Custom Fiberglass International (CFI) has over 34 years experience in custom fiberglass fabrication for industrial and other uses.
In addition to custom fabrication, CFI manufactures catamaran sailboats.
The Story of International Fiberglass
by Jim Vickers
Pondering the plight of artists in a pickle --
a Van Gogh voluntarily crossing the bar after hundreds of paintings produce a single sale;
a Gauguin expiring of syphilis in pagan poverty, his work rejected --
moistens the eyes of all sensitive mortals.
Yet the tragedy of the popularly unrecognized but talented artist is the accepted common fate of the skilled craftsman,
one of whom is Frank Meldau, who exercises his talent at IFG (International Fiberglass)
on South Miami Boulevard between the Research Triangle Park and Durham.
Those in the fiberglass trade, however, know Frank well,
as Carrboro designer Diane Gillis discovered two years ago when she was looking
for someone to embody her plans for the Airport-Playport
in Terminal A at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport and
followed up on references to IFG.
"It was a pretty loose situation," Diane says of the bedroom-size playarea airplane mock-up.
"Frank had to really put a lot into it to make the curved fuselage and wings meet the space
because there was really no way that I could dimension it on a drawing.
It was a very custom job."
Wallace Kuralt, the proprietor of the Intimate Bookshop chain in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Winston Salem,
and elsewhere, has engaged Frank often to execute his personal designs---oversized books,
computer stands, a copper-toned inside awning for his Charlotte store.
"He's a remarkable craftsman," Wallace asserts.
"He is great doing whatever. Just the touch and feel of everything he does is so right."
To create an object from fiberglass, Frank first creates a "plug",
a true-size rendition of the final product, from which he takes a mold.
"Almost any material can be used for the plug," Frank explains,
"just as long as I can get the shape."
For the Playport, urethane, plastic and random odds and ends went into the plug.
A First Encounter with the Catamaran
Frank refined the draftsmanship necessary to his craft in engineering courses
taken at the University of New Mexico during a 1951-1954 hitch in the U.S. Air Force
and applied that education in the Special Weapons Command at Kirkland Air Force Base
drawing plans and "exploding-view" technical illustrations
to be used to place brackets on aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.
While at Kirkland, Frank had two adventures that altered the course
of his life, one temporarily, and the other permanently. Attending a
dinosaur dig in Sand Bluff, Colorado, convinced him he wanted to be
a paleontologist, and a 30-day leave sailing with a friend's family
in the Gulf of Mexico exposed him to a totally strange sailing vessel,
a 46 foot catamaran cut from Hawaiian logs.
From his grammar school days in Raleigh, sailing had been his
favorite sport, appropriate since he had been born in August 1931
aboard a sailing yacht off Charleston, SC. Although the bulky
Hawaiian double-hull was poorly designed, its speed led Frank to
think, "What is true for that large boat can be true for a
smaller boat---a 16-foot or a 20-foot boat would do the same thing."
Consequently, he began to draw designs based on that odd-looking
catamaran---the word is from Sri Lanka, meaning "to lash two
trees together"--- and began building the first of many
experimental boats in 1957 while attending the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill in pursuit of a degree in Geography and
Geology. With that degree in hand in 1960, he realized that the only
livelihood available through applied paleontology was teaching. A
career in the classroom had zero appeal for Frank.
The Model of UNC
His dream of building a world-class racing catamaran
had captivating appeal, but it came to life haltingly in a heavy,
unwieldy 24-foot cabin cat constructed from plywood and fiberglass.
To generate the cash needed to keep his experiments going, he
remained at UNC after graduation working in the engineering
department. His key assignment was to construct a three-dimensional
scale model of the campus to show planners who could not read
topographical maps why some seemingly open spaces on campus were in
fact undesirable or impossible building sites.
