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From Sketch to Sea

The birth of a production boat.

October 4, 2007

In the past, a naval architect had an idea that a boatbuilder turned into reality. The simple process gave us boats such as the Bertram 31, Midnight Lace 44 and Hinckley Bermuda 40, designs that, for better or worse, had a lot more to do with the creator’s personal ideas than they did with marketplace demands.

Today, the need for larger boatbuilders to rely on sales volume for profitability often usurps personal vision. Builders such as Sea Ray, The Luhrs Group and Carver each deliver upward of 700 boats per year-numbers that make it foolish to bank on one person’s idea. Most production boats move from concept to reality through a wringer of design teams, marketing analysts, focus groups, construction committees, power experts and, well, bean counters. That new production motoryacht you see and the sticker price attached have been carefully thought out and presented to hit your demographic’s sweet spot.

Exactly how many steps are involved depends on the builder, but the general process is one of finding out how current owners use their boats, what type of accommodations and amenities buyers want, and what they like or dislike about their current boats-then filtering the information into a design brief, building the design to meet a pre-determined price point, presenting a prototype and tweaking it to maximize sales.

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Last summer, the editors of Yachting decided to explore just how much changes these days between initial idea and finished product. We chose the Pearson True North 38, a new boat from a smaller production builder that gave us summer-long access to hull number 11. We traced the boat’s evolution from first sketch to new launch, then spent a few weekends aboard, evaluating everything from handling and systems to layout and amenities.

What we found was a surprising production boat full of personal ideas.

THE IDEA

The 36-foot Royal Lowell lobster boat Swan swung gingerly on the hook in a Narragansett Bay cove. She was a little worn around the edges, a good bit salty. Her accommodations were sparse, but comfortable. Her systems were simple, but offered Yankee practicality. Her lines were that special brand of sweet that stirs yachtsmen’s emotions into a cauldron.

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That day in 1999, Swan’s owner, Jono Billings, thought more people might enjoy his boat’s attributes. At the same time, his employers, Everett and Mark Pearson of TPI Composites, were looking to develop a powerboat to re-launch Pearson Yachts. TPI builds J Boats and the Alerion Express, and has a thriving industrial unit, but hasn’t offered a production motoryacht since it sold Rampage to Cruisers, Inc. in early 1990.

“Our personal experience told us that there was a need for making boats more user friendly, less complex and requiring less maintenance, Mark Pearson said.

Billings made sketches, first on a photo of Swan, incorporating design and practical elements that appealed to him. The Pearsons refined those drawings into another set of sketches for a boat with a sailing rig and perhaps jet drives.

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The men knew what they wanted the boat to do and generally what they wanted her to look like, but not until naval architect Clive Dent applied engineering and guidance did this project of passion evolve into the viable idea in the sketches on this page.

FOCUS GROUPS

Since this would be a new boat, not a boat fitting into a broader production line, Pearson Yachts could not draw upon the experiences of previous owners to refine the design. Instead, the team would have to rely on their expertise.

Everett Pearson is often credited with having started the fiberglass production boat industry 40 years ago. Mark Pearson, like Billings, is an experienced boater who grew up on his dad’s shop floor building everything from Rampage powerboats to windblades. All three men wanted to develop a boat they could use with their families in New England, which led to design elements such as wide side decks, opening transom doors and no exterior woodwork to maintain. The preliminary design brief they gave Dent called for a simple-to-operate vessel with limited frills, capable of cruising in the lower 20-knot range, on a seaworthy hull, offered at a reasonable price.

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To make sure they weren’t completely out to lunch, the team commissioned focus groups with boaters of varying experience.

“We felt we had some very good ideas, but we wanted the feedback of our target audience to confirm them, Mark Pearson said. “The exercise was very enlightening. We learned firsthand what was important to today’s buyer.

Several of the focus groups wanted to incorporate the all-purpose character of their sport utility vehicles. They wanted space for a fast dinghy, a couple of kayaks, mountain bikes and more. They wanted rugged construction and a boat that could be hosed down. They stressed the importance of simplicity.

Mixing the original vision with those ideas, the team came up with three 38s: the Sport, absent amenities such as shorepower; the Explorer, with a few more creature comforts; and the Heritage, with more interior wood and comfort options.

The next step was incorporating construction materials and a power package to build the boats at a reasonable price.

CONSTRUCTION & POWER

Some similar production boats can have a base price of $350,000 to $450,000. The team wanted theirs to come in around $285,000, built with TPI’s patented Scrimp process (a vacuum-bagged resin infusion process that creates a saturated laminate). Here, having three models allowed them to meet the pricing goal without scaling back on amenities all together-base price on the Sport is just $264,000.

The team added a single 440 hp Yanmar to the mix, providing a top speed of 25 knots. With a complete concept, they built hull number one and focused on a marketing plan.

