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Q&A with Michael Peters

Founder, Michael Peters Yacht Design
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Michael Peters is among the most renowned yacht designers working today, with hundreds of designs in a career that dates back to the early 1970s. His studio, Michael Peters Yacht Design, has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Azimut, Bertram, Cabo, Chris-Craft, Hinckley and Viking’s Valhalla Boatworks. Peters also has designed one-of-a-kind vessels with the master craftspeople of Brooklin Boat Yard and Van Dam Boats.

Today, Peters splits his time between his childhood stomping grounds of California’s Catalina Island and Sarasota, Fla., where his studio is located, along with a Bertram 25 that he’s “restored actually a couple times” during the 30 years it’s been on a mooring near his home.

We discuss his first forays into the yacht business, his early obsessions with stepped-hull designs, rubbing elbows with Don Aronow during wild parties in New Orleans, working for the Italians and odd, uncomfortable meetings with the Yakuza.

What’s your earliest memory of being interested in design?

I don’t know that I started off with the interest in design. We had this summer camp [on Catalina Island], and I ended up, in my teens, sort of being in charge of keeping all the camp boats in shape. All of these boats were hand-me-downs. So I learned to work with fiberglass and do woodwork and all that kind of stuff when I was about 14, 15 years old. I started out repairing the boats, then building a couple skiffs for myself. And the very first boat that I built [at 16], I had to learn how to transpose an existing boat into frames so that I could build a duplicate boat. I sort of figured out a whole system to draw a boat in reverse. I didn’t have any books on it. I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I figured out how to level everything out and take measurements and all that — create drawings, then create frames and build my myself a boat.

Once I built my first boat like that, I realized that I wanted to have some say in how I did it. You start kind of by copying somebody, and then you modify it.
Before you know it, you’re designing something. I think I backed into the design more as a builder in kind of figuring out how to do it that way.

How did you start to design your own boats?

Before I ever drew a boat, for anybody, I lofted a boat full scale, a 51-foot sailboat — that’s taking a scale drawing and producing it as a full-scale drawing on the floor. And so I learned to draw boat backward. I was drawing at full scale to learn to draw at small scale. And you sort of get into that process.

I was taught lofting by a guy who was a carpenter in World War II on the Spruce Goose. Southern California had a lot of influence from the boatbuilding during World War II. The older guys were still doing that. I was younger, and I was learning from them.

The Alpha Z was a collaboration with Van Dam Boats. “If you can get their trust, you can sort of elevate it to a form of art,”  Peters says of these types of one-off projects. 

The Alpha Z was a collaboration with Van Dam Boats. “If you can get their trust, you can sort of elevate it to a form of art,” Peters says of these types of one-off projects. 

Did you attend a university? How did you advance your burgeoning career?

Quite literally, I had to leave the state of California to get a design job, because everybody thought of me as a builder. And nobody was going to give me a shot at designing anything. I had to basically leave the area and start over because everybody thought I was a wood boatbuilder.

I went from high school to being a caretaker over in Catalina, for the summer camp we had. During that winter, I built a boat for a commercial operation in Avalon. After that, my parents said, “OK, enough of that, you’re going to school.” So I went to school at the University of Southern California, where my father was a professor and dean. I first started off in engineering and hated it. And did very badly at it.

I transferred to architecture and did very well. But in my third year of school, I had come up with the idea of a stepped hull. And I was just champing at the bit to build it and prototype it. I had started looking into what it would take to patent it. By the end of my third year, I dropped out of school.

What did you do next with the stepped-hull design?

It’s interesting when you drop out of school and your father’s the dean of the university, but I basically had his blessing. I left school with this idea to build this prototype for a stepped hull. It was like that was the ancient concept from the 1920s. Nobody could understand why I was trying to do a stepped hull, all these years later. And so that’s kind of how I got into the boat industry.