He originally planned to build a 13-by-15-foot model capturing
campus geography with 4000 contour lines and depicting buildings
with crude, solidly painted blocks, but when administrators saw a
sample section, they insisted that the buildings be authentic
recreations, complete with windows capable of illumination from
bulbs within them. By the time he completed it in October 1961,
Frank had used original blueprints to build the miniature buildings,
installed 2000 trees-including a replica of the Davie Poplar-and
lined streets and parking lots with tiny cars. The updated model,
minus the button-operated lights, sat stage center in the rotunda of
the Morehead Planetarium for years.
During that period, Frank built his catamarans at night, first on
the second floor of the old Carrboro schoolhouse, now the Carrboro
Town Hall, then in a rented shop on South Magnum Street in Durham. A
21-foot fiberglass-and-plywood model cut the weight of the 24-foot
cruiser in half. He also met Rhoda Blanton, dramatic arts major at
UNC, during a coffee break at the Carolina Coffee Shop, and the
subsequent marriage added a partner-for-life in boat building and
Does it Fly?
Responding to an announcement for a boat show to
accompany the grand opening of Tarrytown Mall in Rocky Mount, Frank
and Rhoda gambled a $100 entry fee to display an 18-foot catamaran,
believing the event offered the logical and economical opportunity
to put their idea before an expectant public. "We thought we
would surely sell something, but we didn't," Rhoda says in
recounting their stark disappointment. "People would come up to
the boat and ask, "Does it fly?" or " Where do you
sit?" "Some even thought it was an ice-boat, " Frank
adds. Later, Ed McKnight, a UNC colleague, bought the boat-show
A dozen experimental catamarans, trimarans and outriggers preceded
Frank's 1962 discovery of the "perfect" design--- a
16-foot, 275-pound, two sail catamaran with a cantilevered bow that
would sail closer into the wind than any boat he had ever piloted.
Rhoda suggested they name the craft Isotope and they gained a sale
before the first boat was built. Hallam Walker, a French professor
at Duke, invited Frank to the Duke Sailing Club to speak on
catamarans and multi-hull boats and was so impressed by the talk
that he ordered a boat that existed only in the imagination of its
Evicted from the South Mangum Street shop by urban renewal
enforcers, Frank moved into a Quonset hut on the site now occupied
by the Auto Zone on Hillsborough Road in Durham and for brief period
took on as a partner Homer Athas, the brother of Chapel Hill
novelist Daphne Athas. "But Homer had the wanderlust,"
Frank recalls, and he soon moved on.
Exposure at boat shows as far distant as Annapolis and Chicago and
favorable testimonials from owners shortly generated enough orders
from individual buyers and a dozen dealers to keep Frank and a small
crew busy during warm months producing Isotopes and a smaller
14-foot version named the Cheshire Cat, both basically constructed
of hand laminated fiberglass.
"A Virtually Handmade, Affordable, High-Tech, High Performance Boat."
Because the laws of physics give large sailboats an
advantage over smaller boats, a handicap system is necessary if
craft of different sizes are to race competitively. The United
States Sailing Association studied the Isotope's specifications and
initially gave it a Portsmouth handicap of ".82" Meaning
that the distance an Isotope would cover in 82 minutes would
theoretically take 90 minutes for a boat rated at ".90" to
cover. Then as results from races in regattas around the nation
accumulated, the USSA began to lower the rating, until it reached
".74" the lowest rating for a 16-foot catamaran in the
world to this day. In time, the Cheshire Cat earned the lowest
rating of all 14-foot catamarans.
Last week, local sailor Debra King spoke of her experience, adding
to IFG's file of blurbs: "I have had an Isotope for nearly 10
years now. I learned to sail on an Isotope, and I think it is an
especially good boat for this area and particularly for female
sailors. It's very light weight. I can actually with another woman
take it on and off a trailer. Also, it's very, very much easier to
sail; it doesn't take nearly as much manhandling and it's much more
responsive than some of the other catamarans that you see. On a
typically light-wind day at Jordan Lake it will outdistance a Hobie
just consistently, almost with little regard to how good the sailor
By the late 1960s, after IFG moved to its current home on Miami
Boulevard, hundreds of Isotopes and Cheshire Cats were collecting
trophies by the scores, and all were precise copies of the original,
a factor appreciated by critic Tom Tober in Southern Boating
Magazine: "So in Isotope and Cheshire we have that rare
thing---a virtually handmade, affordable, high-tech,
"When I designed my boat, " Frank says, "my goal was
not to build all kinds of boats. I was after a class boat, class
meaning something like the Thistle, the boat used to establish the
Portsmouth handicap system, which is a boat still sailing today.
