Doug Zurn had just completed his correspondence course in yacht design with honors from what, in 1993, was known as the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, all while working in various jobs in the industry. He decided to give designing boats full time a shot.
“When I left college, I gave myself five years to do this yacht thing,” Zurn says from his office overlooking Marblehead Harbor in Massachusetts. “I told myself if I don’t have a boat floating in five years, I’ll go into finance or something.”
Zurn had bounced back and forth from the East Coast to Ohio, where he is from, eventually paying just utilities to stay in a friend’s unfinished Marblehead house while his friend pursued a tech career in San Francisco. His first project as a naval architect was the Monomoy 21, a sailboat he designed for a family in Nantucket, Mass. He did his first powerboat commission in 1995 but realized he hadn’t charged enough money to offset the cyclicality of the business.
From 1995 through 1998, he took whatever design projects he could get. “I didn’t eat a lot,” Zurn recalls. “It was about 1998 that I figured it out.”
Today, Zurn Yacht Design has 502 hulls on the water, with the MJM 40z accounting for around 100 of them. (The “z” denotes the designer’s contribution.) More than 300 MJM boats have been built through the partnership of Zurn Yacht Design, MJM Yachts and Boston BoatWorks.
The idea behind the Down East-inspired 40z, which premiered during autumn of 2008, was to create a 40-footer that could be ISO-certified as Category A Ocean, the highest rating of seaworthiness and safety. The boat’s twin Volvo Penta IPS500 drives give it a top speed near 40 knots. The new MJM flagship, the 53z, has quad Mercury Verados and a 3.5-to-1 waterline length-to-beam ratio for stability at high speeds. That boat won the award for Best New Large Powerboat at the Newport International Boat Show in September.
MJM Yachts is Zurn’s No. 1 client, though he has worked with many over the years, including Vendetta, Vanquish, Lyman-Morse, Bruckmann and Duffield, in addition to his most famous client, singer/songwriter Billy Joel.
Today, Zurn has 352 items on his Excel spreadsheet to-do list. “I do get designer’s block every now and again,” he says. “You just have to set it aside. The seed is always germinating. If you set it to the side and focus on other projects, the seed grows, usually sometime in the middle of the night.”
An avid lifelong sailor, Zurn speaks fondly of the sailboats he’s worked on, but no sailboats are currently on his project list. “The last sailboat we did was a Marblehead 22,” Zurn says. “I had a couple sailboats on the drawing table, but they didn’t come to fruition. Whether we’re designing sailboats or powerboats, there’s the same passion. I like solving problems.”
His office is set up for utility, sparsely decorated with two minimalist desks, a drawing table and a bookshelf packed with well-worn paperbacks, including Yacht Style, Industrial Fluid Power Vol. 1, and Principles of Yacht Design. On one desk are two monitors; on the second is a phone, a lone folder with a neat stack of papers inside and a box of Milk-Bone treats for his two doodle dogs, Teak and Holly. Natural light pours in from the windows, illuminating photos of some of his more meaningful projects.
The third room in the L-shaped office space includes a conference area with a whiteboard and a wall-sized window facing the harbor. There’s also an entry space, where two employees are perched over laptops. The office has a similar thread to Zurn’s projects: The primary objective is elegant, efficient functionality while fostering a strong connection to the outdoors. His personal boat embodies the same concept: a Vanquish 24 he bought preowned last spring and named Keremma, a combination of the names of his wife, Kerry, and his 13-year-old daughter, Emma.
Zurn has several refits and launches in the works, including a 30-foot Torqeedo-powered electric vessel for a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. There’s also a 30-foot Vanquish he’s beginning, a 65-foot custom yacht for a private owner and an aluminum commercial day-excursion boat.
Those projects are in addition to the many MJM boats the designer is always working on. “We have all the production stuff we do for MJM,” Zurn says, “and a lot of the custom interiors are fed through us, too.”
For a custom refit on an MJM, Zurn has plans on his screen in 3-D, making the galley larger by eliminating a shower and shortening the head. He sends the 2-D drawings to builders, who issue the drawings to suppliers with measurements so a new Corian countertop, for example, will fit precisely into the space, Zurn says.
The dealers for production OEM clients serve as inspiration, as do the clients he works with on custom builds. “It’s exciting when somebody new asks me to design a boat for them,” Zurn says. “They have their ideas, so we listen and try to bring them to life in a manner that’s consistent with what we’ve done in the past. Usually they are well-educated about boats, and they come to us because they know what they want and can’t find something in the marketplace that suits their needs.”
When a potential client comes with a concept that is already in production, Zurn guides him toward that builder. “They have an easier time reselling, and it’s a costly proposition to commission a custom boat,” he says. “At the end of the day, you may have a boat that’s unique to you, but it may not be unique to anyone else in the world.”
Zurn pulls up a design for a 60-foot custom catamaran that New England Boatworks originally commissioned. “The man who commissioned us to do the work [ultimately] decided he didn’t want to invest in a 60-foot custom cat, but it has a very open bridge deck with large windows to let in the light,” Zurn says. “Right now, these are not opening windows, but it would be really cool if they dropped down.” He moves his mouse across the aft windows, his mind still at work even though the project is on the back burner.
In general, he’s at a loss for how to explain his style in a nutshell. Boaters just seem to know his work when they see it. “That motoryacht looks nothing like this daysailer,” Zurn says, gesturing at two photographs on the wall. “But people look at them both and say, ‘Did Doug Zurn design that?’ ”
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.