I sometimes wonder why, during my misspent youth, or even as middle age overtook me, I didn’t quit whatever I was doing and get myself into naval architecture. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed mathematics, a subject that factors heartily into the naval architectural milieu. And then, there’s my love, even obsession, for waterborne conveyances, from canoes to ships.
Of course, at this stage of the game, it’s unrealistic for a guy like me to contemplate cranking up a brand-new yacht designing career. I’m well into my seventh decade on the planet. But, while honing the craft of marine journalism over the past 34 years, I’ve had the good fortune to cross courses with a fair number of noteworthy designers who continue to enjoy considerable success in the field. So, in the hope of being helpful to younger readers of Power & Motoryacht who may be considering a career in yacht design, or even middle-agers contemplating a salty transition, I conducted three separate interviews with three respected designers—Michael Peters, Bill Prince and Evan Marshall—and asked them all the same two questions. First, why did they get into the business in the first place? And second, to what do they attribute their success?
A Serendipitous Haircut
Michael Peters is a friendly man with tasteful white locks and a precisely trimmed beard. Back in the day, however, he was a lean, blue-jeaned, 23-year-old “long-haired hippie-type” from inner-city Los Angeles with a sailboat carpenter’s job and a race boat model he carried around in a pillowcase. He’d made the model himself and it had a stepped hull, somewhat reminiscent of legendary designer Uffa Fox’s stepped-hull creation, Black Maria.
Peters’ resume at the time was iffy. Yes, he’d developed a taste and a talent for boats by operating, repairing and maintaining a fleet of hand-me-downs over several summers (and one winter) at the remote camp on Catalina Island that his parents ran. And he’d parlayed that taste and talent into a 20-foot speedster he’d built himself, using the pillowcase model as a guide. But his patents were only pending. And a deal he thought he’d put together with the guys at Whittaker Corporation on Wilshire Boulevard had just fallen through—by a slim majority, Whittaker had decided to expand its medical division, rather than add a stepped hull to its fleet of Trojans and Bertrams.
“When the thing with Whittaker fell apart, I cried for about a day,” says Peters with a laugh, “but then, well, I’d met a girl by this time and we’d decided to get married—in Georgia. So, off we go to Georgia. And because I wanted to visit Cigarette down in Miami to see if they would go for a stepped hull, we drove down there on our
Cigarette Racing Team, the couple soon discovered, had just been sold to Halter Marine, a rapidly growing company building supply boats, tugs and surface-effect ships for Bell Aerospace. A long drive from Miami to Halter’s offices in New Orleans ensued.
“I managed to get a meeting with Harold Halter in his penthouse suite and he had a couple of engineers there with him too,” says Peters. “And you gotta remember, I’m still a long-haired hippie, although I’d just gotten married so I might have had a decent haircut then, I dunno. But anyway, Harold finally says, ‘You know, I’d like to stay and talk with you but I gotta go. I gotta go get my hair cut. You wanna come?’
“So, I literally went with him to the barbershop and while he’s sitting in the chair he finally says, ‘You know what? You like boats, don’t ya kid?’ Then he offered me a job. Right there. And he offered to pick up an option on my patent. And then he asked me and my wife to fly down to the mouth of the Mississippi with him to spend a few days on his 65-foot sportfish.”
The experiences that followed may have originated in a barber shop, but they topped out on a considerably higher plane. That very evening, Peters and his bride had dinner afloat with, among Halter and others, the governor of Louisiana. “It was just one of those fairy tale stories where you can’t believe what’s going on. I mean, we didn’t have any money—we’d just gotten married—and here we are, having dinner with the governor and going fishing the next morning on a private yacht in the middle of a honeymoon we couldn’t afford.”
Halter Marine became a school as well as a home for Peters. While working there for the next three years, he absorbed the realities of “naval architecture, boat construction, everything—I don’t think you could have gotten a better education anywhere in the world.” And afterwards, thanks to a contract to build a race boat for one of Halter’s buddies, Peters had a chance to start his own studio in Sarasota, Florida: Michael Peters Yacht Design.
