Boat designer finds a special project

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It’s not often in your career when you are presented with a project and experience that makes you instinctively think, “I want this.”

It’s not often in your career when you are presented with a project and experience that makes you instinctively think, “I want this.”

For Newport, R.I., yacht designer Rodger Martin, and design engineer Ross Weene, the project was a new boat design for the Outward Bound program. July brought the launching of the first two boats of their design in Maine.

In the late winter of 2006, Martin was out for his weekly dog walk with Sheila McCurdy. She had been recently appointed to the board put together by Outward Bound to discuss the direction of the boat program. Applications were falling off. “Part of the reason might have been because the boats, wonderful as they were, in fact were not very fast,” Martin says. “Built in the 1960s, they were just not exciting to sail.”

The goal of Outward Bound is to teach teenagers, ages 15 through 19, survival skills and self-reliance during boat passages lasting from a week to 28 days. These outings often become life-changing experiences as students learn to work as a team and care for each other during the journey aboard a 30-foot boat with typically six teens and two instructors.

Martin says the genesis for the program emerged in Wales during World War II when it was observed that when troop ships were hit by torpedoes and sank, office personnel would drown immediately while seamen would often last long enough to be rescued.

A school was subsequently started to teach basic survival skills and the program has since spread around the world. The boat program is just one segment of the OB program. To date, 25,000 teenagers have taken the course and the organization reports not one fatality.

The boating program had been successful, but was losing applicants to sailing school — and there was the business of the head, or lack thereof. The facilities aboard the 30 foot boats were primitive at best: a bucket in a box on the foredeck, embarrassing especially to young teenagers.

“Sheila asked me if I would be interested in bidding on the design for the new boats, and from when I first heard of the project I knew it was a good thing,” says Martin. “Six designers were to compete and, normally, I would never do a design competition. But I thought, If that’s what I have to do to get the job then that’s what we’ll do.”

Martin says he and Weene put in likely four times the amount of time as the other designers, “We just went mad and decided we are going to do this.”

A mock-up of the boat built at Southport Island Marina in Maine could be tilted to 15 degrees so financial supporters and instructors were able to move around the boat, even when heeled, and provide input.

At the final meeting in Mystic in October 2006 three designers were asked to present their design. “I think ours was actually selected because they could see the passion involved in the design,” Martin said.

While most would associate the Outward Bound program with wooden boats, Martin instead chose fiberglass.

“We were not going to be sentimental about it,” Martin says. “The other designers were from Maine and more worried about changing the concept of OB because it is such an icon, especially in Maine. But we decided on an approach with our fiberglass boat would be best for the program instead of whittling or refining the current boats. We did something new; that’s what I think swayed the committee.”

Outward Bound boats can only be rowed or sailed; there is no engine. The new boats are much lighter and with a classic shape geared more toward sailing: a mix between a Sharpie and a Whitehall. The Sharpie rig is simple: two identical carbon fiber masts; identical sails, identical spars. The hull is fiberglass and the 13-foot oars are now made of carbon fiber in an effort to keep the boat light and lively. Unlike the previous boats, the new boats are self-bailing.

Each rower has a watertight thwart that can be used to store gear. Two removable thwarts aft contain the stove and cooler so they can be carried ashore when camping. A skin plate of a tough, slippery plastic (UHMW) protects the flat bottom if the boat is run up on the beach. There is a cockpit aft big enough to accommodate all eight people during instruction. The head is now enclosed. There is one thing they are keeping for sentimental reasons: the compass in the box. “Hundreds of years ago they used to do this and it is such a good instructional tool,” Martin says.

The first two boats (of an estimated 15) were launched last July.

“It was a lot of hard work but in the end it was great to have it all come together and have the boats float perfectly,” says Weene. “I felt confident because I do my math, check and re-check when I shape the hull and go through the weight estimates. We are race boat designers so, of course, we strive for the lightest boat. But it is not just about speed; it’s also about designing the most efficient structure.”

Once the second boat was out the shop door, Weene and the OB staff took her for a moonlight sail. On July 28 Gary Jobson All Stars, a group of the top high school dingy sailors took the boats out while ESPN crew filmed for a future PBS special.

“I just loved this project; I don’t know what it is. Some people have very strong emotional attachments to the previous boats because of their life-changing experiences, so they didn’t want changes. But these boats will develop people who will have their experience,” says Martin who is working on a cruising version of the boat.