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Talkin’ Boats

With Shepard McKenney founder and CEO of Seakeeper.
Shepard McKenney is founder and chief executive officer of Seakeeper Inc., a Solomons, Md., company that sells gyroscopic anti-roll stabilizers for boats. As a former chairman and owner of The Hinckley Company, McKenney, 68, was responsible for the development of the venerable Maine builder’s Picnic Boat, one of the first small recreational boats to use waterjet propulsion and joystick steering.

Shep McKenney started Seakeeper because he had a vision for a technology that would correct unwanted boat motion.

He began his professional career as a lawyer and then became president of a hotel chain before entering the boat business.
McKenney’s Seakeeper gyros can be found on at least a dozen brands of cruising and fishing yachts. He lives at the mouth of the Potomac River and fishes from a custom 22-foot skiff drawn by the Picnic Boat’s designer, Bruce King.

Q: What’s the story behind the Hinckley Picnic Boat?

A: When I bought Hinckley with Bob Hinckley in 1982, it was purely a sailboat company. I was very anxious to get back to the roots of Hinckley, which was boats designed from the outside in — that is, low-freeboard, small-superstructure, absolutely drop-dead gorgeous boats.
The problem was the market was going in the other direction, and accommodations were driving sales. I struggled with that for years and couldn’t figure out a way around it, so finally I decided … to do a powerboat that reflected how people actually used these boats with all of these accommodations. They used them as dayboats. And because I have always been interested in the beauty in boats, I felt that if you could create something that was elegantly beautiful — a dayboat with ease of operation, shallow draft — that there might be a large market for it. When I developed the boat, I didn’t get a lot of enthusiasm from the salesmen or anybody else because the boat didn’t even have full standing headroom below. It was a very small boat for its length, very expensive for its length. And it was a big gamble. But the most surprising thing about it was the jet, which I thought would be an option. I figured that dual-prop outdrives are so efficient that is what most people would want. But we wound up building two or three of those and over 500 jetboats.

McKenney's custom 22-foot skiff was designed by Picnic Boat designer Bruce King.

Q: So people weren’t exactly begging for something like the Picnic Boat?

A: Not at all. It flew in the face of all the modern trends about where boat design should go. When customers talked about what they wanted, they talked about accommodations. What fascinates me in product creation is not giving people something they want, but giving them something they didn’t know they wanted — that they didn’t even know existed. That’s what gets me excited.

Q: But how do you give them something they don’t know they want?

A: It’s something that excites you — it’s very personal stuff. When I thought about the Picnic Boats,
I thought of something beautiful that could go in shallow water. That is something I can get excited about. And if I can get excited, then I want to believe that other people can, too, even though they are not asking for it.

Q: What is it about the Picnic Boat that attracts so many people — even celebrities like Martha Stewart and Geraldo Rivera?

A: It’s a combination of two things. It’s the inevitable allure of something that is intrinsically beautiful. The second thing is it speaks to how people actually use boats — as dayboats. They go out on a pretty day. They go a short distance and they get off. There are a few diehard people who like to spend nights on boats, but the reality is that even big yachts, most of them are used as dayboats. … You have the trawler crowd, you have the cruising crowd, but the biggest, best part of the market is dayboats. And the Picnic Boat goes straight at that. It doesn’t pretend to have a lot of accommodations. It doesn’t pretend to be a floating house.

Q: Let’s talk about your current gig — Seakeeper. For people who are unfamiliar with gyro technology, would you explain how it works?

A: The gyro technology is over 100 years old. A guy named Elmer Sperry early in the 20th century did an enormous amount of development in anti-roll gyroscopes and really came up with all the concepts that we’re using or that I can imagine. There’s no easy way to explain how a control-moment gyro works — that is, a gyroscope that instead of just giving you a reference like a gyroscope in a plane, these gyroscopes actually exert a force to correct an unwanted motion. The biggest use in the modern world until recently has been in positioning spacecraft. It employs a heavy spinning wheel that, when tilted, exerts a torque at 90 degrees to the direction of tilt. So if you look at the video of our gyros [] you see that the gyro is tilting in a fore-and-aft direction, but as it does that it exerts torque in the roll axis, which corrects the roll.
Q: How many different boat brands offer Seakeeper? Would you name a few?

Seakeeper's gyroscopes exert a force to correct unwanted motion.

A: There are Seakeeper gyros now on these brands: Viking, Couach, Azimut, Princess, Fairline, Sunseeker, Ocean Alexander, Maritimo, Icon, Marlow, Silverton, Marquis, Ovation, Pershing, Michelson, Ritchie Howell, Terranova, Zeelander. I think that’s the major builders, and then there are a lot of spot retrofits. Azimut has made them standard on a number of boats. Couach has made it standard across their entire line. They are the largest boatbuilder in France.

Q: Looking at your career, you seem to enjoy innovating, pushing new ideas. Where did that originate?

A: I can’t answer that in a philosophical way. I grew up in Great Bridge, Va. It’s on the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Norfolk. And there is a place called the Atlantic Yacht Basin, which is on the freshwater side of the locks at Great Bridge. And there is covered storage there. My father ran an automobile garage and did the gas engine work for the yacht basin. So I spent a lot of time as a child looking at Huckins and Rybovich boats, which were innovative boats in the day — light construction, pretty boats, fast, efficient hulls. I developed an appreciation for elegance and performance. And I love boats.

Q: You’re a lawyer by training; how and when did you make the jump to the marine industry?

