Larry Graf is a numbers guy, though you wouldn’t think it by talking with him. His jovial manner, his beaming, semi-bearded smile and his contagious laughter don’t quite match up with how most folks picture a pocket-protector engineer. Graf’s happy place is crunching data. Boat data, to be specific.
Graf has dozens of rugged and efficient power cat designs under his belt, including those he conceived as the founder of Glacier Bay Catamarans. Today, he heads up Aspen Power Catamarans, a Pacific Northwest builder of cruising power cats that are seakindly, tough, fuel efficient and roomy.
His love of boating, engineering and the rugged coastlines of the Pacific Northwest go back more than 50 years. Born in 1957, Graf grew up in what he calls an outdoorsy family of three boys and one girl. He remembers camping, fishing and exploring the Puget Sound region in an 18-foot, 6-inch Glen-L cuddy cabin with a 35-hp Johnson on the back that his
father built from a kit in their garage.
The family moved up to a 24-foot Tollycraft, which allowed them to start cruising around the San Juan Islands when Graf was about 12. “That was just a massive adventure for the family, and especially for my dad, who had never been to that area,” Graf says. “My mom and dad bought a 26-foot Tollycraft when I was in high school and eventually ended up with a 42-foot Monk trawler. It was a great time on the water for all of us.”
In high school, Graf began messing around with cars and studied metalwork, describinghimself as a “motorhead” during those years. He enjoyed tinkering with engines and creating things in the school’s metal shop.
“I was working for a guy at the Daily Olympian newspaper who had a business delivering furniture, so I designed and fabricated some truck-camper-style canopies that he could store his furniture in,” Graf says. Metal fabrication ended up becoming a lucrative side job; Graf used some of the money to buy his first boat, a Hobie 14 catamaran.
A Hobie 16 came next. Graf and his girlfriend, Cathy—who would become his wife—raced competitively from their junior year in high school through sophomore year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. There was a fast progression of other boats, including a 13-foot Livingston power cat, a 13-foot Boston Whaler and a 27-foot Catalina sailboat, which Graf says cemented his love for exploring the San Juan Islands.
While in college, Graf was the student director of the Viking Car Program, which today is still at the forefront of automotive technology and innovation. “We had teams of 60 to 70 students who designed and built from scratch some ultra-aerodynamic, extremely lightweight and fuel-efficient cars that got up to 115 miles per gallon,” Graf says. “We’d compete with engineering and tech colleges from around the country and won almost every competition.”
With a degree in industrial technology that focused on power mechanics and plastics, Graf took a job as a service engineer with Subaru America at a tech center in Southern California. He soon missed the changing seasons and coastal environments of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest, and in 1982 ended up working for Bayliner.
“I was the sixth engineer they’d hired at that point,” he says. “When I joined Bayliner, it was a $60 million company. Four years later, it had grown to $600 million.”
Though he wasn’t primarily designing boats, Graf was running a company inside Bayliner that was designing and building as many as 60,000 marine windshields every year. He occasionally worked with engineers on boats from 28 to 32 feet length overall.
From there, he became exercise equipment manufacturer Precor’s director of engineering, but he still had boats in his life. By about 1986, Graf says, he’d owned at least 12 boats, and his wife liked some better than others.
“Cathy, unfortunately, gets very seasick on monohull boats, but we found that it happens much less on boats that don’t pound in a sea and that are stable, like catamarans,” Graf says. So, while he was still at Precor, Graf crafted plans to build a production boat that would be soft-riding, stable and fuel efficient. The fuel efficiency part stems, Graf says, from an inner sense of frugality.
The result of his efforts came to fruition in 1989, when he founded Glacier Bay Catamarans and produced a 24-foot prototype, which went into production in 1990 as the Glacier Bay 248. During his 20 years at Glacier Bay, more than 3,000 Glacier Bay hulls were designed and built. They were, and are still, known for their rugged, oceangoing hulls and fuel efficiency.
