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Talkin' boats with Bill Prince President, Bill Prince Yacht Design

Bill Prince took to boating at the age of 5, joining his grandfather on early morning fishing trips and messing about in small boats as a youngster with his parents on the St. Croix River and on the Great Lakes. Boating spawned a passion for designing, one that led the Minneapolis native to the acclaimed Milwaukee School of Engineering.

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In 1996, during his junior year, Prince won the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s yacht design competition, beating established U.S. and European naval architects. The feat catapulted him into a career in which he has designed vessels ranging from a 22-foot runabout to a 197-foot steel and aluminum motoryacht.

Prince worked for three years at Michael Peters Yacht Design in Sarasota, Fla., before moving to Newport, R.I., to serve as design engineer for America’s Cup legend Ted Hood. From there, he took a job at Island Packet Yachts, immersing himself in not only design work but also product development and construction.

Prince established Bill Prince Yacht Design in 2007 in Florida, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, returned to the shores of Lake Michigan in 2010. Prince, 39, now lives and works in Port Washington, Wis., with Elizabeth and their 5-year-old son, Charlie.

In this interview, he talks about the “grotesque” styling of some boats, what future powerboats will look like and Posh, his “reimagination” of a 54-foot 1930s art-deco commuter yacht.

Q: What are the characteristics of an effective hull design?

A: One of the things that amuses me are some of the tortured marketing names for various builders’ hull designs. The “Quadra” this and the “Delta” that. These silly monikers are largely superfluous. A fundamental understanding of the role of a hull’s contours — and their relation to a boat’s center of gravity — opens the door to understanding which hull forms will perform well and which won’t. An ideal planing monohull has gently convex forward sections below the chine, a prismatic running bottom — meaning constant deadrise from the stagnation line aft — and buttock (profile) lines that sweep up gently in a nearly straight line as they make their way to the transom. There are many other considerations relating to the shape of the forefoot, the chine geometry, propeller pockets and rudder design and more. We make dozens of decisions with each hull we design, each tailored to the boat’s purpose.

Q: Of all the yachts you’ve designed, which are you most proud of?

With Posh, Prince reimagines a 1930s art-deco commuter yacht.

A: Any time a boat sea trials a couple of knots faster than we predicted, we’re proud of that. This just happened again with a 38-foot patrol boat, several of which are going into service on Cape Cod and Woods Hole [Mass.]. But at the moment I’d have to say Posh, which is a reimagination of a 1930s art-deco commuter yacht but bristling with superyacht tech under the surface. For more than 20 years, I have found that the latest design is the best one, and this new Posh is really special. But I hope I’ll have a different answer for you in a year. After all, a big part of a designer’s job is to continually improve, distill and refine.

Q: Do you have any tips for sea-trialing a boat?

A: Have a surveyor with you. Go through the full range of operating conditions, from dockside maneuvers to full-throttle operation. If seas are flat, turn into the boat’s wake at several angles and see how she reacts. Is she stable or tender? Does she shudder under load? Make note of her operating angle of attack at different speeds. Listen. Smell. Have someone else at the helm for a time and walk through the boat at speed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Besides Posh, we are working on a 43-foot offshore sportboat with a carbon fiber hardtop, a 31-foot wooden custom cruiser and the flagship of the Metal Shark fleet — the 45 Defiant pilothouse. We are also taking a 60-foot aluminum motoryacht and converting it into a passenger-carrying vessel that must meet Coast Guard specs. We are developing the flagship 68-foot Altima Yachts Voyager. And for fun we’re designing a Lake Michigan nautical history museum.

Q: What are the strengths of your firm?

A: I take pride in my office’s ability to create world-class designs of virtually any type of boat — be it a 90-foot sailing yacht, a wooden art-deco commuter, an ultramodern motoryacht or a Coast Guard patrol boat. We jump in with both feet and aim to create the “best of breed” in every category. If I have one talent, I would say it’s combining engineering pedigree with 20 years’ experience designing to conceive a boat that is at the top of its category and will serve its owner for decades.

