The Challenge of Designing New Boats

A shepherd’s guide to concept-yacht design.
Steve Haefele illustration
“At this point, builders have mopped fiberglass into every shape imaginable, but is anything sticking?” Steve Haefele

“See any lasting trends in yacht design, Coyle?” an industry pal asked me recently.

“It’s hard to tell,” I said. I had high hopes that the “dream it, and we will build it” period of concept-yacht creations would flush out something that would stick to the wall, but looking different is beginning to look the same, I suggested, adding, “It’s the Dolly effect,” a reference to the cloned sheep from two decades ago.

Back then, I wrote about my challenge in finding Hinckley Yachts at the Fort Lauderdale boat show (“Clone Craft,” October 2002). As I descended the ramp, the builder’s iconic Picnic Boat was surrounded by a flock of look-alikes. It was as though the Picnic Boat had been cloned.

A yacht serving as a platform for an afternoon picnic was not new. Frank Huckins had promoted the idea in advertising and built boats suited for the purpose in the 1930s. Back in the day, Hinckley had done so as well, declawing lobster boats for wealthy yachtsmen who “summu’d” in coastal Maine.

When the market for high-end sailboats lost its wind in the 1990s, Hinckley repackaged its pedigree in a 36-foot high-tech, water-jet jewel box. It deserved better than an express-yacht or sport-boat handle, ergo, Picnic Boat. It was a brilliant move, and by 2002, “yawt’g” in New England style was a hit.

A flock of boaters were driven to Hinckley’s creation by its looks and its proposed utility. The lobster-boat lineage was evident in the boat’s sheer sweep and tumblehome, and it looked right in Maine. Trimmed in finely crafted teak and flag-blue or jade-green topsides with cove-stripe accents, the Picnic Boat looked right anywhere. Builders from just about everywhere followed.

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When designers began noodling what I respectfully refer to as concept yachts, I had the opportunity to tour one of the first. It had a pug nose and towering chocolate-brown topsides peppered with picture windows. The craft looked more like a George Jetson-brownstone mashup than a boat. Even the boatbuilder admitted it looked a bit odd. He explained that customers wanted different. It turned out he was right, and plenty of designers have been grazing this pasture ever since.

At this point, builders have mopped fiberglass into every shape imaginable, but is anything sticking? It seems customers still want different. Or do they? Imagination is great, but what if we tried looking back to the future for a missed opportunity? I’m not talking full-on Marty McFly, but perhaps we could recalibrate the flux capacitor so we might at least recall what seemed to be the new-new thing last year.

Hinckley invented the Picnic Boat just as Hatteras Yachts invented the convertible decades before, by installing a bulkhead between a salon and a cockpit. It wasn’t a new idea, but the convertible brand proposed a new way of taking advantage of the design’s utility. An offshore fishboat could also be an offshore cruiser. The proof of concept? Dream and build the right thing, and customers and competitors will follow. Baaa.