Talkin' Boats with Donald Blount

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Donald Blount has been driven all his life to do one job: design high-speed powerboats that can comfortably and efficiently run through rough water. Blount's fascination with hydrodynamics began when he was a Virginia Tech co-op student working at the David Taylor Model Basin, the Navy's premier hydrodynamic research facility.

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Recognizing his talents, the Navy in 1969 tapped Blount to work in its Combatant Craft Engineering Department. Three years later, Blount and E.P. "Gene" Clement completed a landmark study of planing craft hydrodynamics - "Series 62."

After 20 years of designing and engineering small craft with the Navy, Blount formed Donald L. Blount and Associates in 1990 in Virginia (www.dlba-inc.com). The firm has designed everything from a 29-foot center console fishing boat to a record-breaking 66-knot 224-footer. Blount has provided design and engineering services for Rybovich, Buddy Davis, Jupiter and the U.S. government.

He has two grown sons - Douglas and Bill. They grew up boating and fishing on Chesapeake Bay in a 20-foot Wellcraft, a 28-foot Luhrs and other small boats. The 76-year-old Blount lives in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife, Shirley. Semiretired, he plans to complete a book about - what else? - design practices for speed at sea.

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

A: I have always had a fascination with the technology of high-speed boats in rough water - not just speed but the ability to go fast and not beat your brains out. I've done a lot of sea trials. We have in-house people who do styling and interior design. My personal interest is going as fast as you can as efficiently as you can with the best ride quality in rough water. That has been my focus in my life. If I live long enough, I will do a major technical work of seakeeping of high-speed boats.

Q: Was there a particular boat you worked on that excelled in this area?

A: Back in the mid-'70s we did a lot of research on high-speed vessels in rough waters. A CPIC (coastal patrol and interdiction craft) was a 100-foot boat that could run into the 40-knot range in rough seas with the crew operating comfortably.

Q: What are some tips for sea-trialing a powerboat?

A: It should be sea-trialed in a full-load condition, or a normal condition. If it's a cruising boat, the prospective buyer is going to have a certain amount of gear forward - so have it loaded that way. Operate it in some rough water; it doesn't have to be real rough. Be on the lookout for bow steering. If it bow-steers, it has potential to go into a dynamic instability. Does it bow-steer or heel to one side as you go faster? If you can't use the rudder to make it come back level and only slowing down will bring the rudder back, chances are you're dangerously close to being dynamically unstable.

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

A: It's a combination of improved efficiency and smarter interiors. They also have the use of pod drives going for them - it's a big positive. Pod drives tend to be more efficient from a speed point of view and fuel efficiency. They reduce the size of the engine space, which enables a smart utilization of interior arrangements. Also, builders and designers are putting more thought into motion control or pitch control - not just at speed but also at anchor. It has become a good selling feature for buyers.

Q: What's wrong with today's recreational boats?

A: Putting too much into too small a boat. Newer builders have to watch out for this because once you overload a hull there's not much you can do. You can take the stuff out - the galleys, the heads and other stuff - or put it in a bigger hull.

Q: If you looked out 10 years, what changes do you see in powerboats between 20 and 45 feet?

A: We're going to see a reduction in extreme styling. Some of the stylish boats look like they were meant for "The Jetsons." Do you remember that cartoon show about a family living in the future? The owners in the next five to 10 years don't need or want the extreme styling. I think they're going to be more interested in seaworthiness. Cleats are going to be located where you can actually get to them - and not have to hang off the side of a rail to tie up the boat. For construction, I am confident everything will be composite, and eventually we will evolve into using composite materials that are recyclable. In propulsion, pod drives with joystick control are going to dominate because of their ease of use, efficiency and the increased interior space due to their use.

The custom Weaver 80 is a Blount design.

Q: What are some of your favorite recreational boats, excluding your designs?

A: There is a boat that fascinates me - the Eastport 32. I am at the time of my life where something like a Chesapeake deadrise would be my boat if I had one. This boat is in Annapolis [Md.]. It has a tailgate transom and is built by Brooks Boatworks in North Carolina. It's a good boat for grandkids and dogs.

Q: Why did you get out of boating?

A: I got out of boating when my kids grew up and weren't around to do the dog work of keeping them fixed up and repaired. There was a time in life when I had too many boats. Maybe there's never a time when you can have too many boats.

Q: Tell us about your personal boats.

A: The smallest was a 12-foot jonboat with a small outboard, and then a 26-foot double-ended motor whaleboat. It was a good 5-knot boat with a big rudder and a tiller arm. It would embarrass the kids to death, but we could run all season on a tank of gas. I had a 28-foot Luhrs and 20-foot Wellcraft center console and a small sailboat. When the kids were growing we lived on a canal. You could go out on the Chesapeake Bay. We could walk to the beach, so we had some boats we could operate off the beach, but mostly we kept them in the water or in the backyard.

