Skip to main content

Tad Roberts grew up on the British Columbia coast in a family of boatbuilders, artists and sailors, so it wasn’t surprising that he started drawing boats at a young age.

He spent a decade working on tugs and fishing boats, and cruising and racing sailboats. In 1982 he began his own design practice in Victoria, British Columbia. But he knew he needed to improve his knowledge, so in 1986 he moved to Castine, Maine, where he attended Maine Maritime Academy’s Yacht Design Institute.

Within a year, he’d landed a job with Bruce King Yacht Design in Newcastle, Maine, and over the next 14 years he became principal designer, working on a wide range of projects. Among them were numerous large custom sailing yachts that included the 124-foot centerboard sloop Antonisa, the 134-foot aluminum ketch Alejandra, and the 154-foot cold-molded ketch Scheherazade.

A 26-foot cruiser was designed for a 9.9-hp gas or 6-kW electric outboard.

A 26-foot cruiser was designed for a 9.9-hp gas or 6-kW electric outboard.

King was known for his sailing designs, but Roberts helped widen the practice to include powerboats. Under his direction, King’s office produced the 80-foot high-speed commuter Liberty, the Hinckley Talaria 40 and 44 motor cruisers, and the now famous jet-powered Hinckley Picnic Boat. “I did everything (at King’s office),” Roberts says, “hull design, inboard and outboard profiles, interior arrangements. Everything.”

But even though he says Maine and British Columbia have similar qualities, Roberts longed to get back out west to be closer to family.

In 2001 he Ieft King’s office just as they were starting on the Hinckley Talaria 29 and 53. “I did all the preliminary work for those boats,” Roberts says.

Back in Canada he opened his own studio on Gabriola Island near Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, where he directed the Silva Bay Shipyard School for 8 years. Out on his own, Roberts developed designs in both power and sail, including retro-styled commuters, classic motor yachts, halibut schooners, lobsterboats for Maine’s John’s Bay Boat Company, and a line of 39- to 80-foot cruisers called Passagemaker Lites. These modern, lightweight, fuel-sipping oceangoing powerboats were intended to be built, maintained and crewed by a couple.

A 32-foot aluminum cruiser will use twin 135-hp outboards

A 32-foot aluminum cruiser will use twin 135-hp outboards

A Passagemaker Lite 46 was built and stretched to a 48-foot design by a South African couple. The boat was sold to a New Zealander who outfitted her with twin 65-hp Beta diesels and stabilizer poles and made some long voyages in the Indian Ocean. But when Covid prevented the owner from sailing home to New Zealand he headed for the Caribbean. The New Zealander also added a full A-frame sailing rig. “Even a limited amount of sail can make a big difference in fuel consumption,” Roberts says.

A lot of Robert’s work now involves commercial certification and stability work, but he still draws new designs. A design that is just about to be launched is a Grayson 32 named Mollymawk, a 32-foot, 5-inch aluminum long-distance cruiser that owes a lot of its styling to typical commercial pilot boats. She’ll be outfitted with twin 135-hp outboards for an Australian couple who have experience making long voyages and who plan to take her to the Bering Sea.

He’s also got a 2.5-year project that recently launched, a 1958 wooden 42-foot fishboat conversion. The hull was taken down to bare bones and a new deck was installed, along with a new deckhouse and interior.

A Passagemaker Lite was designed to be a low-powered fuel sipper.

A Passagemaker Lite was designed to be a low-powered fuel sipper.

After drawing lots of fast high-powered boats while working for Bruce King, Roberts increasingly finds himself drawing boats that use a minimal amount of power. “Growing up and growing older, I’ve had a change of philosophy,” the 67-year-old designer says. “I didn’t really think about it 20 to 30 years ago, but I have totally changed my ideas about what is appropriate. People that are still producing designs for triple 350-hp engines, as far as I’m concerned, they’re still stuck in the last century. It’s outdated thinking. It’s irresponsible thinking. That’s fine if you feel the need to do whatever the market requires, but I’m trying to move beyond that.

“We need to use less of everything, including fuel,” Roberts says. “I think cruising boats with 250 to 350 horsepower are overpowered. That’s not necessary to get out on the water, have a good time and explore some of the places around the edges with a small cruising boat. A lot of the time people are more focused on getting from one place to another and that is an accomplishment, but there are many cruising opportunities an hour away, even if you’re only traveling at 5.5 knots.”

Last November he started a design for which he didn’t want to use anything more than a 9.9-hp engine. The result is what he calls a 26-foot minimum-power cruiser for two to three people. “This boat is as much boat as you want to do around that tiny amount of horsepower,” Roberts says. The design is not for big, open-water passages but could be used anywhere from Puget Sound up to Alaska, on the East Coast or the Great Loop. “It’s for protected water,” he says.

It’s a one-off design for a homebuilder. Construction will be very simple, using plywood and fiberglass on plywood bulkheads with multiple chines. The hull has a flat center panel giving it a very shallow draft of about 10 inches. “You don’t necessarily need a dinghy. You can put the bow on the beach,” Roberts says. “It has lots of freeboard, so it’s a very safe boat.”

Designed to run at 5.5 knots, the ends are very fine. She is superfine aft, so the transom is lifted completely clear of the water to eliminate transom drag. “There aren’t any other hulls like that in production today,” Roberts says, “except for sailboats.”

He acknowledges there are some drawbacks to a shallow hull. For one, the accommodation ends up being very low, but he says it’s not bad when you’re standing down in the hull of the boat with no machinery underneath, where the headroom is at least 6 feet, 6 inches. “People have become taller and I’m pretty conscious of that,” he says.

The beam of the boat is 8 feet, 6 inches, so the 26 will be trailerable. Her designed waterline weight is 5,200 pounds. “I’ve got a mid-size pickup,” Roberts says, “and I think its maximum tow is 4,500 or 5,000 pounds, so you’ll need a half-ton truck.”

He says the 26-footer would be ideal for a 6-kW electric outboard, a pair of 3-kW outboards or a 9.9-hp gas outboard with two portable 30-liter tanks. “You’re only using .25 gallons per hour, so you have lots of range with a small amount of fuel,” he says. Roberts says water storage might be 20 or 30 gallons of water, just enough for an overnight. The goal is to keep the boat light. “The weight of the boat is the key to the whole thing,” he says. “Everyone wants to build boats heavy, but that’s a mistake. Once you start overloading it that just degrades the performance. It’s a common mistake people want to carry all this stuff.”

“I’m happy with camping out on a boat,” he says. “That’s how I grew up. We didn’t have a whole lot of stuff on the boat. It was the basics. I just see people adding all this extraneous equipment, which makes it very convenient to use, but long term, the cost is really, really high. I see it as something we can change and something that is worth changing.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.



Slow Down for Whales, or Else

Owners of boats as small as 35 feet along the U.S. East Coast say NOAA Fisheries is unfairly targeting them with a proposed rule that would dramatically expand the areas designated to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, and that would require boaters to slow to 10 knots or less.


Going the Distance

How big and fast can electric outboard motors get, and how far will they be able to go?


All Quiet on Casco Bay

The Back Cove 39O is quiet and fast, and shows that Downeast-style boats with outboards can look downright sexy.