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Falling in Love with Boats

Michael PetersSightlines - December 2013

Get a Real Job

Yeah right! Or, why not follow your dreams instead?

I recently took my annual trek to Catalina Island, refreshing my mind and soul as to why I ever fell in love with boats. Looking out over Avalon Harbor is like a study of my life’s work—with concentric rows of small boats close to shore, increasing in size as they radiate seaward to the outer ring of occasional 90- and 100-foot yachts, they mirror the boats of my career. Avalon’s 400-plus moorings hold the number and size boats that match my designs, providing me with the illusion that I am overlooking all my life’s work at one time. In the harbor still sits the boat that marks the start of my professional career, the little 12-foot skiff Squaw, which I designed and built back in 1972. On the outer row lies the 78-foot sportfish Kelsey Lee, which I designed in the late ’90s for the Wrigley family, former owners of the entire island. This place is special to me and is the simple answer to the question, “Why do I design boats?”

It’s hard to fathom how different things are now from the days when I was a kid and built Squaw on the beach at Gallagher’s Cove, on a jig nailed to a washed-up telephone pole half buried in the rocky beach. Those simple, romantic days are gone, and now I concern myself with things like market appeal, brand development, intellectual property, license agreements, patent attorneys, ITAR regulations, RFP’s, shock mitigation, tank testing, FEA, and CFD. All this became part of a profession that most people think isn’t even a real job. My daughter Katie used to tell people, “My daddy colors for a living.” 

Several years ago I spoke at a local high school on career day. I showed up with race-boat models under my arm, all excited to share my story. Later I was told I was only the second most popular with the kids, losing first place to a budding rock star named Jewel. It turns out nothing is better than being a rock star. Out of the audience that day one young man said he wanted to become a boat designer. I had my own groupie! A week later he visited our office with his dad. The student entered the studio and became instantly mesmerized by all the photographs, renderings, and models of boats, but the father was in utter shock. Grown men working in a porn studio! I watched in horror as the father yanked his son out of our den of evil, choking every bit of life out of him: “You, my son, will be an accountant like me and have a real job!

Avalon HarborStarting out in the mid ’70s, I worked for sailboat designer Bob Finch, building his 46-foot mahogany sloop behind his house. He was a full-time fire chief and had prolonged periods off the job that allowed him time to work as a yacht designer. He knew I wanted to become a designer, but even as I was getting calls from companies like Bertram and Cigarette at his house, he was sure I was a delusional dreamer. He said, “Prepare to starve,” and did not encourage me. He was well respected as the designer of the Islander 31, but it wasn’t his real job. My five-year-old grandson Jace just told his kindergarten class that he wants to be a fireman. Even he doesn’t think I have a real job. 

A week after getting back from Catalina, I had a meeting with a wealthy European client. Breakfast conversation weaved its way around to the question: “What got you started designing boats?” Catalina! A minute later he confessed that he had wanted to study boat design himself when he was in college, only to be persuaded to study something more practical. We joked that it is better to afford a yacht than to design one. But then he told me his son was studying yacht design at Southampton Solent University. He had encouraged his son to follow his dream, the same dream he’d had when he was young.   

Hiking the hills above Avalon one morning, I startled an older woman while she was gardening. We struck up a conversation and I told her I had grown up on the island and had fallen in love with boats and become a yacht designer. She replied, “Why wouldn’t you?”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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