Terry Stark, a restless genius who never finished high school but invented a simple, everyman’s skiff that grew into the nation’s biggest-selling fiberglass boat brand, has died in Cambodia. He was 68.
It was the last of many places he called home as he pursued a simple but adventurous life in latitudes where the climate let him live in shorts and flip-flops.
“He wanted to keep things simple and to enjoy a simple life,” said a former girlfriend and business partner, Karen Williams. “He ended with a bicycle, a motorcycle and a rented apartment.
“He didn’t require a lot,” she said. “His motto in life was, it’s easier to do less than to make more.”
Stark founded Carolina Skiff in Newport, near Morehead City, in the early 1980s, then moved it to Jacksonville. It eventually moved to Georgia, but Stark is still responsible for the Carolina name appearing in distinctive, large letters on tens of thousands of boxy, open boats that are spread across the country, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
He sold his share of the company in 1998 – apparently the earliest point that he believed the price would let him live on his terms.
Which is what he proceeded to do.
Stark spent more time in North Carolina than just about anywhere else, but he was born in Pennsylvania and also lived in Georgia, Florida, Maryland, the Bahamas, Honduras, Guatemala, Thailand, Cuba, aboard ships while in the Navy, and sometimes for months on end aboard boats, rambling from one obscure anchorage to the next.
Urge to roam
He moved around so much that sometimes his friends and family lost track, but the basics of the Terry Stark trail goes something like this.
He was raised in Palmyra, Pa., a town near Hershey, where his father was a plumber.
It’s unclear even to his brother, Alan Stark, where Terry got his unquenchable urge to roam. He left home as soon as he was able, quitting high school and joining the Navy at age 17.
He served on aircraft carriers that were part of the U.S. force fighting in Vietnam, repairing the sophisticated electronics aboard the aircraft that were used for targeting, said his brother.
At age 21, his enlistment up, he left the service and worked in electronics factories briefly, before deciding to try college.
It was in an electronics lab at the University of Maryland where he met noted physicist Joseph Weber, who put Stark’s native intelligence and Navy experience to work building circuit boards for a device Weber hoped could detect gravity waves on the moon.
NASA put it aboard Apollo 17. Which is how the ever-rambling Stark came, in a sense, to roam precisely as far as any human ever has: The device, which failed to detect any waves, remains on the moon in the volcanic dust of a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Stark couldn’t sit still long enough to finish college, and he and a then-wife took a boat south down the Intracoastal Waterway to Marathon Key, Fla., where he took a job running a motel while he built a better sailboat.
Stark had a way of infecting others with his approach to life, and after a visit to Florida, Alan Stark yanked up his own roots.
“He told me to come on down for a visit, and I did,” he said. “And I said, my God, I’m too young to settle down, too – I want to play for a while!”
He sold his house and also moved to Marathon.
Eventually, Stark washed up in Morehead City. By then, he had learned how to work with fiberglass and decided to start a repair shop in nearby Newport to work on boats and anything else made of composites. It was during this time he met Williams, who eventually became a partner in the business, she said.
A local businessman came in one day and asked if he could use the durable material to build several copies of a simple johnboat.
Fiberglass wasn’t inherently stiff enough, but using a method he had come up with for repairs, he glassed thick beams of foam on the inside of the hull, essentially building up a slablike floor that was thick, light and lent stiffness with little material.
Company photos include one of a semi-truck with its front wheels on one of the hulls, and another boat sawed into chunks, all of them floating jauntily.
“To him, it was like the Volkswagen of boats, just plain and simple and affordable,” Williams said. “The average everyday person could have a boat and get on the water.
“He didn’t want to be a boat builder,” she said. “He just wanted to make enough money to get another boat and get back on the water, and that was the dream. It didn’t really work out, but that was the idea.”
After he sold his share of the company and he and Williams split up, he mainly lived in Honduras, in large part because the interest rates there were good, said his brother. When rates fell, he moved to Southeast Asia, where they were better, and eventually settled in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
The Terry lifestyle
Wherever he roamed, he kept in touch with a growing army of friends, in recent years mostly by email, though some regularly flew around the world just to spend time with him.
The Terry lifestyle wasn’t just about him; it was about that crowd of friends whom he showed, however briefly and sporadically, that life could be lived outside the rut.
“I’ve got some incredible memories, thanks to him,” Williams said. “He always challenged you, and made you push yourself more than you thought you could. But in the end you realized how much you were able to do and you lived a better life because of being around him.
As he approached his eighth decade, Stark was feeling the aches and pains of his hard miles. His knees were giving him trouble, making it harder to get around on his bike, and it finally seemed as if he had settled in one place for good.
Many of his friends probably would struggle with that. Certainly, his brother said, no one could imagine him ending up in assisted living.
He didn’t. On Aug. 15, his girlfriend found him slumped over, dead of an apparent heart attack while making a smoothie.
A memorial website set up by buddies in the United States and in Cambodia includes a gallery of photos depicting an easygoing lifestyle and many friends, particularly women.
It also attributes a quote to Stark: “Contrary to popular belief, you can run away from all your problems.”
His view of life, though, was much more than simply figuring out a way to take it easy, said Williams, who had been in regular contact with him for the past 15 years.
“Think about the skiff,” she said. “Someone came to him and said, can you build it? And he could have said no, there’s no way to build them. Because there wasn’t.
“But he said, I’ll give it a try, and he came up with a method of construction and went even further and said, ‘Hey, I can do this for the everyday person, make an inexpensive boat so everybody can have a boat in their driveway,’ ” she said. “And that created happiness for how many people?”
On Sunday, Terry Stark’s friends in Phnom Phen plan a memorial. They’ll give him one last boat ride, out onto the faintly mysterious swirls and upwellings of the Mekong River, where they will spread his ashes. And Terry Stark will be headed for the ocean.
On the move again.