Michael York and Mark Fitzgerald are turning out boats that can be appreciated for their form and function
Michael York is one of those anomalies along the Maine coast: a builder of high-end custom and production yachts with no family background or personal history in boatbuilding.
When York got out of the military — he was a driver for a general while in the army — he found there was nothing all that attractive waiting for him in the family business and decided to give boatbuilding a try, starting York Marine in 1991. He studied mechanical engineering at University of Maine, leased a truck to start a boat-hauling business, and then started doing high-end paint jobs and repairing boats. In the process, he learned how and why some boats stood up to abuse better than others.
He built his first boat from scratch in 1995, a 38-foot lobster boat designed by Chuck Paine that’s in daily commercial use today.
His next big step was to hire Mark Fitzgerald, a designer at Chuck Paine Yacht Design a few miles down the road in Camden, and the partnership soon resulted in a 30-foot single-inboard pleasure boat. Both of these fellows are artists at heart, each with a flair for originality — Fitzgerald in the lines he draws and York in the sheer ingenuity with which he puts boats together.
Fitzgerald and York got a big break when they got a contract from Betsy Wyeth to build a boat as a birthday present for her husband, Andrew, the painter. York knew the caretaker at the Wyeth estate, learned about Betsy’s interest in a boat, and York and Fitzgerald made a successful case for their product, building the first York 36.
During the last few years, York has gravitated to waterjet power — not exclusively but enough to develop a solid feel for what works and what doesn’t with this power choice. The 36-foot Fitzgerald design — four have been launched as of this writing — can take single or twin waterjet or conventional inboard power.
Fitzgerald has his own company now, but he spent a long time learning the ropes. He started by studying boat design at the Westlawn Institute and then worked for Jack Hargrave, from 1976 to ’81, contributing to many of the Hatteras, Burger and custom designs coming out of that office. Fitzgerald moved to Maine after a summer vacation there in 1985, signing up to work for Paine, where he spent much of his time designing that firm’s powerboats. When Paine retired in 2008, Fitzgerald bought the business, operating as Fitzgerald Marine Architecture (www.markfitzma rine.com). He specializes in long-range cockpit motoryachts, in addition to high-end waterjets. Fitzgerald has a staff of CAD designers and draftsman, and designs in both sail and power.
Great looks and smart, too
Practically anyone with a little talent can draw a boat that some people will like the looks of, but few can draw something original that can be appreciated for its complementary form and function. Just as there are many ugly boats that don’t work well, there are plenty of pretty ones that don’t work, either. Take some of the Italian designs from the 1980s and ’90s. Found among these are more than a few classic examples of how not to style a boat. They look sleek and shapely at first glance — rows of smoked, curved glass dabbling the sides of the deckhouse — but try seeing out of the windshield on one or running into a head sea.
With this backdrop, I came across the York 36 this spring at the Maine Boatbuilders Show. It’s such a lovely boat — Fitzgerald calls it a mix of Palm Beach and Northeast Harbor, Maine — I immediately was entranced, but also a bit suspicious that such a good-looking boat would actually work well, too.
Take the hardtop design: all span and cantilever — how could that possibly work? The secret is in the sauce, in this case the carbon fiber York used to make the structure stiff while seemingly floating in midair, supported back aft only by a centerline support. It ought to flop around, but it doesn’t, feeling more like a garage floor underfoot. This kind of engineering is not cheap, and you don’t want the guy down the street to build you one in his, well, garage, but the effect is delightful when you see that it works in every way.
The next novelty on the York 36 is the Fitzgerald hull. It has round bilges forward and hard chines aft, presumably to minimize pounding despite the shallow forefoot (de rigueur in a waterjet to prevent bow steering down sea) but perhaps at the expense of a little dryness, since the boat tends to run a tad flat (thanks, in part, to the jet’s horizontal thrust), judging from the boat show video. Back aft, hard chines appear out of nowhere, adding some lift and flow separation while essentially creating a long rudder down each side to keep her headed in the right direction.
