The Sawzall School of Boat Design
Posted on 01 August 2010
Written by Mary R. Drake
In his quest for perfection, Ken Sawyer has owned 25 yachts, three of which he's cut up and reshaped.
Like most boaters, entrepreneur Ken Sawyer of Cushing, Maine, and New York City has dreamed for decades about his ultimate yacht - a handsome, superb-sailing pilothouse motorsailer that will cruise at 11 knots under sail or power.
Unlike most of us, he has spent those years designing, building and exhaustively testing concepts, materials and finishes in his home and on every boat he's owned. Each boat, each voyage, each material, each vision inspires changes - changes that can mean cutting up his yacht.
"We gutted my [43-foot] Cheoy Lee, removed the rig, peeled off the skin and chopped the boat in pieces. Off with the pilothouse - rrrmm, rrmm - the bow - rrrmm, rrmm - station nine - rrrmm, rrmm - station eight," says Sawyer, brandishing an imaginary Sawzall. He and naval architect Robert H. Perry of Seattle redesigned the pieces and then put them back together. "The boat was beautiful, but not quite what I wanted." So Sawyer sold it and they repeated the process with another Cheoy Lee 43, and again with a Tashiba 40.
A Sparkman & Stephens 46-foot Seguin sloop at Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding Co. in Thomaston, Maine, succumbed next. "JB Turner, [then company president], begged me not to cut [it] up," says Sawyer, 64, who has transited the Panama Canal and cruised the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and European and U.S. waters during the last 40 years. Turner finally relented after Sawyer explained his reasoning. "Every boat I've owned since 1971 has been part of my drive to develop my ultimate yacht," he told Turner. "In the boating world, only Bob [Perry] and I are this fanatical, always pushing the envelope."
The sloop's new fin keel/spade rudder configuration created a faster yacht. Based on this prototype, Sparkman & Stephens designed a series of classic-looking "cruise anywhere" sailing yachts with modern underbodies. Hull No. 1 is Sawyer's 52-foot Fairweather, one of two new yachts, three rebuilds and two home interiors Lyman-Morse has built for him.
Pushing the envelope
Sawyer found Maine's Thomaston-Rockland area a place where he could not only provide work for people but give them the opportunity to expand beyond their self-imposed creative limits. "That's my job now," he says.
Since retiring in 2003, the former CEO of Par Pharmaceutical has been blending yacht, auto, home and interior design through Yarkitecture Design, a worldwide collaboration of firms he has assembled.
"Years ago I learned the secret to having my design inspirations expressed through a [multidisciplinary] team," says Sawyer, who in his recreational time is a jet pilot, sports car buff and skier. His ideas also flow from his advanced degrees in medicine, physics and biochemistry. "Individuals must be able to push themselves, design- or execution-wise, or they opt out [of Yarkitecture]. I don't have to fire anyone."
Turner had no inkling of Sawyer's quest, or his energy, curiosity and playfulness, when they met nine years ago at Lyman-Morse. "Ken's always coming up with unique concepts yet is relaxed about the process of creating," says Turner. "He doesn't get upset about setbacks. He just keeps plugging until he figures it out. Working with him is a really fun ride. You never know what challenge each day will bring."
The 42-foot powerboat Lionheart Concerto, Sawyer's latest collaboration with Perry and Lyman-Morse, evolved from Sawyer's desire for an "energy-efficient, fast, sexy boat that takes you back to the 1920s and at the same time surrounds you with comfort and music."
The yacht's on-board piano utilizes Yamaha's Modus satellite audio technology, enhanced with Yarkitecture's video technology. "Concerto is my floating concert hall," Sawyer says.
At Concerto's November 2009 sea trials, Sawyer bubbled with excitement, watching intently while maneuvering a RIB around his curvaceous new powerboat. Concerto went through her paces, her 260-hp Yanmar humming like a well-tuned sports car.
"Perry's brilliant," the usually soft-spoken Sawyer exclaims, black eyes sparkling. "She hit 20 knots at a 3.8-degree angle without trim tabs. An optional parabolic trim tab should increase efficiency 10 percent." He draws it in the air. "Cruising at 13 knots, she'll burn 5 gallons per hour with a 600-mile range. That's awesome," he says.
Sawyer says Concerto "combines water, light and sound - the three elements that constitute all life. The boat is world class in every axis, pushing the envelope of images. I hope it will challenge designers, builders and owners to push their imaginations to new heights." (Sawyer and Lyman-Morse are shooting for a fall launching, in time for the October Powerboat Show in Annapolis, Md.)
