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Talkin boats with Jim & Jeff Leishman

The Leishman brothers are co-owners of Pacific Asian Enterprises, the builder of Nordhavn yachts in Dana Point, Calif. The Leishmans grew up in Dana Point, messing about in boats at the local marina and learning to sail on a Santana 22. Neither Jim nor Jeff lost his childhood passion for boats.

Jim and Jeff Leishman

In 1973, Jim began working for a yacht brokerage/dealership with his friend Dan Streech. In 1974, with Joe Meglen, they started a brokerage that would become PAE, first importing Taiwan-built sailboats, including the Transpac 49, then tapping designer Al Mason to pen their own sailboat — the Mason 43.

Jeff Leishman joined PAE part time in 1978, eventually taking over design duties. In 1989 the first Nordhavn, the N46, was built. The design was Jeff’s final project for naval architecture school. Today Jeff is PAE’s chief designer, Jim is vice president and Streech — also a co-owner — is president.

Jim, 56, and his wife, Susan, have two sons — James, 31, and Eric, 28 — and own a 1986 Grand Banks 42. They live in San Clemente, Calif. Jeff, 52, and his wife, Nancy, have two sons and a daughter — Drew, 22, Brett, 20, and Megan, 17 — and own a 1979 Grand Banks 32. They live in Oceanside, Calif.

Here the brothers talk about long-distance adventures, the challenge of keeping their boats simple, PAE’s second non-displacement trawler, pod drives and much more.

Q: Nordhavn is known for displacement trawlers, but you’ll soon launch your second semidisplacement boat. What’s the thinking behind that?

The 52 Coastal Pilot is the second semidisplacement Nordhavn design.

Jim: A full-displacement boat has a specific purpose and that’s been our mojo for many years. There’s also demand for a lighter-duty boat, more of a boat suited for coastal cruising. We recognize that. There is a need for a good boat for people who don’t want to make major ocean passages. Jeff and I both have boats and right now in our lives we are kind of restricted to local cruising. We can’t take months off and cross oceans on our boats, so we both have semidisplacement boats. Plus we are moderately active fishermen with summer marlin, tuna and dorado. A semidisplacement boat is a really good alternative for that kind of use. We felt we wanted to branch off a little bit and came up with the perfect size, if this ends up being a line of boats. At 52, it’s big enough to provide a lot of comfort. It is small enough for a couple to handle. Our goal was to create a coastal cruising boat that is a little more serious than a majority of the boats out there. We wanted a boat well-suited to run from Alaska to Maine and points in between. We wanted it to have at least a 1,000-nautical-mile range at reduced speed and a high level of stability and seakeeping qualities.

Q: Can we expect more semidisplacement Nordhavns?

Jim: We want to see what kind of reaction we get with this one. We think we can offer a terrific value with this boat and quality that is at the high end. If people like it, which we think they will, it would be a natural progression to create another model. But Jeff hasn’t drawn anything as a second boat for this line.

Q: What about other new boats in the works?

Jeff: We’ve got a lot of boats that are on the drawing board that people have not seen that we kick around. The one we are working on now is a bigger sportfish. It’s like the 75, but bigger. We have a couple people interested in it.

Q: What separates your boats from other long-range passagemakers?

Jeff: We take our boats out and use them. We pretty much put our money where our mouths are by doing the Around the World voyage with the 40 and taking a group of boats across the Atlantic. There are boats that can do the same thing, but not a lot of builders who have done it the way we have done it. We have a good track record.

Jim: Jeff has designed every Nordhavn. We have an evolving, improving design team. Every design or change to a boat is based on our experience with previous Nordhavns. From the late ’80s to today, these boats have gone through a steady evolution.

If you look at the amount of experience that has been built up, plus the key people involved, we have accumulated a lot of offshore miles. On that around-the-world trip, it sort of gave us a tag team where virtually all the important people in our company learned a huge amount in the world of long-range cruising and ocean passages and serious coastal trips. Each one of our models from 40 to 76 probably have accumulated more passagemaking miles than most of our competitors combined. I can’t think of another company that has consistently worked on long-range powerboats for 15 years now with the same core group of people. We are pretty proud of that.

Q: What makes a Nordhavn a tough, seaworthy vessel?