I began to contact companies all across the country about this stepped hull. My first foray with Bertram was actually in about 1976 or 1977. Their corporate headquarters — back in those days, they’re owned by Whittaker Corp. — was on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. And I went and met with those guys when I was, I’m going to say, 22, 23 years old.

By that time, I had already applied for patents. I got into the boat business through trying to promote this stepped hull that I was getting patents on. And I can remember, at the Fort Lauderdale boat show in 1978, being introduced to a group of people in the boat industry, among which was the president of Bertram, the president of Trojan and [others].

And one of the guys introduced me, and he says, “I want you to meet Mike. Mike’s the best-known boat designer in America that’s never designed a boat for anybody.” And that was my introduction. Everybody kind of knew who this kid was trying to build the stepped hull. Back then, nobody wanted to give a damn about stepped hulls.

Who else did you meet in the early days?

In the effort to try to get somebody to do the stepped hull, one of the companies I contacted was Cigarette. And coincidental to me getting married, I was on my honeymoon in Miami and went down and met with Cigarette. And they said, “Oh, we just sold the company to a group in New Orleans called Halter Marine.” And so we got in our car and drove to New Orleans. And when I met with Harold Halter, the chairman of Halter Marine, they ended up picking up sort of an option on the patent and agreed to pay for all of the legal work.

I ended up going from [living in] Los Angeles, honeymooning in Florida to getting a job in New Orleans. My wife and I immediately moved from California to New Orleans, and I worked three years with Halter.

High praise: Viking design manager David Wilson called the Peters-penned Valhalla the “most advanced and proven stepped-hull design in the world.”

High praise: Viking design manager David Wilson called the Peters-penned Valhalla the “most advanced and proven stepped-hull design in the world.”

Did you ever meet Don Aronow?

Yeah, about three or four months after I took the job in New Orleans. He was coming out to New Orleans for the Leon Spinks-Muhammad Ali fight. The big party in New Orleans for the fight was at Harold’s place. One of the guests was Don Aronow. If Aronow was out there, he was going to test-run my boat. So here I was, 25 years old. And I had grown up in California, and the racing was really hot in my blood. And I was finally going to get to meet Don Aronow. He shows up to drive my boat, and he’s wearing a Speedo. This is my hero, right? So it’s quite a graphic image going on here.

He takes the boat out with me — we run it on Lake Pontchartrain. This was a little 19-foot boat I built in California, and it had a 4-cylinder Volvo engine. It wasn’t a really fast boat. And he runs the boat, and I’m just waiting anxiously for his report. And he says, “Nice boat kid. Don’t waste your time with this.” At which time I went home and plotted his death because my hero now went to be my biggest nemesis. And he told Harold, “Don’t waste your time on this thing.”

And I’ve now moved across the country, to have this dream job of getting all this going, and Aronow comes out and just absolutely sticks a fork in the whole thing. So I went from him being my idol to absolutely hating him. We actually got to be good friends just after that.

What inspires you as a designer?

I’ve always been very much centered on the performance and running aspects of a boat. And I’ve always felt that the hull was the majority of my interest. And that everything else was kind of secondary to that. Some designers are really inspired by the look of a boat, the actual style of the boat. And I’ve always said, “If we’re not doing the hull, we don’t want to do the boat at all.”

I was heavily influenced by the work of C. Raymond Hunt and Sonny Levi. When I started off, those were the two designers and series of boats that I was completely focused on. For years, I had a copy of Sonny Levi’s Dhows to Deltas that was a file folder of just Xerox pages because I couldn’t get my hands on the actual book. I toted this thing around for years, and I’d lose a page now and then, and I’d just panic over it. But those two were my strongest influences.

It started with the interest of hull design and performance in rough water. And it wasn’t really until later that I began to really want to focus more on design and styling. That was a secondary thing for me. Now, it’s not anymore. When I was younger, I was much more concerned with the performance end of it and really understanding it, the naval architecture, much more so than on the design end of it.