Q: Boatbuilders also hire you to improve existing designs?

A: That’s right. Increasingly we play the role of “problem solver” for production builders who have either designed and built their own problem boat or built from someone else’s design. When their investment is at risk, they get nervous and are receptive to hiring a respected marine engineering office. Right now, 30 percent of our work is fixing hull designs that have not performed to their full potential for whatever reason.

Q: What has driven you or inspired you in your career?

Prince is designing Metal Shark's flagship 45 Defiant pilothouse, one of several current projects.

A: As my interest in and talent for drawing boats blossomed as a young boy, I began analyzing every boat review in every magazine I could get my hands on. Armed with a pencil and some graph paper, I found ways I thought I could improve upon what I saw. For years I devoured everything I could read on the matter, always balancing that with my on-water experience, which by age 18 covered many thousands of nautical miles.

When I put it all together I realized there was no other area of design and engineering that would allow me to conceive a structure that could travel around the world, provide absolutely everything its occupants required, move through the world in a variety of sea conditions, and be beautiful, strong and technical all at once. There’s magic in a beautiful, capable boat and the life experiences it can provide.

Had I been a car designer I may well have spent a career working on door handles. Had I become an aeronautical engineer it might have been hydraulics and nothing more. But boats allow one engineering office with a visionary leader to shape an entire boat — and perhaps facets of an entire industry.

Q: How did you get involved in the marine industry?

A: When I was 7, a teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said I wanted to be either an architect or a comedian. As a yacht designer, some would say I get to be both. By age 12, I was completely infected by boating. My parents took me on a trip to the nearest boatbuilders, which were Palmer Johnson and Carver. Both were thriving. I showed my boat drawings to the engineering managers at each company, and from that point on they were generous with their time, giving us all extended tours of their facilities. Palmer Johnson’s engineering manager also suggested I walk up the street to meet a naval architect, Tim Graul. I did so, and Tim became a mentor for 20 years. In high school, he hired me to come to Sturgeon Bay and teach his draftsmen how to use CAD software. I worked for him again in college during the summer.

Q: You won a National Marine Manufacturers Association design award early in your career.

A: I was two years away from graduating from engineering school at the time and interning at Tim Graul’s office. So every night after work in the summer of 1995 I stayed late and developed the design for a 49-foot pilothouse cruiser to meet the rules of that year’s competition. I knew I was a good amateur boat designer, so I entered in the professional division, even though I was still in school. And I was fortunate enough to win. That helped open the door to Michael Peters’ office.

Q: What was it like working for Michael Peters?

A: I am extremely fortunate to have had Mike as my first real boss out of engineering school. Since about age 12, it was my goal to have my own yacht design firm, and I sought out the most highly regarded design offices to work for and learn from. I was dropped into one of the most active yacht design offices in the country and was exposed to every facet of a successful marine engineering office. Mike and I both had the same strong opinion that the term “yacht design” is interpreted loosely by many in the industry who are good with colored pencils and fabric swatches but do not have the technical wherewithal to deliver a properly engineered design. Mike’s office was staffed with engineers, and we produced precision design for a wide variety of powerboats. Mike remains a good friend and occasionally recommends us for specialized jobs.

Q: What are some of the boats you worked on with Peters?

A: I was deeply involved in the three-boat Chris-Craft Launch series, which they still build today. We developed the McMullen & Wing Garlington 78 sportfisherman, the Magnum 78, a 144-foot motoryacht for Abeking & Rasmussen, as well as many hull designs for Cigarette, Sea Ray and other production builders. We also designed the winningest UIM offshore raceboats (for Victory Team), which achieved speeds higher than 140 knots.

Q: How did you end up working for Ted Hood?

Prince aims to design the 'best of breed' in every boating category.

A: Mike’s business was built on three legs: designing custom motor­yachts, production powerboats and racing powerboats, each with an emphasis on excellent hull design, but no sailboats. I was determined to be a successful designer of powerboats and sailboats, so I accepted a position at the Ted Hood Design Group, where we designed aluminum and composite sailing yachts from 60 to 150 feet.