That's the reason I only built two lengths, 14-foot and
The Off Season - Fiberglass Fabrication
Activity at IFG has always ranged far beyond boat
building, particularly in the winter months. In 1972, managers of
the Mint Museum in Charlotte chose to end constant repair to its
emblem, a 12-foot gold-leafed plaster eagle suffering from flaking.
Chapel Hill artist and UNC art professor Dick Kinnaird brought the
eagle to IFG where he restored it and, with Frank's help,
reproduced it in fiberglass - a task requiring 37 separate molds.
A few weeks ago, Frank discovered an old mold for an original sculpture
Kinnaird had created during the period they worked on the eagle.
With a few rubs of a cleaning cloth, the mold was again in pristine
condition, unaffected by weathering more than a quarter of a century
in the undergrowth that owns the back lot of IFG.
Robert Howard, a UNC art professor whose sculptures commanded fees
of $50,000 and more in 1960s and 1970s, also worked at IFG creating
one enormous sculpture, the 24-by-13-by-10-foot Untitled
1967-1968, that brought a price of $10,000. Last week Howard
recalled that Frank "was such a helpful person. He just helped
me a lot, and he helped my students a lot, sometimes even hiring
them. He's just an all-round great guy."
The Triangle area's most renowned artist in the medium of
fiberglass, Bob Gaston, is famous in the region for the Pig in the
Sky atop Crook's Corner Restaurant in Chapel Hill (a replica sits in
Frank's back yard), his scattered trademark rhino heads, the dancing
couple at Pyewacket Restaurant, the angel leaning outward from the
roof of the ArtsCenter in Carrboro (as though she is unsure of her
financial standing) and sculptures at the zoo in Asheboro and other
sites. Now living in New Orleans, Bob traces his ability in
fiberglass to the days he worked with Frank, of whom he says,
"There's nobody else in the world quite like him."
By the late 1970s, IFG had sold hundreds of catamarans, 200 or so in
North Carolina, but one special Isotope was sold by a Livonia, NY
dealer to an astronaut. The astronaut was Bill Anders, who orbited
the moon aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. "But,"
Frank concedes, "we found out real quick that the boat business
is seasonal and if we didn't make X number of dollars during the
summertime, we didn't make it through the wintertime."
To fill out those winter months, Frank took on contract jobs from
individuals and companies, reproducing in fiberglass anything a
customer could design or describe. He made 300-500-gallon
aquarium tanks for the MarineResources Centers at Fort Fisher,
Manteo and Atlantic Beach; built 36-foot hulls for trimarans assembled by a
company in Wilmington; customized automobile parts
and complete automobile bodies; designed a
prototype portable dog kennel for the U.S. Army; devised the maroon
road signs in the Research Triangle Park and at Raleigh-Durham
Airport; molded life-raft containers which RPR Industries of Apex
delivered to the Navy, the Coast Guard and private buyers, and
constructed thousands of other unique items.
Frank & Rhoda - Sailing Champions
As sailors, Frank and Rhoda have shelves of trophies won racing the
Isotope and the Cheshire Cat. Each year the Carolina
Sailing Club sponsors the North Carolina Governor's Cup Regatta
at Kerr Lake, one of the largest and oldest inland-water regattas in
the United States. This regatta is held each year in June and
attended by many sailors seeking the most prized trophy in North
Carolina Sailing. This is a trophy won many times by the Isotope
Class and by Frank Meldau at the tiller on two occasions. As past
commodores of the sailing club, Frank and Rhoda have sponsored the
Isotope National Championship each year since 1975.