The Revolver project led to Peters working with Azimut Yachts on its outboard-powered Verve model line. 

The Revolver project led to Peters working with Azimut Yachts on its outboard-powered Verve model line. 

How has that attitude changed with more recent projects, say the Azimut Verve?

On the Verve, we didn’t do the style. We were doing design work with Azimut Group 10 years ago, and we were doing the whole thing. We were doing the hulls, the decks, all the styling, everything. When their dealer group found out that it was an American doing their boats, they had a rebellion. They said, “Oh my God, we’re the land of design. How can you have an American doing Italian boats?” We actually lost the job because they were so upset that Italy would go to the United States for design.

So it was interesting when Azimut contacted us about doing the Verve project. They said, “Oh, we love the boat you did in Italy called the Revolver.” We designed the whole thing. And they said, “We love the design. We love what you did with it. We want to do something like that.” And we’re like, “Great.”

“But Michael, we only want you to do the hull, because we’ve got an Italian that’s going to do the deck.” And it was really strange because they came to us because they loved our design. But they weren’t going to hire us for design. They were only going to hire us for naval architecture.

Then I met the young designer that did the rest of it. And he told me, “When I found out that I was going to be working with you, I’ll never get to design again because Michael Peters is so good at this, that I don’t have any place.” And I just had to laugh because they wouldn’t hire us because we weren’t Italian. We deal with that a lot.

At this point in your career, you don’t mind making concessions like that?

If we have one part to do, I will take the naval architecture over the design. We won’t do it the other way around. If you’re going to separate our tasks, well, always separate to do the functional part first and the design separate.

You mentioned the Revolver 42. Are there other one-offs or custom builds that you look back on fondly?

We’re doing a small one-off right now, a 28-foot mahogany boat with Brooklin Boat Yard. And we’ve done a couple of boats through the years with Steve Van Dam [Van Dam Boats] of Michigan. From a designer’s point of view, I think our favorite boats are the custom one-offs. You get to go in with the very best boatyards, with good budgets, and you get to do sort of ultimate projects that aren’t watered down by having to appeal to a mass market.

I’ll probably butcher the quote but it’s Kurt Vonnegut: No great piece of art was ever created for more than an audience of one.

Chris-Craft hired Peters’ design firm to rebrand its model line, and he gave the boats their stylish, retro look.

Chris-Craft hired Peters’ design firm to rebrand its model line, and he gave the boats their stylish, retro look.

What are some of the biggest challenges on the bigger projects?

As soon as you try to appeal to a lot of people, you have to make a lot of compromises and really kind of water it down. The custom one-offs, there’s no committee that’s approving this thing. There’s one person. And if you can get their trust, you can sort of elevate it to a form of art.

I look at the Van Dam projects that we did with Alpha Z. There’s also a boat we did called Tender to Faith. Years later, I’ll tell you, Alpha Z is so perfectly executed, I don’t think human beings can actually do better. I don’t mean design; from a builder’s point of view. The work is so flawless that you can literally take a magnifying glass to every joint on that boat and not find a flaw.

When you start out in your career, these are the projects you dream of. The idea that we’re doing five of these a year is not true. These come once every 10 years. Most of your career is not full of dream projects.

There was an article I used to keep in my desk drawer, from one of the car magazines. And it was a guy talking about how every student coming out of school hopes to do — what you call them? — show cars, for these special expositions. And he said, “If you get to do one in your career, count yourself lucky. Because nobody’s career is full of nothing but show cars.”

The fact that I’ve gotten to do a few of these through the years, they’re very special to us. We’re doing one right now, but they are not a regular occurrence.

What bothers you about modern boat and hull design?

The list of things that people want on a boat are almost identical at 25 feet as they are at 100 feet. And what gets to really be hard, from a purist point of view, it ruins the boat. It ruins the boat by trying to do too much to them.