A: I grew up on small boats. Love boats. Love the country. Love fishing. But when I went to college I got caught up in the idea that the object of life was to make a lot of money. And lawyers and doctors were held to be labels for success. I didn’t like blood, so I said, OK, I will be a lawyer. So I went to law school thinking I would be a country lawyer with plenty of time to go out hunting and fishing. But I wound up with a big-city law firm, living in the city. And I did that for 10 years. Finally, I saw that my clients were making more money than I was, so I went in the hotel business, and I did make some money, but I wasn’t doing something I love. But I had bought a Hinckley Bermuda 40 and gotten to know The Hinckley Company, and in the early ’80s the company was bankrupt — not legally bankrupt, but it might as well have been. They were trying to sell it to a group of Hinckley owners, and I knew the damn thing would die. So I got together with Bob Hinckley and agreed with the guy who owned it that we’d buy it. So for the first time, I was in a business having to do with something I loved. And I did love The Hinckley Company and the boats they build. That was really the first time my love and my professional life came together.

Q: Critique the boats of today, specifically powerboats?

A: The object seems to be to cram the most accommodations [into] the shortest length of boat possible. It doesn’t make for efficiency or beauty. The second thing is I think this emphasis on very high speeds is self-defeating. As part of my research on the gyro, I’ve been out on a number of offshore sportfishing boats in the past five or six years — these 60-, 70-, 80-foot offshore bluewater fishing boats that go 40 knots. Go even 35 knots in a moderate sea, and you have to crawl. You can’t walk around even holding on. It’s madness. It’s not very efficient, and it’s not very practical. My view is there is a limit to how fast you can go in any kind of seaway, but it seems to be the thing to cram thousands of horsepower in and burn many gallons per mile.

Q: How can the marine industry get more people into boating?

A: By doing things that make boating more accessible, less threatening and more comfortable. The joystick control systems that permit the operator to get around docks at low speed. There are a lot of little things. Botels are a good example. They will launch the boat, fuel it, put water in it, groceries in it. When they return, wash it, get all the trash out and put it away. The gyro, which takes out the worst thing about boating, will not only make people who are presently in boating feel it’s more attractive but bring more people into boating because [it helps control] the motion and seasickness. I believe making [boating] more accessible, comfortable, less threatening is more important than any design issues.

Q: Name some of your favorite boats.

A: My favorite all-time powerboat is a 17-foot Whaler. I owned two of those. I just have had so many happy experiences on those Whalers. I also had a 13-foot Lyman when I was a kid with a 10-horse Johnson. In terms of sailboats, the Hinckley Bermuda 40 — I actually had two of those. I love those boats — not the best performers, not the best of anything, but a combination of beauty and ease of handling, big cockpit, wide side decks — all the things that no one does anymore in sailboats.

Q: So the boats you like best are the ones you’ve owned?

A: Yes. I have a bias toward small boats. I like being down close to the water. I like experiencing it. If you gave me a megayacht and paid all the expenses, I wouldn’t have it. It’s too insulated. You’re too separated from the experience.

Q: Do you have a boat now?

A: I had a 22-foot fishing skiff built for me almost 10 years ago. Bruce [King, who designed the Picnic Boat] came to do the hull and did something that I always wanted to do, which was design a fishing boat exactly the way I wanted to design it. Having all the cleats flush, having all the compartments built in — everything set up for fly-fishing. Very light, very wide side decks. That’s the boat I’ve had for the last 10 years. And I use it not only at the mouth of the Potomac and the Bay, but I take it down to Hatteras, to Cape Lookout in North Carolina — so that’s my boat.

Q: Your Seakeeper product is installed during time of manufacture, and it can be installed after the fact, correct?

A: Retrofits tend to be more expensive simply because you’ve already engineered the space and foundation when you build the boat. Depending on the boat, it doesn’t tend to be a huge difference. For boats 50 feet in length, the retail price is going to be in the neighborhood of $70,000. And then it has to be installed. And the installation cost varies tremendously with retrofits — with how much space there is and how much needs to be done to get it in. In a new boat, there is some cost in installing, but it would be hard to give a number for that. What we like to say is that in recreational boats, installing a gyro at the smaller end of the spectrum is going to be in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 percent of the cost of a new boat. And in the largest boats it’s closer to 5 percent of the cost of the boat.

Q: What is the size range for the boats with gyros?

A: The smallest boat we’ve installed it on is a 40-footer, and the largest is a 37-meter, which is what — 120 feet? And we have just announced a new larger gyro. In terms of low speed, some people say, “Well, my boat doesn’t roll.” Every boat responds to its natural roll period. Our Viking demonstration boat has a three-second roll period. There are no designs, including multihulls, that don’t roll. That creates a snappy motion that can be worse than a slow motion. In a short period of time, no boat will be a modern boat without a gyro because no boat that rolls can be as attractive as one that doesn’t.

Q: What about the future? Do you have any plans to launch another innovative product?

A: I’m going to continue to flesh out gyros. Our goal is to build gyros small enough to stabilize a 21-foot center console — the theory being that boat roll is unacceptable. We started with the larger gyros because, in limited-production new technology, the cost per units are pretty high, so you have to have boats and consumers who can afford that high of a cost. But there’s no reason that a small gyro should cost any more than an outboard. That means in a 21-foot boat a gyro would cost $5,000 or $6,000. The second thing is we will be developing other motion-control technologies, which I can’t say a lot of about. Third thing, these motion-control products are going to control boat design because … you don’t have to manage around roll stability and pitch stability. One of the reasons the old Bertram deep-vee designs fell out of favor is they just have such big roll excursions. With the gyro, that’s no longer a consideration. I want to build a series of boats that will show what you can do when you have active motion control.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.