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Talkin’boats with Mark Richards

Richards is founder, president and CEO, Palm Beach Motor Yachts

Mark Richards

Talk about a well-rounded mariner. Mark Richards is not only one of the best-known contemporary sailors in the world, but he is also an established powerboat builder who recently displayed two of his yachts at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show — the Palm Beach 55 Flybridge and the new Palm Beach 45.

Richards, 46, skippers the six-time Sydney-Hobart race winner Wild Oats XI. He was also the skipper when Australia captured the Admiral’s Cup in 2003. He has competed in two America’s Cup races. In 1995, he was racing in the Louis Vuitton Cup aboard oneAustralia, a state-of-the-art International America’s Cup Class yacht, when it broke in two and sank off San Diego in less than two minutes. (Though the team got back into the competition, it would turn out to be New Zealand’s year, wresting the Cup from Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes.)

Turning adversity into victory, Richards founded Palm Beach Motor Yachts in 1995 and designed his first powerboat in 1999 — the Palm Beach 38. He has built 87 powerboats ranging from 32 to 65 feet.

Palm Beach Yachts’ crew of 65 employees builds one of the sweetest-looking traditional powerboats on the water. The company won Best New Powerboat at the Newport International Boat Show for two consecutive years for its PB 50 and PB 55. Richards, president and CEO of his company, says he owes his success to his parents, who adopted him as an infant. He was raised in the Palm Beach area of Australia (Pittwater), where he began sailing at 6 years old at a school that taught sailing and powerboat operation, and went on to run the launch at the local yacht club. He resides in Sydney, Australia.

Q: Has your sailing background helped or influenced your powerboat building?

A: I have been building powerboats since an early age. My sailing hasn’t really affected the powerboat side. With the actual boatbuilding, they are two different worlds. The big advantage in the sailboat world — and that is where I am from — is we are dealing with very high loads and asking the boat to do some crazy things. When it comes to construction and engineering techniques, you want to get weight out of the boat where it is unnecessary. So knowing the importance of [that] has come from the sailing world, and so has understanding the importance of weight distribution and designing boats that float perfectly. A lot of boats out there have ballast here, there and everywhere. The builder is swapping fuel [tank locations] to keep a list out of the boat. But our boats float perfectly every time we launch one. And I’ll tell you, that is very satisfying.

Q: How do you feel about the sinking incident with oneAustralia after 20 years?

A: I don’t really think about it unless someone brings it up. It was the America’s Cup, and you’re pushing the envelope from an engineering standpoint. You are pushing to the extremes, and it was pushed too hard. It’s still recognized as one of those crazy things that happened during the America’s Cup. It’s a shock, of course, when something like that occurs. But it’s good to be involved in something that fails because it becomes embedded in you and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Q: You mentioned you have been building powerboats since you were young — at what age did you get into building boats?

A: This is when I was 15 to 20 years old. I used to buy old launches, trawlers and other boats and fix them up and sell them and buy bigger ones. That’s just what I did. Buying oyster tugs and ferries and refitting them and turning them into pleasure craft became a passion of mine.

Q: Of all the boats you have restored, do you have a favorite?

A: We had a 31-foot oyster tug called the Kingfisher. It was a classic old boat, and we had a lot of fun with it. It was a beautiful boat in its own way — a good, old ship.

Q: Do you design all Palm Beach powerboats?

The award-winning Palm Beach 55 Flybridge

A: I have a naval architect whom we’ve worked with for years. He designs the actual hull bottoms, but I am heavily involved in the design. I take care of all the aesthetics. I am involved in every square inch of every boat.

Q: How will your yachts change in the next 10 years?

A: The boats have a timeless look, and I don’t anticipate that the exterior or profile of my boats will change much. On the construction side, I think much will remain the same, too. I try to keep the building of yachts as simple as possible. We don’t need the sophistication and high-tech level that is necessary with racing boats, such as the boats that I sail.

Q: What type of innovation do you see coming down the road?

A: The pods do a great job in the right applications — that goes without saying. We do [Volvo Penta] IPS, as well as shaft-drive boats. My philosophy is to keep the boat as simple as possible, which keeps the maintenance very low and the reliability really high. At the end of the day, you have to be careful. I mean, these are boats. You don’t want to complicate them too much so that the reliability suffers. I am a bit old-fashioned. As far as innovation goes, I don’t want to rush into anything. It costs a lot of money to rectify mistakes.

Q: Clearly, reliability and simplicity are two things you value. Where in your background do you think that comes from?

A: I have spent a lot of time at sea, where you don’t want things to break and you want them to continue running with little maintenance. But also from a business standpoint, it is really important to have reliability so your customers don’t suffer and [you avoid losing] money through warranty costs.

Q: When you started your business, did you think it would be such a success?

The new Palm Beach 45

A: It is doing well in America, and that’s great. But I just love doing my thing. Each day evolves into another day, and if you just keep doing your job and you build good boats, you can end up creating an operation and yachts that are quite special, and that is what is happening with us right now. I am hoping it keeps going that way. It is all about quality and just doing your job. The second you try to build too many boats — increase the quantity and reduce the quality — that’s when things go wrong. We see that time and time again with bigger companies.

Q: What’s on your drawing board?

A: There’s the new Palm Beach 52 — with walkaround side decks — directed toward the older age group, which we are looking forward to doing; that project is under way. We are also doing a 60-foot pilothouse boat, and the goal there is to have double the range of any boat of its size. And it will also be a high-performance boat that cruises at 10 knots or 25 knots very economically. It’s all about weight and hull form. It’s hard to efficiently get any speed out of displacement boats. We’re going to run with a very efficient warped-hull shape, and we will be using high-tech construction to keep the center of gravity nice and low. It has been fully tank-tested and we are very confident it will do the job well.

Q: You’re a big believer in the warped-hull design. Would you explain?

A: You’re not going to beat a warped hull for fuel efficiency under 30 knots. It’s impossible. And under 30 knots is where most boats spend most of their lives. A warped hull is designed to go through the water, while a planing hull goes above the water. A warped hull has a shallow draft aft because of the deadrise, and you’re quite buoyant.

Q: And what power package have you chosen for the new 60?

A: As with all our yachts, this one can be powered conventionally with shaft drives or with pods. For this boat, I would recommend conventional drives.

Q: What materials and methods do you use to build your yachts?

A: It is relatively simple construction. We use the same materials throughout our boats — the same glass kits and foam kits, and it’s all cut out by CNC routing machines. The materials are as advanced as they need to be for our style of boat. We do a lot of CNC, and computerized 3D planning is used for every square inch. On the centerline, the boats are all solid glass, and all the penetrations are solid glass. The rest of the boat is cored, and it’s all hand-laid. We get better quality, and it is stronger than infusion. And we get better results.

Q: Do you see Palm Beach Motor Yachts growing?

A: We have 65 employees. We will definitely be maintaining that number of employees; we’ve been booked out for six years. You need to be able to ride out the storm, and I am not sure the storm is over yet with financial conditions. We do as little hiring and firing as possible and just try to keep the business operating smoothly.

Q: How would you explain your twin loves of sailing and powerboating?

A: At the end of the day, the sailing is a passion because of racing and the thrill of competing. We have one of the fastest monohulls on the planet [in Wild Oats XI]. We have a lot of fun, and we have reached a top speed of 42 knots in that boat. The powerboating? I love building them, but a beautiful weekend out on a powerboat is very hard to beat. Recreationally, powerboating is my favorite; competitively, it’s sailing.

Q: Do you have any hobbies?

A: Boats, boats and more boats — it’s in the DNA, mate.

January 2014 issue