Additional concepts tumble out: a remote-controlled inflatable cocoon-like cockpit shelter, a hinged transom that opens aft to form a swim platform. Like previous visions, some will require sketches, others terse "stop-the-presses" e-mails or 3 a.m. phone calls. Sawyer often takes his ideas directly to the workers.
"Ken's a really kind man - brilliant and so artistically bold, not afraid to create things out of his imagination," says Mack Ferris, Lyman-Morse's cabinetry shop foreman, displaying the thick book of drawings for Concerto's interior carvings. "He's great to work with, so thorough up front. We may have a lot of revisions, but the design is finalized by the time I put chisel to wood."
During Concerto's multidecade development, Perry recalls hashing out concepts, parameters and speed limitations of double-enders with Sawyer. Perry, known for his Valiant 40 and other performance-oriented cruising sailboat designs, considers Sawyer a "friend, patron and visionary who never shuts down his creative process - even after the drawings are finished."
Sawyer, who doesn't "want anyone telling me what I want," appreciates Perry's willingness to be the "oversight guy."
Though a revolutionary powerboat design, Concerto furthers Sawyer's quest for the ultimate high-performance pilothouse motorsailer. That's been his goal since blistering his face and lips on a July sail to Jamaica and being chilled to the bone on a November East Coast sailboat delivery years ago.
"I love motorsailers, for the wind doesn't dictate your schedule," Sawyer says, tousling his salt-and-pepper hair. "You can run the boat from inside the pilothouse, protected from the elements. You're safe, warm, dry, rested and surrounded by art and music, just like in a home ashore."
Sawyer and Perry's quest for a motorsailer that would outsail the Valiant 40 began in 1978. The three yachts they cut up and redesigned, plus Sawyer's previous 22 yachts, were the ultimate models - 100 percent scale - which Sawyer tested in the ultimate tank: the ocean. "I'm privileged to be able to [test my ideas]," he says. "It's great fun."
Though he depends on his Dell PC and ever-present BlackBerry, Sawyer eschews computer modeling. "Even the most sophisticated can't give you sensory perceptions like the feel of the rudder through the steering wheel," he says. "Computers and books won't tell you the best steering station location, how to angle the pilothouse sides to maximize the helmsman's visibility, or how air flow, window placement and galley location can best minimize seasickness. You have to go out and try each concept in the real world."
Since "what's good for the goose on land is good for the gander afloat," Sawyer also tests concepts, materials and finishes in his nautically inspired Cushing, Maine, home, built by Yarkitecture's 300-plus craftspeople. For example, the front door's single coat of the air-dried clear cohesive polymer he invented shows no deterioration after seven years.
He flips through bulging photo albums of his projects - "Concerto," "Cushing House," "Tashiba 40 (One Iron)," "Fairweather (A State of Mind)," "Yarkitecture (All but the kitchen, sinks)."
"I love talking about boats," Sawyer says. Not swapping sea stories over a beer, but dissecting a boat's hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and the need to balance technology and aesthetics to achieve safety and serenity.
"At my stage of life I've realized it's the journey, the camaraderie aboard that's important, not the destination," he says. "Ocean racing isn't for me because so often the crew community breaks down." He says he likes the security of a well-prepared crew and a well-found boat, "and the space sailing puts me in, with plenty of time to think."
Sawyer's projects all carry a weeping lion icon in memory of his only son Landon (Lion in Hebrew), who died at age 18 in a 2002 skiing accident. The Landon Morley Sawyer Foundation, which promotes freestyle skiing through scholarships and training centers, is "one of the wonderful things inspired by my son's belief that all men of action are dreamers," says Sawyer.
"For the 35 years I was in the pharmaceutical industry, I never saw any smiles," he says." Now I see happy faces and I feel good that I played a part."
Careening around in Sawyer's mind are more music and video collaborations with Yamaha, organizing skiing clinics in Camden, Maine, and having Yarkitecture build a concert hall/art gallery similar to the new galleries he co-owns in Rockport and Rockland, Maine. He says his pharmaceutical research designing molecules for a synthetic Delta-9 cannabinoid is nearing FDA approval to treat Alzheimer's disease and addiction to opiates, particularly in newborns.
"My goal is to get the FDA to forbid smoking real marijuana for medical reasons, kids to stop using narcotics and doctors to stop prescribing them," says Sawyer, who is also a former prosecuting attorney in Philadelphia. He chuckles. "It won't take as long as developing my ultimate motorsailer."
See related stories:
- Flooded with water, light and sound
- From the drawing board: the Sawyer lineup
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.