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Creating Boats For Beauty’s Sake

Michael Peters

Sightlines - November 2015

Objets D’Art

Creating boats for beauty’s sake.

Alpha Z

Even though my childhood boating was strictly relegated to utilitarian, second-hand boats, I somehow developed an early appetite for fancy boats. My only memory of ever seeing a varnished mahogany boat on Catalina was witnessing Peter Rothschild pull up to the Avalon fuel dock with his jaw-dropping 35-foot runabout, Thunderballs. Maybe that’s all it took, because I have been fixated with beautiful boats, gleaming with varnish, ever since.

Alpha Z

Click to see more photos of Alpha Z ▶

By the time I built my 15-foot skiff Desiree at age 17, I had discovered Spar Lumber Company in Long Beach, California, and while other normal boys were chasing girls I would frequent the lumberyard in search of the perfect board of mahogany. Desiree had varnished mahogany rails, seats, and center console, and I would repaint and varnish her every winter in preparation for summer. For the final coats of varnish, I would take each piece to my upstairs bedroom and apply the last few coats in a dust-free environment. Our very large Greene & Greene-style house would smell of fresh varnish for days. Fortunately, my mother never complained about the mess or the stench, but acted as my supportive patron as I went about creating my form of art, in her house.

Above any other aspect of boat design, I have ultimately seen boats as an expression of art. Large floating sculptures. There is an adage that goes something like this: “A man will forgive all the shortcomings of a boat if she is beautiful to his eye, but no matter how perfect she is in every other way, he will never love her if she is ugly.” I am sure I slaughtered that, but you get the idea. Beauty matters. Sometimes it’s the only excuse to even build a boat.

So last month it was interesting to see Power & Motoryacht’s pick of the 25 prettiest boats ever built (“Majestic Triumphs,” October 2015). I was not part of the selection committee, but was flattered by the decision to include our designs for Plumduff and the Chris-Craft Corsair. From my personal portfolio, I would have suggested our 33-foot Alpha Z, as the most beautiful boat ever designed by my office. It expresses our technical and artistic capabilities at the highest level, regardless of size.

Alpha Z exists due to the fanatical obsession of her original owner, Jeff Jones. Jeff owned a beautiful Allan Brown-designed fiberglass boat, and he asked me to design a similar boat in wood. What ensued was a venture into the ultimate and absurd lengths that could be applied to boat design and construction. The project became a pursuit of art for art’s sake, as more practical solutions were abandoned in favor of the most beautiful or challenging construction.

The immensely talented Van Dam Custom Boats of Boyne City, Michigan, built Alpha Z over three years from 1996 to 1998. The boat boasts an 82-knot top speed with her custom-built 800-horsepower engine, matched Honduras mahogany purchased through Steinway pianos, Dooney & Bourke waterproof leather seats, an inlaid stainless steel boot top, and custom made aircraft-grade aluminum surface drive and rudder. The boat has appeared in Playboy, Graphis, and I.D. magazines and received the Lake Tahoe People’s Choice Award and the GOOD Design Award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum.

Jones sold the boat and she was shipped to Monaco in 2010. Rumors circulated about her beautiful design and flawless construction, but the local Italian craftsmen and Riva experts were determined not to be impressed. The boat was stripped of its shrinkwrap in front of a crowd of curious and skeptical onlookers, who were amazed at the perfection they witnessed. American design and craftsmanship had proven itself to the toughest possible audience. The boat was later sold.

In September of this year, my wife and I drove up the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco with the special purpose of seeing Alpha Z in her new home, as part of the boat collection owned by Robert Mount. Bob owns Boatique Winery, which includes a new 10,000-square-foot showroom that opens to the wine fields below. Located in Lake County, about 120 miles north of San Francisco, the showroom displays about a dozen vintage mahogany boats as part of his collection, including the newly acquired Alpha Z. She sits there preserved in flawless condition, just looking pretty. As I have always said about her: She is absolutely useless, but she does it so perfectly.

How do you feel about Alpha Z becoming a museum piece? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.