June 5, 1931 – Dec. 6, 2012
Thomas Gilchrist Allen III, of Amherst, among the best sailors of his generation in the region and around the country, died Thursday after a lengthy illness in Wedgewood, a nursing home in Amherst. He was 81.
A Buffalo native and son of a well-known physician, he grew up on Colonial Circle in the city and attended Nichols School.
He graduated from Albion College in 1953 and spent two years in the U.S. Navy.
Mr. Allen was known around the world for his prowess as a sailor and a boat builder.
Motivated by a desire to build a better sailboat for his own use, he started Allen Boat Co. in Buffalo in 1961. He began with boats constructed of wood and focused on Lightning sailboats.
Located on the Buffalo waterfront near Fuhrmann Boulevard, his company became a world-class manufacturer of Lightnings.
He was married for 56 years to the former Anne Smither, the daughter of a Buffalo pharmacist, who met Mr. Allen at the Buffalo Canoe Club and after their marriage raised a family of four children – and also crewed his racing sailboats for decades.
“Nowadays, it’s much more common,” said one of their sons, Thomas. “In those days, it wasn’t common.”
Mr. Allen won many important racing titles on both sides of the Atlantic, many of them in the Lightning day sailers he built himself.
He won races including the North American Lightning Class championship, which he won for the first time when he was just 23 and then won seven more times; the Lightning world championship, which he won four times from the early 1960s to the late 1970s; the Canadian Open, four times; and the Pan-American Games.
In 1968, he was an alternate member of the U.S. Olympic team in sailing.
“Just to call him good isn’t enough,” one of his former competitors said about Mr. Allen in the 1970s.
“Allen’s got the ability to sniff out the wind and react better to adversity than any guy I know.”
By the 1990s, the Allen company had become known as one of only six builders of Lightning class boats in the world.
The company was famous for building its boats completely – not outsourcing different parts of the boats to others.
Mr. Allen remained involved with the company, which is now run by Thomas Allen.
“He did it his way,” Mr. Allen’s son said. “He said, ‘I think I can do this well, build a better boat.’ ”
Mr. Allen’s boats attracted attention all over the globe because of his attention to detail, his son said.
“He was pretty fearless. He paid really good attention to detail. He had a self-taught knack, a feel for what would be better. How to shape it, where should the lines be led. He was a seat-of-the-pants sailor – and that’s what you had to be.”
Mr. Allen had a summer home in Bay Beach, Ont., where his wife had grown up sailing as a child and which the family still owns.
Mr. Allen was an active member of the Buffalo Canoe Club, where he served as commodore in 1985.
In 1996, he was the first sailor to be inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Jane and Brenda Crane; two sons, Thomas and James; and a sister, Joan Armour.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 4007 Main St., Amherst.
– Charity Vogel