The Precocious Mr. Prince
Bill Prince was a quick study as a kid, with an emphasis on quick. “For me,” he says, “the intellectual puzzle that is a boat, with curves in every dimension—not just something where you dig a hole and pour a foundation and hook it up to utilities, but something that has to move around the world in a variety of sea conditions and provide you with absolutely everything you need except for the very air you’re breathing—was so compelling that by the time I was 12 years old, I’d bought my own drafting table.”
This was in the early ’80s and Prince had already been sketching “boats, cars, houses—everything,” as well as cruising the waterways of the upper Midwest with his parents for five or six years. He purchased the table at a department store for 38 dollars and still has it in his office today, on the shores of Lake Michigan, complete with all the Detroit Diesel model numbers and horsepower ratings of the era he’d etched into its surface as a boy.
Prince says, “I’d get up early and, with quarter-inch-to-a-foot drafting paper, I’d use that table to draw something to the best of my ability before school and then probably spend too much time sketching during school and then, once I got back home, I’d do even more sketching.”
There was, however, a parallel track to Prince’s activities in those days. Because his dad was in the technology business, the precocious eighth grader had access to computers and, after concluding that the manual drafting he was doing would be influenced—or perhaps someday even be eclipsed—by the digital realm, he used one of his father’s machines to teach himself CAD.
“Instead of getting jobs in the summer flipping burgers,” he says, “I took that computer and taught myself the software and began making money, even in high school, doing things for people with the computer.”
It never hurts to work hard and be really smart. Prince’s eighth-grade exercise in self-education eventually took him even further via an unexpected, unprecedented job he was offered, working for the celebrated Sturgeon Bay naval architect Tim Graul, a designer of passenger vessels, ferry boats, workboats, crewboats and, now and again, a yacht or two. While traveling through Sturgeon Bay with his parents one summer, Prince had introduced himself to Graul and handed over what he’d taken to calling his “portfolio,” a thick collection of sketches and CAD drawings of boats. Graul was impressed.
“About three years later, when I was 16 years old,” Prince continues, “Graul hired me to drive to Sturgeon Bay and teach his staff how to use CAD software. Although Tim was always on the cutting edge of technology himself, he just didn’t have time to teach CAD to all the other naval architects working for him.”
Prince went on to intern with Graul while he studied mechanical engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Simultaneously, he began creating what he felt was a marketable boat design of his own, entered it into the 1995 National Marine Manufacturers Association design competition and, as only a sophomore, won the contest. The rest is history. A presentation at the Miami boat show followed, along with write-ups in all the marine publications. Then, two yacht design jobs materialized, one with Michael Peters and the other with Ted Hood. Then finally, Prince landed a position with Island Packet, a high-end sailboat and powerboat builder out of Largo, Florida.
“I did all the design and engineering work for them,” Prince adds, “from about 2001 until 2008, when I started my own business—which of course was always the plan.”
Risk Taker Extraordinaire
During the mid-80s, the youthful, Brooklyn-born Evan K. Marshall had himself a top-shelf spot in a top-shelf place, the New York City offices of Sparkman & Stephens, arguably one of the most recognizable yacht design and brokerage houses in the world. He’d obtained this rarefied, almost sanctified position, in large part due to a chance encounter he’d had several years before in the midst of a summer job at the South Street Seaport Museum. The Wavertree, an ancient, iron-hulled, four-masted barque, was the focus of attention at the Seaport back then. She was being slowly but surely restored by volunteers, and Marshall was one of them. He was an ambitious college student at the time, devoting every spare moment to a burgeoning collection of powerboat sketches, sailboats and associated layout plans, while making his way through a five-year architectural program at Virginia’s Hampton University.
