Boat Design: The Value of Going ‘Old School’ 

Several stories I’ve come across recently, coupled with personal experiences, got me to thinking – what’s the value of going ‘old school’? And by that, I mean doing things the ‘old-fashioned’ way. Today, boat design and manufacturing rely upon Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) to produce boats. And this is as it should be in order to maintain a robust, repeatable, efficient production line. But at what point do we become technicians rather than artisans? Does it matter? Is there still any value in the old-fashioned approach to design, even for those designers and builders on the cutting edge of technology? I think there is.

Let’s say we let a computer design a boat from the ground up. We lay out the parameters for length, beam, displacement, desired performance, accommodations, and so on, and let the computer do the rest. We shouldn’t be surprised if the result is uglier than a mud fence. The design probably needs human input to make it something another human will think is good looking. I believe there is distinct value in doing things manually, at least once, just to understand what it’s all about, before letting computers do all the work. Whether designing, building, or operating boats, going back to the basics is not only educational, but there is a true satisfaction gained from knowing you accomplished something with your hand and your brain; it’s the intangible but real reward of honing one’s craft.

The great designer Jack Hargrave was famous for sketching boats on paper while meeting with clients to discuss new builds. He was so good at it, the story goes, that you could darn near take that sketch and pull dimensions off it to produce preliminary drawings. I’m not suggesting we should all be able to do that, but I would say it’s a great skill to be emulated.

Before the dawn of computers, boats were produced by eye, basic tools, and really good drawings–unless of course you were Capt. Nat Herreshoff, who designed solely from building half models. But most mere mortals relied on drawings. Over time, coefficients of form were introduced and tweaked to provide guideposts or rules of thumb for dimensions and ratios, depending on what sort of performance and operational characteristics the desired boat would possess. Most importantly, that boats must float in order to function was, and is, part of the unique beauty of designing them instead of other things humans sit in or move around in, like cars or houses or locomotives. Not only does the boat have to float, but it also must be capable of dealing with everything else the water and weather throw in the mix, such as wind and ever-changing seas that make the craft roll, pitch, yaw, and heave. What this means, in my book, is that boat design will always be more of an art than a science. The blend of form and function so overlap that the subjective—the designer’s eye—will always play just as important a role as the mathematics. If you’ve ever seen a boat that looked like the design philosophy involved blowing up a balloon and forgetting to say when, you know what I mean.

An example of the overlap of form and function is the lines drawing of a boat. We don’t normally see them in boating periodicals, since they require a bit of a trained eye to make any sense out of, yet these drawings are the guts of design. From them, a table of offsets is created in order to loft full size (old way) or to create a CAD file (new way) so that the boat can actually be built. A computer can whip up a full set of lines drawings in a matter of minutes. In contrast, doing it by hand requires many, many painstaking hours. The drawing generally consists of three views – the profile view, the section view, and the plan view. These project the views of the boat from the side, from the bow/stern, and from below, respectively. The iterative approach required to arrive at a finished, fair set of lines is a deliberate and lengthy process, but when you are done, you are intimately familiar with that hullform. Getting to that final product involved multiple compromises between displacement, speed, seakeeping, and a host of other characteristics, that you had to make along the way. I don’t believe that advocating for designers to do this at least once is born out of stubbornness or a ‘pay your dues’ mindset; I just believe that the manual approach teaches an indelible, emphatic appreciation for the art of the process and art of the result – the boat – that fully-automated processes simply cannot duplicate.

(note: for a truly rich compendium of lines drawings and design briefs to go with them, see Olin Stephens’ book pictured above – it’s a real gem)


Broker with United Yacht Sales, retired Marine aviator, passionate boater, student of naval architecture, runner, triathlete and coffee geek

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