Q&A with Seakeeper co-founder Shepard McKenney - Trade Only Today

Q&A with Seakeeper co-founder Shepard McKenney

It’s not often you hear a marine industry leader referred to as the Godfather, as Seakeeper co-founder Shepard “Shep” McKenney was in 2013 by PassageMaker magazine.
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It’s not often you hear a marine industry leader referred to as the Godfather, as Seakeeper co-founder Shepard “Shep” McKenney was in 2013 by PassageMaker magazine. Or as the kindred spirit of Steve Jobs, as Soundings Trade Only editor Bill Sisson dubbed him in a 2011 editorial.

But it’s also not often that you’re talking about someone largely responsible for an accomplishment such as bringing joystick control to recreational boating. McKenney did this on the Hinckley Picnic Boat he conceived — itself described as a “graceful, perfectly proportioned lobster boat” in Sisson’s editorial — years before joystick maneuvering would make its way into the boating mainstream. Now he is bringing stabilization technology to boats as small as 25 feet with the Seakeeper gyro.

Talking to McKenney is a bit akin to jumping out of an airplane — you walk away feeling inspired that humans can, if not conquer nature, innovate to make nature work for them. That’s because his mind is constantly creating — designing beyond the hurdles many take for granted. Where most people would accept that difficult close-quarters maneuvering is simply a drawback of jet drive propulsion, McKenney decided to remedy that with a joystick control system.

That fed into his latest endeavor at Seakeeper, founded by McKenney and John Adams, a man he calls the best boat-motion specialist in the world.

The gyro were born out of a particular experience on a boat that McKenney had found unpleasant. Where most people would accept something as basic as boat roll, McKenney thinks there’s no reason to settle for an uncomfortable ride.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says of the endeavor. “I had no idea how difficult it would be. All I knew was I had to do this. It’s the kind of thing where you’re just overtaken by something.”

McKenney, who is now 73, says that if he’d known how difficult and expensive it would be, he might not have done it. But then you hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about how the gyro will do more to grow boating than any industry-wide campaign because it essentially solves one very basic and large drawback — discomfort and motion sickness.

Now the company is expanding, hiring more staff in various departments and growing its manufacturing capabilities on the heels of a year that saw a 43 percent increase in shipments. We sat down with McKenney to learn more about the company and how he envisions the future of boating.

The Seakeeper 9 gyro stabilizer is designed to achieve 70 to 90 percent roll reduction on boats from 50 to 65 feet.

The Seakeeper 9 gyro stabilizer is designed to achieve 70 to 90 percent roll reduction on boats from 50 to 65 feet.

Q: Did you always envision bringing gyroscopic stabilization to smaller boats?

A: When we started the company 12 years ago, the idea always was to go into the broadest part of the boating market, that of course being smaller boats. But we realized that in order to introduce a low-volume, initial-entry product, it was going to be quite expensive. We had to get the experience of building those lower-production entry items to get into the marketplace and to prototype and learn what worked and what didn’t. The entry of the smaller product, starting with the 5, which was introduced a year and a half ago, was really the first time we could move into the broader part of the boating market.

Now we’re taking it even further down into the boating market with the entry of new products in the coming years. Our intention is to continue to make smaller and smaller gyros. Obviously as you make them smaller, they become much more price- and power-sensitive. The price part is obvious, the power part not quite so much because the smaller boats don’t have generators and have to run off batteries, and that poses significant additional problems in terms of how you configure the gyro.

It isn’t just that doing the smaller gyro gives us a new product to sell. Almost as important is this is such a new technology and it’s so counterintuitive that we’ve had a hard time getting the broad general awareness of a product that we feel will be a part of consumers’ minimum expectations in a short period of time. What we’re hoping is that people will begin to see it the way they saw automatic transmissions in cars in 1965 instead of 1955.

Q: The Contender (the 35-foot center console Seakeeper uses as a demo boat) is going to be a big part of that?

A: Yeah, that Contender’s a pretty impressive boat. You know, you ought to go out on that thing.

Seakeeper offers demo rides to show the effectiveness of gyroscopic stabilization on this deep-vee Contender.

Seakeeper offers demo rides to show the effectiveness of gyroscopic stabilization on this deep-vee Contender.

Q: I would love to go out on that thing.

