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Mining technology to discover magic

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“The first duty of a boat is to be beautiful.” Those are words that can change a company and influence, perhaps, an industry.

It was that belief and conviction, held by Shep McKenney, that led to the creation of the successful Hinckley Picnic Boat in 1994, when McKenney was an owner of the then-struggling yacht builder. The graceful, perfectly proportioned Down East lobster yacht, with its jetdrive and joystick control, helped turn the company around. “It was the marriage of two things I love,” McKenney says. “I love technology, and I love beauty.”

Passionate and confident of his vision, McKenney says that what fascinates him the most in product creation is not giving people something they want but providing them with something they weren’t aware they wanted yet.

In that respect the lifelong boatman with an eye for the “sheer elegance” of a well-designed yacht is a kindred spirit to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the master of his generation at seeing what others couldn’t see and then bringing into existence a succession of elegant, transformative products.

McKenney is one of those rare guys who understand just how powerful a boat or product created at the intersection of design and technology and beauty can become. “At its best, what technology does is create magic,” says McKenney, 70, a former lawyer and hotel chain president turned marine innovator. “When you’re excited by something, it drives you like nothing else can.”

McKenney sold Hinckley in the late 1990s and is the founder and CEO of Seakeeper Inc. of Solomons, Md., which designs and builds gyroscopic roll stabilizers for yachts. Talk about a potentially transformative technology. The idea of stopping a boat from rolling has sort of been like finding a cure for the common cold. “Who knew that a gyro could do this?” McKenney asks.

McKenney continues to set his sights high. Someday he hopes to build gyros small and affordable enough to stabilize even a 22-foot center console. “To me, it’s magic,” he says. “It’s gravity in a bottle. I’m still excited about it.” That excitement is what pushes you through the bad moments, he says.

“My love is technology and conceptual engineering,” he says, “and not so much the nuts and bolts of engineering.” He understands the inspiration and perspiration necessary to create something special. “Aesthetics comes out of the ether,” McKenney says, “and technology is really about a lot of hard work and really hanging in there.”

And at 70, he continues to learn. A case in point has been the challenge of not only designing and building sophisticated gyros, but also putting together the kind of smart, nimble company needed to be successful in the global marine market. “I thought all we had to do is build a great gyro,” McKenney says. “I found out that what we also have to do is build a great company.”

I like the story about how the Picnic Boat came to be. It’s the antithesis of a boat created by a committee or focus groups. Truth is, it’s a little yacht that’s lucky to have seen the light of day. McKenney could see it in his mind’s eye, but no one else at the company shared his vision, especially because it went against all of the prevailing market trends.

At a time when consumers said they wanted more room and accommodations on their boats, McKenney was willing to go in the opposite direction to create a certain aesthetic. He wanted a boat that an owner could handle alone — one that was big enough to entertain on, and especially one that was drop-dead gorgeous, a piece of dock jewelry. But it would be a small 36-footer — essentially a dayboat with centerline headroom below of less than 5 feet, 10 inches.

“It played to beauty and minimized accommodations, even though that thinking ran completely opposite to what any boat broker will tell you [is important], even today,” McKenney says. “That boat was very much designed from the outside in.” Success was hardly guaranteed. “It could have been a failure. I do think that kind of shimmering vision on the horizon can solve a lot of problems.”

Bruce King was the third naval architect McKenney turned to, and the final design was King’s third iteration of the boat. McKenney says success remained elusive until he realized that he was over-managing the project and backed off. He told King to “create the most beautiful 36-foot boat you can that has the proportions of a lobster boat.” And just like that, there was lightning in a bottle. “I still believe in magic,” says McKenney, who is now trying to capture it with a heavy flywheel spinning at high speed in a near vacuum within a sphere.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

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