Q: What was it like working for Hood?

A: Ted Hood was soft-spoken. He would spend days in his office sketching on top of arrangement drawings, moving the height of a desk up 3 inches here, then covering that with Wite-Out and lowering the desk 2 inches. He wasn’t directly involved in the technical elements of marine engineering or naval architecture, but he was never finished designing, even as we moved to production drawings.

The office was at the Little Harbor facility [in Portsmouth, R.I.], so a fair amount of our design work was for refits of yachts in the yard, which I enjoyed. The corporate parent of Hinckley owned the design group and the yard. Once they decided they were not interested in being in the business of custom yacht design, the design office was sold to Ted Hood’s longtime underling.

Q: You also worked for Island Packet Yachts.

My wife and I enjoyed the Gulf Coast of Florida, where we lived when I worked for Mike, so I took the position of design engineer at Island Packet Yachts to gain experience in every aspect of hands-on boatbuilding. Every successful designer needs experience as a builder, and that’s what I got. After seven years there, designing every IP model (about 80 a year were built), it was time to set out on my own.

Q: What are designers and builders doing well these days?

A: Many of them are happy to be surviving. The best are thriving by targeting specific niche markets and innovating within those markets. One of our clients, Metal Shark, I think is growing faster than any boatbuilder in the United States these days, thanks to innovative designs that earn them big contracts for the Coast Guard and other organizations. Builders like Yellowfin, for whom we’ve done work on their 42, are building boats to a standard instead of a price. Targeting the high end seems to be working well for them, Intrepid and others.

Q: What are some of your favorite recreational boats?

A: I grew up in the 1980s, which saw an explosion of offerings in the recreational marine market. My hands-on experience was with the middle of the mainstream market. We are generally not involved with projects in this market, but I value the knowledge. I have always liked what the Hatteras 58 Yacht Fisherman brought to the market, especially those built from 1978 to 1982. Any small Boston Whaler can get an enthusiastic kid and his friends into more adventures than they might care to admit. And I think most Tiaras from the 1980s into the mid-1990s are handsome mainstream boats, as well as being well built.

In today’s new-boat market, I like the Fleming 55. Chris-Craft continues to develop appealing small boats. I like the Palm Beach 65. Intrepid and Yellowfin are building very good boats.

In the 1980s and 1990s I detected an inverse relationship between a builder’s quality and their creative use of space. That being said, one of the tasks we relish is to design and engineer boats that offer the most robust construction details while breaking new ground in creative design. I think several of our current projects, including Posh, the Schiada 43, Metal Shark 45 patrol boat and the Hyundai 62, are illustrative of this.

Q: What do you think of the styling of today’s boats?

A: I sincerely hope the mainstream boatbuilding industry will abandon the grotesque over-styling that has infected the product over the past 15 years. They do their buyers no favors when it’s time to sell a used boat with severely outdated styling issues.

Q: What about propulsion — will boats change much in this area?

A: Propulsion and navigation technology will continue to complement one another, to the point where virtually no boat-handling skills will be necessary in 10 years, I think. People will get used to their cars and their boats driving and parking themselves, if they choose.

Q: If you look out 10 years, what changes do you see in powerboats?

A: I’d like to believe we’ll see a return to some more slender hull forms, but the way slip fees are structured so often, it’s a tough sell. Offering a 50-foot boat with a lean, easy-riding hull and the same interior volume as a 42-footer with a fat beam and excessively full forward sections that compromise the boat’s motion under way means higher slip and storage fees for the owner.

Since many boats are used as stationary platforms for waterfront lifestyles, we may see an emerging class of 30- to 50-foot displacement-speed “pods,” like luxury enclosed pontoon boats, if you will, with minimal propulsion. They’d be stable at anchor, seaworthy enough for coastal passages and feel like a condo at the dock, which, face it, a large swath of the boating audience wants. It will take some design talent to make them attractive. 

May 2013 issue