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Yellow Jacket Boats

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People who grew up in Texomaland after WWII harbor ensconced memories of Yellow Jacket Boats. These powerful wooden racing boats are still in demand today even though they have not been manufactured since 1959. The Yellow Jacket Boat was promoted as a fast, safe, family boat throughout the 1950s. Mac McDerby wanted to build a boat for the “common man” but ended up with cowboy star, Roy Rogers, as a buyer of Yellow Jacket Boats, a major investor, and vice president of Yellow Jacket Boats.

Andrew Jackson Higgins

It kind of all started with Andrew Jackson Higgins of Higgins Industries in New Orleans. Andrew manufactured Higgins Boats. A prep school in Omaha, Nebraska, expelled young Andrew for fighting, and he drifted down south. In 1906, Andrew began hawking within the lumber business exporting hardwood from Africa, Central America, and the Philippines and ended up with a large fleet of sailing ships and his own shipyard that provided all the support for his fleet in New Orleans.

Andrew designed the Eureka boat in 1926. By 1938, the Marine Corps was looking for more practical ways to transport men across a beach in an amphibious landing. The Eureka boat passed military muster except for offloading men and equipment which left them exposed to enemy fire. Within one month of the Marine evaluation, Higgins had designed the ramp-bow Eureka boat categorized as the Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel or LCVP and called the Higgins Boat. Each boat carried 36 soldiers and over 23,000 Eureka boats were used in WWII.

In WWII, enemy ports were heavily guarded. Armies could land and unload across open beaches in the Higgins Boat and radiate out to attack from a wide expanse. Higgins Industries employed 85,000 workers and secured $350,000,000 in government contracts. Higgins employed workers according to the EEOC long before it was an Act of Congress in the Deep South with strict standards and garnered the attention of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Higgins Industries also manufactured landing craft, Motor Torpedo Boats (PT Boats), torpedo tubes, gun turrets, and smoke generators for WWII’s naval warcraft.

Richard “Mac” McDerby

Mac began his career in New Orleans in the 1930s and became a licensed boat captain. Higgins employed Mac as a test engineer before and after WWII. Mac captained Higgins’ personal yacht. Mac intimately understood the Eureka boat’s design and capabilities. During WWII, Mac designed uncompromising training programs for the military’s use of the Eureka boat. Thirty thousand American soldiers completed Mac’s training programs. Numerous veterans wrote Mac letters of appreciation after their tours. Dwight D. Eisenhower credited Andrew and Mac as the men who won WWII.

War Bonds and Love

After WWII, America was encouraged to purchase War Bonds to pay for the war’s expenses. Andrew and Mac led mock invasion demonstrations beginning in June 1945 on the shores of Lake Texoma to promote War Bonds. Thirty-five thousand Texomans cheered on the shore of Lake Texoma as they watched simulated military operations with LCVP, speed boats, airplanes, and a lifeboat dropped from a B-17. The two war heroes staged this event at several points on the Red River of the South and the Mississippi River. By the time their tour ended in New Orleans, Andrew and Mac had promoted the sale of more than $300,000 in U.S. War Bonds.

Denison Mayor Bill Marisco introduced Catherine Conatser to Mac during the planning of the first “Mighty Seventh” mock invasion. They married and Mac moved to Denison not long after the war. Mac opened a marine supply business but dreamed of building boats. In 1949, Mac’s brother-in-law, Bill Conatser, and Mac opened the doors to the McDerby-Conatser Boat Company.

The Yellow Jacket Boats

All of the boats Mac’s company manufactured were wooden with every inch handcrafted. Mac’s first boats were runabouts and utility models. Mac chose the brand name Yellow Jacket because the insect is small and fast. * Mac used technology from other boat engineers and designers such as Richard Cole’s hull design for the 1951 Yellow Jacket and Wesley Theakston’s molded hull technology using thin layers of Canadian birch and heated phenolic resin under pressure to polish off Cole’s designs.

“Smooth as Your Face” was not smooth enough for a Yellow Jacket Boat hull. Mac’s finishing department’s craftsmen used precision tools and instruments to ensure perfectly straight, smooth hulls. Theakston had enough confidence in Yellow Jacket Boats to move his family to Denison from Nova Scotia and form the Theakston Boat Company which built hulls exclusively for Yellow Jacket. In 1957, Theakston began using mahogany veneer instead of birch in his hulls. That year, Theakston turned out 7,000 hulls for the 7,000 Yellow Jacket Boats sold.