A: You really should. One of the things about this technology that’s not immediately apparent is that it really permits things to happen in hull forms that couldn’t happen without it, that provide benefits outside of zero and low-speed stabilization. Principally, that is this: That Contender has a deadrise of, I think, 24 degrees. It’s a very high-deadrise boat. When the Bertrams came out in the ’60s and ’70s, everybody was amazed at how well they rode.

Today in some sportfishing boats you see it, in a lot of them you don’t and in most cruising boats you don’t. The reason is they have very wicked low-roll-speed characteristics, and it’s not that comfortable. The offshore guys do it because they have to; they don’t have a choice.

What the Contender illustrates is that with the gyro, you get the best of both worlds with a deep-vee boat. Which is to say this — the gyro can actually stabilize an unstable boat more easily than it can a stable boat. For example, the gyro’s really not that effective on catamarans, which are so rock-solid stable that they can’t apply enough torque to make a significant difference.

I should add here, that’s not to say a catamaran is the perfect solution to the problem. Anyone who has been on catamarans for any length of time, as I have, knows they have other problems. But the gyro will just kill the roll on a deep-vee boat.

They’re just incredibly easy to stabilize. So what you wind up with is a boat that provides a much more soft, comfortable ride at speed, and is rock solid at zero and low speed, which is a pretty happy conclusion.

The battery-powered Seakeeper 3DC was installed on the company’s Contender 35 ST demo boat.

The battery-powered Seakeeper 3DC was installed on the company’s Contender 35 ST demo boat.

Q: Seems like an easy sell. So why has getting the message out been an uphill battle?

A: I tried to introduce the gyro at a Hatteras Marlin Tournament in 2006 or 2007. I set up a booth at the tournament and was there for three days by my lonesome. I had one person come up to the booth, looking for directions. When we tried to talk to people about it, what those hardcore fishing guys said was, “Boat roll doesn’t bother me.”

What that’s a statement of is, “I’m used to it; I can take it.”

But for the larger boating market, their experience is defined by their worst experience. People don’t go around saying, “We set up a picnic in the cockpit and a boat wake came by and everything went flying.”

You don’t really hear that. People just have experiences and they go the other way.

There’s this campaign the National Marine Manufacturers Association has about Grow Boating. The gyro will do more to grow boating than all the publicity in the world because it changes the fundamental experience of boating by taking away that basic negative.

Scout offers a Seakeeper system on its flagship 420 LXF, concealed beneath the seating on the aft side of the helm.

Scout offers a Seakeeper system on its flagship 420 LXF, concealed beneath the seating on the aft side of the helm.

Q: One of the major components of Grow Boating is keeping boats affordable. How do you respond to people who say this will just make boats more expensive?

A: It’s true that with any technology, you have a tradeoff. If you built an automobile today to the specifications and features of 40 years ago, people wouldn’t be very happy. We pay a tremendous price for luxury, convenience and safety on modern automobiles. So it’s always a tradeoff between cost and benefit.

What we say is that if you take an outboard boat, the gyro is about the cost of an additional outboard motor, or 4 or 5 feet of boat length, and that puts it into perspective. Would you rather have a boat that’s not quite as fast or not quite as long, but have it be something that’s comfortable and safe for your family? That’s a decision only the consumer can make, but I think you know our answer.

Q: The safety component must be appealing to families.

A: That’s certainly a part of it. The safety is an extension of the comfort issue. At some point, an unexpected boat roll can create a safety problem, but I would say the larger benefit is whether people enjoy the experience of being on the boat. Do they look forward to it, or do they have fear around getting out there and getting uncomfortable or sick?

I think in 10 years it won’t be a question. It will be like having an air-conditioned home in the South. You will just expect it. It won’t be: “Do I do it or not?”

And part of the problem with cost is, as long as manufacturers haven’t tooled a boat to accept a space for the gyro, the installation becomes much more expensive. And as quantity climbs, we’re able to drive more cost out. Today the gyros cost 20 percent less than they did three years ago. We’re hoping to continue that trend. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation. The more you sell, the cheaper it is, and the cheaper it is, the more you sell.

Q: And are you guys the only ones doing this?

A: I think so. There are people who have put up websites and have shown pretty pictures, there are people who have produced a few gyros, but let me put it to you this way: In our contacts with potential customers, the subject of another gyro does not come up one in 20 times.

