Starting a career in boat design

I knew I wanted to be a boat designer when I was in high school. I got the naval architecture degree at the University of Michigan, some money and real world experience with Exxon Corporation, and finally some offshore sailing experience when my wife, Arliss, and I sailed our 27’ sailboat from England back to the US. By August 1978, we found an apartment in Ventura, California, and I hung out my shingle, Sponberg Yachts.

I started looking for work by knocking on doors of potential customers in do-it-yourself boatyards (“I can help you with building that boat.”), and trying to write magazine articles on boat design (“publish or perish”). There were a number of popular independent boat designers at the time, and I had been clipping out a lot of their magazine articles and saving them in a notebook, collecting nuggets of design wisdom that I could apply to my boat designs. But what could a non-east-coast nobody ever say or do that would make customers come to my door? It took a lot of years to gain some notice and credibility.

Interestingly, shortly after we arrived in Ventura, a fellow called me on the phone to say he, too, had just moved to town and he was a boat designer. He was also a guidance counselor for troubled youth, and as I later found out, an accomplished Flamenco guitarist. His name was Richard Black, and he was going to build his first design, a 28’ wood-epoxy sailboat called Shearwater, and it had a free-standing cat ketch rig (we called them “unstayed” at the time). Richard ultimately hired me to engineer and design the two aluminum masts for that boat, although ultimately he was able to get carbon fiber masts designed and built. In return, I learned a lot about wood-epoxy boatbuilding from Richard and his builder, Craig Ashby. I did not realize it at the time, but I would eventually become one of the leading designers and proponents of unstayed masts, which I soon came to refer to as “free-standing” masts. The latter term sounded more positive, less negative, than “unstayed.” Years later, I designed the carbon fiber free-standing masts for Richard’s two Sparhawk designs, a 36’er and a 42’er, plus another one-off custom sailboat called the Esterel 56.

Opportunity for a no-name designer

Arliss and I lived primarily on our savings during that first year, and we joked that a magazine like Cruising World should call and offer me a job as an editor. Cruising World had rejected my first article submission, but seemed open for more ideas. An editorship would get my name out in the public’s eye on a regular basis with the backing of the magazine, and I could use those connections to attract clients and design boats on the side. Guess what? Cruising World did call in the spring of 1979, and after a trip to Newport, RI, and an interview, I accepted their offer as Technical Editor for the magazine. We packed our belongings in the boat, put the boat on a truck and headed east, arriving just in time to get hit by Hurricane David which soaked everything inside the boat.

Well, that job did not last. I was let go after four months for reasons I need not go into, suffice to say that what I knew and wrote about probably would not satisfy some of the magazine’s advertisers. But in that short time I learned a lot about magazine writing and publishing that has stood me in good stead to this very day.

Hands-on experience building boats

The next step was to get some practical boatbuilding experience and, fortunately, there were plenty of boatbuilders in Rhode Island. I managed to get two offers for engineering jobs, one with C&C Yachts, and one with Tillotson-Pearson Inc. TPI offered slightly more money, so that’s where I went. It was a great learning experience building Freedom Yachts, J-Boats, Alden Yachts, and quite a number of industrial fiberglass products like flagpoles and light poles, truck body parts, and windmill blades. At that time, TPI was changing Freedom Yachts’ masts from tapered aluminum poles to carbon fiber. Within three months the Chief Engineer left, and I was promoted to his position. I carried on with lots of composite engineering for the whole plant, including improving the design and construction of the Freedom Yacht carbon fiber free-standing masts.

On my own again

By November of 1981, I was ready to go my own way again armed with loads of composite boatbuilding experience. I knew that I did not want to become characterized by any one type of boat or design as there did not seem to be much future in that. What if one end of the market tanked, like racing sailboats, but powerboats chugged along as ever—why limit one’s self when many parts of the market require the same technical skills? I like sailboats and powerboats equally, and I wanted to be known as a good all-around boat and yacht designer. I think I have achieved that goal as shown in the following list of my more notable boat designs.

My career has not been as prolific as some of the more famous designers, but more so than a lot of others. And I suppose we could sit down over beers and discuss that until the small hours of the morning. Practicing naval architecture is more than just boat design. There is plenty of work in boat repairs and refits as well as expert witness work which pays very well. Suffice to say that we made a decent living—Arliss with her advertising and public relations work and I with boat design—we were able to raise two children and put them through college. We could buy new cars pretty much when we needed, go on vacations to distant places, and save for our retirement, which is right now. The following briefs are the stories behind my more notable boat designs, and what they mean to the corpus of my work. If you wish any additional information about these designs, send me a message and I’ll get back to you when I can.

Read the individual boat design stories: