A decade of hustle and a $10 million investment may soon pay off for the local promoters of a seasick-proof ship. News stories about the “Small Waterplane, Twin Hilled” boats—Swath for short—are appearing more frequently, and navy and army engineers are test-driving the one-hundred-foot boats, whose catamaran-like pontoons keep them steady on rocky ocean waves. Only a dozen SWATHs have been built worldwide, and two of them are docked in San Diego, the Betsy, a support ship for Dennis Conner’s Sail America crew, and the Chubasco, a million-dollar demonstration model available for test spins on San Diego Bay.
Finding the man behind this intriguing new ocean-going technology can be tougher than finding the boats themselves. Press reports seldom mention Leonard Friedman’s name, and a front-page story in the June 20 San Diego Business Journal headlined “Mystery man’s ship company builds for comfort not for speed” misidentified him. Though it was Friedman who personally donated the $1.1 million Betsy to Sail America, a glossy newsletter produced by the group included yachting Booster Malin Burnham’s comment that “the donation…of the Betsy by the Hotel Del Coronado is an example of the kind of generous support we are receiving across the country.”
Along with Friedman’s sole ownership of SWATH Ocean Systems, Inc., court records reveal that the unassuming millionaire is a wealthy investor whose business interests parallel those of M. Larry Lawrence, the gregarious, high-profile chairman of the Hotel Del Coronado. Documents show that Freidman, as recently as 1979, owned sixty percent of Hotel Del corporation stock and a fifty-percent interest in Palm Springs Racquet and Tennis Club, a property that’s also identified with Lawrence. The two men played major roles in a 1984-85 corporate dispute concerning their stock ownership in a Detroit metals manufacturing firm, and the seventy-three-year-old Friedman lives in an ocean-front cottage on the Hotel Del property.
In an interview this week, Friedman declined to discuss his investment in the Hotel Del and the Palm Springs properties, saying “the documents speak for themselves,” Lawrence was similarly reticent. And Friedman seemed unconcerned that he hasn’t reaped publicity for his generous donation to the Sail America effort in 1985. “A lot of things in life are strange,” he commented. (Lawrence says reports that attributed the gift to the hotel weren’t incorrect since Ocean Systems and the Hotel Del were “affiliated” in 1985.)
Friedman talks more easily about his SWATH boats. He says the most lucrative market for the steady-going ships is with government agencies and private firms that do sensitive hydrographic survey work, such as depth soundings on harbors. And He’s confident that his costly, ten-year SWATH boat experiment will soon pay off. “We have a profit motive in this,” he says. “And I believe this could be the year.”