The story of Sovereign sailboats spans two decades and several manufacturers. Below you will find it, as best we could piece together from various sources. Special thanks to Rob Lawnsby and Jim MacDougald for their stories. Also, thanks to John Myers of the excellent WatkinsOwners.com, for his helpful advice. If you have any photos to share, information to add or corrections to offer, please drop us a line using the contact form.
Tin Warehouses, Relic Molds and Dreamers
Daniel Spurr, in his book, Heart of Glass: Fiberglass Boats and the Men Who Built Them, perfectly sets the scene for our story: the small, incestuous world of boatbuilding in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. He describes, “miles of nondescript tin warehouses surrounded by chain-link fences, where hundreds of anonymous businesses come and go like rain.”
In Spurr’s telling, “relic molds” lying about “like whitewashed bones” were ubiquitous. He explains that the eager low-paid workforce, low taxes and weather made the area, “a logical place to rent a shed, buy some used tooling, hire a couple of glass experts and a carpenter (there’s a sort of floating labor pool in the Tampa area), and hang your shingle.”
Many builders did just that and Spurr highlights dreamers like “Ted Irwin; Jerry Koch and his Nimble Boats in Odessa; Bob Johnson and his Island Packet Yachts in Largo; the Hutchins Company, builder of Com-Pac sailboats in Clearwater; Michael and George McCreary’s Caliber Yachts in Clearwater and many, many others.”
Among those others, during the 1970s and 80s, was Dan W. Steeg and his firm, Sovereign Yacht Co. Inc. of Largo, Florida.
Warehouses on Commerce Dr. S., in Largo, FL, where Sovereign Yacht Co. Inc. was located
A Boat Builder Sent from Heaven?
In 1977, Rob Lawnsby had come south to become part of that floating boat building labor pool and, fortunately for him, the owners of Southern Sails of Largo, Florida wanted to begin construction of a boat called the Skipper 20. They hired Lawnsby, a former line foreman from Bayliner in Valdosta, Georgia, to build their prototype boat and set up the company’s assembly line.
“I drove down to the Tampa/St Petersburg area to relocate and wherever I saw boat molds I walked in unannounced with my resume of boat manufacturing experience, mostly assembly,” said Lawnsby.
“So, I go to an industrial complex and walk into a very newly formed Southern Sails company and introduce myself. There is a deck and hull, and a pile of boat parts. I talk to this guy and he stares at me and my resume. He goes into a room and two other guys come out and stare at me and my resume. One of them asks if I can turn that pile of boat parts into a finished boat. When I said “Sure!” they asked when I can start and I said right now.”
The three men (presumably Jere Austin, Al Larson and Dan Steeg) had just been in a meeting, trying to figure out who they could hire to build a prototype they needed to line up a dealer network. After hiring Lawnsby on the spot, one of the men proclaimed that he had been like an angel, arriving at that precise moment.
Skipper 20 brochure, touting it as, “the Sailboat that’s not for Everyone.” – from the Skipper 20 Yahoo Group
According to Lawnsby, “after about a year the Skipper 20s were moving down the line smoothly and were selling well. The owners wanted to build a larger boat, but starting a hull from scratch was going to be very expensive.”
Instead, they acquired a set of old [S2 7.0] deck and hull molds, modifying them to create the Sovereign 7.0. Lawsnby explained, “the start-up of this model caused disagreements among the three owners and cash got very tight, so then there were two companies.”
According to Lawnsby, there was no real connection with S2 Yachts, “[it] was simply the purchase of the molds. There was much swapping and selling of molds back then as boat companies kept going out of business and their molds would be up for grabs.”
Of the three original owners of Southern Sails, Lawnsby had this to say, “[they] were all sailors. One had a naval architect background, one had a sales background, and the third had the capital. The relationship between the three was pretty good, and even the division and forming two companies was amicable.”
