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Tell Tales: Two to Tango

Turning a design to an actual boat is a team effort.

April 8, 2020
Steve Haefele illustration
“Oftentimes, the boat was completed before the design. When the owner stepped aboard, the rethinking of thoughts that had already been thunk began.” Steve Haefele

For the committed yachting enthusiast, taking delivery of a new ride is as good as it gets. At least that’s what I thought until I eyeballed my pal Bill’s new boat. It was docked behind our friend Bob’s house. Bill had successfully navigated the new-construction process, but the whole thing had been Bob’s idea.

It’s complicated.

While Bill was crawling through the bilge, sorting out nagging new-boat issues, Bob was sipping coffee on his patio, taking pride in the boat’s familiar design. Bob had dreamed of her for years and even hired a designer to noodle her every detail, but he hesitated to build her. During the design process, Bill became emotionally invested in her, and when he could stand it no longer, he hired a builder.

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Back in the day, a boat’s design was typically conceived barside on a cocktail napkin. If the idea still seemed brilliant the following morning, a builder was selected, and it was a rush to the finish. Oftentimes, the boat was completed before the design. When the eager owner stepped aboard, the rethinking of thoughts that had already been thunk began. My late mentor Tom Fexas counseled clients to scribble these ideas on bits of paper (see: cocktail napkins) and stuff them in a jar for the next boat.

Soggy cocktail napkins were my first paying client’s preferred medium. The translation was often a challenge, and while he could be difficult to work with, I liked him very much—so much so, I recall trying to talk myself out of a commission during a long lunch at his yacht club. Under the influence of a hungry boatbuilder, a thirsty marine-marketing maven and pitchers of dry vodka martinis, he ignored my warnings and spun a bit of napkin scribble into a production-boat company.

I’m not sure exactly how much he “invested” into the venture, and while he never admitted his mistake, I know he had appreciated my honesty. He rewarded me with years of work on new designs with the unspoken understanding that he had no intention of ever building them. I am now convinced these were the happiest years of his life. He remained passionate about the design process and martinis, but building and marketing representatives were no longer invited to our meetings at the yacht club.

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Noodling complete designs that would never see the water might seem senseless, but I was providing what my client wanted. In later years, a designer friend of mine—for whom I have great respect—came clean, admitting he too was embarrassed by the numbers of his clients who were happy to pay to piddle in the design process.

Today, instead of decoding napkin sketches with endless hours of pen work, designers can soothe a piddler’s passion with sophisticated computer graphics. One can almost taste the salt while avoiding the risk of taking a bath.

Bob has followed through on new builds in the past, but he now prefers piddling. He’s smart. While enjoying “Bill’s boat,” he can noodle a new design.

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It’s complicated, but not for Bob.

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