My personal taste is to do much less on a boat, give a lot more open space, and not have so many things that are gimmicks, and really keep the boat simple. It is not what sells though. What sells are these boats that remind people of their cars, remind people of their houses. And anybody who’s had a lot of boats wants simplification, because how hard it is to maintain these things. But the current trend is extremely complicated boats, with things on them that we never heard of 20 years ago. And all these things do is make the boat heavier and heavier and heavier.

A case in point would be a Seakeeper. We can’t draw a 35-footer that doesn’t have room for one. And in all of this stuff, they add so much weight to a boat that they’re absorbing all of the extra horsepower that has been achieved in the last 20 or 30 years. If you’ve made a 50 percent increase in horsepower, the boats aren’t benefiting.

So I find that I have a pushback of my personal style, and my personal idea of how a boat should be is really counter to what production builders want and what the consumer seems to [want].

The Outback 50, which came out a few years ago, seems to speak to your aesthetic.

That is probably the most indicative of what I would do with no interference. The Outback is not literally what I was going for myself, but it’s a modification of that. And so that boat is almost verbatim what I would do for myself, given the opportunity. At one point through the project, the investor sort of pulled out, and we thought the whole thing had died. We stuck it in the drawer for three or four years. And then another person came forward, and we’re surprised that Outback ever made it off paper.

You’re now working on hull No. 3?

No. 3 is under construction. I think it’s a very unique boat in the market. We’ll have to see how it does. It was introduced last year for Lauderdale. But before they could even get anything going, Covid came around. It’s a hard time to launch a new venture, but it’s a really unique boat. It feels so different than any other boat. And I think if people understand really how to use a boat, it can be very appealing.

The Outback 50 closely resembles something Peters would design for himself without the need to please clients or compromise.

The Outback 50 closely resembles something Peters would design for himself without the need to please clients or compromise.

In the next five to 10 years, how will advances in propulsion or power change design?

The two things that people are looking at right now that I think are different than the past is foils and electric propulsion. We’re currently involved in four different electric projects. We did the project a few years ago with Hinckley with their Dasher.

We were involved with an electric tender with Zodiac over in France. We’re looking at some electric tenders right now. What can we do to enhance the electric propulsion? You have to start looking at reducing drag, because the power source is not big enough to handle a powerboat. It’s a very complex set of issues because the weight of the batteries is significant enough to where you cannot actually do a lightweight boat and get there.

The propulsion package by itself is already over the displacement of what you would call lightweight. And of course, you also have the intersecting problem of the cost. There are some fairly good power sources, but they’re so expensive. You’re looking at increases in power, increases in battery life, what kind of a hull can be done that reduces the drag significantly enough to make this all work, and how much weight savings can you do. The long and short of it is, it’s not there yet. I’m really glad that we’re getting to sort of dabble with this, but it’s not ready for prime time. We’re trying to achieve fairly modest speeds and fairly modest range, and you just can’t get there yet. The opportunities for electric power seem to be with megayacht tenders at this point.

They have opportunities to charge land-side and yacht-side. If that boat was on a mooring, it wouldn’t have any chance to recharge. The mothership that has plenty of electricity to tap into, that’s fine. But what do you do when it’s a standalone boat?

You have the perfect confluence of things with a tender. You have the wealthiest of clients demanding the least out of the boat. So they can spend $1 million or $2 million on this boat, but they also only expect it to go a very short distance. So that’s completely counter to what the consumer is looking for. The consumer is looking for something that’s going to go a long way and not cost them a lot. I think about where Tesla started: You have to appeal to this fringe group of people that can afford early technology.

What’s the wildest meeting you have had with a potential client?

For me, the most outrageous meetings in the boating industry involve being with some unsavory characters, where in the middle of the conversation, they’ll talk about murdering somebody. You’re sitting there as a boat designer. And they’ll say, “Didn’t such and such rip us off? And how are we going to deal with that?” And sitting and looking in the room, and realizing that all of the Japanese guys in the room are missing a finger. They were all Japanese mafia.