Just as interesting is the nacelle in the bottom of the boat that houses the waterjet intake. It’s a square-sided appendage that projects down below the keel, the flat sides of which also create vertical surfaces like a rudder while adding buoyancy to help support the weight of the waterjet intake full of water. The thing to remember about jet power is that plenty of deadrise all the way to the transom is needed to keep the boat going in a straight line. Without enough of it, you need fins or other fore-and-aft vertical surfaces to keep the stern from catching up to the bow offshore.
To punctuate this requirement, the York 36 also has a pair of graphite fins (thin enough to minimize drag but strong enough to support the weight of the boat) attached to the sides of the nacelle. In addition to improving tracking, the chines, fins and nacelle keep the boat from spinning out in a high-speed turn.
Topside, the York 36 has a single-level cockpit/bridge deck interrupted by the engine box, which is put to good use with its aft-facing seat in the cockpit and L-shaped, forward-facing seat in the bridge deck area. Also back in the cockpit are 31-inch-high coamings — 4 or 5 inches more than you usually find on a boat this size — and a pair of 12-inch stern cleats.
On the bridge deck, a pair of fancy — and comfortable — Stidd seats perched up high offer a great view, and pantograph wipers help you see through almost all that glass. I’d like to see the window mullions a little narrower to minimize sightline interference, but this boat is probably already better than average in this regard.
A 540-hp Cummins diesel powers the Hamilton waterjet. Access is on the tight side, but, boy, does the builder do a good job making engine noise go away. York reports 71 dBA at the helm under full power, about 3 dBA lower than anything I’ve recorded on an Alden 56 or Riviera 4700, the next-quietest diesel boats I’ve sea-trialed. It’s hard to overstate how enjoyable it is to be on a very quiet, successfully designed boat.
This may be a big day boat, but the 36’s cabin is nicely proportioned. There’s a 23-inch-wide companionway, real stairs (not a ladder), a 7-foot galley that includes a kitchen-sized sink to starboard, a big enclosed head to port, a 19-inch hatch large enough to climb through if needed, and a 78-inch berth forward. Headroom is on the low side at about 74 inches, but so is the sheer, and this is one area where looks win out over functionality, at least for anyone well over 6 feet tall. The cabin is attractively finished in a style reminiscent of Herreshoff, with white tooled surfaces accented by varnished wood cabinetry and a teak sole. All of this is finished to yacht standards of joinery.
Not everything on the 36 is perfect, at least for me. For instance, besides the engine access and windshield mullions, the 74 inches of cabin headroom at the companionway is low for a 36-footer; hatch gutter drains are on the small side, making them more prone to clogging; and the bulkheads are not watertight, whereas I like my boats to be unsinkable. But this is a shorter fix-it list than I usually come up with.
York talks about it like it’s no big deal, but since he started building boats he’s also built his own tooling. Fitzgerald originally hired him to move a half-finished boat, and when he saw the quality of the repair work York was doing, he asked him to finish it off. York went out and bought a couple of books on tooling and went to work, producing a boat that looked like it was built by a high-end production yard. Fitzgerald recalls saying “wow” five times when he saw the finished product.
Take a look at the 36’s hull — the bulwarks along the main deck and the superstructure — and you’ll see where Fitzgerald’s artistry is given form by York’s tooling wizardry. Again, both of these fellows are artists in a very real sense, and the result is a boat that looks sculpted out of solid marble, more than fabricated of layers of fiberglass. More form and function is found in the shoulder room along the side decks, created by the aesthetically pleasing inward-sloping pilothouse sides.
York 46 twin waterjet
While I was at the York facility, a new twin waterjet York 46 Flybridge was under construction. First let’s cover the boat’s basic construction, then look at some of the attention to detail that really makes these boats special.
York builds the hull in one-off fashion with Core-Cell bead-and-cove foam planking — 1.25-inch-thick in the bottom and 1 inch in the sides — laid up over a temporary wooden framework. The thick foam planks work well with 18-inch frame spacing, with the hull needing little fairing before it comes off the mold. They also allow an extra margin so some of the foam can be sanded away in the fairing process, reducing the amount of filler putty needed. Vinylester resin, which has excellent physical properties (adhesion, elongation, impermeability), is used throughout the laminate.
