A Visit With Mac McDerby, owner of the

Yellow Jacket Boat Company

By James Riley

(Sometime in 2003)

 

 

 

 

          When I purchased my Yellow Jacket I was talking to a guy in a boat store and he mentioned  the man that designed and built the Yellow Jacket boats lives here in New Orleans”. I called all of the McDerby’s in the phone book until I contacted Mac. He was very congenial and when I mentioned that I would like for him to look at my boats serial # to verify it as a 1956, his response was “come on by”. A week later I went to his apartment, he looked at my boat and invited my wife and I in to look at the brochures he had on the 1956 models.

          When asked how he got into the boat business, Mac relayed several stories to us, they are:

 

          During WWII, Mac worked here in New Orleans for the Higgins Boat Co., his job was to train the coastguardsmen who operated the landing craft that were manufactured by Higgins. I was surprised to find that the guys that operated the landing craft were Coastguardsmen, not Navy, not Army.  Mac trained hundreds of these guys on the proper technique of beaching the boat and backing it out, the training was conducted in the marshy areas around New Orleans. 

          During WWII Mr. Higgins asked Mac to pilot a landing craft up the Red River as part of a war bond drive, he was to stop in all of the small towns, show the folks the boat and generate interest in the purchase of the bonds. He was told to “taker it as far up river as it will go, then turn around and come back”. “As far as it would go” ended up being Denison, Texas, where Mac met a girl who he ended up marrying after the war. She wanted to live in Denison so Mac decided to build his boat business there.

          Mac told me that he settled on the name Yellow Jacket because they were small and fast like the boat, he never mentioned that the Denison High School football team was named the Yellow Jackets.

          Mac operated his boat company like an automobile company, in September he brought out the next years new model, he sold “distributorships” (the only people who he would sell boats to) such that they were no too close together, he had special trailers designed and built to transport 10 boats at a time from Dennison to the dealerships, his new model brochure was sent along with the shipment of boats.

          Roy Rogers was an investor in the Yellow Jacket boat Co. and he was an avid boater who really “liked to go fast”. Yellow Jackets were used on his show several times and he set a speed record in the California to Catalina Island race in one (later to be broken by Mac).

          Mac had the Mercury people build him a counter rotating motor to use as one of the two on his Catalina Island race boat thus eliminating the “torque steer” problem with two outboards that rotated in the same direction, Mac felt that this improved the top end speed of the boat and he didn’t tell anyone about it until years after the set the California to Catalina Island speed record.

          When Mac saw that I had a Mark 78 on my boat he said “one of the boats claims to fame is that you can’t turn it over, it will skid/skip across the water prior to turning over and that is true with most outboards on it, 35HP, 40HP, 55Hp. etc, but I was demonstrating a boat in the Harvey canal (just outside of the New Orleans city limits) with about 50 potential dealers watching, I had the new Mercury Mark 78 on it and in a hard turn I turned it over. I came up inside of the overturned boat, thought about just staying there, but finally came out to face the embarrassment.”

          The Yellow Jacket Company had only one “salesman”, he carried with him scale models (about 24” long, made exactly like the real thing, stained and painted like the original) of each new model of Yellow Jacket. The problem was that each time he came back from sales calls he no longer had the models, it seems that every potential distributor purchaser begged him for one of the models and more than one distributorship was sold, contingent on the purchaser getting the model. Mac said that he would typically spend $1000.00/year replacing the models which were built by one person in Texas.

 

 

 

With the building and opening of the “D-Day Museum” in New Orleans Mac was on a team to build an exact replica of a Higgins boat (landing craft) for the museum and was featured on several local programs once the museum was opened (interviews, old films of him operating a Higgins boat) . The History channel has a program on Mr. Higgins about the building of landing craft, PT boats, etc. in the old films Mac can be seen operating the boats.

 

As an interesting side note, I went aboard PT 309, the last PT boat to see action in WWII, that is still around. It was traveling from New York to Texas and stopped in New Orleans. From the dock I noticed that the hull was made just like a Yellow Jacket with angular strips of wood, when I went into the engine room I could clearly see that the hull appeared to be the cross laminated strip design…. Mac worked for Higgins Boat Co. who built PT boats, Mac designed the Yellow Jacket hull, had it built in Canada, eventually had the manufacturer move to Dennison and absorbed him. Could it be that the PT boat hull design was the inspiration for the Yellow Jacket design?

 

 

To Photos and Document Scans

 

1957 Brochure