So you’re sitting there and they talk about getting back at somebody by perhaps having the guy knocked off. As a boat designer, you’re going, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The other thing would be, I was [around] when Don Anorow was murdered. I was hired to run his place and move down there on a Monday, and he was killed the next day. I closed up the shop the day of his murder, with the two homicide detectives. And they asked me, “Who on Earth would want to kill this guy?” And when they were done, they ended up with 140 suspects.

What is the most outlandish thing someone has asked you to put in a boat design?

One of my favorite ones was, again, back in about 1990. I was asked to do a yacht proposal with Bell Aerospace, on a surface effects ship. The boat was called Nonstop. The client lived in Switzerland, and he was convinced that the Russians were going to invade Europe with tanks. From his house in Switzerland, he had a tunnel to get out to the road and escape to the South of France. And he wanted a boat that could take him around the world and that he could live autonomously on if the Russians invaded Europe. And one of the discussions was, we couldn’t carry enough fuel on the boat.

We sat in a very serious meeting with Bell Aerospace engineers and discussed whether or not the filtration system could handle it if we had watertight staterooms that could be flooded with fuel. If you can imagine your whole stateroom, bed and everything, flooded in diesel fuel so that we can extend the range of this thing, so that he could go around the world without refueling. And that discussion was whether or not that filtration system could handle fuel going through mattresses and chairs and carpet and all that kind of stuff. And it was a serious discussion.

What advice would you give and up-and-coming designer?

I gave a little commencement speech at The Landing School a few years ago, and the advice that I gave them was: If this is something you really what you want to do, don’t become a purist. And take everything that comes your way.

The reason I say that is, if I was a purist, I would have done 10 boats in my career. If you want an opportunity, you have to do what your client wants. Your job is to do the best job you can with it. If you’re going to sit on the side, waiting for your dream project, they just don’t come that often.

Peters says the high costs and low range of all-electric boats mean they’re not quite ready for prime time (Hinckley Dasher shown).

Peters says the high costs and low range of all-electric boats mean they’re not quite ready for prime time (Hinckley Dasher shown).

That’s good advice. Are you’re slowing down a little bit these days?

Yeah. I’m now 67, and we bought a place out in Catalina about four years ago. I’m trying to get to the point where I spend six months a year there. And the staff I have has been with me for years. I’ve got three guys that have each been here over 25 years. They’re more than capable to carry on without me. I think the fortunate timing is you can work remotely better than you ever could in history. And so if I’ve started a project up, I can go and not have to be here every day running it.

Is there a boat you’ve seen that you look at it and say, “Man, I wish I’d designed that one”?

I always tell people that the natural enemy of a designer is another designer. So it’s very hard for designers to compliment the other guy. And I’ve tried to not do that. I’ve tried to say, “Look, when somebody does good work, you should be honest enough to admit it.” I love some of what Don Aronow [did]. I used to love Bruce King’s work. The fact that we got to take over with Hinckley after him was the best compliment I ever had, because I loved Bruce King’s work.

I look at Liberty that Bruce King did with the torpedo stern. Beautiful. I mean, I look at a boat like that and go, “Oh man, I wish somebody would ask me to do a boat like that.”

What do you see happening with boat design going forward?

I tell everybody traditional boating is dead. Our idea of what traditional boating is does not fit this generation. There’s a completely different definition of what people want in boats and how they think of boats. The boat that I think would shock everybody, that nailed it absolutely on the head — and not to say that I like it, but I just think they’ve done a great job — is Arcadia.

Arcadia looks like someone stuck a house on a boat. The truth is, that’s how people use boats now. People don’t cross oceans. They live on a house, like a weekend retreat. And I think that it’s very hard for anybody who’s been doing this a long time to be open-minded enough to look at this stuff and say, you know what? That is really the way people use a boat. 

This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.

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