The Sovereign Yacht Marque is Born
The split at Southern Sails was the genesis of Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc., which, according to public records, was formed in November of 1978. Production of the Sovereign 7.0 began shortly afterward. Lawnsby, who would become Sovereign’s Production Manager, continued, “the owners wanted to build a solid boat and quality control was good. For a while the Skipper 20 and the Sovereign 7.0 were built at the same facility in Largo, Florida; and then Southern Sails moved out as Sovereign Yachts started expanding.”
Lawnsby shared an anecdote on the strength of the boats coming off of the assembly line, at the time “they had two very interesting gay ladies laminate the hulls on the side. One was built like a football player and the other would come to work all dolled up complete with jewelry. They knew their stuff and built the deck, hull, and other small bits. They tended to be heavy with the layers of fiberglass and that is why the early boats including Sovereign were so strong.”
Once Lawnsby got the Sovereign assembly line going, he moved on, “they really didn’t need a production manager anymore as they could supervise the workers; and like any new company they were very short on money.” They offered him a temporary position on the line but Lawnsby declined and parted ways with the fledgling company.
Like the riggers who became sales reps, and the sales reps that became builders in Spurr’s book, Lawnsby had his personal reasons for wanting to move up and out of his role with Sovereign.
“By this time, I had been in a fiberglass production environment for a number of years and kept thinking this had to be bad for my health long term, so I started looking for other areas of the marine trade that I would like. I became interested in selling boats instead of building them and left the company.” After many years in sales, Lawnsby now owns and operates the Narragansett Sailing School in Rhode Island.
Dan, the Answer Man
Former longtime Sovereign boat-owner, Bill Head Jr., said of Dan Steeg, the owner of Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc., “whenever I had a question or concern, Dan always answered the phone. The Sovereign was the only boat I’ve owned that you could talk directly with the owner of the company if you had a question.”
A testament to this eagerness to help is the fact that Steeg continued to answer questions about the boats he built for decades afterwards. For example, in 2010, in an answering a question posed on the Sovereign Yahoo Group, he explained that, “all the Sovereign hulls are solid glass with one laminate of 3M Coremat to prevent print through of the woven roving. All the decks from the 17′ thru the 28′ had 1″ x 3″ x 3/8″ plywood encapsulated in resin (so that if a hole was drilled in the deck and not properly caulked, it would contain any damage to a 1″ X 3″ area that can be easily repaired by filling the void with resin). Wood was used in the cockpit sole and liner sole on all models. We never used wood in the transom or any other part of the hull.”
Steeg has also verified that that the models built during the Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc. period included the 7.0, the 5.0 (for which they scaled down the 23′ hull to 17’), the 17′ (which had A&B interiors), the 18′, and Antares 17. He further stated that the Sovereign 7.0, 23′ and 24′, and the Antares 24 all had the same hull but two different decks and finally that for the 28 Center-cockpit, which was formerly the S-2 -26′ Center Cockpit, they lengthened the hull by 2′ and changed the keel and the rudder.
Black Monday and the Sailboat Bubble
According to Steeg, the beginning of the end for Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc. was the stock market crash of October 19, 1987. All twenty-eight boats on order at the time were cancelled. Steeg was sitting on deposits for these orders and could have kept them, but in order to keep his fifteen dealers happy he issued refunds. This decision eventually contributed to the company going bankrupt in 1988.
Even without the stock market crash, it is likely that Sovereign Yacht Co. Inc., would have suffered the same fate as so many boat builders of the period. As a Marine Industry Characterization Report, prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 shows, the market for boats, including sailboats, boomed during the 80s and then contracted, starting in 1988. Retail sales of auxiliary powered sailboats in the U.S. had dropped by 24%, from $275 million in 1984 to $208 million in 1990. In terms of units, the drop was an even more significant 42%, from 4,150 in 1984 to 2,100 in 1990. Notably, the country’s biggest year in terms of unit sales was 1979, just as Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc. was starting production. So, the company was born amid a boom of sailboat construction and died in a contraction, ten years later.
The advent and increasing popularity of fiberglass construction also meant that the shelf life of these boats was significantly longer than that of earlier, wooden boats. They were also cheaper to build. In 1976, it is estimated, there were 992,000 sailboats in America. That number increased by 53% to 1,517,000 in 1989. With so many used boats out there, it appears that there simply wasn’t enough demand to sustain so many manufacturers.
