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Engineering Tradition

At the Sparkman & Stephens offices in midtown Manhattan, Bruce Johnson, executive vice president and chief designer, greeted me with a firm handshake and led me past the drawing tables to the conference room where Greg Matzat, chief naval architect and newly named president of the design firm, was waiting. I opened with my thesis question for my story, "As a firm who predominately designs sailboats, tell me about Sparkman & Stephens' transition from sail into motor."

Johnson and Matzat looked at each other, then Johnson replied, "Hull design No. 3 was a powerboat."


Billy Black

PREDACIOUS: An eye-catcher anywhere, this Downeaster constantly catches attention at her home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Well, it's hard to write an article on a design firm's evolution from sail to power when it's been building power yachts all along (although, to the credit of my thesis, design No. 3 was never built; the first powerboat was Hull No. 12, a 43-foot cruiser named Nortada). In light of the new information, I reassessed the situation and adjusted my story's heading accordingly. I asked, "Of all of the power yachts, which are the most iconic?" Johnson went over to the plasma monitor at the head of the conference room and began a slide-show retrospective. He was quick to click past the commuter yachts of the 1930's, beginning with a craft that, as many Sparkman & Stephens vessels did throughout the years, defied convention.

During WWII the firm joined the war effort, designing an array of naval vessels, including minesweepers, sub hunters, and PT boats. But of all its designs, perhaps the most memorable was an amphibious-assault vehicle called the DUKW (pronounced duck—a compound pun for a war-time vessel). Mounted on wheels instead of treads (like the LHD and other amphibious vehicles of the era), it hauled along its 6.5 tons of welded steel with a GMC 269 straight-6 gasoline engine. Although the DUKW had a top speed of 50 mph on land and only 6 mph in the water, it saw combat in both the Pacific and European theaters, landing troops on the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy, the latter after crossing the English Channel on its own bottom. Today, the mission of many DUKWs is less life threatening but nearly as raucous; you cannot make your way around Boston Commons in the summertime without sighting one of these odd vehicles laden with tourists and kids screaming as they splash out of the Charles River onto the roadway.


DUKW: According to Best of the Best, Rod Stephens of Sparkman & Stephens won the Armed Forces Medal of Freedom for his work with the DUKWs.

The next two iconic vessels on his list were both built in 1973. Nefertiti launched in Bilboa, Spain. An Astrilleros y Talleres Celayasa build, she was 200'10", uncommonly large—and luxurious—for her time. On the first "Power & Motoryacht 100" list in 1985 she ranked 19th. (Now known as Absinthe, she is listed at number 57 on the 2007 list.) The other enduring build of 1973 was Kalamoun, a vessel whose superlative quality was not length but speed. She was only 90 feet but set the speed record for a diesel-powered vessel, topping out at 46 knots (52.9 mph).


ABSINTHE: After traveling the world, Absinthe now flies heliskiing and sightseeing tours along the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada.

Sparkman & Stephens did not slow down in 1980 with the retirement of co-founder Olin Stephens, who had been president and chief designer since the company's founding in 1929. Instead the firm continued to expand its motoryacht collection throughout the 1980's with speedsters like the KaMeWa waterjet-driven Lady Frances, which had a top speed around 40 knots (46 mph). Of course, increasing speed did not mean foregoing luxury. With Derecktor's build of MITseaAH in 1993, Sparkman & Stephens reiterated its ability to meld refined taste and precise engineering. With a marble entryway, a massive master cabin on the main deck, and four staterooms below, all with en suite heads and all arranged around a central hub, MITseaAH won the SuperYacht Society's award for Best Power Yacht of the Year 23-43 meters (75-141 feet).

Built by Palmer Johnson, the 2002 Anson Bell was not only luxurious, but was designed to withstand flooding of any two watertight compartments (the industry standard was one). The 156-footer won praise for her safety from all around the industry, including from PMY (see "Safe and Secure," November 2002). Sparkman & Stephens' Predacious also garnered notice (see "A State of Mind," January 2007) for her balance of four major elements of yacht design: good lines, speed, comfort, and safety. At 65 feet she's built with CoreCell linear foam core and has two 1,550-hp Caterpillar C30 diesel inboards, a top speed of around 40 knots (46 mph), an intricately crafted cherrywood interior, and three watertight bulkheads, exemplifying all the facets of premiere one-off boatbuilding.


ANSON BELL: Named after the ill'fated HMS Anson, the Anson Bell takes no chance with safety: note the center-line steps and handrails on her bow.

As the firm looks ahead, it's focused on another element of design. Staffed by overachieving engineers—every designer at the firm is a naval architect, and everyone working above the level of administrative assistant has an engineering degree of some nature—it has always been concerned with efficiency. Efficiency, at least according to Sparkman & Stephens, is synonymous with better. But the type of efficiency the company is promoting is one much of the powerboat industry has traditionally—and ironically—regarded as prodigal: energy conservation.

The firm may not label itself a green company, but it is not blind to worldwide trends. "The talk about energy is overarching to all fields," Matzat explains, "We're interested in the efficiency of all of the systems and the appropriateness of all of the construction materials; it's all a cascading effect." To understand the cascade, look at two concepts Sparkman & Stephens has been researching: paints that absorb less heat and gensets that burn less fuel. The paint repels heat and thereby reduces air conditioning load. Matzat recently exposed a panel coated with the paint to a 500-watt halogen light for 15 minutes, and it was merely warm to the touch; handling an uncoated panel would require oven mitts. As for gensets, instead of specifying two, each one capable of running the electrical systems on its own, Sparkman & Stephens is linking three smaller units in parallel, then connecting them into a monitoring system. The monitor automatically brings the next genset on line during high load periods, such as when the air conditioner kicks on, which shouldn't happen as often thanks to the new paint. As Matzat challenges, "We've got the technology, and it's reliable. Why not use it?"

Sparkman & Stephens' paring of excess continues underwater, with pod drives being featured on many of its new designs, replacing the traditional shaft system. As readers may already know, pod drives are more efficient because they're hydrodynamic; there is no shaft, prop strut, or rudder, and, with nothing ahead of the blades, the props pull less turbulent water.

Sparkman & Stephens' clients will be the only ones who will decide if the conservative bent will pay off, but it looks like it might. The firm states that the majority of its motoryacht customers is comprised of those who want a yacht large enough to live aboard but small enough to pilot themselves—the 50- to 70-foot range. Most could afford much larger vessels from other companies, but, as Matzat says, the engineering of a Sparkman & Stephens design makes it stand apart. The firm also takes pride in making frequent visits to any yard that's constructing one of its projects, ensuring that the work meets its standards as well as the builder's. That kind of attention to detail and Sparkman & Stephens' track record have created a steady stream of repeat customers, some families returning for generations and all looking to be part of the heritage of engineering from this world-renowned American firm.

For more information on Sparkman & Stephens, including contact information, click here.

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  • Builder: Sparkman

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.