Posted on 26 February 2009
Written by Chris Landry
Q&A with Ken Fickett owner of Mirage Manufacturing
Boatbuilder Ken Fickett is the owner of Mirage Manufacturing of Gainesville, Fla., which he founded in 1971 (www.mirage-mfg. com). Fickett, 56, has designed everything from small airplanes to open fishing boats to oceangoing trawlers. For the last 11 years he has concentrated on trawlers, working with naval architect Lou Codega. Fickett’s company has built four models ranging from 37 to 47 feet. A 74-foot trawler is on the way, and he’s about to launch a new sportfishing line.
Q: How did you get into the business of designing and building boats?
A: I was born in Miami, and I grew up close to a fairly famous commercial boatbuilder in Miami by the name of Raleigh Stapleton. As a kid in elementary school, I used to wander in and out of that shop, and I got captured. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was doing engine installations on big commercial fishing boats up to 42 feet, systems rigging and fiberglass work. When I came back from my freshman year in college, I went back to work for Raleigh. He was kind of like a father to me. At one point over that summer, he and I got into a row about something. He said, “Back your truck up over here.” He had the crew load it with a roll of mat, a roll of woven, a drum of resin, a drum of acetone and a gallon of catalyst. It wasn’t uncommon for me to do deliveries to different builders. I asked him where he wanted me to take that stuff. He told me, “I really don’t care where you take it, just go and take it and start your own business.” So that’s pretty much how I got my start.
Q: Explain your design philosophy — what makes a well-designed boat?
A: When we’re talking about building boats, I tend to be more focused on the strength of materials, the quality of construction. I’m not a big cosmetics guy. It has to do the job first and, of course, growing up in the commercial fishing business, that was job No. 1 — to give them something that was going to bring them back home. I remember bitching to Raleigh Stapleton about the fact that we spend an overabundance of money doing good laminates and good bonding work, good structural design. And it’s invisible to the customer for the most part. We don’t get any credit for that stuff. And Raleigh said to me, “Well you sleep at night, don’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That’s why you do it.”
Q: What makes a poorly designed boat?
A: Too many times a builder will focus on some piece of the design — like how many the boat sleeps. That would be a classic one. That’s caused problems for people. Trying to end up with a good-sleeping vee berth first, as opposed to a bow that actually goes through the water properly, is one of the biggest faults that I see out there. It’s that kind of thing all the time — the idea of designing for aesthetics as opposed to designing for use. [Some builders] will put an integrated swim platform into a deck mold, which forces the hull-deck joint below the waterline. And people wonder why they’re having problems with boats leaking. It’s a bad design to begin with, and then when they don’t execute it from a manufacturing standpoint, it’s a double whammy.
Q: Your boats are built with fiberglass and cored material. Why do you prefer these materials to others? What do you think of steel?
A: I’m a fiberglass kind of guy. I think all materials have their place, but the bottom line is — and I don’t care who wants to argue with this — steel has a definite lifespan to it, as does wood. There are some notable exceptions out there, but they have ended up having a long lifespan because they have a high degree of maintenance and outstanding care. Fiberglass is easier to build for the long haul. We do glass as we need to. If we feel that core is not appropriate in an area, like in the hulls in our trawlers, we don’t use core in that hull. But when we’re looking for performance and efficiency, then the way to get that is by going to a cored composite structure as opposed to solid glass.
Q: Can you name your favorite non-Mirage-built boat?
A: These days when I see a neat boat in the powerboat field, almost always they’re custom built. I’ve had far more favorites in the sailboat business than in the powerboat business. I think a lot of the production sailboat builders back then [1970s and 1980s] were doing a great job. C&C was an excellent boatbuilder.
Q: How has your background in aircraft design and construction influenced your ideas about designing and building boats?
A: A lot of people would find this hard to believe, but it may be easier to design an airplane than to design a boat, particularly when we start talking about larger, more complex boats. A boat is actually much more of a compromise, and you’re trying to cover a much broader mission. Beyond that, you have to come home — that’s an overriding thought in our heads when we’re doing work, whether it’s boats or airplanes. I think this is disregarded [sometimes]. I’ve heard builders say, “Ah, these people will never get out of the Sound.” That’s nonsense. The average boatbuilder doesn’t know what somebody’s going to do with his boat.
Q: Your company used to build open sportfishing boats, but two years ago you suspended production. Will you resume production and, if so, when?
A: We’re involved in a project right now to do a whole new series of very efficient, very economical — economical to run, anyways — out-of-the box sportfishing designs from 21 [feet] to somewhere in the low 40s. It’s obviously not a great sportfish market out there right now, but we’ll be poised when the market comes back. With the 40-something, we’re looking at a boat that at 25 knots is going to deliver something better than 2 miles to the gallon, which is pretty much unheard of out there these days. We’re doing a whole new 32 based on our original 32. That boat currently at 33 mph will deliver 3 miles to the gallon. We’re still working on a name for the sportfish line. We were talking to our marketing guy, and I said I kind of like some of those old 12 Meter names. Courageous was a helluva name. He said, “Well, I gotta tell you, that’s the perfect name because you guys gotta be some courageous SOBs to be building tooling in this economic atmosphere.”
Q: Are all of these boats outboard-powered?
A: The 40 will be a pod-drive boat, whether it’s IPS or Zeus or whatever is the next one out. Or it’ll be powered by outdrives. We tend to be outdrive guys, by the way. The 32 is available as an I/O boat or an outboard boat. And the 21 is a diesel I/O.
Q: Can you name your favorite cruising grounds or destination(s)?
A: I was fishing the flats as a kid in South Florida — in Florida Bay, in Biscayne Bay — in the late ’50s. I still think that area is probably the premier cruising area in the U.S. — and that would be South Florida and the Keys from Miami all the way to Key West and then all the way back up to Fort Myers or Naples. These days I spend a lot of time over in the Bahamas because I run a charter operation over there. I’ve grown very, very fond of the Abacos.
Q: What was your closest call out at sea?
A: I do long deliveries quite often by myself. Sometimes people are shocked to find out that when you’re cruising single-handed offshore that you actually go to sleep. I mean you have to. My closest call was probably a particular instance where I was relatively close to collision at sea — at night. Fortunately I had great electronics. When I figured out what was going on and what I was looking at, I was able to avert it, but it sure kept me awake for a while.
Q: Which boat is your favorite personal boat and why?
A: Boatbuilders tend to be like this: Their favorite is the one they’re working on the most or currently. The [Mirage] N47 — and I’m building one for myself right now — is about as versatile a liveaboard as you can get that will do the things that I want it to do. Behind that, I’ll be towing one of my 21s. And that’s a Lou Codega design, and I would never have believed that somebody could get that kind of ride quality out of a 21. If we need to be some place quick within a hundred miles, we’ll jump in the 21 and take that. Very efficient, diesel-powered, so we can download diesel off the trawler and into the little boat.
Q: You mentioned Lou Codega. What is your relationship with Lou as far as designing these boats? How closely is he working with you?
A: Well, Lou is typically responsible for all of the hydrodynamics, and a lot of the basic look. It’s really much of a team effort to figure out just what the mission of the boat is. I usually take care of most of the structural design, run it by Lou. Lou is a P.E. [professional engineer]. He’s one of the few guys in the country who is an actual MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] naval architect — and Webb Institute. So, he’s got credentials to burn.
See a slide show version of this interview.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.