In any case, Steeg estimated that 600 Sovereign boats were built during the company’s the 10-year history. The Hull Identification Number (HIN) for boat manufactured by Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc. will begin with the letters XVG.
Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida, Inc.
The Bankruptcy court awarded the molds to Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida, a vendor that did most of the fiberglass work for Sovereign Yacht Co. and to whom there was presumably money owed.
SailboatData.com confirms the relationship, explaining Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida was the builder of decks, liners, and hulls for both Captiva Yachts and Sovereign Yachts and that when Sovereign Yacht Co. went out of business they acquired the molds and continued building boats under the Sovereign brand name.
The owner of Custom Fiberglass products of Florida, Inc. was a portly man named Robbie Bowen. The number of Sovereign boats built by Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida is unknown but according to Steeg, the company did introduce a new model, the Sovereign 20.
In 1992, Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida also began manufacturing the “Hen boat” line of sailboats designed by Reuben Trane.
Brochure for Hen boats manufactured by Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida
One source states that sometime during the early 1990s Bowen encountered financial and tax problems, both in business and personally. He also developed serious heart issues. The Florida Department of Corporations lists Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida, Inc. as dissolved in 1994. HIN numbers for Sovereign brand boats manufactured during this period and beyond begin with the letters XUP.
The Sovereign America Chapter
Although he wasn’t a boat builder by trade, Jim MacDougald was a sailor, owning a Catalina 27 and then an O’Day 37. In 1996, as MacDougald told us in an exchange of messages, he, “was a sailor in need of a good dinghy.”
MacDougald saw an ad in the paper for a dinghy, and went to a small building in New Port Richey where he found a man named Terry Chapman. MacDougald explains that Chapman, “was building dinghies under contract to The Moorings, and had built quite a few of them.”
An individual familiar with this period in Sovereign’s history explained in an email that Chapman, who was born in 1946 in the Bristol area of England, had been a salesman for Bowen’s CFPF, Inc. He characterized Chapman as a man who, “could appear amusing, engaging and loyal to friends. But he had a problem: Terry could not differentiate between fact and fiction, so it was impossible to believe a single word he said.”
By the time MacDougald happened upon Chapman, the Englishman had already obtained the molds for the Sovereign models and the “Hen” boats, which could be produced under license with a royalty going to the designer, Reuben Trane.
MacDougald continued, “on a trailer outside was an older Sovereign. I asked Terry about it and he said it was an older one he had in for some repairs. He said that he had the molds, but lacked capital to build the sailboats, and that he only occasionally built one of the Hens on custom order. For no sound reason, I decided to buy the company.”
Presumably, the entity MacDougald purchased was Sovereign 96, Inc. which was incorporated in March, 1996. According to one source, Chapman had tax and debt problems of his own, so Sovereign 96’s director was listed as Sandra Chapman, Terry’s wife. By the Fall of 1996, Chapman was facing an uncertain and insolvent future. His workforce of about six had not been paid in some time when Jim MacDougald walked into the picture and temporarily changed his fortunes.
MacDougald thought the boats were beautiful, and would last virtually forever, so he decided to buy out Chapman and have him run the new entity called Sovereign America, Inc. MacDougald would put up the necessary capital to get sailboats into production.
As a full-time CEO of a large company, this was simply an investment for MacDougald. Because he didn’t have time to devote to the actual running of the company, he met with the staff on Saturday mornings to see what was going on and, “give them more money.”
Over the next 12-18 months, Sovereign America, Inc. produced “quite a number of dinghies for The Moorings,” but MacDougald can’t remember how many. They also began to produce, “one of each of the Hens and sailboats for use in photos, brochures, in shows, and to determine the best way to build them and what features we wanted as standard, and which as options.”
The idea was to build one of each for shows, and then build each succeeding boat on custom order, giving choices as to tiller or wheel, color of hull, et cetera. MacDougald said, “We created brochures and began taking the boats to shows. We sold about 20-30 in the ensuing two years, each at a considerable loss.”
