It’s 10 a.m. on a brisk, overcast spring day in a highly industrialized section of Boston, Massachusetts, as a dockmaster unloads hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into a nearly complete MJM 40z powerboat. About a dozen people are aboard: designers, engineers, boatbuilder management, a Volvo Penta technician. All of them seem relaxed, except the man responsible for the boat’s smart-looking lines.
As the fuel flows, naval architect Doug Zurn methodically picks at the boat’s hardware, making sure hatches open the way they should, electronics components are mounted correctly, and the teak-look decking’s lines match from stem to stern.
“This is supposed to have a different mechanism,” Zurn says as he fiddles with a hardtop entry hatch. “We should take a look at the mounting location of that FLIR unit too.”
About 30 minutes later, as pilot boats and ferries busily crisscross Boston Harbor and airliners touch down at Logan International Airport, Zurn takes the helm and lights the afterburners. “These engines are smaller, commercial-duty versions of what we usually put in this boat,” Zurn says as he looks keenly aft to examine the wake pattern. “A casino ordered three of these for shuttling customers to and from different locations around Boston.” Zurn then aggressively turns the boat back toward Boston BoatWorks, where all of MJM’s speedy and good-looking Downeast powerboats—each one designed by Zurn—are crafted.
It’s all part of a day’s work for the busy naval architect, who today has 149 designs and 500 hulls floating around the globe, among them boats for singer-songwriter Billy Joel, as well as designs for boatbuilders such as MJM, Vanquish, Bruckmann, C.W. Hood, Derecktor,
Lyman-Morse, Williams, Duffy and others. Zurn’s handsome designs are known for their pleasing looks, impressive performance, attention to detail and remarkable efficiency.
Raised on the shores of Lake Erie near Cleveland, Ohio, as the youngest of five children, Zurn, now 56, grew up close to the Erie Yacht Club and received a solid boating influence from his father. “My dad was a strong sailor,” Zurn says. “He had a Lightning and a Rhodes 27, and I had a Dyer Dhow and a Whaler, among other boats. Summers were spent
swimming and playing on the water, so I got the boating bug very early on. By the time high school rolled around, I knew I wanted to design boats.”
In his office, I notice that Zurn’s bookshelf holds a well-worn, tattered copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. “It got me started,” Zurn says. “When I was a sophomore in high school, I enrolled in a drafting class and became proficient at it pretty quickly. In my junior year, when the rest of the kids were cutting foam board and making house mock-ups, I asked if I could design a sailboat. The instructor, who also taught woodshop, said yes, and he helped me craft a wood model of the sailboat I drew, complete with a rig.”
By his final year in high school, Zurn had arranged to work with a naval architect for six weeks as part of his senior project. “I was heavy into drawing International Offshore Rule and Midget Ocean Racing Club sailboats at the time,” he says. “I design a lot of powerboats, and I enjoy it immensely, but sailboats are my first love.”
Zurn attended the University of Vermont and the University of Arizona before deciding college wasn’t really the course he wanted to be on. “My folks wisely wanted me to be an engineer rather than a naval architect, but the college thing and engineering simply were not a good fit for me,” he says. “I left Arizona in 1986, moved back to Cleveland, and then set my eyes on the East Coast.”
Back at the Boston BoatWorks facility that builds Zurn’s MJM designs, he and Andrew Major, a designer/engineer at Zurn Yacht Design, are looking at MJM’s outboard-powered 53z. It’s hull number one and the largest model to date for MJM, whose outboard series also includes the 35z and 43z. “This decking is supposed to have a rounded edge, right?” Zurn asks Major, who says, “Yep, that’s right.” It’s a striking example of how well Zurn and his staff know the boats he designs, right down to the joinery.
Zurn describes his career as a series of big breaks that each helped him grow as a naval architect. The earliest breaks came in one-step-forward-one-step-back fashion. It all started when he moved to Marblehead from Cleveland after college, as he looked for a marine industry job. “I ended up working as a rigger for Ralph Anderson, who owned a few boatyards in Marblehead,” says Zurn. “Mike Kent, another rigger at the yard, ended up being a great friend and taught me a good work ethic.
“Eventually, I took a draftsman job working with Dieter Empacher, who was Ted Hood’s chief designer,” Zurn says. “I also commissioned boats for Ted Cooper, who owned a busy Beneteau dealership. Ted’s father Henry ended up buying Able Marine in Trenton, Maine, so I was lucky to end up there in a design capacity. Henry had a boat built that was designed by Chuck Payne, so I developed a relationship with him. He hired me on as a designer.”
The future looked bright until six months later, when the luxury tax was enacted, and boat sales plummeted. “I was laid off,” Zurn says. “So, I headed back to Cleveland.” Zurn continued his correspondence coursework with what’s known today as the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, working toward a naval architecture degree.