Q: What are some of your favorite boats you have designed?

A: My favorite was also the hardest to design. It was a technically challenging project. It was the Fortuna, which is the Spanish royal yacht. It's about 135 feet, gas turbine-powered and was delivered in 2000. It's the fastest yacht in the world - period. And it still is. It has been in service for 11 years now. Another favorite of the more recent vessels was a Jim Smith 95 custom sportfishing boat delivered last year. It's a custom cold-molded 95-footer that can exceed 40 knots. It's a real jewel. If I were to mention production boats, we provided engineering and naval architecture for the Hatteras 63 convertible, which was introduced at the Miami show. We have done almost every Rybovich between 1988 and 2004. We did virtually all of Buddy Davis' composite boats. Buddy Davis is the designer of record. He was the brains. He was the creative person. We did the engineering. As a practice we don't necessarily hold our name out there [as the designer]. We work in the shadows.

Q: Did you get into recreational boating at a young age?

A: Not at all. I grew up in southwest Virginia in a railroad town [Roanoke]. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a mechanical engineer and design steam locomotives. It turns out when I was a freshman at Virginia Tech, the railroad started buying diesel locomotives, so steam locomotives were not going to be in my future.

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

A: I was from a middle-class family. We didn't have a lot of money for college, so I was a co-op student. At Virginia Tech, I got my first job as a student trainee working for the U.S. Navy at the David Taylor Model Basin, which was the [Navy's] premier hydrodynamic research facility. So that is how I got into the water world - it was the quirk of being a co-op student.

Q: Once you made the jump to the recreational side of the business, did you like it?

A: Yes, and I was fascinated because all this hydrodynamic knowledge in the public domain was leaking out so slowly into the recreational industry. The pace at which technology was being embraced in the recreational world was very slow. I saw this as an opportunity to provide naval architecture and engineering services that were at the forefront of technology. And it was, because in about 20 years [the business] grew from two people to 29 people. We've consistently had about 20 employees.

Q: What role do you think the Series 62 findings have played in the development of powerboats?

A: I did numerous different tests for five different hull forms - boats with different length-to-beam ratios. From short, fat boats to long, skinny boats. For each of those five hulls, we tested four different displacements and four different LCGs (longitudinal center of gravity) over a wide range of speeds. It has been the single source in the public domain that shows the trends of displacements or hull loading and LCG position for a wide range of different speeds. We were looking for extreme conditions. Where do you fall off the edge of the earth from a technology view? It was important to map out the design environment of planing or hard-chine hulls.

Q: What area of that research has made the biggest impact on recreational boat design?

A: There's a tendency to package too much stuff in a too-small boat. These boats have a lot of amenities that the marketing people can talk about. The single most important result in the Series 62 study is that there is a maximum practical weight that you can support on a given hull bottom area. There is a point where you put too much stuff into the boat and make it too heavy. ... If you're too heavily loaded and the center of gravity is at the wrong longitudinal position, there's a point where the boat will become unstable. It will bow-steer or it will lay over on its side.

Q: What skills and techniques have you carried over from your Navy work to recreational boats?

A: Applying emerging technology would be one. We've maintained and continue to build a good technical library. Every month we would have a class at "Donald Blount and Associates University." This is true. Once a month we'd have a lecture on some new technology topic. On the technical side, I've carried over a lot of the seakeeping knowledge - the design aspects of a hull, the geometry and mass distribution. Another thing is noise reduction. I brought with me techniques to lower noise. Finally, using emerging propulsion technology.

Q: Coming out of the recession, what will consumers look for in a new boat?

A: Efficiency. Either more speed with less power or more range - one or both of those. But a close second is quality. People who come back into the boating market will be serious boaters. They want to be on the water. While some might want to move up in size, you're also finding people looking to get into a smaller boat and have a more compact, more efficient operation. If it's built well and finished well, it'll require little maintenance.

Q: Why have some boatbuilders lagged behind in construction technology?

A: Builders see it as a risk in the sense of getting consistent construction qualities. If you're doing cored structures you probably have to go to infusion to get good bonding between the skins and the core material. The boatbuilder's level of labor lacks the skills and knowledge for this type of construction. Also, if they go into infusion, the first two or three hulls may have to be thrown away. Overall it's a risk and would increase the cost of labor.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I can't answer clearly because virtually every project we get requires us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. We do a lot of work for Hatteras Yachts. We do production design work for McKinna Yachts. We do have some government contracts. We're developing a concept design for a new research boat for NOAA. We do a lot of yacht refit work, due to the economy. The custom sportfish we do now is for Jim Smith Boatworks and Jim Weaver [Weaver Boatworks] in Maryland.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.