 that were simple, sturdy and undeniably beautiful. He named his first 31-foot yacht after his wife, Pauline “Moppie” Bertram, and the Moppie 31 quickly became an object of desire for serious boaters.
Bertram sold the company and then left to run his yacht brokerage business full time. It went through multiple owners and moved in 2012 to a rented manufacturing facility in Merritt Island. Bertram had stopped producing boats by the time Italian industrialist Beniamino Gavio bought the company in February. Gavio, who purchased his own Bertram in 1999, promised to remake the yacht builder.
He began by hiring Susan Davids as general manager. Davids worked for the old Bertram boat builder in Miami and then for Richard Bertram at his brokerage firm.
“We decided if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right,” Davids says. “We wanted to build a boat with recognition that Bertram is an American boat at its base.”
Davids hired Peters to design a yacht that would be reminiscent of the Moppie 31, something that fans of Bertram boats would recognize as an offspring of the original design.
Designing the new Bertram is akin to retro car designs – Mustangs, Chargers, Camaros – that look a lot like their 1960s precursors, Peters says. It’s also a chance to fix a few things that were less than perfect with that original boat. For instance, the Moppie 31 had little head room, a shallow cockpit and a fly bridge so small you could barely fit up there.
So Peters stretched the original design by four feet to accommodate a larger fly bridge and cockpit. His final design – which will be revealed at this year’s boat show – remained a closely guarded secret for months as Bertram worked out how to tell its fans of what was to come. Where it will be built has not been decided: Davids is looking for a place in South Florida, but that may prove too expensive.
No matter where the boat is built, Peters says the new Bertram will be one that any yacht fan will recognize as the Moppie’s successor.
“It fell on us to design what Bertram is going to mean for years to come,” Peters says. “I think we’ve done it.”