When did you become a boat designer and what was your first real design?
My first real independent design was the 30ft Windsong prototype sailing catamaran which I built in 800 hours in 1979/80. I built the whole boat, including making the sails and spars, which made it a very cheap project, around GBP1500 (USD2000) in total. My wife and I lived on board for 5 years. We sailed and raced it mainly in the English Channel, but also cruised it as far as Norway and the Baltic. It later sailed to West Africa, the last I heard it was in the Azores.
To learn how to design a successful first boat I had worked as a designer for two years for two very different, but equally famous, catamaran designers, James Wharram and Derek Kelsall (I built the Windsong in Kelsall’s yard). I had also made two Atlantic crossings and spent a season working on charter boats in the Caribbean.
But before any of that I spent three years at the Southampton College of Technology (now renamed Solent University) studying yacht and small boat design – a unique and very different syllabus to the conventional naval architecture courses.
And before THAT I had spent 15+ years dinghy sailing and small boat racing and cruising – I first sailed singlehanded (and unescorted) when I was 8 years old while I obtained my RYA dinghy sailing instructors certificate in 1972.
Which designer(s) had the greatest influence on you?
Well obviously both Wharram and Kelsall showed me how to run a design office and how to draw plans for home builders. I always consider myself a sailor first and a designer second. So when I was growing up it was sailors, not designers, who inspired me. People like Paul Elvstrom, Lin and Larry Pardey, Rodney Pattinson, Robin Knox- Johnston, Frank Dye, Phil Weld, Peter Blake, Rosie Swale… Later in life I have been lucky enough to meet them all except Paul Elvstrom.
Reading about their experiences, and studying the boats they used, helped me decide on the features I wanted to see in any boat I designed. So since 1981 I have tried to plough my own furrow (sail my own wake?) and not paid too much attention to the work of others.
How many boat designs have you drawn in total?
Between 50-100, but I have rather lost track over the last 35 years! I rarely design one offs, preferring to sail boats rather than draw them. However, I have sold well over 2500 plan sets from 8ft – 45ft, plus around 200 production catamarans.
Which of your designs is your best seller, and which is your personal favorite?
Understandably, my smaller designs are more popular than my bigger boats. So probably the 8ft Crayfish yacht tender, 10ft Duo sail/row dinghy, 14ft Pixie beachcat are my most popular. As they are older designs, I have certainly sold 500+ each of the Pixie and Crayfish plans and over 100 Duos in the last 3 years. My personal favourite is always the next design as I search for that elusive “perfect boat.”
Over the years I have home built 18 boats from 8ft-35ft for my own use. Usually, I own several boats at the same time. Right now I own five. That is because I want to do so many different things with them. Day race a fast multihull, live aboard a cruiser, sail/row a dinghy… So just one boat is never enough.
Of my personal trailable racing multihulls I like the 25ft Gwahir best, and of my cruising boats the 32ft Eclipse. But it’s smaller sister the 30ft Sagitta is a great boat for coastal cruising and my 22ft Wizard a great trailer sailer. It does indeed do what I originally claimed “22ft, trailable, sleeps 5 in three cabins, standing headroom, 15+ knots under sail, seaworthy for cross (English) Channel sailing” (or the easier and shorter trip across the Gulf Stream, Florida to the Bahamas).
I think my 14ft Zest singlehanded racing dinghy is better than my earlier Stealth, but I like the 14ft Zeta trimaran now that I am older and less agile, while I have had a lot of fun the last few years sailing my 10ft Duo and Tryst. So maybe they are all my personal favourites!
Do you have a design philosophy – certain themes or principles your adhere to?
I am not a fan of big boats, I am a rarity as a designer these days as I have nothing in my design portfolio over 40ft. My motto is “The sea is for sailing on, and boats are for sailing”. So I don’t mind what sort of boat I sail, so long as it sails well. I also like my boats to be fun to sail, so I don’t design what I call “slop along placidly” boats.