Jim: A real telltale is the displacement of a boat. If you compare it to the competitors, you will find ours are significantly heavier. That weight is there for structure, for ballast. We recognize the efficiency penalty we pay for that weight, but we think it is necessary to provide the kind of strength we want and the seakeeping qualities we want. So I would say really robust construction.

Q: Can you give an example of that robust construction?

Jeff: We use solid laminates on all the displacement hulls. The keel on our boats has to be 9 inches thick. People look at that and say, “Well, that is a waste of resin and glass,” but it is the backbone of the hull, and you can run that thing aground and the likelihood of punching a hole in it is very slim. We use cored structures in our decks, but we try to stick with solid laminates for the hulls. The 52 CP will be an exception. We will probably build with cores and resin infusion. It does give you weight savings and a great laminate.

Q: Will pods ever be a good fit for displacement or semidisplacement boats?

Jeff: We looked into pods for our 52 and consulted with Volvo Penta. If the boats are under 500,000 pounds it is possible that pods would deliver more efficiency, but if the boat is a little heavier it is uncertain. Until we actually launch one of these 52s and get the weights and performance numbers, we are reluctant to commit. Volvo doesn’t like to see such a long, full keel, so we would have to modify that, which is no big deal, but we like the protection of a keel. We are pretty conservative guys as far as drivetrains go — a good old prop and stuffing box and rudders can be fixed just about anywhere in the world.

Jim: Our goal with the Coastal Pilot is not to have a 25-knot boat. What we envisioned is this boat will spend most of its life between 8 and 12 knots, and occasionally an owner will want to go 15 to 16 knots before dark or in a coastal cruising type of situation. From years and years of talking to people who have owned semidisplacement boats — people that own Grand Banks and Flemings — the vast majority of the time they are running formula hull speed.

Q: Has Nordhavn ever built a pod boat?

Jeff: No, but we’ve designed a boat with pods — an Italian-looking boat we call a Lanzarote. It was for the Chinese market and it did very well with pods — about 25 knots — and did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Q: Do you offer joystick controls?

Jeff: We haven’t had anybody really ask for joystick controls. We have had a few people briefly mention it, but no one really wanted to put it on their boat, I think, in part because our owners are more experienced boaters than other owners.

Jim: Virtually all our boats are getting bow thrusters in addition to stern thrusters, and the bigger boats are getting variable-speed, continuous-duty bow and stern thrusters, so it would be very easy to adopt the joystick. You can take anyone on our boats that has a bow and a stern thruster, and maneuverability is not an issue.

Q: Is it important to let new technologies prove themselves in the field before incorporating them in your boats?

Jim: We have been burned over the last 25 years over and over by new proprietary products that don’t live up to their promises and we’re stuck with them. I have a 30-year-old Grand Banks with conventional shafts and rudders. If anything goes wrong, you can go to any boatyard and get a replacement shaft and propeller. It is so simple and straightforward. It is a little concerning to have a pair of pods on there that are first-generation, not knowing what issues you face five years down the road. Our boats are designed to be more adventurous and go farther than other boats. If you hit some ice in Glacier Bay with a counter-rotating pod and bust it off, you are just out of luck.

Jeff: We just had a 76 in Thailand run up on a flat reef and it just destroyed his props — or at least they thought [so]. But they hauled the boat, and the boatyard took the props and beat them out, and the skipper was able to get home on those. If that had happened to a pod boat, who knows? It might have sunk the boat.

Q: Can you name some Nordhavn owners who have most adventurous in their passagemaking?

Nordhavn organized a trans-Atlantic fleet voyage in 2004 to encourage more people to cross an ocean under power.

Jeff: There are a number of them. I would say Heidi and Wolfgang Hass. They own a 46 [Kanaloa]. They are on their third circumnavigation now. They do it with little fanfare, just the two of them and their little dog. And Scott and Mary Flanders. They have been pretty aggressive in their 46. They went around Cape Horn twice with Jim aboard.

Jim: We just had an owner and his wife who left last weekend, bound for Hawaii. He has been down to Cape Horn. He has been to Australia, all through the South Pacific. Without even thinking about it, they cast off the lines and head to Hawaii.

The first circumnavigation was by a couple — Jim and Suzy Sink. They completed their circumnavigation in ’95 or ’96. Seems like every year someone is completing a

Q: How did you guys catch the boating bug?