“That’s when I knocked on the door at Tartan Yachts and met Tim Jackett,” Zurn says. “Jackett hired me on part-time as design help, which was perfect, because I wanted production boatbuilding experience. I designed two boats from scratch with them, and then I graduated Westlawn in 1993. My first commission as a naval architect was the Monomoy 20, a sailboat I designed for a family in Nantucket.”
Zurn and I are sitting in his minimal but professional-looking design studio when he recalls moving back to the salty town of Marblehead for the second time. “I decided to give it a second chance and moved back in 1993,” says Zurn. “I immediately sought out Ralph Anderson, who I’d worked for before at one of his yards. I knew he frequented The Landing restaurant every day around 5:30 p.m., so I went looking for him.”
He found not only Anderson, who gave him office space and the ability to pay when he could, but also his old rigger friend Kent, who rented him a house for the cost of utilities. “I suppose you could call the generosity of those two my first truly big career break,” he says. “It gave me a place to hang out my shingle.”
Zurn found himself with part-time design work and looking for opportunities, so he tried his hand at marine financing. “While it really wasn’t for me, it did help me connect with the right people,” he says.
Then, in 1995, Zurn’s next big break showed up in a package on his doorstep.
“Peter Needham with Coecles Harbor Marina & Boatyard in Shelter Island, New York, sent me a package with instructions about a boat he wanted to build,” Zurn says. “I did a full layout with speed estimates and details and presented it all to Needham in a professionally bound booklet. Then things went quiet for a while. Eventually, he got back to me and told me who the boat was for. It was Billy Joel.”
The boat Zurn drew would become the Shelter Island 38 Runabout, which almost immediately became one of the most recognizable and stunning Downeast boats on the water.
“The boat did everything we wanted it to, and I think 60 of them have been built to date,” Zurn says. “That boat opened a lot of doors for me, the biggest of which was getting in front of Bob Johnstone.” Johnstone recounts the beginning of their relationship. “I approached Doug because we wanted to build a fast, beautiful powerboat, and that’s what the Shelter Island 38 was and is,” Johnstone says. “We wanted a powerboat with looks you could simply fall in love with, so I sent Doug a sketch. We got together during the 2002 Newport International Boat Show, and Doug showed me a rendering. Doug was patient enough to go back and forth with us until our ideas meshed. The 34z, MJM’s first model, was what we came up with.”
So far, MJM has built at least 300 boats. The letter “Z” in MJM’s model names are a hat tip to Zurn’s contributions.
“Doug’s designed six models for us and each is better than the last,” Johnstone says. “The 34z was first, and since then we’ve built the 29z, 40z, 50z and three outboard models: the 35z, 43z and soon-to-be launched 53z, our biggest build to date.”
Influenced by the Masters
Zurn is known today for quite a few of his designs, including another boat for Billy Joel: the 56-foot, 2,600-hp, 47-knot commuter yacht Vendetta that launched in 2005, as well as the Shelter Island 50, a follow-up design to the original 38. The designer says he continues to take inspiration from many places, including other naval architects.
“Early influences of mine include Philip Rhodes, Jim McCurdy and Sparkman & Stephens,” Zurn says. “I also admire Ray Hunt’s work but didn’t discover many of his designs until later in my career. His work makes me wish I had more sailboat commissions.”
Zurn works from an office that overlooks Marblehead Harbor, and he lives nearby with his wife, Kerry. They have two sons and a daughter, and two dogs named Teak and Holly. (Really.) And he’s still enthusiastic about designing Downeast-style powerboats, which have become his hallmark.
“They’ve got this workboat/lobster boat DNA, which means they’re designed to be used in all weather conditions, and they’re functional as a result,” he says. “The cockpits are deep and secure; handholds are right where they’re supposed to be, and the foredecks are easy to navigate and have ample space. Plus, they’re gorgeous—they have a certain traditional flair you don’t see outside New England, and generally in many powerboats.”
Given his love for drawing Downeast powerboats, some are surprised to learn that sailboats are Zurn’s favorite boats to design. “The first boats I drew were sailboats,” he says. “And I’ve designed a few I am really proud of. I did a 42-foot daysailer for Bruckmann that I think turned out beautifully, and I also enjoyed drawing the Marblehead 21 and the Monomoy 20.”
Zurn recently completed drawings for a 62-foot, 3,800-hp commuter yacht for Dutch builder Lynx Yachts that has PT boat design cues and some lines reminiscent of Vendetta. He also worked on the M58, a brand-new cruising motoryacht for Hylas Yachts. Vanquish Boats has a 30-footer on the books with Zurn that will be built in dual- and center-console versions. More unusual items on Zurn’s plate are a 30-foot electric launch for a New Hampshire club, and a 60-foot powercat.
“I’m a lucky guy,” Zurn says. “I worked hard to get where I am, but the breaks I’ve been given have all been so important to my success. I’m grateful for those and the people behind them. Plus, I get to come to work and do what I truly love every day. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Looks as if we’ll be enjoying more of Zurn’s beautiful work for years to come.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.