Most boats will float and sail to a certain extent. But optimising the design to make them sail fast without excess effort, or motor fast without big engines needs both experience and technical knowledge. It’s even harder to make it a simple design, harder still to design it for someone who hasn’t built a boat before. Some people think my designs are too fast for cruisers, others that they are too slow for racers. I think they are a happy medium between ease of handling and speed, as well as being simple to build without being crude.
When not actually designing I do a lot of “research and development.” So, for example, I have sailed with elephants in Africa, sailed singlehanded to the Soviet Union, crept through iceflows in Alaska, and made 5 Atlantic crossings. I’ve anchored in every coastal state of the USA (except Hawaii) and cruised to over 40 countries. I’ve won 4 UK National titles in both dinghies and multihulls. More recently, I have competed in two Race to Alaska’s (R2Ak).
I normally live on board a boat for at least 4 months a year, currently on a plywood/epoxy Skoota 28 powercat, in which we have cruised over 6000 miles and now winter on board in the Bahamas.
I think it is very important when choosing a boat designer to pick one with lots of boating experience in a wide variety of boats and conditions. Ask your designer what boat he owns and how much he sails it. Be wary of those who don’t sail. I suspect all car designers own and drive a car and architects live in houses!!
It’s only by experiencing all types of boats in all conditions that you can really learn what makes the best boat for all conditions. Years of sailing in the UK, with its bigger/stronger tides and bigger/stronger wind/waves have convinced me to design boats that are seaworthy no matter where they might be sailed. So I have always been pushing for built in buoyancy for all small boats, and good freeboard for larger ones.
What key tips would you give to builders of your designs?
Build the boat you need, not the boat you want. Build the best boat that matches your budget, not the biggest. When costing out the build (time and money) work out your worst estimate. Then double it. You should then be in the ball park.
Keep it simple. My 28ft Gypsy catamaran had 6 interior lights, my 32ft Eclipse had 26(!), my Skoota 28 has three. Fitting tiller steering, an outboard engine and simple electrics usually saves more overall build time than differences in hull construction.
Don’t skimp on the hull materials. If you start to run out of money you can always use a second hand rig and update it later. But you can never change the hull shell.
Do not modify a design, for there is a lot more to designing a boat than people think. “I like the “20ft++” but I want a 22fter. So I’ll just make it 10% longer” So: Does that mean you want 7ft long bunks and worktops 4ft high? No, of course not! So you will need to move the bulkheads to keep 6ft long bunks and 3ft high worktops. Oh dear, the bulkheads now don’t line up with the kingpost/keel. So you will need to redraw the whole boat. A far better solution is to look for another design that more closely meets your needs.
Check here for my “Rocket science is not rocket science, but yacht design is” comments.
You can see more about my life here
What do you have on the drawing board now?
A throw back to days of old! I haven’t used a drawing board for 15 years. But on my screen now are the final drawings for the Tamar 31 performance cruiser sailing catamaran and the demountable version of the Skoota 32 powercat.
I tend to only draw boats that I would like to have myself. In part because then I am enthusiastic about the design and can visulise its use more easily. So my winter project will be to draw a 12ft version of the Duo, maybe called Trio, maybe Rascal.
In words – a simple hard chine stitch and glue plywood build. Hull weight under 45kgs, 100lbs. Sailarea 6sqm, 65sqft. 1.35m, 4.5ft hull beam. Singlehanded for sailing fast and racing, up to three when daysailing. I will probably use a rig from a Byte dinghy, either the original or the CII version. Cheaper than making my own, and, as always, its very cheap to buy a used rig.
I want that boat for my own use, as next year I plan to spend more time in the UK (I haven’t had a summer there for 15 years) and want to race and day sail while living on board my cruising catamaran. So any dinghy has to be small and light enough to get on board by myself. And I need to rig it without going on shore to do so.
sailing catamaran designers