Jim: We were raised in San Clemente, a little community in Southern California on the coast in southern Orange County. In the late ’60s, construction began on a marina in Dana Point just about five miles north of San Clemente, and that’s where we went as kids. We also used to go surfing and bodysurfing and skin diving. We watched the marina being built and became very enthused about the idea of buying a boat. We talked our parents into buying a small sailboat. It was a Santana 22, built by W.D. Schock in Costa Mesa, Calif., and designed by a young Gary Mull. We taught ourselves to sail. We would sail that boat and run it out to Catalina. We spent a lot of our free time down at the marina. Everything we did in our childhood revolved around the beach and living in a coastal community, so it was natural for us to get into boating.

Q: How did you get started in design, Jeff?

Jeff: When I was in high school I used to come down and work for Jim and Dan, just washing and varnishing boats. I was a pretty good varnisher. I was considering being an architect and going to school. Once I got into the architecture, Jim looked at some of my drawings, which led to him asking me to come to the office and do some drafting. I did some work on the Mason sailboats, just little changes here and there. After that, I started looking at some of Al Mason’s drawings and I got pretty excited about naval architecture. One thing led to another and I was working full time for them in 1982. I enrolled in a school called the Yacht Design Institute and learned yacht design, with the 46 project being my final project.

Q: Which do you guys prefer, sailing or powerboating?

Jeff: I haven’t done a lot of sailing since the Mason days. I would love to go across an ocean and do more than just coastal cruising. Sailing is more work and a little more stressful, I guess. You are charging along at 20 knots in some wind and you don’t want to make a mistake. I think powerboating is simpler and less stressful, definitely for my wife.

Jim: I prefer powerboating. The local conditions here are not well-suited for sailing. You spend the majority of your time motoring from Point A to Point B, but for a long ocean passage sailing is hard to beat. Sailing is a lot of work and we saw that when we tried to sell sailboats to retired couples. You sell a sailboat to 10 couples and maybe only three of them realize their cruising dreams. So my experience personally on sailboats and seeing how our customers were using the boats — those are reasons I lean toward powerboats.

Q: How have boaters changed in the past two decades or so?

Jim: There’s a saying: If you can’t fix it, don’t put it on the boat. One of the biggest problems we have is people want to put too many gizmos on their boat. They think it will enhance the reliability and safety, but really it’s just complicating the boat and creating one that is difficult for them to understand and troubleshoot. That is a battle we constantly fight — simplicity for convenience. Boats have become radically complicated.

Q: Would you cite an example of the complexity?

A Nordhavn 120 takes shape at the manufacturer's yard in Xiamen, China.

Jeff: Some of the monitoring systems — the manufacturers want you to splice into the engine harness and you are just asking for trouble when you do that.

Jim: There has also been a movement toward remote switches, so you might have micro-switches sending a signal to another location’s panel of switches. It all seems cool and terrific, but if something goes wrong you are just hopeless. For our megayachts — boats bigger than 100 feet — we use some outside design consultants who share the same opinion, so we are not alone in this struggle against that kind of complexity. There is a point where you just have to go down to the engine room and throw that switch manually.

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

Jim: One of the issues I have is when boatbuilders and designers try to style a boat like a car. To try to stay at the absolute peak of styling now only means you are going to have a boat that looks odd in 10 years. With most companies, the boat gets built before the deck goes on it. They put components in the boat without a regard to how they will be serviced. This may mean a boat can be washed up in 10 years. A boat designed and built more conservatively, like a Nordhavn, a Grand Banks or a Fleming, still holds good value after 25 years.

Jeff: We try to keep [styling] a little more traditional, conservative. We’ve used a mix of different lines, but most designs are pretty conservative.

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

Jeff: I am partial to my Grand Banks 32. Designer-wise, Steve Seaton draws a pretty boat. I generally like whatever comes off his drawing board. Ward Setzer is one of the most talented guys I have ever seen.

Jim: The boat I have now is a Grand Banks. It is a sedan and has a big fishing cockpit. I acquired it because it was a trade-in on a Nordhavn 47. A lot of people are spending as much money on their electronics package on the Nordhavn 52 as I have invested on my whole boat. I love all boats — tugboats, sailboats, skiffs — but I also love boats I can afford. I have always been amazed that some people thumb their nose and call a boat a stinkpot or say they really despise sailboats. If you have been around boats all your life, you can understand the benefits of any kind of boat.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.