Ruling the Rules of Physics
Around Morrelli & Melvin's design office in Hungtinton Beach, it’s OK to let your mind wander from the long-legged catamarans the company is famous for. Down at the Coast Highway, the welcome sign says Huntington Beach: Surf City USA (hint hint). When Gino Morrelli finds Nat Shaver with a foiler Moth project on the computer screen, the “bust” is a laugh. Minutes before, jaywalking under a warm California sun across four lanes of Warner Avenue, Morrelli had been bragging about his young associate’s Moth. But don’t tell Nat.
The whole team at Morrelli & Melvin Design and Engineering has been known to shove work and hit the beach when the surf is up. Morrelli says, “I’m a longboard kind of guy.” But the offices inland, in a faceless complex in the weltering flats of greater LA, could house CPAs or insurance salesmen as easily as the designers of, for example Playstation, the giant catamaran that in its moment held records across oceans and around the world. CPAs and insurance salesmen, however, probably wouldn’t store their logo t-shirts in a cardboard box marked Que Bueno!: Nacho Cheese Sauce. And we wouldn’t be writing about them. But we can’t help writing about a shop that designs ubiquitous cruising and charter cats and boats as diverse and exotic as Stars & Stripes ‘88, A-class cats and remotely-operated hard-wing trimarans. So here we are walking around with Gino Morrelli—and here’s a fly-by from his Olympian and world champion business partner Pete Melvin, who came to this gig from aerospace engineering—and suddenly we’re launched into an afternoon of comparing production cats versus custom cats, and at times we’re peering into a future where the rules disappear. Not quite all the rules. The rules of physics still apply. But it’s OK to imagine a round-the-world racing multihull lifted by foils and pulled by a kite.
Saving the dreams for dessert, we first take on Morrelli’s vision of an industry transitioning to a new generation of multihulls—design and technology evolving together as the focus of production shifts to Asia. After a light lunch, Morrelli launches in and the ideas just roll.
"Boats today are getting lighter, stiffer and easier to clean and service as manufacturers move up the chain of improving their boats. It started with first-generation home-builts in the 1960s and 1970s, the plywood Rudy Choys and the early fiberglass Prouts. Then came a generation of early Lagoons and Robertson & Caines that were typified by low underwing clearance. Look at those boats today and you can’t help thinking slow, heavy, clunky. Now we’ve reached third and fourth generation production cats, with increased underwing clearance to eliminate the slap-pounding that characterized early boats.
“To enhance interior volume, we’re decreasing underwing span with either radiused shapes or chamfered panels, and in our own boats we’re always fooling around with proportions of width to depth. That led us to the 'tulip' shape. The tulip gives us a narrow waterline for good performance, and above that the shape expands to accommodate the queen-size bed that the marketplace expects. Those are the compromises that have crept into our lines and other lines as well.
“There is the question of who’s buying the boat. Very few people actually go long distance cruising, but the prospect has to be in view—think microwave, blender, dinghy, outboard—so what will cruising be like? You could get an owner, or a second owner, who loads the boat down with a shell collection and the unabridged encyclopedia and who knows what else, and you go from a relatively decent boat to a relatively crappy boat in a matter of a couple thousand pounds. Looking at a pounds-per-inch immersion rate, 1,000 extra pounds will sink a catamaran way deeper than it will sink a monohull of the same displacement. The difference is about 30 percent, so if 1,000 pounds sinks a monohull one inch, 700 pounds will sink our boat the same inch.
“Production cruising boats are not going to fly a hull. They’re intended to not fly a hull, whereas with our custom M&M 65s or the Gunboats, the ability to fly a hull is essential—while carrying microwave, blender, dinghy, outboard. That’s the dichotomy we’re always working with.
