Piotr Zin is affable, articulate and smart. Some might say he is crazy smart or a good kind of crazy.
“I always wanted to build boats,” the 42-year-old industrial designer says as he steers his electric-powered Zin Boats Z2R toward the Miami South Channel. “I’ve been building floating things since I was a kid.”
Zin’s boatbuilding journey began in his native Poland, but 20 years ago he started crisscrossing the United States, picking up professional experience and developing a vision for the boat of the future. He has drawn his fair share of boats, but the Z2R is the first design for his own company, Zin Boats. It’s a sleek, sharp-looking, high-performance runabout that can hit 30 knots and cruise for 80 to 100 miles on a single electric charge.
Zin fell for boating at age 15 while drinking beers by a lake with a friend who wanted to go sailing. “I told him, ‘That looks really slow and boring,’” he says, “but I haven’t been off boats since then.”
He raced Solings, went to university in Krakow and got a scholarship to study law at the University of Pennsylvania. But he quickly realized law wasn’t for him. To ponder his next move, he went sailing. “I became a schooner bum,” Zin says. He sailed on schooners for Philadelphia City Sail, did some trips on Amistad and got into boat delivery.
He decided to pursue a career as a car designer and was told there were only two schools that would lead to a job at a major carmaker. One was in California, but College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, Michigan, offered him a scholarship.
While at CCS, he scored a General Motors internship in California, but when it was time to return to the Motor City, he couldn’t afford to ship his Derbi 49cc scooter. Instead, he rode it back to Detroit on Route 66. “I had to rejet [the carburetor] so I could make it over the mountains,” Zin says. “I had to push it the last two miles.”
Back in Detroit and short on money, he asked General Motors for a scholarship. They said no but gave him a nighttime job in the design department where he learned how to surface clay car models. “By the time I graduated from CCS I already had two years of experience at a car company,” Zin says. “I couldn’t get out of GM fast enough. I was too young to navigate such a large political environment.”
A headhunter had heard Zin “was insane about boats” and called him. U.S. Marine, a division of Brunswick Corp., in Arlington, Washington, was looking for a boat designer. Zin got married to a fellow CCS student, Sara, in Detroit, packed up and headed west.
The next three years were spent reinventing some of Brunswick’s most popular boats, including Bayliner’s bestselling 175 bowrider and the Bayliner 242 known until then as the Popemobile for its boxy glass exterior, which Zin turned into the 246 Discovery. “It was bad design, but a good place to make mistakes,” Zin says. “I had great mentors, and it was a great place to learn.”
When the 2008 recession hit, Zin and hundreds of U.S. Marine employees landed on the street. “That was pretty sad,” he says. “I was stuck with a mortgage, without a job, in a financial crisis.”
His wife found an opportunity as a graphic designer in New York City, so they loaded up a U-Haul and moved east. Zin coded for his wife and as an exercise designed two big yachts, including Sano, a large blue trimaran. “It was a nice portfolio piece,” he says.
Then, BMW Group DesignworksUSA in Newbury Park, California, called. The company had a small project and needed boat expertise. It led to a full-time position and the Zins moved west again. “I was very fortunate to get that job,” Zin says. “It was a wonderful job.”
Fifty percent of the work was cars and motorcycles. The other 50 percent involved a wide variety of products for other companies that now have Zin’s name on the patent. Among them were exercise equipment, first class accommodations for Singapore Airlines, a knuckle boom loader for John Deere and the profile for a new Mercury outboard. “We had to convince Mercury of the design, and to sell white engines,” Zin says. “Now the whole line of Verados uses that design.”
In California, Zin bought an Olson 30 sailboat for a dollar and rebuilt it. He thought it was going to be done in a week, but it took a year, and he kept a blog about it that his wife won’t let him delete. “She says it should remind me to never do that again,” he says.
Zin loved working at BMW. “We had the best designer in the world, Johannes Lampela,” he says. “He instilled a design sense in me.” But after six years at BMW, Microsoft called, and Zin wanted to get back to Seattle.
He sold the Olson 30 and bought a Seascape 27 sailboat from Slovenia. “I wanted to be able to single hand and I loved the ingenuity of the design,” he says of the Seascape’s ability to race in comfort.
He entered it in the 2017 Race to Alaska, the eccentric 750-mile adventure race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. The rules don’t allow the use of motors, so he and Ross Carmichael, one of his old mentors from the Bayliner days, designed and built a custom pedal-powered mechanism to propel the sailboat during windless periods. Zin still marvels at how Carmichael pedaled the “hellish, ass-torture contraption” for 18 hours straight.
They finished well but didn’t win. Asked what made him enter, Zin laughs. “That’s one of those things where you tell yourself, ‘It’s gonna be great,’ then you do it, and you hate yourself. Then the moment you get back you say, ‘When are we going to do it again?’ because it is so awesome.”
In Seattle he worked on Microsoft’s wearable Band design and the U.S version of Windows 10. “It wasn’t the right job for me,” he says. “I thrive in a small, agile environment rather than large corporations, and it was time for me to open my own company.”
So, in 2018, within months of the birth of their first child and the purchase of a floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union, Zin launched Zin Boats, Inc. with Carmichael as vice president. “Ross is the guy who helps Zin Boats be what it is,” he says. “He knows everybody, and he provides the engineering might.”
Zin says he has sailed, dived and fished in some of the most beautiful places on earth, but having a child and seeing the world’s fragility motivated him to design an electric motorboat. “Seeing things like the Inside Passage made a big impression on me,” Zin says. “Unless we change the way we boat, this wonderful world will be gone in the next few decades. It made me think, what am I doing to protect this so when my boy is my age there is a place to go boating?”
