tampabay.com

Proof is this man's pursuit

Ralph Brown is taking a tiny boat on a long ocean voyage. Everyone's nervous but him.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published April 29, 2007


HUDSON - Only a dozen of his boats have sold over the past five years, so Ralph Brown needs to make a big splash.

Thus comes his daredevil publicity stunt: Brown plans to take his 21-foot flats boat - a small fishing boat used more typically in shallow water - on a 1, 400-mile oceanic voyage.

Unaccompanied by bigger boats. Just Brown and his brother Bob in the little fishing boat, 600 miles from shore. Two middle-aged men and the sea.

"We're making a clear statement that we trust this boat to be seaworthy, " said Brown, 48, who also works as a financial planner and made an unsuccessful bid for the state Legislature in 1994.

He added, "We wanted to make it newsworthy."

Brown, president of Dream Boats Inc. on Arcola Avenue, said his research shows that no other flats boat is known to have made such a journey unaccompanied.

The plan is to leave Monday from Atlantic Beach, N.C., head to Bermuda and then continue to New York Harbor, arriving Friday morning. The Atlantic Beach mayor and city manager plan to see him off, said City Clerk Sabrina Simpson.

A former Marine with three children, Brown has already started a blog about the trip. "Some call it suicidal, " the Web site says. "Ralph calls it proof."

His wife, Anne, said she's gotten used to his big dreams over the years, but she can't help feeling especially nervous about this one.

"He pushes the envelope and that's part of what I love about him, " she said. "But it's also what scares me.

"I understand why he's doing it. At the same time, I'm just trusting God right now and praying a lot."

* * *

Here's why Brown says he's confident: The boat is "unsinkable" because it is injected with a foam product that helps keep it afloat. It has an extended rake, which means waves hit a smaller surface area. It has unusually large scupper holes about 3 inches in diameter through which water that gets in the boat would drain.

Here are things he will carry: Nearly 300 gallons of fuel. Exposure suits. A satellite phone. An electronic radio beacon that automatically sends out distress signals if it gets wet.

He knows he's going to get wet. "I expect big waves to hit the boat, " he said.

Worst-case scenario? "It could turn over, " he said. His plan in such an event is to hang onto the ropes and wait for the Coast Guard, whom he has informed of his trip.

His brother Bob came on board just this week. Brown had previously planned to make the trip with a friend, but that pal dropped out a few days ago. Brown would not explain why except to say it was for "personal reasons."

Since most customers won't be taking a flats boat out to sea, what exactly is Brown trying to prove? For one, he said, he wants to prove the boat has an unusual versatility.

"If you buy a flats boat and you want to run 10, 15 miles off shore ... doesn't this (test) make you feel safe?"

Anne Brown said her husband has worked hard for years to design, build and promote his boats.

"He's trying to prove he's got something special, " she said. "I know he has something special. It seems like it's a drastic step to prove it."

Brown's friend and Dream Boats vice president, Louis Gutfleish, said that even with all the boat's good traits, the journey "is still a very dangerous undertaking."

"He just has a lot of confidence in the boat, " Gutfleish said. "Everybody who knows him is nervous. Except for him."

* * *

Beyond the publicity, Brown sees his journey as a chance to do something big.

"If Orville and Wilbur Wright hadn't gotten in an airplane, would you be flying today?" he said. "Somebody had to get in that plane and test that product."

By his own account, he hit a rock - literally and figuratively - seven years ago.

He and some friends were in another manufacturer's boat when they hit a rock, which broke the lower part of the motor. That planted this notion in his head: "We make stupid boats." So he started designing boats, trying to think of a better way to build them.

Not long after that, his wife was in a car wreck and had to have extensive hospitalization. His income sank as he took time off from his financial planning job to help take care of her. But he couldn't stop thinking about building boats.

An account of that time posted on his Web site says: "He gradually became consumed with the concept of making boats that would be able to go over the rocks in shallow water without damage and still be very seaworthy."

In 2002, his wife said she was tired of all the talk. Do it or don't, she said. Brown decided to do.

Brown said that he and a handful of investors have put about $1-million into the enterprise. They haven't yet seen a return on that investment, and he remains a man with two jobs.

At the moment he has only one other man working with him, though he hires people when he's ready for a project.

His boats, which range in price from $23, 000 to more than $30, 000, get high praise from customers.

Eric Marshall, who is a Hudson-based fishing guide, said he's taken his 18-foot Dream Boat nearly 10 miles off shore and felt safe. "I love it, " he said. "I mean, I don't know about (Brown's trip), but the boat can handle it, as long as you have enough fuel and the weather doesn't kick up."

Allen Schmidt of Wesley Chapel has a 23-foot Dream Boat that he is planning to take up to Chesapeake Bay. But going hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic with nobody else around?

"I'm 76, " said Schmidt. "I'd be a little apprehensive to do it. There's so much that can go wrong.

"But I know they're built well. And he's younger than me. Good luck to him."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.