Ward Setzer doesn’t drink coffee.
He doesn’t need it. The thrill of creativity, discovery of the new and meeting design challenges are this yacht architect’s morning java jolt. To that point, he tells me with childlike enthusiasm, he is preparing for a multiday drawing marathon for a new 50-meter explorer series.
Setzer has had countless such marathons during his three-decade career as one of the world’s premier designers of yachts, including superyachts. But you’d be misguided to pigeonhole his exploits to just large craft. There have been many semicustom vessels, surfboards, kayaks and myriad industrial design projects.
In fact, Setzer had his own surfboard label, formed and sold a luxury center console company and still enjoys seeing his sea kayaks in stores, sold as Hurricane products. And if you ask him, he’ll say he gets as excited penning a human-powered vessel that goes on top of an SUV as he does drawing a globe-traveling superyacht. There is just as much nuance in the hull form of one of his kayaks, Setzer says, as there is on a large yacht. It’s just the scale that changes.
Setzer is a creative whose wellspring of ideas flows out of a place where the left brain meets the right brain, honing his thoughts with surgeonlike precision, X-15 speed, and some Harry Potter-style wizardry for good measure.
“I immediately put myself in the owner’s shoes,” Setzer says, describing his approach to design. “Picture if the boat is going to a remote atoll and [imagine] that experience, and then integrate that into the design. It’s the same with a flats boat or a go-fast. You put yourself at the helm whether you’re in exploratory mode, speed mode or stealthy mode.”
Whether he’s doing yacht design work on a 165 Admiral, naval architecture on an ultramoden Nisi 80 plumb bow, naval architecture, design and layout work on the Outer Reef 620 Trident, or interior and exterior styling on a Hinckley T38R, Setzer immerses himself into every project pore with a tireless work ethic. He maximizes, optimizes and delivers the expected and the unexpected.
In fact, “unexpected” would be a good way to describe how Setzer got to his rarefied place in the industry. Hard work, for sure, played a part. Fate could also be applicable. But the builder Hinckley Yachts may have unexpectedly served as this architect’s career linchpin.
That story began as a family summer sojourn, cruising on board a chartered Hinckley sailboat off The Pine Tree State. A trip ashore changed everything. Setzer, then a college student studying architecture, took a bike ride and meandered his way into the Hinckley shipyard.
“Hinckley was quite the sailboat builder. There was a romance of being a yacht designer, and it centered around sailing,” Setzer says, adding that “being a cocky college kid,” he walked into the office and asked the naval architect, “How do you do this?” The architect obliged, giving the young student the rundown. Setzer left Hinckley with a statement a la Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984: “I’ll be back.”
Twenty years later, he was. He returned as a business owner to style the Hinckley T38R. (It turns out he wasn’t so much cocky as he was curious and capable.) During those 20 years between visits, he had to earn his architecture degree and his naval architecture degree. There were industrial design studies too. Setzer quips that he’s a Type-A personality.
Of course, between the double degrees and the Hinckley assignment came some hardcore, real-world experience working under the legendary Jack Hargrave as well as Hatteras Yachts, to name a couple of early influences.
“There were [yacht design] jobs everywhere at the time, but I went with Hargrave. First day I was [there], Jack gave me a 148-footer to start,” Setzer says, adding that there were about 12 in-house designers when he arrived.
“We became human drafting machines,” Setzer says, noting that these were the days before computer-aided design. They worked out the creative process on 5-foot pieces of Mylar.
Setzer had a desire to get out of the office and into the shipyard, which led to his seven-year stint at Hatteras Yachts. There, he worked on the builder’s big-boat program, gained valuable insights and further developed his design muscles.
“Feel it. Sense it. Question it. Remain curious. Don’t accept the normal. All design is problem solving. Curiosity is the magic elixir.”
Feeling burned out on yachts after several intense years, Setzer turned his attention to another passion: sporting goods. He opened his own studio in 1991, with the idea of doing some industrial design work, reinvigorating himself and stretching his creative legs.
Within 30 days of hanging out his shingle, he received a call from Broward Yachts to design an 88-foot sport-fisherman. Then Christensen asked if he could draw a 144-footer. He says that before he knew it, he’d designed 11 or 12 Christensens, Browards and more, and was fully immersed back into the yacht world.
“Trying to take a sabbatical from yacht design, I unintentionally got sucked back in,” he says with a laugh. Twenty-six years later, a humble and grateful Setzer is still going strong.
That drive to create simmers as Setzer talks about his work. Sometimes it comes to a boil: One of his ideas was a tender launch setup for the bow section of his Vestal superyacht series.
He had a winter studio in Antigua for two years, watching yacht crews work and talking to the captains. He noticed guests were not using the bow deck, and that when the yachts came in and out of the harbor, their tenders and toys had to launch before the big boat could dock stern-to. There was also crowding aft when boats were on the hook and guests wanted to hit the water, but the toys were in the way. His solution was an opening bow section that uses a gantry crane to launch and retrieve the tenders and toys.
With that story, our interview time is up. Setzer is ready to put pencil to paper and let the ideas fly, adding that when the paper piles up in the trash can, it’s a good thing.
I checked in with him a few days later. He’s still drawing.
Setzer’s New Adventure: Superyacht Brokerage
Last spring, Setzer was researching the potential for refit work with owners of his previous designs. The architect says that when you do a refit, you need to walk into the shipyard with an entourage and completed plans.
The yard will do the work, but there are no internal services. With about $400 million in Setzer-designed brokerage inventory, the chance to guide owners through a refit seemed like a solid opportunity. An industry friend suggested that, in addition, Sezter should consider sales guidance, since no one is better suited to take a potential owner through a Setzer design. After looking at several options, he teamed up with HMY Yachts to create the company’s superyacht division.
Setzer earned his broker’s license and sees this work as a natural progression of what he’s always done, noting that designers are always integral to the yacht-purchase process, working closely with owners. He says that HMY has helped him learn a lot about the brokerage market. In turn, Setzer as the firm’s superyacht specialist has educated HMY’s brokers about this segment.
His long-term goal? Sell and build his new designs too.