In designing the Z2R, Zin knew he wanted a hot, cool-looking boat built around a well-performing electric propulsion system. He also didn’t want to sacrifice comfort, interior space or speed. “We have an internal document about what we want in a boat that we will never sacrifice,” Zin says.
He started by flying to the boot Düsseldorf show in Germany to talk to propulsion manufacturers. “I am not in the business of building a propulsion system,” Zin says. “I am in the business of building really fast, high-performance boats.”
Zin settled on Torqeedo’s system because he felt it was the best on the market, and because it had BMW’s 360-volt battery, which allows for smaller cables to move higher amperage and also gives the Torqeedo drive the speed and torque he wanted. It’s the same battery used in BMW’s i3 electric car, and according to Capt. Todd Sims, Torqeedo’s director of project sales, Torqeedo is the only marine vendor with that battery. BMW made Torqeedo change the battery management system and waterproof the i3 battery to IP67 standards. Torqeedo also had to add shock absorbers, because lithium batteries don’t like vibration.
Zin put the 612-pound battery in the stern of the Z2R beneath the bench seat. He installed Torqeedo’s motor and chargers in the bow to offset the battery’s weight. “The idea was to keep it level, regardless of speed,” Zin says. “So, you don’t have the situation that you have in a gas-powered boat, where 99 percent of your weight is on your ass, hanging off the transom.”
For speed and stability Zin went with a relatively flat bottom profile and a steep entry to manage high seas. The hull has a variable deadrise that is only 12 degrees at the transom and is designed for use on lakes, intercoastal use and as a tender. Zin has had it out in a blow with 5-foot waves on Puget Sound. He says it was a wet ride, but that the boat handled well. “I knew what I wanted because of the efficiency of sailing hulls,” Zin says.
To get the highest efficiency, Zin knew he had to go with all carbon fiber construction. The 20-foot hull weighs in at just 341 pounds. “I have two burly guys in the shop who can literally pick this thing up,” Zin says. With everything in it, the Z2R weighs in at 1,750 pounds.
All structures on the boat are carbon fiber. The hull is painted with Awlgrip and wrapped with a matte metallic silver vinyl which Zin says gives a much nicer finish, lasts a long time and can easily be changed. The deck and cockpit sole are covered in an Oakwood Veneer finish that’s laminated on to the carbon fiber substructure. The bucket seats are works of art and the inside of the hull is lined with a unique CNC-
To see how the bottom would perform, Zin stripped the boat down and used a prop that would provide top speed. The boat hit 50 knots. “When we put the hammer down nothing happened for a while,” Zin says. “But once it went, it went fast.”
The production model uses a different prop and tops out at 30 knots. “The boat was too small to be that fast,” Zin says. The Z2R has a 4:1 reduction ratio that takes the motor’s 7000 rpm down to 1800 rpm. The instant torque makes for good waterskiing. “It could dislocate your shoulders,” Zin says. “I’m not a very good skier, so I enjoy a flat wake.”
In Miami, Zin demonstrates the boat’s performance as we pass the last no-wake buoy. As he hits the throttle, the 55-kW electric drive winds up like a jet engine, and by the count of two, we’re planing. Even though we’re in a one- to two-foot chop and three passengers add up to nearly 600 pounds, it takes mere seconds to hit 25 knots. “At 1 rpm we have full torque,” Zin says. “That’s why you achieve top speed in 4 to 5 seconds while gas boats would still be revving up to maximum rpm.”
Like other electric boatbuilders, Zin gets inspiration from Tesla. “Tesla is the best thing that could have happened for us, because they proved that an electric vehicle is a high-performance vehicle,” he says. “They showed the world that electric can perform better, have a similar or better range, and deliver it in a beautiful design. Plus, it’s quiet, and it’s clean, and it’s cheap to operate, so why not do it?”
“Some people say, ‘What if I run out of electric?’” Zin says, “And I tell them, ‘You do the same thing when you run out of gas. You call for a tow.’” But Zin says the Torqeedo system works on a GPS-based throttle and constantly calculates how much power the boat is using and what range is left to get home.
Zin doesn’t just want to sell a boat that’s good for the ocean, because he doesn’t think it’s a good way to sell a boat. “The way to sell it is to say, it’s faster, better, and by the way, it’s environmentally friendly,” he says.
Zin offers me the wheel. I jam the throttle forward and the boat takes off. The Z2R is plenty fast and a blast to drive. Passengers on other boats take photos as we zip by.
“We’re at the very beginning of a revolution for boating,” Zin says. “We’re just starting. I truly believe the technology will get better. Every 18 months we get a 30 percent improvement in the batteries. I really think we have a way to go before we are going to completely get as good as batteries are going to get.”
He has big plans for the future. The next boat, the Z2T, will be a tender built on the Z2R hull. “Right now, we’re building a sports car,” he says, “but then we’re going to build an SUV. The electric cruiser market is going to be big. We’ll build a light, strong, quiet cruiser, which will go 500 miles on $30. It’s going to be a performance boat. It’s going to plane.”
“It’s our time to shine,” Zin says. “We’re going to go very fast and very high performance. We may not be the cheapest because the batteries are expensive, but eventually it will be in the mass market just like Tesla.”
As we motor back to the dock, we close on a boat with six 450-hp outboards. We look up the boat’s fuel consumption and see it burns 270 gph at top speed. Zin smiles. “Five dollars and fifty cents will fully charge the Z2R,” he says. “We’re the revolution, man.”