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Talkin' boats with David Hensel of Grand Banks Yachts

Since 2004, David Hensel has been the director of brand and marketing for Grand Banks Yachts, an internationally known name in cruising trawlers.

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Hensel learned to sail at age 6 on San Francisco Bay and grew up sailing a variety of boats around Seattle’s Puget Sound and the nearby San Juan Islands. He later spent time aboard trawlers, gaining a deeper appreciation for their traditional style and practical comforts. “Grand Banks is probably the one powerboat company I could work for and not lose the respect of all my sailing buddies,” says Hensel, who is 44.

The company, with corporate headquarters in Singapore and U.S. operations in Seattle, recently showcased three of its newest rides at the Yacht & Brokerage Show in Miami Beach: the 54 Heritage EU, 43 Heritage EU and 46 Eastbay SX (

Hensel lives in Seattle not far from his Grand Banks office, which overlooks the water near the city’s commercial fishing center. “I can tell when a fishing season is about to start somewhere from here to Alaska because fleets of boats start passing my window,” he says. “It’s interesting to see the heritage and inspiration of the earliest GB yachts echoed in the lines of some of these commercial trawlers.”

In this interview, Hensel talks about the changing mission and purpose of Grand Banks boats, what separates a GB from the rest of the pack, the faraway places GB owners have explored and his most memorable moment aboard a Grand Banks.

Q: Did you grow up around boats and boating?

A: I grew up sailing all manner of boats around Seattle’s Puget Sound and the nearby San Juan Islands. As a young adult I used to fly up to Alaska to join friends on fishing trips aboard trawlers and gained a deeper appreciation for their timeless style and practical comforts.

Q: Do you have a favorite Grand Banks model?

The new 43 Heritage EU was displayed at the Yacht & Brokerage Show.

A: A recent three-day trip around the San Juan Islands on board the 46 Eastbay SX led me to consider this Zeus-powered model as my favorite — for now, at least. That’s always a moving target. Whatever Grand Banks I’m on at any given moment is usually my favorite. Of course, I would like to spend more time on the water on our yachts, but for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2006 I was fortunate to get aboard all manner of GB models during a three-week cruising event I organized. Owners from around the world joined Grand Banks aboard their boats to journey the Inside Passage from the San Juans to southeast Alaska. I understand now why people call it the best cruising grounds in the world.

Q: Describe the “state-of-the-art equipment, meticulous craftsmanship and superior construction techniques” that are referenced on your website.

A: I consider “state of the art” to be a combination of factors that delivers the best possible user experience. That’s different than “leading edge” or “bleeding edge,” where the pure newness and novelty of an item may outshine its actual quality of performance. We recently delivered a 54 Heritage EU equipped with a Seakeeper gyro stabilizer system, as well the new EJS joystick control system from Twin Disc. We’ve also been at the forefront of some of the developments in pod drive systems, with the first trawler model to feature pod drives and the first Zeus system with dual-station controls.

As for craftsmanship, just step on board any Grand Banks and take a look at the joinery and the meticulous fit and finish of our handcrafted furniture. Some of our craftsmen have been with the company for 20, 30 or more years.

As for superior construction, that’s a matter of both material and method, and the list is pretty long. For instance, we use clear gelcoat below the waterline to allow visual inspections of the laminate prior to the application of epoxy barrier coating. That’s one small detail, but in the bigger picture all our boats are built to ABS standards and to meet the guidelines for both NMMA and CE certification.

Q: What brings buyers to Grand Banks?

A: Our legacy, our performance through tough times and our vision for the future attract boaters to Grand Banks. We have a long and proven history of building quality vessels — boats that last, that hold their value, that people take pride in owning and maintaining. The GB brand has become an icon in ports and harbors all around the world. We’re also a strong business operation in these present times, weathering the recent downturn while growing our cash balance and avoiding debt, which has hobbled so many builders lately. Meanwhile, our models continue to win awards and accolades from customers and critics alike. And we project a confident sense of where we’re heading in the future. Take our new 50 Eastbay with IPS pod drives — that model represents a major evolution in style and technology for what has been our best-selling series over recent years.

Q: Talk a little about your new models, the 54 and 43 Heritage EUs, as well as the new Eastbay.

The 54 Heritage EU is among Grand Banks' newest yachts.

A: We launched two yachts last fall. The 54 Heritage EU made her debut at the boat show in Cannes, and the following month at Fort Lauderdale we introduced the 43 Heritage EU, which is a Zeus-powered model. Both models had buyers around the world before they even launched and have sold strongly.

The newest Eastbay will launch later this year when we debut the first 50, both as an SX salon express model and as an FB version with a flybridge. I’m very excited about the 50 Eastbay and the big leap forward it represents for the evolution of the series, not just as a pod-drive boat with Volvo Penta IPS but particularly in the new and beautiful design and styling. The overall look still says “Eastbay,” but the aesthetic is definitely more assertive and contemporary. I can’t wait to get on board myself.

Q: Can you give readers an idea of Grand Banks’ direction over the next decade?

The 50 Eastbay SX, shown in a rendering, will be introduced later this year.