The problem, according to MacDougald, was that “we simply could not compete on price with the “Clorox bottle” boats that were our competition. We used hand-laid fiberglass, they used chop. We used a lot of teak and handwork, they had no teak, and no custom craftsmanship. All the other small trailerable boats were mass-produced, lacking a lot of the features that we built-in to ours. Bottom-line, they were much, much cheaper.”
Marketing Sovereign America, Inc.
The costs of marketing the boats were also extremely expensive. McDougald adds, “as we went to shows, a considerable expense to send boats, people, and pay for ads and exhibit space, we could never get our “asking” price, and our salesmen always had to offer incentives…free wheel-steering…free delivery…etc.”
Although the Sovereign America, Inc. period was short, there are some interesting marketing artifacts from the time we can observe. Thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, we can see the company’s website as it was captured May 25, 1998.
Throughout Sovereign’s history, its advertising was characterized by a unique style of puffery. In the ad below, you see the claim, “America’s largest producer of trailerable sailboats.” This was clearly a stretch for a company that was basically starting from scratch. Sovereign America also produced a range of high quality brochures that MacDougald mentioned, which you can see on our advertising section.
The most notable development of the Sovereign America era was the Sovereign 30′. The ad displayed above announces that the launch was planned to take place at the Annapolis Sailboat Show, later that year.
In an email, the then-Vice President of Sovereign America explained that the photograph of the 30′ in the advertising is of an old cutter rigged Sovereign 28. Because the 30′ was nowhere near completion and the company needed to get the promotion going, the photo was digitally altered to depict the new green Sovereign livery. You can see the original and re-touched images below.
Sovereign 28 brochure from Sovereign Yacht Co. and Sovereign 30 brochure from Sovereign America, Inc. Note the altered image of the 28 used on the newer brochure for the 30.
The Most Expensive Sailboat of its Size Ever Built!
In July of 1997, MacDougald fired Chapman and eventually hired Robbie Bowen to come back. The belief was that once the Sovereign brand was re-established, they could make a go of it. That’s when it was decided to build the Sovereign 30′. Only one of these boats was ever made.
“That was a huge ordeal, as we had no model to work from,” said MacDougald. “We were “inventing as we built”. We decided to make it diesel-powered, which added a whole new level of requirements for electrical systems, et cetera. It may be the most expensive sailboat of its size ever built!”
In October of 1997, the yet-to-be produced Sovereign 30′ was included in Cruising World‘s “1998 New-Boat Showcase”. A distinction that, no doubt was given in exchange for the three full-page insertions of the same ad which were placed in the August, September and October 1997 issues of that publication.
Cruising World’s 1988 New Boat Showcase including the Sovereign 30 – October 1997
MacDougald recalls the last boats manufactured by Sovereign America, Inc., were made to be taken to a boat show, in the northeast, in late 1997 (probably the Annapolis Sailboat Show mentioned in the ad), “they were ‘spec’ boats, a last gasp to try to establish a market, and get some sales.” But the boats weren’t ready in time and so he decided to halt new boat construction to concentrate on completing the unfinished ones.
The End of an Era
Eventually, MacDougald and Bowen realized that both the “Hen” and “Sovereign” molds needed to be replaced, requiring a very large investment. MacDougald explains, “the losses kept piling-up (way more than a million dollars), and it did not appear that we would ever get to a price-point that could make the company a viable business, so I shut-down production, and for the next two years, just sold off inventory.”
Among those remaining boats was the beautiful new Sovereign 30, which MacDougald recalls was sold on the day President Bill Clinton finally admitted to having, “a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” The boat was delivered to its new owner in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin shortly thereafter. Another memorable anecdote is about a customer that bought a Peep Hen that MacDougald says, “had every imaginable thing we could put on it. He ultimately sailed it across the Gulf of Mexico, I’m told.”
