Designer Doug Peterson Was A Change Agent - Soundings Online

Designer Doug Peterson Was A Change Agent

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Doug Peterson (left) and Jerry Milgram photo

Doug Peterson (left) and Jerry Milgram, an ocean engineering professor at MIT, were part of the design team for  America Cubed, which won the America's Cup in 1992. 

Doug Peterson was a naval architect whose prolific and landmark designs transformed an era of yacht racing. Peterson

died June 26 of cancer. He was 71.

The Point Loma, California, resident and longtime member of the San Diego Yacht Club died on the day that Emirates

Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup from Oracle Team USA, capping the life of the strategically minded sailor and principal member of design teams whose boats won the oldest trophy in sport for the United States in 1992 (America3) and New Zealand in 1995 (Black Magic).

“Doug Peterson was a gifted designer who used his sailing skills to understand what was required to create a fast boat,” says Cup-winning tactician Gary Jobson. “He was great fun to sail with and always had a positive outlook. I  was very lucky to be a friend and occasional shipmate.” 

Considered a wizard of yacht conception and competition, Peterson became a star during the 1970s and ’80s, and worked for decades thereafter. His designs won virtually every major national and international racing title and regatta, notable among them the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and the Admiral’s Cup.

In addition to America’s Cup boats, his fast designs ranged from “One Tonners” (particularly the 34-foot Ganbare, which launched his fame in 1973) to the 8 Meter series. In 1982, he modified the maxi Windward Passage, which won her class in several major races.

“Doug was always particular about what we were doing in the shop,” says Eric Goetz, a veteran builder of top-performing raceboats and a leader in advanced composites technology. Goetz built five Peterson-designed boats: three measuring 36 feet to 38 feet for the One Ton Class; a 44-foot one-off; and America3. “When we discussed details, he wanted to know why and what and how we were going to execute his designs. “He was heavily influenced by the boatbuilding of Carl Eichenlaub [who built Ganbare] and what he had seen in Carl’s shop,” Goetz adds. “So when we had solutions which were slightly different from what Carl would have done, Doug showed his concern. His shapes were certainly different from the shapes we had been used to seeing.”

The San Diego Yacht Club cited Peterson’s impact not only on the sport of sailing, but also on the club. “For decades, sailors have excelled racing boats designed by Peterson under International Offshore Rule, International Measurement System, Midget Ocean Racing Conference and International Rule Measurement System,” club communications director Emily Willhoft states in a press release. “His extensive resume includes many regatta wins all over the world on many different levels of sailing, yet not to be forgotten is his significant impact at San Diego Yacht Club.”

Peterson won San Diego Yacht Club Yacht of the Year for five designs. In the late 1970s through the early ’80s, his boats won most of the top three places at the Lipton Cup, an event the club hosts.

In March, Peterson became the fourth of the club’s members inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. His “brilliant understanding of the art of yacht design and a strong grasp of measurement rules made him one of the best naval architects of his generation,” the selection committee says in a press release.

Peterson also designed performance cruising boats, including those that bore his name, for Jack Kelly, Baltic Yachts and Grand Soleil, among others. Passionate about yachting history, he also restored classics.

The former owner of the Peterson 44 Oddly Enough remembers that design being like a trusted offshore-sailing crewmate. “She had a lovely aft cabin for sleeping, even on an afternoon off-watch at sea, and a rig easily handled by two people,” says Ann Hoffner, who with her husband took Oddly Enough through the Panama Canal to the South Pacific and Australia. “And she could be sailed fast. All of this would be meaningless except that she was such a good sea boat. We trusted her over tens of thousands of miles and many different conditions. And she was beautiful. I believe the beauty and the seaworthiness are a credit to Doug’s design.”

Peterson also was known as a friendly, low-key, generous and easygoing person. “As a child, I wanted to be a naval architect,” says Erik Shampain, a professional sailor whose father worked for Peterson on a 41-foot Peterson design. “With an interested smile on his face, Doug was always happy to chat with me. Once, at the San Diego Yacht Club, Doug penciled out a simple formula to find the displacement of a sailboat, on a cocktail napkin. My drawings went from simple doodles to actual designs. He would occasionally have my father and I at his house and show us designs and whatever he was working on.”

Peterson is survived by four children: Mark, Jamie, Laura and Julia.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.