Handsome motor-launches, paddlewheelers and the tugs and barges of Ohio’s lakes and rivers captivated him as a boy. His first design for Jerry, a 40’ motorboat, won the Ideal Series from Motor Boating magazine in 1917. His first sailboat, Volante, a 30’ yawl, won again two years later.
Rhodes graduated from MIT in 1918 in naval architecture and engineering. He worked as a shipfitter and Army engineer before moving to New York and opening a tiny office with his friend Weston Farmer, one so small that "that visitors were said to stand in the doorway".
Yacht racing expanded in the 1920’s, moving from the sport of spectators’ wonder at ten-story spars and cloudlike canvas sweated by crews of sixty, to the first-hand thrill of being amateur sailors racing offshore in ‘real’ boats of their own.
A win in the challenging 660 mile Bermuda Race, then it its earliest days, was becoming the great prize. In 1932, Rhodes Ayesha, a 46’ keel/centerboard yawl took a third. When five years later, Rhodes’ 53’ keel/centerboard cutter Kirawan won against Olin Stephens impressive 53’ Stormy Weather, the new era had truly begun.
Rhodes designed for strength and speed, for comfort and for competition. But his artistry lay in an angelic sheerline, a higher bow, arcing low just aft of the centerline to finish lightly up at a modest stern. Head of design for Cox & Stephens in 1935, he led American designers for a generation.
WWII took the firm deep into the world of military necessity. Some 498 employees produced 700 designs for everything from minesweepers to subchasers, to patrol craft and hospital ships. Tugboats, barges, police launches, Rhodes ignored no work and no working hull; he called this his ‘bread and butter’ until 1974.
Post-war bounty begat a middle class renaissance that swept Rhodes up in a second, great creative wave. He became head of Philip L. Rhodes in 1947 and, with the same prescience that led him east to MIT decades before, entered the new world of mass production, adapting to fiberglass and to the sensational expansion of sailing everywhere.
Among his enduring gifts to sailing are many small boats. One, the 11’ Penguin, has sailed continuously for sixty years, captivating anyone just beginning to love the salty combination of sea and air. His 9’ Dyer Dhow and the Rhodes 19 -- among others -- also became household names.
Rhodes’ Amerca’s Cup design Weatherly, his first design to the International Rule and for the Cup defense, didn’t make the cut in 1958. But with Bus Mosbacher at the helm, four years later, she won brilliantly against Australia’s challenger Gretel.
By the late 1950’s Philip Rhodes no longer took a direct hand in designing and his duties fell to the gifted James McCurdy. He and Philip’s son, Bodie Rhodes, created their own firm, McCurdy & Rhodes, in 1966.
Once a land-bound boy, Philip Rhodes set his heart on sail. The angelic lines of his yachts still grace harbors around world.