After the outer hull skin of non-woven fiberglass (and Kevlar in the bottom for added impact resistance) is laid up and faired, three out of four wood frames are removed. The hull is turned upright, braced into position from the outside, and the remaining inside frames are removed. Then the hull is fiberglassed on the inside, and the bulkheads and stringers are installed. York reports being able to build a one-off Core-Cell boat that’s substantially lighter than an infused hull, in part because less resin is used in the process.
The pilothouse, on the other hand, is built using a female mold. This part has windows everywhere forward, so it’s less time-consuming to build the mold and then lay up the part, rather than hand-forming every rabbeted window opening. It also saves weight. The deck is joined to the hull using epoxy bedding putty and self-tapping screws, followed by fiberglassing inside and out from bow to stern, essentially creating a one-piece deck-hull unit. The bulkheads and full-length hull stringers are also foam-cored, while the non-structural cabin bulkheads (though they also contribute to the structure) are balsa-cored.
Walking through the boat — with York pointing out the details, all intelligently conceived and executed — I was nodding away (not off), thinking this is the way I would build my boat. These gents — there are seven on the payroll at York Marine — are real craftsmen. Just the pains taken to isolate noise and vibration are like nothing I’ve seen on a boat anywhere near this size.
And other details abound. Back aft, the cockpit hatch gutter slopes inboard to a single drain so the gutters will stay dry, absent rain and spray. The transom dinghy roller assembly makes light work of recovering the tender while doubling as an oversized cockpit scupper. The shelves in the engine room are cored with Decolite panels to reduce weight. The generator is mounted on a shelf using shock-absorbing mounts, and the shelf itself is shock-mounted and supported on a carbon fiber beam. The generator muffler is isolated by Sylomer foam pads.
Inside corners, where the bulkheads meet the hull skin, are radiused with an epoxy fillet to eliminate hard spots. Hatches have triple 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-inch gaskets to seal in the engine noise. The forward engine room bulkhead and pilothouse sole have six different sound-absorbing treatments. The three fuel tanks have a single fill, simplifying refueling, and the engines and fuel system automatically shut down if a fire is detected.
Up on the flybridge, breakaway tooling built in-house by York was used to create balance-enhancing toe kicks under the seat bases. Ventilation for the saloon is provided by an air intake along the leading edge of the flybridge, where it’s directed to a plenum that drains off any water and sends the fresh sea breeze inside via a distribution box in the overhead. Panels are removable for access to the plenum, and they’re made of a single piece of wood, for a matched-grain effect, across the beam of the boat.
At the transom, the exhaust pipes protrude well aft, discharging out to the sides so that the slipstream along the hull side carries the fumes away when under way. Back under the cockpit, a centerboard made of carbon fiber lowers to help the boat track straight down sea. In any event, there’s a partial list of features.
To date York has built 11 powerboats from 32 to 46 feet, along with 18-foot Norse sailboats and 75 Ribcraft RIBs. He will always be a custom builder, but would like to start series production with the 46. Fitzgerald has a 34.5-foot York waterjet on the drawing boards. In case 71 dBA isn’t quiet enough for you, the next boat will have a
vibration-isolated grid to support the drive train, completely isolated from the hull by shock absorbers.
York brings value in this market that is as exceptional as the build quality, with his boats coming in at lower prices than some other, better established brands. They may cost less (for now), but it’s hard to imagine a boat being designed and built any better than this. Pricing for semicustom or custom boats like these high-end York yachts is a moving target, since owner specifications can vary widely, but the builder says the 36 would start at about $400,000, and the 42 at about $900,000.
I consider York Marine to be one of those relatively obscure shops that you’re lucky to stumble across when thinking about having a new boat built. York offers good value for the money and is small and agile, though also in the vanguard, with no design committees or focus groups to hold them back and dilute their particular genius. A sort of “Petri dish of innovation” (Mike’s words) while relying on proven methods and materials.
Striking this balance — getting the calculus right — and finding the right partners, like Mark Fitzgerald, and the right customers, is key to their continuing success.
Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.