The sailboat market reached a peak in 1982, when IFG employed 25
workers at a plant between Raleigh and Durham. At that time IFG was
building Isotopes, Cheshires, and a novelty boat called the
Wingsailer. Fiberglass boats are forever and used boats on the
market cut into sales of new boats in a declining market.
As general manager of IFG, Rhoda is steering efforts to increase the
output of Frank's cats. IFG sold rights to an Indonesian firm to
build and sell the boat in that region of the world. Rhoda is
advertising in the Commerce News Daily, a publication subscribed to
by all embassies in the United States, She hopes to build and
international market for the cats. If successful, she and Frank will
accompany shipments overseas and assist in organizing sailing
socials and regattas.
Another ambition is to lure the Leeds Mitchell Perpetual Trophy from
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, to either New Bern or Oriental. For
30 years, Leeds Mitchell has sponsored the North American Solo
Championship, an international event which 10 champion sailors from
Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Atlantic islands race
identical boats. " It would be a wonderful for the sport of
sailing in North Carolina, and by the way, many people still don't
view sailboat racing as a competitive sport," she says.
Most promising of all, the Isotope may have a future in the Olympic
games, either directly or indirectly. The fast Isotope is now an
ideal training vessel to prepare for sailing the Olympic class
catamaran, the 20-foot Tornado, and should the Olympic committee
decide to add single-handed catamaran competition to the two-man
Tornado competition, the Isotope is the logical selection.
Dr. J. B. Hadler, professor of naval architecture and dean of the
Webb Institute on Long Island, owns an Isotope and a Tornado. He is
using the isotope to teach his grandchildren to sail. They may be
gaining an inside track on the New Millennium Olympics.
by Rhoda Meldau
This article was written a few years ago by a local
writer Jim Vickers of Chapel Hill. Because time has passed, I felt
that some items needed to be updated. Wallace and Brenda Kuralt no
longer operate the Intimate Bookshop chain. Tom Kregel and Lance
Walker, artist friends of Frank and Rhoda have beautifully and
exactingly restored the scale model of the University of North
Carolina campus. Dick Kinnaird and Bob Howard have retired from UNC
and Bob Gaston is doing float sculptures for the Mardi Gras.
IFG has in recent years worked with Clearscapes of Raleigh to
accomplish an impressive light
sculpture for a major hotel in Istanbul, Turkey and additional
signage for Universal
Printing in the RTP. IFG has also been the major supplier for
Terex-American for crane cabs and for
Penn Compression for power station hoods and duct
supports. IFG has had some success with these custom projects;
however, the cats have always been the center of Frank's business.
When Frank first started with the Isotope it was very hard to
overcome the monohull sailors' prejudice against cats. The one point
most harped on was the cats inability to head into the wind. The
Isotope goes to weather at 35% and has a perfectly balanced helm.
These basic design features have kept this catamaran alive after all
Beginning a business in 1964 to build multihull sailing craft with
$650 was possible only for dreamers and doers, who had persistence
as a middle name and a true love for catamaran sailing. The Isotope
and Cheshire Cat have always been the reason and Frank's love of the
business... But not the money.
What does the future hold for multihull sailing? The question is
what does the future hold for sailing as a sport and recreation.
Catamarans are now a part of the sailing scene---a respected part!
Everyone, who loves sailing as a participant or with just shore
perspective, needs to in some small way encourage sailing and
support their local sailing clubs. Sailing is a metaphysical
experience that must be kept available for discovery by a modern
Postscript - November 2001
IFG has been very busy since the last update, holding the
25th Isotope Nationals, attending boat shows and regattas, etc.
In addition, IFG assisted Channelmaster in dish prototype work used for
testing and marketing in September/October.
Postscript - October 2005
The Move to New Bern
Frank III, Rhoda and Frank
Rhoda and Frank Meldau
The new offices at IFG
The spacious new shop at IFG
Frank Meldau III
New Isotope headed for Massachussets
New Isotope headed for Massachussets
New Isotope Hull in Production
New Isotope headed for Massachussets
New Isotope Hull in Production