The SHIP-A-SHORE story

Monday March 1, 2021 11:13 

Ah, where to begin......My father's name was Roger DeMeyer. He was born and raised in Mishawaka, IN and owned a food brokerage firm in sixties called United Brokers Inc. In the late sixties he was sensing his, thus far, highly successful brokerage experiencing difficult times ahead because his primary support was coming from Redi-Froze and they were losing their juice in the area. He sold the business to two guys that worked for him for close to $250K which was a helluva lot of money at the time. At that time he was approached by 2 men, (both in his words "damn sharp Jews") one a wheel at St. Joe bank in South Bend and the other a former contact at Redi-Froze concerning the prospect of building a watercraft made of this Uniroyal product (revolutionary material at the time) "ROYALEX". Royalex was relatively light compared to alternative watercraft production materials at the time ie. fiberglass sealed wood etc. as well as quite cost effective. And it maintained unique properties I'll get into later. The three came up with the novel idea of producing a fully outfitted Houseboat combination Camper with top shelf accoutrements at what would end up being less than half the cost of Houseboats being offered at the time. The entire marketing concept being that one would keep the craft on it's trailer and utilize it as a camper on dry land then when water was encountered, voila, off trailer and live on the water for a while. The "combo cruiser" was born and it was quite a revolutionary concept at the time. I know it appeared to them as such an unquestionable winner that my father invested a sizable chunk of money into the endeavor as I believe did the other two. The company they formed to produce this marvel was of course Ship-A-Shore. My father was made President, The St. Joe banker, CFO and the third was put in charge of Sales. 

Cont.......They worked extensively in the beginning with Uniroyal engineers concerning craft design and process using Royalex and it was only a matter of a few months after securing two production facilities in Mishawaka, IN (one for molding the top & bottom shell the other for assembling the watercraft) that they began producing their first unit. Like any new, untested and original manufacture, problems arose from the start. All production issues eventually were overcome with the exception of one nagging major one......problems with the "shell" production inherent to the Royalex material. I don't know how old you are but I was born in 1957 and in the sixties I used to play extensively with the Mattel vacuum molding machine called the Vac-U-Form. The process of forming the Combo Cruiser shells was essentially the same basic concept of vacuum molding the Royalex over a reusable composite metal mold. The operation was relatively quick, simple and highly cost effective. Unlike so many boat manufacturing operations of the era that required untold hours by skilled craftsman to fabricate their vessel. Their process however was designed to utilize assembly line type mass production techniques minimizing costs. Their first unit came off the assembly line in 69 if I'm not mistaken but it was 1970 before any number were produced. I can still recall when they tested the very first finished Combo Cruiser on the St Joe river. All went well except for one huge issue......They had a devil of a time to get it to "plane". That first unit had a relatively small Ford inboard engine (90-100hp) and it wasn't really enough to achieve an easy plane let alone pull 2 skiers which was how it was to be advertised. They were lucky and found a V6 Chrystler power plant (Crusader?) that would fit in the existing engine slot that put out 160hp+. Tested the CC would plane in a wink and pulled 2 skiers like nobody's business. The Royalex was initially and remained ultimately the key to the success of the project though. Both from a manufacturing cost perspective and performance and durability standpoint, it was crucial. They often would put on a demonstration where my father or one of the Engineers would hit the hull with a hand sledge putting a large unsightly dent in the crafts hull. They then would simply apply a heat gun for a short period of time and the "dent" would slowly pop out and after a mere few minutes would be completely gone. Royalex really was truly amazing stuff. 

Cont......As initial problems were worked out and production began in earnest, they began producing a unit a week, then 2 etc. with the ultimate goal of completing 10-12 finished Combo Cruiser's per week at a retail cost of less than $9K. A potential Goldmine had it come to fruition. It was about this time that Fortune Magazine, Forbes, etc. one of the premier business magazines did a feature article on my father and Ship-A-Shore. Talk about riding high! But alas, it was not to be. The one critical process that could after 10's of thousands of dollars and 1000's of man hours applied could not be rectified was that of molding. When such a large vacuum mold was made as with the CC hull or cap, the Royalex would not remain uniform in thickness over it's entirety. There would be "thin" spots in areas," thick" spots in others. The hull and cap should have fit together like a hand in glove but rarely did. Sometimes it would come out perfect but that was the exception rather than the rule. They brought in Engineers from all over the country, even one from Japan if I remember correctly, but to no avail. Without consistently uniform results in the molding process, assembly line mass production became impossible. Excessive labor was required to tweek, retrofit or alter existing components for assembly. All time/ cost advantages were more than offset by the inability to mass produce. I believe the most units they were ever able to produce in one week was 3. Far below their business model and ultimately proving to be the cause of the company's ultimate demise. Royalex is still being used but I don't believe they ever did solve the forming issue on anything much larger than a canoe. My father some years later revealed to me that he personally believed that Uniroyal was fully aware of the molding problems with larger items from the very beginning but hid that all important fact hoping someone would stumble on a solution themselves. There was one bright spot when things for the company were looking dim......Gulf & Western had shown serious interest in buying out the company for several million dollars. From the way my father explained it, they came within an eyelash of the sale being consummated before G & W pulled out at the last minute. All 3 partners lost money but I believe my father took the brunt of the hit. He never got over this failure completely even though he started and ran 3 successful businesses after the fact. My father was a risk taking, forward thinking visionary/entrepreneur that had his showbaby get away and it never would sit right with him. He passed away at 93 on February 5th and I miss him terribly. He was the quintessential embodiment of capitalism at it's essence. One takes a vision, acts on that vision risking so much and sometimes is rewarded with a monumental payday, most often, they are not. He truly loved to play the game and was exceedingly good at it. Well, there's the story as I know it. And it's why only somewhere north of 100 Combo Cruisers were ever built (Some say 150 but I don't think that many were built). I am not a great story teller, so I hope you found this a worthy read. 

BTW, one thing I just remembered.......The boat was often represented as absolutely "unsinkable" and I believe they tried on several occasions to do just that. They never succeeded.

Take care, Mike DeMeyer  

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