During his more than 50 years as a designer for Viking Yachts, Bruce Wilson has created some of the company’s most iconic models, having drawn on the close mentorship he received from company co-founder Bill Healey.
Before retiring in 2018, Bruce also worked alongside his son, David, for 30 years as he too carved out a successful career in yacht design at Viking. Despite their combined 80 years of dedication to the New Jersey-based builder, it was not until this year that the pair finally took ownership of their own Viking—a Valhalla V-33, which David played an instrumental role in designing. For their own boat, the pair collaborated, and the finished 33 is just right for their family.
Before he was a designer for Viking, Bruce was building boats in his bedroom. He started with a duck boat, and then he crafted a runabout. The only rule was that the finished product had to fit through the front door so that his parents didn’t have to tear a wall down.
Most parents would not be so understanding, but boatbuilding was an integral part of the family’s identity. Bruce’s father was a painter for Viking, back when its boats were constructed from wood. He too had a close relationship with Healey, who “thought Dad was the best gentleman in the world, and the smartest,” Bruce recalls. It wasn’t long before Bruce himself was working on the company floor, a significant upgrade from his bedroom workshop.
Bruce started in construction and learned welding while building bigger, nicer boats at home–now in the backyard, having outgrown the constraints of the doorframe. “Finally, Dad introduced Mr. Healey to me, and he took to me like his own son,” Bruce says. “He said, ‘Bruce, you’re going to lead the construction here.’”
After one of Viking’s lead designers succumbed to ill health, Bruce was placed in charge of the design department. His first hull was for a 40-foot motoryacht, which he designed, planked and outfitted with a pair of Crusader 350 engines. Once the boat was powered, Bruce and Bill took her out into the inlet. “A hurricane had passed a week before, and there were still some pretty good ground swells,” Bruce recalls. “Bill said, ‘Man, this thing handles great. Let’s turn it around. We’re going to go make money now.’”
Bruce’s long career at Viking culminated in his final project as a full-time staff member, the 92. “That was my highlight, without a doubt,” he says. Somewhere along that professional trajectory, his son, David, was introduced to the company.
Much like his father, David has always had a passion for the water and the vessels that ply it. Growing up with a 20-foot Robalo, a 21-foot Pursuit and a 13-foot Boston Whaler, David would forgo beach days with his mother to fish with his father, always taking the time to carefully wash the boat down when it was back home in front of their garage. His transition to Viking was the natural next step for a boat-crazy kid.
“When he first started bringing me up to Viking, it was magical,” says David. “It was ‘Wow, this looks like the best job in the world, getting to create things that we use and enjoy.’” It wasn’t long before David was working at Viking during the summers, trying to learn and absorb as much as he could, even sweeping the floors for the opportunity to hang around some of the most brilliant minds in boat design.
Like his father, David received mentorship from Healey, but his father was his first influence. Today, David serves as the design manager for Viking and Valhalla Boatworks. “Dad makes decisions with me daily,” David says, “right down to building our personal boat.”
Prior to 2015, David had never owned a boat, so when he purchased his Jupiter 26 FS with his father, he poured passion into it. “We built it our way,” David says. But within a year, they began looking for something larger. There was one boat that fit the bill perfectly: the Valhalla 33 from Viking’s line of center consoles.
“He came over to my house, and we sat and talked. He said, ‘Dad, we’re going to get a Valhalla,’” Bruce recalls. “It was very emotional. We shook on it, and Pat Healey [Bill’s son and the company’s president] squeezed the hull in for us.”
Father and son got to work personalizing their Valhalla, starting with the colors. Their V-33 sports a shark grey hull, with topsides and hardtop done in a lighter whisper grey, which set the tone for the rest of the boat. They then mixed white caulk with a dark grey caulk to make a small amount of the lighter grey color for the deck inspection hatches. The duo changed many of the standard white parts aboard to either black or grey to match the hull and the black Mercury outboards. Finally, David split the color on the rubrails, so the bottom half matches the hull and the top half matches the topsides. That meant running the rubrails through the paint shop twice. When you design boats for a living, however, it’s this type of fine detail that matters.
“It was fun to involve dad, go to his house at night for a beer,” David says. “Then there were the items that I kept to myself and let him just be surprised with.”
Number one on that list of surprises was the name on the boat’s transom. When they had purchased the Jupiter a few years prior, Bruce came up with the name Keel-Bro, which combined the names of David’s children: Brody, his son, and Keely, his daughter. But the Jupiter did not have a full transom, and David doesn’t like names on the side of the boat, so it ultimately never went anywhere.
Originally, David and Bruce had decided not to put faux teak on the Valhalla, thinking it wouldn’t pop well against the shark grey. But the week the boat was delivered, David asked a guy he knew on the production line to do the transom.
“He fauxed the entire transom. And he lightened it up so it would pop more with the dark hull. It turned out gorgeous.” He wanted to show his father right away, but the project was not yet complete, so he kept quiet. The final step was having the name designed in vinyl, which David customized with hearts.
On the day of the delivery, David called his family down to the water to see the boat for the first time. “I’m facing David, and David’s facing the transom,” Bruce recalls. “He said, ‘Turn around Dad,’ and I couldn’t believe it. It was the highlight.”
After taking delivery of the boat in August, Bruce and David spent last summer fishing offshore and cruising the coast with their family. “My son’s deep into boating now, and at 10 years old, I don’t know if I can get him away from it,” David says.
The V-33 has proven to be everything they wanted, and then some. It’s handled well during fishing trips 100 miles offshore, even when the conditions turned snotty. David says that the boat is economical for its size and weight; he cruises at 30 knots, at which speed the boat burns 30 gph for a 350-mile-plus range. With twin 300-hp Mercurys on the stern, the 33 tops out around 47 knots. And despite being put to work both offshore and near shore, the Valhalla still looks new, a testament to David and Bruce’s meticulous care.
“The whole boat is gorgeous. I love the sheer. I love the hardtop details,” says David. “I remember spending so much time on the outriggers and thinking about how we were going to flush in the electronics so they’d look like nothing else. Those details make this boat different from any other boat we’ve built in the past year. But it’s the transom that gets me. It’s very personal, and Dad had so much to do with it. It’s the story of a son and a father and now me raising a family, and it all shows up in this boat.”
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.