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Advice for Budding Boat Designers

Michael Peters

Sightlines - September 2014


Everyone starts somewhere.

I now feel I have a bit in common with Bill Gates. You see, both of us are college dropouts and we both were asked to give commencement speeches this summer. Mr. Gates spoke at Stanford before more than 3,000 graduates and I spoke at the Landing School in Maine with 76 graduates. He wore a cap and gown, I wore a shirt with rolled up sleeves and flip flops. Even if he counts himself as a dropout, I think that honorary degree from Harvard has gone to his head.

I had been to Maine only once before, on an aborted trip cut short to 15 minutes by a winter storm. So I took the occasion to do a little sightseeing, first heading north to visit Hodgdon Yachts and Lyman-Morse, before turning back south to Kennebunkport. Maine sure is a beautiful place, with gorgeous harbors and classic boats up and down the coast. I stopped in a gas station to buy some water and the saleswoman remarked on my yellow Columbia fishing shirt. Turns out her husband wore a shirt like that on a trip and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. She advised I change shirts. 

Maine is a good place to go to reconnect with boats. It is easy to forget that the origin of most pleasure boats rests with traditional workboats and skiffs. As a rule they are much more practical and fun to use, and are without a doubt more beautiful than their fiberglass contemporaries. I really got rejuvenated before my big talk when I got to go out off Kennebunkport in a new wooden Flyfisher 22 built by this year’s students. The mooring field on the river reminded me of the holiday atmosphere depicted in the movie Jaws. I thought Spielberg had made that stuff up.

Landing School boats

Other than a few undergraduate schools in this country like Webb Institute, the University of Michigan, and the University of New Orleans, which teach naval architecture and marine engineering predominantly for ships, the Landing School provides one of the only accredited educations for small boats in America. Based in Arundel, Maine, it offers associates degrees in composite and wood boatbuilding, marine systems, and yacht design. Through the years, I have had several of their graduates work in my office and they describe it as the toughest one year of study they have ever done. We hired one of their top graduates out of the yacht-design program this year. Paige will be the first female in our office in more than 20 years, so I have been practicing cleaning up my language.

I began my commencement speech by telling the students that I was jealous of them that they could go to such a school, an opportunity that did not exist when I was starting out. Back then only the Westlawn correspondence course offered an alternative for a small-boat education, and few were ever known to have completed it. I told the graduates that each of them now has more formal education in yacht design than I have, but they would need tenacity to survive. I said that the world does not need any more wood boatbuilders or yacht designers and their only hope is to love the profession and hang on tight for a bumpy road ahead and be ready for the repeating cycle of boom and bust. I also told them to never miss a chance to go out on a boat, like I had done with them the day before, so they would stay connected to the love of boats that got them started. I quoted designer Ron Holland, who when asked how he got to do so much in his career, replied “I never said no.” I told them to stay open-minded and never turn down an opportunity, even if the boat is outside their style or comfort zone. I left them with the advice that, when someone asks them to build or design a boat, any boat, to just jump on it.

Michael Peters giving commencement address

Bill Gates told the Stanford grads this year to change the world through optimism and empathy. I told the Landing School grads to hang on tight and jump on every opportunity that comes along or they won’t make it. Maybe, if one of the Stanford grads reads this magazine, he or she will show some empathy and commission a boat from one of these guys and help launch a great career.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.