Why We Run Yacht Design School


Thomas A. MacNaughton


“The natural state of human beings is happiness” – The Dalai Lama


Many years ago I was struggling to learn yacht designing.  I had one book, a small drafting table which my father had built for me, and a few tools, some of them home made, including my spline and spline weights.  One day at Brooklin Boat Yard I met a gentleman working on a power dory and, feeling the dory was quite pretty, said so, and introduced myself.  The gentleman was the well known yacht designer Ted Brewer.  I was pleased to actually meet a respected yacht designer and mentioned I wanted to learn to design but the only school at that time seemed to have forbidding contracts and I wasn’t sure how good they were.  Ted smiled and said that he was starting Yacht Design Institute and would be happy to have me be one of his first students.


I was very grateful to Ted and worked hard at my lessons.  By the time I was working on the seventh lesson I was invited to become the first draftsman at Brewer & Wallstrom where I had the pleasure of talking with other YDI students and even doing illustrations for some of the lessons. 


When a recession caused a layoff.  My wife Nannette, our daughter Heather, and I moved ourselves and our design and writing office onto our Laurent Giles “Vertue” class sloop and set off sailing.  This allowed us to live inexpensively, traveling with the seasons, while building up our design business. 


I, like many other young designers, probably dreamed at that time of personal fame.  So I suppose I had some ego.  However, something wonderful happened as we lived aboard and sailed.  Everywhere we went people were eager to help us, worried about charging us too much for services, and often came up to us with offers of work should we need it.  We realized that other people gained great happiness and satisfaction from helping us.  This made ego centered goals seem shallow and unworthy.


Realizing there was no way to ever pay back all the people who were so generous with us, we gradually began to look for ways to help others in order to “pay forward” to others where we could not pay back the generosity of these friends we found so easily.  By this time we were getting well enough known that people were coming to us for recommendations on how to learn yacht designing and we recommended Yacht Design Institute to them and often helped them with their lessons and answered letters from them when they got stuck on something.


When Yacht Design Institute, by then owned by Bob Wallstrom, was sold, in 1989, to Maine Maritime Academym and when we realized that Maine Maritime intended to close down the distance learning end of YDI, we felt compelled to provide a distance learning education for folks who came to us asking about a way to learn yacht design.  This was a good decision given that the YDI program was soon closed down completely.


Without any advertising or other promotion we simply started teaching those who happened to come to us, charging enough to cover our time and sending out a small catalog to those who inquired.  Before we knew it we had 70 students.  This continued to increase until we realized that just mailing catalogs and answering the same questions about our school was taking a great deal of time.  At that point, in 1997, we created our website, which is still, to this day, our sole promotional endeavor.


We started, and continue to run, the school to help others because we had learned from our liveaboard and sailing life that a happy life comes from helping others to have one.


We realized that in both designing and teaching our ultimate “product” was not really the design or our student’s passing tests, but rather had to be the goal of  happiness for our clients and students and ultimately for our student’s clients.  We also realized that helping others have happy lives, was giving us a happy life as well.  Though we will always live in modest circumstances, we are rich in friends around the world, most of whom we will never meet.


One of the greatest sources of our own contentment is the demand shown for our students.  Many come to us for more education, even though they are already practicing yacht designers, or custom boat builders.  Others are graduates in large ship naval architecture who realized their education was not appropriate to achieve excellence and success in the yacht design field.  Nevertheless the majority of students are new to the profession.  Those who discover a passion for design sufficient to take more than a lesson or two, and are not already employed in the field, are all offered design jobs no later than starting to work on Lesson 10 of our main curriculum.  We have been told that the tendency to hire our students early in their design training is based in the judgment that they are already capable of productive work and also the fear that, if the firm waits any longer, someone else will snap them up.  It is common for major design firms to tell us to simply send everyone we feel is ready to do productive work to them and they will interview them, whether they think they need anyone at the moment or not.  Normally a student’s portfolio of their best student work persuades the firm to make a place for them.


When we launch another student into her or his career we know they have great potential for a happy life and are equipped to design boats that are combinations of performance, seaworthiness, ease of handling, and hominess, which can provide wonderful times on the water for generations of happy people.


Though we assume we will be here to direct the school for a good many years to come, we are especially grateful to see that we are gradually gathering a good team of people who will someday form the core of a new generation of people running Yacht Design School, and continue to provide yacht and small craft design education on a very personal basis for a long time to come.