yacht designers

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Until relatively recently, were not all qualified in naval architecture, a lack which did not stop many from rising to the top of their profession. However, with the expansion of tertiary education and the intricacies of designing on a computer, it must be rare nowadays for a professional yacht designer not to have formal qualifications, though there are probably still plenty of talented amateurs without them who are more than capable of designing fast, seaworthy boats.

The term yacht designer—which covers designing both sailing yachts and power yachts—seems to have been introduced by an Englishman, Dixon Kemp (1839–99). Kemp worked for many years as the yachting editor of a magazine and as secretary of the Yacht Racing Association, now the Royal Yachting Association. He formulated the length and sail area rating rule, adopted first in the USA (1882) and then Britain (1887), which did much to improve yacht racing and yacht design, and became an established yacht designer during the latter half of the 19th century, producing a number of seminal works on the subject.

Kemp worked during the great boom in the sport of yachting which followed the visit to England of the schooner America, in 1851, and the introduction of steam propulsion in leisure craft which caught on at about the same time. It was this popularity that led to the work of the yacht designer diverging from that of the yachtbuilder who had traditionally designed what he was constructing.

Some of the most famous yacht designers during this period emerged from the yachtbuilding firms they ran. Among the most eminent were the Scottish builders of Fairlie, William Fife II (1821–1902) and his son William III (1857–1944); Charles E. Nicholson (1868–1954) of Camper & Nicholsons, who designed everything from skimming dishes to J-class yachts as well as luxurious power yachts and speedboats; and Nat Herreshoff of Bristol, RI, perhaps the greatest of all American yacht designers, who was equally versatile. All three firms built and designed many famous yachts during the decades 1850–1939, a number of which are still sailing today as classic yachts.

Archibald Cary Smith (1837–1911) was the first to specialize exclusively in yacht design in the USA, after initially earning his living by marine painting. As a child, he played around America as she was being built, and was later apprenticed to a boat-builder. In 1870 he designed Vindex, the first iron-built yacht in America. In doing so he broke from the established concepts, employed by the boat-builders of the day, of designing by ‘rule of thumb’ and with carved models. Instead, every conceivable part of the vessel was calculated and then transferred to paper plans before construction started. Later, with the iron-built Mischief, the 1881 defender of the America's Cup, he advanced the cause of yacht designing by producing a revolutionary yacht.

In the same period a number of British yacht designers emerged from different backgrounds, some more qualified than others, but all highly skilled. Four outstanding examples are George L. Watson (1851–1904), who designed Britannia, perhaps the most famous racing yacht of all time; Alfred Mylne (1873–1951), the designer of some outstanding International Metre Class yachts; and the Boston designer B. B. Crowninshield (1867–1948), a prolific designer of the smaller yacht as well as some contenders to defend the America's Cup, and the trading schooner Thomas W. Lawson.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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