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Zen and the art of  Zurn Yacht Design

William Sisson

William Sisson

To my humble eye, the best boats across generations share four or five attributes. They’re handsome, reliable, efficient and seaworthy. And they also are so striking as to make their owners turn around at least once and gaze back on them as they walk down the dock at the end of a day.

More than a few of these good-looking boats have been drawn by designer Doug Zurn, who runs a four-person, full-service yacht design and engineering firm in Marblehead, Mass.

Clean lines and aesthetics matter, says Zurn, whom I interviewed at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show aboard the MJM 40z, one of his designs. “I always say that a boat has to be timeless in design, whether it was designed in the ’30s or designed today,” says Zurn, 54, who has a reputation for creating handsome, dry boats with good performance and a smooth ride. “It doesn’t involve smoke and mirrors. It’s real style.”

Boat designer Doug Zurn says he draws some of his inspiration from the auto industry.

Boat designer Doug Zurn says he draws some of his inspiration from the auto industry.

Our conversation touched on a number of topics, from current design trends to future boats to the influence that sailing has had on his work.

More than 440 of his powerboats and sailboats have been built since he hung out his shingle in 1993, including about 200 MJMs.­­ In addition to MJM, Zurn has worked with builders that include Marlow, Duffield, Bruckmann, Vanquish, C.H. Marine, Lyman-Morse and Derecktor.

The first MJM 35z outboard model made its Florida debut at FLIBS this year. And more than 20 of the outboard dayboats have been sold since they were introduced in September in Newport, R.I.

Although most of his work has been designing Down East-style boats, he says he welcomes the new opportunities that are opening up beyond that genre. “I think diversity is a key to our success,” Zurn says. “We design sailboats. We design powerboats. We design standup paddleboards. We’re diving into catamarans. We’re able to provide all the different propulsion systems. I haven’t done any airboats yet.”

Better boats

Zurn enjoys walking the docks at boat shows, but that’s not where he finds his inspiration. “I get some inspiration from listening to people,” says the lifelong sailor and car buff. “A lot of it is just intuition.”

He also looks to the automotive industry for new ideas and stimulation. “I just had a conversation with a new client today on a new design we’re doing,” says Zurn, who in 1993 received his professional degree from the Westlawn School of Yacht Design. “It’s different than anything we’ve done before, and it was influenced by the high-end car industry. I’ve always loved cars,” says Zurn, who drives an Audi Q7.

Overall, he says boats have gotten better since the Great Recession. Improvements can be found in everything from the quality of the construction to the materials, fit and finish, and, of course, design.

“But I still see a lot of boats that could use a lot of improvement,” Zurn notes. “I see trends happening where it’s going back to how much can we cram into the interior of a boat. There’s some really clever ways that people are making boats extremely comfortable to live aboard, but I don’t know that I’d want to take them to sea.”

Form follows function for this lifelong sailor, whose sailing background influences his design work at an instinctual level. “It’s just the intuitive aspect of being a sailor,” says Zurn, who grew up sailing and running a 17-foot Boston Whaler on Lake Erie. “Function is key. When you’re on a sailboat, you’re at the mercy of the sea. That’s always in the back of our minds when we’re working on new designs.”

Zurn has an affinity for seakindly boats that can be taken offshore. The MJM 40z and the Nordhavn 40, for instance, are the only two 40-foot yachts with an ISO Certified Category A Ocean rating, which sets design standards for seaworthiness.

Zurn designed boat

The Zurn-designed MJM 35z made its Florida debut at FLIBS this year.


What does the future hold? “I imagine you’ll see more foiling boats. And you’ll see more cats, for sure,” says Zurn, whose personal boat is a Gloucester 20, a sweet little center console of his design. “We have a design deposit on a new 50-foot power cat. That’s exciting.”

As battery technology improves, electric boats should also become more prevalent. “I think you’ll certainly see more regulations, and that will change dramatically how we look at boats and propulsion in boats,” Zurn says.

The designer also expects the trend in dual-console boats to continue. “Dual consoles are wonderful boats,” Zurn says. “We’re doing a 30 now with Vanquish Boats. That concept of enjoyable day features will continue to grow for several years. There’s a lot better use of space on boats than there used to be.”

Early immersion

Zurn’s love of boats and water goes back to boyhood, when he sailed a Dyer Dhow Midget with an opaque bottom. (The dinghy was designed to be stowed over a deck hatch on a cruising sailboat to let light in.)

“I specifically remember sailing in that boat with a low sun, heeled over and watching the water go by the bottom of the boat and being mesmerized by that,” recalls Zurn, who cites designers Philip Rhodes and James McCurdy as early influences. “Water’s always intrigued me.”

And Zurn says he’s known since reading Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design in high school that he wanted to design boats for a living. The design process remains part art and part science.

“Clearly the aesthetics are art,” Zurn says. “And ergonomics are a combination of art and science. And much of the rest of it is a science. It’s a process of evaluating and re-evaluating, and testing and verifying, and estimating and verifying. I’d call that a science.”

Computers and pencils

A lot has happened in the world of yacht design in the last 15 to 20 years with the advent of powerful computers and design programs. “We build a prototype in the computer, which enables us to launch that 35z over there and have it do exactly what we intended it to do,” Zurn says. “Ninety percent of that boat is designed and engineered in 3-D. And that enables us to look at it, spin it, render it, tweak it … and look at it in different ways.”

Twenty years ago, guys on the shop floor struggled to find solutions to a host of build and rigging issues. “What I tell the guys in the office is, we have to offer a solution,” he continues. “We may find a little better solution after we build hull number one or two, but we need a solution to this.”

Zurn, who loves the design process, recently returned to his roots. “I bought a drafting table about a year ago, and I’m starting to draw by hand again,” he says. “I designed a 48-foot powerboat profile, and I got to the profile I liked much quicker than I would have if I was on the computer.”

He scanned it and built a 3-D model, which he says came out beautifully. “You’ll see it someday,” he promises. “I’ll show it to you, and I’ll say remember when I told you that boat came from a pencil sketch in 2017.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.



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