Yellow Jacket Boats maintained ultimate popularity throughout the 1950s. Mac sold distributorships for Yellow Jacket Boats located far enough apart from each other so he would not oversaturate his market. He contracted for specially designed trailers to transport ten Yellow Jacket Boats at a time to his distributors. Mac had only one traveling salesman who carried 24-inch scale models of Yellow Jacket Boats with him, but the salesman always came back sans the models. The distributors would not buy Mac’s boats and put them up for sale unless they could have one of the models. Mac spent about $1,000 a year replacing his scale models built by a Texas craftsman.

Roy Rogers—Who Knew Roy Raced Boats?

In one of his TV episodes, Roy Rogers swapped his horse, Trigger, for a Yellow Jacket Boat. Mac promoted his boats in the style of the great circus promoter, P.T. Barnum. When Eisenhower became POTUS, Mac gave him a Yellow Jacket. When Evinrude gave Steve Allen a motor on the Tonight Show, Steve jokingly said, “Now, all I need is a boat to go with it.” So, Mac gave Steve a Yellow Jacket Boat to go with it. And, Mac gave a Yellow Jacket Boat to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in 1955. When Mac learned that Roy Rogers loved racing boats, Mac gave him the fastest little boat on American waters, a Yellow Jacket Boat.

Cy Breen of Denison was a former cameraman for Republic Studios, and Cy knew that Roy Rogers loved racing boats. Mac set Cy up with a Yellow Jacket distributorship. Cy asked Mac if he would supply Roy with a Yellow Jacket Boat in exchange for using Roy’s name to promote Mac’s boats. Roy won a bunch of races with Yellow Jacket Boats and visited the Yellow Jacket Boat plant. Roy purchased a major interest in Mac’s company and at one point became the company’s vice president.

From 1949 to 1959

For eleven years, one of the men who won WWII produced one the highest-quality, most affordable, and most popular boats on American waters and did that right here in Texomaland. At its height of production, Mac’s company turned out 35 to 40 boats a day. Cole and Theakston’s Yellow Jacket hull design remained almost unchanged throughout the life of Mac’s company though Mac offered various cockpit and deck designs in 12-,14-, and 16-foot models.

The reason for the change from birch to mahogany veneer materialized from dry-rot problems found in the earlier Yellow Jacket Boat models. Other innovative features that Yellow Jacket Boats sported were bent wood spring seats, stronger transoms for larger motors, deeper hulls for a dryer and safer ride, and transoms without knee bracing which led to transom designs still used today.

During the late 1950s, Sears bought Yellow Jacket Boats. Transporting finished boats from Texas to Sears headquarters in the northeast U.S. proved difficult in maintaining the polished integrity of a beautiful boat. So, Yellow Jacket shipped trainloads of molded mahogany “skins” to the Angler/Penn Yan Boat Company where they fitted the mahogany skins to the finished boats. At one time, Yellow Jacket Boats employed 400 people. Mac’s best year for sales was 1957 when he sold 7,000 Yellow Jacket Boats. Mac sold over 20,000 Yellow Jacket Boats over the course of eleven years.

Wood Boats vs. Fiberglass

Although Mac had a significant hand in America’s success on landing at foreign beaches overseas and winning WWII, his wooden boats did not fare well when the new fiberglass boat technology came into play at the end of the 1950s. Mac and company tried to design Yellow Jackets to fit in with the new fiberglass technology but success evaded their endeavors. Wesley Theakston continued to build wooden hulls until 1964 at his company, but he also lost out to fiberglass technology.

Yellow Jacket Boat owners today have spent thousands of loving hours restoring these beautiful boats. The North Texas Wooden Boat Association has information on these wonderful treasure-boats of the past. I read that there are quite a few Yellow Jacket Boats in operation on Lake Texoma and maybe 1,000 in use in America today. Both Mac and Roy Rogers set speed records in the California to Catalina Island Race racing Yellow Jacket Boats.

It’s amazing to think that since the beginning of naval technology starting with ancient Greek author Homer’s description of Odysseus building a ship made of wood that we have only been using fiberglass technology in pleasure boating design for 60 years. For a long time, wood was king in pleasure boats!

You can read loving memories from people whose families owned Yellow Jacket Boats back in the day on this website:



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Lake Texoma Fishing Report from TPWD (Dec. 11)

GOOD. Water stained; 62-64 degrees; 1.90’ high. Striped bass continue to be excellent using slabs, swimbaits, and live bait in deeper water. Largemouth bass are good drifting live baits. Crappie are fair on minnows and jigs around large structure in shallow water. Catfish are fair on live shrimp, cut bait, and minnows.