We’re really it, and we understand why because when you go to build something like this, it is incredibly difficult. These things have tolerances that are more demanding than the tolerances of gas turbines on airplanes you fly. It is a very sophisticated device.

Viking places the gyro stabilization system beneath the cockpit sole on the 92 Convertible.

Viking places the gyro stabilization system beneath the cockpit sole on the 92 Convertible.

Q: What made you decide this is the direction you wanted to go in marine technology?

A: I’m an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurship at its best comes from excitement and enthusiasm. They say in start-ups that most people who do them, even ones who are ultimately successful, wouldn’t do it again if they knew what they had to go through.

I very much relate to this. This is my third entrepreneurial business. When I found out about these things, I got with the guy I’ve known for years [John Adams]. He was really the best person on boat motion control in the world — a different kind. It was the fast ferries in the Pacific, where they use these foils and tabs and interceptors to damp the motion of catamarans.

When I saw what the basic device was, we realized that if we could spin it in a vacuum, it would mean we could make it much more efficient and environmentally bulletproof and control it actively, and therefore get a lot more out of the basic physics of the thing.

What happened is, the company trying to sell these things asked my partner, John, if he would represent them. He called and asked me to look at it and see if I thought it would work.

I didn’t think it was that viable a product because it wasn’t in a vacuum and it wasn’t actively controlled, but we instantly saw the potential. I went home that night, and I couldn’t sleep. I came back to his office the next morning and grabbed him by the collar and said, “John, we’re starting a company!”

I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea how difficult it would be. All I knew was I had to do this. It’s the kind of thing where you’re just overtaken by something. And when you live the way I live — I just jump at things a lot of times without really realizing what I’m getting into, but it’s just who I am.

Q: Are Contenders being built with a space for the gyro? Are you talking to OEMs about rethinking space?

A: So far as the Contender’s concerned, we’ve done something that I think has tremendous potential for center console boats. We have put the gyro in the leaning post, so the thing that you sit on, the box you sit on, has the gyro in it. It means you don’t have to cut down below the deck and get into the hull itself, which obviously involves a fair amount of surgery and rearranging. You use the space that’s fairly available. We’re working with naval architects now, but we’re very encouraged. Similar to what I said before about the DC-powered gyro opening up a larger market, this deck-level installation we have achieved on the Contender opens up so many more options for both new-build and refit installations. This doesn’t hold true for only center consoles, but we could see this installation method become common on so many other types of boats. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the tooling from the builders is concerned, I would say that probably 60 percent or better of the smaller boatbuilders we have worked with so far have said to us that all of their new designs will have space engineered in for the gyro. But 90 percent of them have said, “We won’t change our existing tooling because it’s just too expensive.”

So what we’re having to do on smaller boats is to either go the center console route or have a considerably more expensive installation because the tooling [the builder used] didn’t take into account the gyro. But having said that, our percentage of sales that goes to retrofits has been steadily climbing. I think this year our percentage of sales is in the low 20s, and our target for the coming year is that 30 percent of sales will be retrofit.

The acclaimed Hinckley Picnic Boat established Shep McKenney as an industry innovator. This is hull No. 1.

The acclaimed Hinckley Picnic Boat established Shep McKenney as an industry innovator. This is hull No. 1.

Q: This isn’t your first foray into boat-motion-control technology. Can you talk about your background?

A: In 1982 I teamed up with Bob Hinckley, the son of the founder, and we bought the Hinckley Company from a guy his dad had sold it to. It was essentially bankrupt. It was almost like a start-up. Of course, then it was a sailboat company. We were able to turn it around and run it as a reasonably successful business for 10 or 12 years.

I realized that the cruising sailboat segment was a contracting market. And I realized that most people used the sailboats we sold as day boats. They didn’t really use them as cruising sailboats. What they really wanted was a beautiful object to spend some time on the water with, to go to a restaurant or take friends out for a sail.

Of course, the sailboats in many ways don’t lend themselves to that application — first of all, because they’re a lot more effort to move around, and second because sailboats have a lot of draft, and that doesn’t work … unless you’re fortunate enough to have a deep-water dock.