“Infusion and resin transfer molding (RTM) are the new highlights of production building. The custom guys have gone beyond, but the production builders are in various stages of working this through. At the 2009 sailboat show in Annapolis, Maryland, Fountaine Pajot had a 41-footer with a deck built by RTM. This process uses a female mold on each side of the part you’re building, and the resin is vacuumed through the laminate stacks. It’s tricky, but it produces a structure that is finished on two sides. With an RTM deck you don’t have to hide the underside with laminates, paint, fabric, fairing, so you reduce thickness and save height. You preserve headroom while lowering the profile, and we’re always trying to lower the profile. You also get rid of spaces that collect mold, fumes, and odors.
“Two years ago everybody still made plywood bulkheads and taped and laminated them to the hull. The edges might have been resin-coated, but they were not encapsulated. Now we build a bulkhead in a female mold, so it’s encapsulated and in ten years you’ll be hard put to find rot or odor. The bulkhead has a flange around the entire perimeter. You put glue on the flange, and the new glues give us a better bond than hand-laid taping ever could. The process is quicker and cheaper—but it requires more accurate tooling, and the assembly requires better-controlled temperatures. Like infusion and RTM, this forces a company to invest more in the plant, for the sake of temperature control."
Working across the spectrum of multihull design, from pure cruisers to high performance racers, Morrelli & Melvin are forever exploring the intersection. One recent mission has been to aid Robertson & Caine in its transition to modular production. That entails more building in parallel and bringing the parts together at the end: “Going from the boatbuilding business to the boat assembly business,” Morrelli calls it.
When we drove even farther from the beach to tour high-end custom builder Westerly Marine in the municipality of Santa Ana, Westerly’s Lynn Bowser toured us through the construction of two M&M 65s and relished the opportunity to kid his friend in front of a journo. First he uncasually inquired, “Did you know that Morrelli & Melvin also designs monohulls?” Then he went for the jugular. “Yep,” he allowed, “they once designed jungle-ride boats for a certain theme park in Anaheim. Pretty good boats, I guess. Haven’t sunk any so far, but it’s probably a good thing they run on rails.”
Finding ourselves surrounded by high-end custom work, we weren’t running on rails ourselves, but there were no hippo attacks, so the day was perfect for considering the intersection of production and custom work.
"Production cats have moved from early-generation skeg rudders to balanced spade rudders, which reduce wetted surface and provide a little more feedback and sensitivity. But in designing for production, performance opportunities are constrained by considerations of safety and comfort. If we could, we’d put daggerboards in all our catamarans for the performance benefit. But production cruisers are likely to wind up with mini-keels, because daggerboards used incorrectly are no better than keels. Daggerboards are also more expensive and way more prone to damage when you run aground. We don’t say if you run aground, because if you don’t do it to yourself, someone will eventually drag across you and haul you to the beach. Count on it. So we always have a conversation with our custom clients about better performance versus higher risk, and where they fit on that continuum, and how they feel about boards poking up through the boat and taking up space.
“We always put carbon masts in custom boats, and the one upgrade we always wish for in a production boat is a carbon rig, mainly to reduce pitching. Underwing clearance is related to pitching because you don’t wave-slap the middle of the underwing, you wave-slap the leeward stern, especially when you’re going upwind. A lighter rig lowers the center of gravity, reduces pitching and slapping, and gives you a more seakindly boat. But carbon is two, three, even four times more expensive than that volume-built, cast and riveted, robust, heavy, but plenty-good aluminum spar that you would probably settle for in a production boat.
“Right now, Robertson & Caine, Lagoon and Fountaine Pajot are all producing 42 and 45-footers. They all weigh between 15,600 pounds and 26,800 pounds, and there’s a price point in there. They're all $600,000 to $700,000 on the upper end, $300,000 to $350,000 on the lower end. Then there’s a jump to our custom 65-footers, and that leaves a chunk in the middle that somebody is going to exploit, a promising new fifth generation. The client might be somebody who’s had a Lagoon or a Robertson & Caine, and they like it, but now they’re more experienced and they want to go faster. They’ve figured out they don’t want 3 staterooms and 3 heads. They want a real owner’s boat, with less accommodation and more storage, a high underwing, light weight and a carbon spar.