The molds were given away to the nearby maker of Nimble Boats and Sovereign America, Inc. shuttered its doors after being in production for less than two years, between 1996-1998. MacDougald, who is now retired and is the author of UNSUSTAINABLE: How Big Government, Taxes, and Debt are Wrecking America, laments, “we had joined many, many other boat builders of this area that had built great boats, still on the water today, that closed their doors forever. An entire industry in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, that prospered in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, just disappeared.”
And thus, ended what was about a 20-year run for the manufacture of the Sovereign brand of sailboats.
Found: The Lone Sovereign 30
We had previously posted an account, from a marine salvage operator, about the salvage of a sunken boat believed to be the lone Sovereign 30. We were never able to corroborate the story and it turns out that it was probably just a case of mistaken identity.
In May of 2018, we received an inquiry from Rick Morse, of Ohio. He said:
I have a wonderful puzzle for you. I’m looking at a Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida sailboat with a HIN of XUP3020201733. The sail is that of a Sovereign 30, but your history page says that only one was built and that sank in 2004. Can you help me out?
It turns out that Morse had seen the boat on Craigslist and found this site while researching the brand. We exchanged various emails and he sent me some photographs which prove that he in fact was buying the one-of-its-kind 30-footer. Despite the XUP designation on the HIN, the boat was actually manufactured by Sovereign America, Inc., which inherited the prefix when it purchased the assets of Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida.
While the truth of what has happened to the Sovereign 30 may not be as the fascinating as the story about the sunken boat it was mistaken for, we’re happy that the boat is still around and will be providing Mr. Morse and his family with happiness for years to come.
Click to enlarge.
Dan W. Steeg, the founder and president of Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc., passed away on January 26, 2020. He was survived by his wife of 63 years Janet, his children Joseph, Michael, Gregory, and Kathleen, his grandchildren Jennifer, Melissa, Stephanie, Sean, and Reiley, plus six great-grandchildren and his sister, Sue Stumpf.
Terry Chapman, AKA Terence V. Chapman AKA Terrance Vincent Chapman AKA Terry Chapmant, the colorful, if not trustworthy, man that convinced Jim MacDougald to buy his company, ushering in the final era of Sovereign brand sailboats, died on March 9, 2011, reportedly at a New Port Richey hospice from lung disease, attributed to his lifelong chain smoking.
In writing this account, there are several individuals whose stories we want to hear. You can contact us if you know their whereabouts or have corrections and information to offer. These individuals include:
Sovereign Employees – We’d welcome the recollections of anyone that worked for any of the companies that built Sovereign sailboats. We’d especially appreciate any photographs of the grounds of the facilities, boats in progress, etc.
Jere Austin – Austin was listed as president of Southern Sails, Inc. Among the three owners that Rob Lawnsby remembers, he was presumably the one with the “naval architecture” background. According to his Facebook profile, Austin studied yacht design and manufacturing. We haven’t been able to get in touch with him either.
Alfred G. (Al) Larson – Larson was listed as a director of Southern Sails, Inc. It seems that in the late 70s, Larson had his fingers in many boat building pies in southwest Florida. The Florida Department of Corporations has him listed as an officer, registered agent or director for at least four corporations at that time: Southern Sails, Watkins Yacht and Marine, Auroraglas, Inc. and Sailboats West, Inc. (a dealership that sold Sovereign, Skipper 20 and Watkins Sailboats). Larson’s early career also includes time as a sales manager at Lancer Yachts. Larson fits the profile of the Southern Sails owner with the “sales background” that Lawnsby mentions.
Robbie Bowen – From Robbie Bowem. we’d be interested in learning about his company he came to do the glass work for Sovereign Yacht Co., Inc., how he acquired the Sovereign molds, how the company began its relationship with Reuben Trane and the building of the Hen boats and how the Sovereign molds ended up in the hands of Terry Chapman. Attempts to contact Bowen have so far been unsuccessful.
Reuben Trane – Trane designed the Hen boats, which were built, under license, by Custom Fiberglass Products of Florida, Inc. and later Sovereign America, Inc. We’d like to speak with him about the relationships he had with those two companies and the period in general.