The crew at 48° North was saddened to learn that the founder and CEO of Catalina Yachts, Frank Butler, passed away on November 15.

In 1969 Frank Butler built the first Catalina sailboat, the Catalina 22, in North Hollywood, California. His hope was to sell 300 hulls if all went well. By 1975, he’d far exceeded that number, as hull number 5,000 was completed. Since then, the Catalina 22 has become known as the boat that launched the pocket-cruising trailerable class and 15,000 hulls have rolled out of various facilities. It also launched Butler and Catalina into the boat building record books.

The 22 was the beginning of what would be many successful Catalina Yachts for Butler and his burgeoning company. Soon to follow was the Catalina 27, which sailor Patrick Childress completed a two-and-a-half-year, singlehanded circumnavigation on in 1982. Next came the Catalina 25, 30, 36, and on and on to the present day flagship, the Catalina 545. Over 85,000 Catalina Yachts have been built since that first 22 and if you haven’t owned one, you’ve certainly sailed on one or have at least shared a marina or anchorage with one.

Having raced on a Catalina Capri 25, taught sailing lessons on Capri 22s, and test-sailed numerous models in my capacity as a magazine editor for various publications, I’ve always been struck by how the boats were thoughtfully designed for common sailing families, and customer service was paramount. It’s said that if you bought a Catalina and called the company with any sort of issue, the man who picked up the phone was often its owner, Frank Butler.

“If there are problems, I want to know about them,” Butler once remarked. “Plus, anyone who buys a Catalina is part of the Catalina family. They can call me any time.” That family approach was a hallmark of Butler’s business philosophy and boat designs back in 1969 as much as it is today, and is an enduring part of his legacy. Sail on, Frank.

Catalina Yachts today issued the following statement:

It is with great sadness that we announce that Frank Willis Butler, President and Chief Executive Officer of Catalina Yachts, passed away November 15, 2020 in Westlake Village, CA, due to unexpected complications from a recent illness. We extend our most heartfelt condolences and sympathy to Frank’s family. Our thoughts are with them at this most difficult time.

A sailing icon and industry “kingspoke”, Frank Butler has introduced hundreds of thousands of people to sailing during his lifetime. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Frank have lost a dear friend and an inspiring mentor. Frank leaves behind a company that only he could have built, and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Catalina Yachts.

Born in California in 1928, Frank’s line of popular sailboats put more than 85,000 Catalinas on the water throughout the yachting world. His boatbuilding career began in 1962, when he contracted with a Southern California builder for a 21-foot daysailer. The builder was unable to finish the boat, and gave Butler the tooling. He completed building the boat himself, found he enjoyed the process, and agreed to take over the company.

A few years later he founded Catalina Yachts, which has grown to become the largest builder of fiberglass production sailboats in the United States, a position it holds to this day.

A key to Butler’s success in the sailboat industry was his attention to Catalina customers. Handling warranty issues himself, owners were nearly always surprised and reassured to get a personal call from Frank to discuss their concerns.

Butler was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2013. In recognition of his support of the Congressional Cup, a world match racing event, Long Beach Yacht Club awarded him the Crimson Blazer. He was also a founder and lifelong member of the Westlake Yacht Club in Westlake, CA.

Following his graduation from Glendale High School, he served in the US Navy. He met his wife, Jean, at a school dance; they recently celebrated their 71st anniversary.

Frank is survived by Jean, their four daughters, Deborah Reese, Mary Linn, Nancy Bear, and Karen Butler; three sons, David, Robert and Steve; 20 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

Awakening the joy of sailing for so many people in past generations, Frank Butler’s sailing legacy will certainly continue well into in future generations.