SALES AND MARKETING

Unlike the Sea Rays, Silvertons and Carvers of the production boatbuilding world, Pearson builds about 35 boats per year. That’s a healthy number, to be sure, but one that requires less focus on the broad needs of the boating masses.

To that end, an initial sales program was undertaken by Billings himself, who got aboard hull number one in September 2001 and cruised down the Eastern Seaboard, along Florida’s Panhandle and up to the Great Lakes. He spent nearly a year aboard, putting almost a thousand hours on the single Yanmar.

All the while, the sales team invited prospective customers to test the boat whenever she was in port.

TWEAKING THE PROTOTYPE

During initial sea trials, potential customers provided feedback on equipment and finish. Changes that resulted include an improved helm seat; the addition of power-assisted steering as standard; and a change to a dual-tank fuel system with a manifold requiring no manual switchover.

Testing a prototype is nothing new for builders, but the extent to which Pearson went is noteworthy. The summer-long access our editors had to the boat gave us the same ability to really get to know her. Following are our impressions.

DESIGN

The spaces inside the True North 38 are designed to be as functional as they are good-looking. The table (top) lowers electrically. The V-berth (center) is spacious, and the head (bottom) is plenty big.

The True North 38 makes a bold statement. At first, her proud bow and plumb stem, barrel-stern, trunk cabin and upright house seem to be at war, as though they are voices singing off key. When I put a little distance between the 38 and myself, though, all the seemingly disparate elements blended in perfect harmony, though more like the Manhattan Transfer than the Vienna Boys Choir.

Her bow recalls images of the lobster boats from Nova Scotia; so does her relatively upright pilothouse. The house looks the way it does because it meets the requirements for sheltered entertainment, meals and relaxing out of the sun. We could think of the barrel stern as an affectation, if it didn’t look so good from the after quarter. Yes, it wastes space in the cockpit, but this one opens clamshell-style to provide a runway for the tender and easy access to the water for diving or swimming.

-Dennis Caprio

FAMILY CRUISING

My 6-year-old son could not contain his excitement as we prepared to pull away from the New York Yacht Club in Newport, Rhode Island. “Dad, he said, “When are we gonna go out on the coolest boat in the whole world?

It is a cool boat. My wife and I spent a night aboard with our two sons and found it comfortable and family friendly. The boys hustled below to play cards in the V-berth while we set up the convertible cockpit settee for sleeping. Pearson has made an often-annoying exercise easy. The seats and backs extend inboard to expand the sleeping surface into a comfortable double. The table lowers electrically. We were ready to read in minutes. The kids were still playing when we drifted off.

Overall, the boat is configured well for two-plus-two weekending with a usable stovetop/oven and a healthy refrigerator on the bridge deck. The head was plenty big. We had one complaint: Chine slap at the mooring seemed to amplify in the cockpit, which interrupted my otherwise blissful slumber. A little hull insulation would fix the problem. Pearson is working on a solution.

-Kenny Wooton

HANDLING

In the open bay off Newport, this yacht handled as expected. At low idle, she moved around slightly in the 1-foot chop, but a nudge of the throttle smoothed the ride.

With no trim tabs to fiddle with, I concentrated on an even distribution of power right up to her 3000 rpm cruise. I waited for the thrust of the 440 hp Yanmar and a lifting of the bow. Neither happened. She trimmed at a 3-degree bow angle, and the acceleration was even throughout the power curve.

When I pulled back on the throttle, she simply leveled off plane. My cup of coffee stood without brace on the flat above the controls all the while.

-Scott Shane

HEAVY WEATHER HANDLING

I ran from Nantucket to Newport in a breeze of 18 to 20 knots. The boat behaved superbly, steaming into the wind and 3-foot chop. I made 12 knots without uncomfortable slamming.

As I bore off down Nantucket Sound, she settled into a comfortable 18-knot cruise in beam seas. Then I turned south into Vineyard Sound and surfed down 4- to 5-footers. Her hull shape-with a narrow entry, a modified-V carried well aft and a short skeg protecting the running gear-helped her shoulder softly into the waves and track down-sea with conviction.

In Newport, her powerful bow thruster made maneuvering at the dock painless.

-Courtney Freeman

SYSTEMS

My long weekend started late, with no time for a systems briefing. I would have to fudge through myself. The exercise proved just how simple and functional this boat is.

Her single Yanmar is easy to get to and service. The electrical system is tough to beat, comprising a house bank, a starting bank, a windlass and a bow thruster bank. An inverter powers the 110-volt leg, which includes the microwave and outlets. It also powers the central vacuum system-a joy.

The refrigerator worked flawlessly, even in the heat of August in relatively warm waters. Except for a leaky seal on a water pump, which was later replaced by the pump manufacturer, I spent my weekend topside.

All I had to do was decide where to venture for dinner.

-George Sass, Jr.

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