I decided that the only thing to do was to create a boat that had the attributes people were looking for, which is a beautiful, easy-to-use object that had enough speed to get somewhere that wasn’t dependent on the wind, and that would be something they would be proud to own and look at on the dock.

So I started this initiative to create the Hinckley Picnic Boat. As a part of that development, because it had a jet to create small draft, I quickly realized that it needed a different control mechanism. Jets allow wonderful control authority because you can convert that stream like a fire hose in 360 degrees, but harnessing that authority is another matter. Not least because when you back up — there’s reverse sensing on boats and cars — but jets are actually correct sensing. That is, when you turn the boat clockwise, the boat turns clockwise when you back up. In a car or conventional-propulsion boat, if you back up and turn the wheel right, the boat goes left. It was a difficult problem to solve, and I decided the only way out of it was to do a fly-by-wire joystick control system. So at Hinckley I developed, and we sold and it continues to this day, the first recreational boat joystick control system. In a way, that fed into the gyro because I had to get into the boat-motion-control technology and figure out how to build the thing. We actually built those early joysticks and tested them at my dock at my farm in [Drayden] Maryland.

The Picnic Boat is really a new category of boat. It really converted the Hinckley Company from a sailboat company to a powerboat company.

Q: How small of a boat do you think the gyro will ultimately make sense for?

A: It’s hard to imagine that if people get used to this level of stability in the larger boats that they’re not going to want it in the smaller boats. I can certainly see us going down to … something on the order of the mid-20s.

We’re doing preliminary work on such a gyro. We’re actually building a prototype small gyro for me on a boat I’m going to use this winter in Florida. It’s a one-of-a-kind gyro to further go into that envelope of smaller and smaller boats. But there’s really no conceptual reason why you couldn’t do it on a canoe. I hate to predict too far into the future. But I can certainly say that down to boats in the low 20s, absolutely. I think that’s clearly doable as a matter of power, weight and cost.

Q: I understand Seakeeper is seeing some commercial demand, as well.

A: We do, and we have gyros on Hong Kong harbor police and Navy support vessels, and windmill support vessels. It hasn’t been our emphasis initially because the recreational market has been more available — it’s more coherent and easier to reach — but we actually believe that the commercial applications in the long run will be greater than in the recreational applications.

In the recreational world, if it’s a nice day you go out, and if it’s not, you don’t. In the commercial world, you go no matter what. Unless it’s a hurricane, you’re out there working.

In most of those applications, the boats are out there loitering. Whether it’s a patrol craft or a boat sitting beside oil platforms, whatever it is, they’ve got to be out there loitering, and the crew has to live with that constant roll motion. It has to do with crew efficiency, crew safety, and in the commercial world it’s different now than it used to be.

It used to be that they treated crews on commercial boats like dogs; you just put up with it. But you go out on these things today, they’ve got leather seating and DirecTV, and comfortable cabins. The whole world is moving toward safety and comfort, avoidance of risk. This is a natural adjunct.

Q: You had the foresight to identify that contracting sailboat market. What do you foresee as some coming general trends in boating?

A: Well I don’t know about that, but I do think that sailing, like other products and technologies that require a lot of user involvement, are not growing. It’s axiomatic that nobody reads instruction manuals. You want to pick the damn thing up and just use it. You can’t do that with a sailboat. There’s just no way. I don’t care if you’ve got electric winches, or what you’ve got, there’s no way to do that with a sailboat. Sailing — the cultural trends are not for it.

The second cultural trend is that people want things that are increasingly sophisticated. Today if you look at the center console boat market, there are center consoles in the low 40s that are a million bucks, and they’re loaded with features. And of course, that plays to us.

You asked, what about cost, but what the marketplace is really saying is: “We’ll pay if you can give us features that we like and make the experience better.”

Q: And this technology is exciting enough to make it worthwhile, it seems.

A: I’ve been out on these things hundreds of times. When I go out, particularly when it’s rough, I always have same reaction: “Wait a minute. That little ball of metal is doing this?” You know, there’s something magical about this thing. It really is. I don’t know of anything like it that’s so counterintuitive, so shocking in how it works.

One of the things we do on the Contender is, we have a clear panel so you can see that gyro tilting back and forth, and you can actually correspond what it’s doing with what’s happening on the boat. It’s a stunning experience.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.

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