Graf went on many adventures in the Glacier Bay boats, including a voyage on a Glacier Bay 260 that in 1995 was the first outboard-powered boat to win the Bermuda Challenge by running nonstop from Norfolk, Virginia, to Bermuda. In 1998, two 26-foot Glacier Bays traveled 1,328 miles from Oahu, Hawaii, to Midway Island, setting an offshore world record and winning the Pacific Challenge.
As thrilling as it all was, Graf needed a change. “After 20 years at Glacier Bay, I was ready to do something different,” he says. “I sold my share to Glacier Bay’s investors and decided to design a hyper-efficient, passagemaking power cat.”
That idea grew into Aspen Power Catamarans, which Graf started in 2007. Today, it’s known for designs that have hulls that are different size, and most models have only a single engine.
“I used to demo the Glacier Bays by running them on one engine,” Graf says. “They were remarkably easy to run that way because the hulls were so slippery. So, I’ve always had this little bug in the back of my head, thinking, What if I could design a hyper-efficient power cat around a single-engine design?”
Graf spent many hours at boat shows and discovered a market of people who wanted a spacious cruising boat with exceptional seakeeping abilities, but many of those people were tired of the big fuel bills and large carbon footprint that go with those types of power craft.
“I felt like that was a niche market not being served, so I sat in my basement design studio and started toying around with the idea of building a power catamaran with a proa hull—a boat with one engine and one hull 35 percent smaller than the other, to reduce drag,” Graf says.
When Graf pitched the idea to his 3D modeling engineer, he replied, “Have you lost your mind?”
Still, Graf persisted, asking the engineer to put in 10 hours modeling the boat. Two days later, he got a phone call. “It works!” his engineer yelled through the phone.
“So, we moved forward with more engineering, and then decided to build a prototype,” Graf says. His wife wasn’t entirely on board with the $100,000 cost of building a prototype, but he secured investors and built a 26-foot version of what would become Aspen’s first model, the C90.
The first production C90, a model that still sells well today, came out of the mold at 28 feet LOA with the port hull 35 percent smaller than the starboard hull. There was also a 10-foot beam, a saloon with a galley and dinette, a lower master stateroom with an enclosed head and shower, an additional berth in the port hull, and a 150-hp Volvo Penta D3 diesel. The boat proved efficient—capable of a 16-knot cruise while burning only 5.8 gallons per hour, and able to sprint up to a 21-knot top end.
“I was thrilled,” Graf says. “I love those kinds of engineering projects, especially if there’s a win in the end.”
The Aspen model line continued to grow and now includes 28-, 32-, 34- and 40-foot models. Because many owners cruise in the Pacific Northwest, including during the winters, theinteriors are well-protected from the elements and can be heated. Interior materials include wood, leather and stainless steel, with lots of glass creating an open feel.
And Graf still feeds his sense of adventure. In October 2018, aboard a 40-foot Aspen C120 with a 435-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesel, he participated in a 10,502-mile journey from the Pacific Northwest to Annapolis, Maryland, with an average fast cruise of 17 knots and netting fuel economy for the entire journey of 1.48 miles per gallon.
He’s also skippered a C100 around Vancouver Island—a 650-mile trip—without refueling, and recently, he cruised 1,120 miles down the Mackenzie River in Canada to the Arctic Ocean in an open, 34-foot L107 with a 200-hp Yamaha F200 on the starboard hull and a 70-hp F70 on the smaller port proa hull. The boat averaged 1.6 mpg against the river’s swift currents.
“What an adventure,” Graf says. “We heard from many people along the way that they’ve never seen a fiberglass boat run the Mackenzie before.”
As for what’s next, Graf says he’s content to keep tinkering, building boats, designing models and enjoying his family, including his four grandchildren. His children are active in Aspen in varying roles.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career and life,” he says. “To be able to do the interesting and exciting things I have done—especially considering that it’s boats I’m dealing with—well, not many people get to do that. I’m very grateful.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.