“I did the Wavertree thing on weekends,” he says, “and one day I got to talking with Jakob Isbrandtsen, who was in charge of the restoration project and also the chairman of South Street Seaport at the time, about how I liked boats and I liked drawing boats, and he said, ‘Well, you know I’ve owned several racing boats over the years and I’m very good friends with Olin Stephens and Rod Stephens and, if you like, I can make a call and you can go down to the offices at Sparkman & Stephens and meet them and perhaps show them your work.’
“So I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love that.’ And subsequently, I did go down and I met Bill Langan and Rod Stephens and showed them my drawings and they said, ‘Look, Evan, you’ve got a lot of talent, so when you’re looking for work in a few years give us a call.’ But they must have marked my name down or something because after I’d graduated from Hampton and then finished up the three-year program at the Yacht Design Institute up in Blue Hill, Maine, I got a call from Bill.”
Naval architecture was Marshall’s specialty at Sparkman & Stephens. But as the years passed, he began seeing something very new and exciting coming out of Europe, much of it from a cadre of smart Italian designers and protocol-trampling rebels like Jon Bannenberg. Did he want to get into this increasingly fashionable, new-wave thing called “Eurostyling,” he asked himself, or simply continue doing straight naval architecture? Seeking an answer to the question, he slipped off to the Genoa boat show in 1986.
“I just decided to take some holiday time,” he says. “I wanted to see what I was reading about in the boating magazines. And I spent three or four days walking around the show and I was simply blown away. I knew then and there—beyond a doubt—this was what I wanted to do, this was who I wanted to be.”
Marshall’s next move was a complete and total stunner. It called for a truly exceptional level of self-confidence as well as an almost astonishing comfortability with gambling virtually everything on a dream. While continuing to develop and tweak projects at S&S, he began building his own Eurostyling portfolio. Then, once the portfolio was complete, he respectfully resigned from his prominent position and, with nary a job offer in sight, jumped on an airplane bound for Europe determined to extract gainful employment from one of the highly fashionable mavens of Eurostyling he so admired.
“I did interviews, of course,” grins Marshall, as if still somewhat amazed at the audacity of it all. “And eventually got a job with Andrew Winch in London.”
The job with Winch Design lasted for the next three years. But when the chance to work independently with a client arose, Marshall decided to start his own firm, setting up shop in one of his apartment’s bedrooms with little more than a desk, a computer and a printer.
Today, the Evan K. Marshall Design studio is acclaimed internationally and situated in much classier digs, hard by the Thames River, on upscale Plantation Wharf, and Marshall and his staff serve a variety of customers, from production builders like Ocean Alexander to clients around the globe with custom aspirations.
When I began working on this piece, I imagined I’d simply conduct a few interviews and extract a logically structured, fairly simple recipe for becoming a yacht designing success. The various steps would be straightforward, I theorized: You’d make a career (or change-of-career) decision, attend the appropriate school or schools, add a few extra ingredients and stir. But I’ve now come to appreciate that nothing could be further from the truth.
After decades in the business, Peters continues to see himself as “half artist, half engineer” and, I’d say, the same might be said of his two colleagues. Certainly, it appears that the engineering aspect of yacht design can be easily taught to a willing, natively talented individual. And although the artistic half of the equation is ephemeral—you either have it or you don’t, apparently—the effort related to exercising one’s gifts seems quite modest, at least when stacked up against the existential struggles described or hinted at in all three of my interviews.
Toward the conclusion of my conversation with Prince, I proposed an extra question. “In order to succeed as a yacht designer and maintain that success over the years,” I asked, “is there any single trait or characteristic that you consider more critical than all the rest?”
“At the end of the day,” Prince enthusiastically and immediately replied, “you’ve got to have a deep and abiding passion for boats and drawing and designing boats. Really—if it’s not something you wake up every morning thinking about and it’s not something you go to bed every night thinking about, well then, it’s probably the kind of thing that’s just not for you.”
I’m sure that both Peters and Marshall would agree.