A: The new 50 Eastbay is a good example of how we will look to evolve our models during this period — pushing innovation, contemporary styling and intelligent on-board advancements within a design aesthetic that maintains its timeless appeal. It’s critical that our yachts stay vital, that we surprise and delight customers. You’ll see more of that over the next 10 years, as well. I don’t think you’ll see the number of models we offer grow significantly, but the model mix will continue to progress as we refresh or retire older models.

Q: Has the mission and purpose of a Grand Banks yacht changed in the past 20 years?

A: The hallmarks of a Grand Banks yacht — seaworthiness, craftsmanship, reliability, beauty, value and smart design — have not changed. We still strive to deliver the very best coastal cruising experience. But yes, the characteristics of that experience have changed as customer expectations have changed. Today’s Grand Banks yachts are swift, stylish and sophisticated — not necessarily the words one might have used to describe our models 20 years ago. There is a greater emphasis on speed and related performance characteristics today than in years past, as well as on state-of-the-art systems and features — and a sense of luxury, in both styling and amenities. You can still sense a proudly nautical aesthetic across our model range, but the styling is gracefully contemporary in a way you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago.

Q: What is the most popular or best-selling Grand Banks model?

A 54 Heritage EU under construction in Malaysia.

A: New models continue to drive the greatest sales activity these days. Even before we launched the 54 Heritage EU last fall we had two sold here in the States, and more soon followed in markets all over the world. Now we’re up to the ninth hull in our order book. The new pod-equipped 43 Heritage EU has also done well, with the first one going to Japan and others to buyers from places as far apart as Australia and Florida. Of course, older models continue to hold their own. We shipped the 100th 47 Heritage EU last year, which we launched in late 2005, and we have a few more on the order books now.

Q: What is your best-selling boat of all time?

A: Without a doubt, that would be the 42 Heritage. Grand Banks built 1,650 of this model before it was retired in 2005. That’s probably the boat most folks picture when they hear the name Grand Banks. It’s truly become an icon the world over.

Q: In what area do recreational boats need the most improvement?

A: It would be hard to make a blanket statement, but as manufacturers, I think most of us need to take a cue from other industries, such as the auto sector, and do a better job at managing the overall customer experience. Not just the on-board experience but also the quality of experience that customers enjoy — or endure — before, during and after the purchase. Luxury carmakers take a much more holistic view of the customer experience and how they project their brand by managing every component of that process. They’ve raised the expectations of buyers in other areas of the market today, and boatbuilders need to step up to meet and exceed those expectations.

Q: What is the Grand Banks philosophy on what makes a great yacht and a great company?

A: To achieve greatness, yachts and companies must have a clear and compelling sense of purpose and then invest in creative thinking, superior resources and ceaseless attention to detail. One of the biggest problems I have with a boat is when I step on board and get no clear or consistent sense of what it wants to be. It says one thing but acts like another, doesn’t follow through on its promises.

Let’s not forget one more important thing for both yachts and companies: fun. A yacht should offer joy and delight every time you step on board, and a company, especially in our industry, should always strive to cultivate a sense of fun and gratification in what we get to do every day. Like Hemmingway said, when you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.

Q: What are some of the places GB yachts have recently traveled?

A: I’m constantly amazed — and envious, I admit — when owners at boat shows and rendezvous tell me the places they’ve just been on board their Grand Banks. Exploring fjord lands in Norway, island-hopping along an Indonesian archipelago, cruising rivers in Russia. We invite owners to share their journeys in our company magazine, Spray, and we’ve amassed quite a collection of tales of their exotic expeditions through the decades.

More recently, we published an article about a 72 Aleutian owner who cruised from Australia to New Guinea’s Milne Bay Province after circumnavigating Tasmania the year before. He kept a very detailed log, and the photos were spectacular, definitely one of the more unique trips I’ve heard about.

I don’t get out on a Grand Banks nearly as often as I’d like to, but I’ve been lucky enough to make a few good journeys. A few years ago I spent three weeks going up the Inside Passage to Alaska with 15 other Grand Banks yachts and their owners. More recently, I had the chance to take a 46 Eastbay along the Bosphorus from Istanbul and up into the Black Sea. What an amazing place!

Q: What are some of your favorite boats other than Grand Banks?

A: Right across from our display at the Düsseldorf Boat Show this year was a beautiful, classic-looking 10-meter cruiser from Luetje-Yachts called the Elbe 33. I learned more about the company and the models it has produced and was really impressed. One of my favorites is probably the Cacique, a 35-foot center console that would look right at home next to an Eastbay, with its dark blue hull and teak trim.

I’m also a big fan of the M Series from Morris Yachts. I was out last summer on an M36, and in many ways it reminded me of a Grand Banks: superb attention to detail, strong design pedigree, a timeless style with smart innovations. It’s definitely a boat I would enjoy taking out around here in Seattle and up to the San Juan Islands.

I also have a sweet spot for Ranger Tugs, especially the R-29. They did a lot of really smart things to pack so much into that boat in a really thoughtful, sensible way, and of course, it’s such a fun boat, great for a couple cruising around the islands and inland coastal areas in my part of the world.

April 2013 issue