Augusto “Kiko” Villalon has done it all — and continues to.
He is a lifelong sailor, a designer, marine engineer, accident investigator, and entrepreneur who founded and ran for two decades Marine Concepts in Cape Coral, Fla., which manufactured the tooling for some of the biggest powerboat names in the business.
Villalon has worked with such production boatbuilders as Sea Ray, Regal, Cobia, Chaparral, Ebbtide, MonArk, Sportcraft, MasterCraft, Thundercraft and Four Winns. Cuban-born, he enjoys sailing his 44-foot Brewer Alfin II and, at 78, is anything but retired. Villalon and his wife, Gordie, run their own business, Ancon Marine Consultants, the lion’s share of whose work involves investigating and researching boating accidents for the Coast Guard.
Q: What’s wrong with the boats of today, specifically powerboats?
A: I would not [use the word] “wrong.” A [boat] is the result of market pressure, and the market was calling for power and speed. Classic lines went out, and people were asking for condominiums with hulls around them. The affluence we experienced after the last recession of the early ’90s brought up bigger engines, faster hulls, etc. Now we see them as “wrong” because gasoline went up to $5 a gallon, and some engines drink 60 gallons an hour. I saw [Sea Ray founder] Connie Ray start with a 16-foot runabout in the early ’60s, and now Sea Ray builds 65-foot cruisers. Times change, and we must evolve, as Darwin predicted.
Q: You grew up in Cuba. How did you get involved in boating and sailing there?
A: I started sailing with my father in 1940 on an old Bahama sloop called the Black Eagle. When my father and I decided we liked sailing, he commissioned a Tom Day Sea Bird yawl to be built on the river in Havana. Since then, I have never stopped boating. I have sailed and I have done powerboating. It’s the sea that I love, and with either one I can “get my cookies,” if you know what I mean. It wasn’t until the ’50s that I experienced planing on a boat. Displacement was the only way, except for magazines and radio that told us about hydroplanes and other racing boats. Then we learned to ski on a 12-foot skiff with a Johnson 25-hp.
Q: What was your first job in the marine industry?
A: [In] June of 1962, the brilliant naval architect Jack Riggleman hired me as a draftsman at Arkansas Traveler Boats in Little Rock. From there, I progressed to chief draftsman and then assistant chief engineer. Then I went to Caravelle Boats as chief engineer and in 1972 to Ouachita Marine as executive VP. In 1975, I moved to Florida to start Marine Concepts, ran it for 20 years, sold it to Bob Long, and then I started working again.
Q: You’ve received some press coverage for a presentation you did at the 2008 International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference in which you outlined your vision of a fuel-efficient powerboat. Tell us about this boat.
A: At the IBEX show I talked about [how] engine companies sold us every year a new engine with 50 hp more than the previous one. We designers and builders responded by pulling our boat stems back and making bottoms that would go faster. Then we added deep-vees to soften the ride, and these required more power yet. When I started thinking about what we needed for the next “era” of the marine industry, the Maine lobster boat came to mind. These boats, with flat bottoms, manage fairly rough seas due to a fine entry and moderate speeds. From here, I developed my design of the IBEX [ProBoat] 34. I added the Geared-Up transmission system [www .gearedupsystems.com] that gives you two propellers with one engine, hence great performance and fuel efficiency. Hopefully, all of this will give us rigs that people can afford, and add enjoyment to boating by discovering the pleasure of slower speeds.
Q: Will boaters really be able to slow down?
A: Some will … The family of today can still identify itself more with speed than with slow. They will have to relearn what constitutes the joy of boating. Their weekends will have to be a compromise between being able to fit a fast trip in the boat to a lunch destination, then [getting] back home quickly for all the kids’ other activities, with taking a longer time to get there and enjoying the journey along the way. It’s a great way for a family to spend time together. I can speak from personal experience.
Q: What are some of your favorite boats, both power and sail?
A: I like cruising, although I did a lot of racing in my younger days. For sailboats, I like, first and foremost, the Island Packet. [Company president and CEO] Bob Johnson has done a great job with them. Then Gerry Douglas’ Catalinas and Warren Luhrs’ Hunters have done very well on the price and mass-production side. In powerboats, Regal, Chaparral, Tiara, Formula and Sea Ray are to my liking. Parker boats are also terrific and a bit more traditional than the others. I like trawlers such as Grand Banks and Nordhavn. Really, our industry has done very well since the days when I was building Traveler boats in Little Rock. It may not be fair to just mention the ones I did; there are many more good boats out there like Silverton, Carver, Viking, Cruisers and others.
Q: What are some of the boats you’ve owned over the years?
A: I mentioned the Black Eagle Bahama sloop we had in 1940. Then we built the Sea Bird called Alfin — “at last” in Spanish — from plans bought from Rudder magazine in 1944. At that time I also started racing Snipes, Stars and other one designs in Havana. I won the Cuba Cup national rowing championship in 1951 in four-man shells. My fleet, after I immigrated to the USA, began with a 10-foot sailing dinghy that Traveler was manufacturing for Sears. Then I raced a Flying Dutchman hard for 10 years. My powerboats have been a Regal Commodore 277 I designed for Paul and Duane Kuck in 1981, then a Cobia Odyssey 22 cuddy cabin I designed for Ed Atchley, and a Chaparral Villain II I did for Buck Pegg. Finally, in 1989, I commissioned a Brewer 44 sloop and have been sailing her under the name Alfin II ever since.
Q: What is it like investigating accidents for the Coast Guard?
A: Anytime you deal with death and [injury], you have some stress involved. Many times what you are looking for, the causative reason, is due to operator negligence or error, and this is hard to report when you are dealing with dead people. On the other hand, it is very rewarding to pull two boats that collided at 115 mph out of the bottom of a lake and piece them back together to wind up with an answer to what happened. Carbon monoxide incidents are always sad, because CO is an invisible monster, difficult to perceive as a threat. By far the largest number of accidents are due to human error. Alcohol figures pretty high, then lack of maintenance, but by far the biggest reason for deaths in boating accidents is that people simply will not wear life jackets. If we could convince them to do this, the number of drownings would decrease drastically.
Q: What is the highest-profile accident you’ve investigated?
A: Without question it’s the loss of the sailboat Cynthia Woods, owned by Texas A&M University. Her keel fell off on the first night of a race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico, and she capsized with the loss of one man and the rescue of the other five by the Coast Guard after 26 hours in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident took place in early June of 2008, and it took me until December to finish my report. It has been a very high-profile case, and the blogs have had a field day with me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Our contract with the Coast Guard is to monitor all of the recreational boat accidents in the country every day and create a report about four times a week. This report is distributed to a select group of Coast Guard and marine patrol officers. I then investigate those accidents that fall within the criteria we have set up as soon as possible after they occur. It is very interesting, and it allows us to take the pulse of what is going on in the field nationwide. I am still very active with ABYC [American Boat and Yacht Council] and also do some expert witness work in marine litigation. That covers 47 years in the industry.
Q: What about the future — do you think you ever will build the IBEX boat?
A: I might. I am considering looking for a partner to produce a prototype and see how this boat plays competitively with current boats in the market. Finding one, of course, will be difficult in these tough economic times. Today’s boatbuilder has to be extremely careful about investing in new tooling and usually will do so only with boats he knows he can sell. I am, however, very confident of my predictions and know that we, the industry, will evolve and come out of the bump and back to full steam sooner than some of us may think.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.