“Maybe they’re not ready for the M&M 65 or a Gunboat, but they want more than they have, so it’s an opportunity to go semicustom. We can put in some carbon and buy length without increasing weight. Think about it—our Gunboat 66 weighs the same as our Robertson & Caine 46. Somewhere between those extremes there is a new generation of semicustom boats waiting to be born. Lagoon builds 300-some cats a year, Robertson & Caine another hundred-something and Fountaine Pajot another hundred or so. There are enough of those owners who have been enjoying their boats long enough that a few of them are looking for something new."
Go west from California, and there’s not much between you and the East except Hawaii. We know the boatbuilding industry is not moving to Hawaii, but Asia, yes, which is why M&M associate Bobby Kleinschmit is learning Chinese. When I spoke to Morrelli, he had spent some time in the nominally-communist (“everybody wants to be an entrepreneur”) People’s Republic of China.
"I see a big chunk of Morrelli & Melvin migrating to the far East. NACRA performance cats just moved their fiberglass production to Thailand. Corsair is in Viet Nam. Fortunately for us, Westerly here in Southern California is still building competitive custom boats, but McConaghy [in Australia and China] will be breathing down their necks with quality and price. At the last International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference, you could see all the material/equipment reps angling to get into China ahead of the curve. Beneteau is rumored to be looking for a place to build. It’s not that people think the Chinese domestic market is taking off like a rocket, but they don’t want to be the last in.
“What’s good about going to a place like China is that we can launch a new culture and teach them to build boats our way. We don’t fight the inertia of a factory where people have been doing things one way for a long time and don’t want new techniques even if that means a better product. Labor is cheap, so we can do time-consuming, detailed finish and trim that we can’t do elsewhere. The new Robertson & Caine plant in Fuyang is close to everything we could possibly need. Shanghai and Beijing are each a major metropolis. We can put a guy in a car and he’ll be back in hours with parts, tools, anything we need.
“My personal experience in China is limited, 10 of the last 18 months, but I like the work ethic. The Chinese we’re dealing with were already very good with composites because they were building pre-preg rowing shells, using infusion and ovens and two-part paint. We didn’t have to teach them the work that usually comes hardest. Robertson & Caine brought in guys from Cape Town to show them how they wanted the plumbing and electrical and mechanicals done. I was there last fall, and they were on boat seven or eight of the Robertson & Caine Leopard 38s. They were as good as, or better than, the Cape Town boats.
“With the new build processes, you can dry-stack your laminates, take your time, then step back and call in quality control to verify the stacking and count the plies. Imagine an assembly kit with parts pre-cut and indexed, so it’s like building a model. When you have a full, validated assembly, and only then, you mix the resin and infuse in one shot, and it happens all at once as opposed to having 25 guys running around, mixing maybe 35 batches over four hours with the chance that someone will get one of those batches wrong.
“You’re taking some of the responsibility away from individual workers, and you’re removing some of the adrenalin rush that guys feed on. In our Chinese shops we have way more women involved in building boats than men. Women typically have more tactile feel, and they’re more patient. That’s a cultural shift, and it’s not just us. It’s also Beneteau, Bavaria and so on where there’s more kitting, more robotics. Production boatbuilding is years behind the automobile business, because most boat builders don’t have the volume to justify the infrastructure for more sophisticated techniques, to train robots to drill every hole in the boat.
“Once the shift to Asia shakes out, high-end, sophisticated building will still exist all over the planet. The Kiwis will build boats; Westerly will build boats; there will be niche markets for custom shops. Shipping is the biggest problem for Asian-built production boats not destined for Asia/Pacific markets. Delivery can be a big percentage of the cost of a boat, and boats are not user-friendly to ship; you can’t pack a lot of them into a container. But you can pack in a bunch of components that could be assembled close to the end user. You could build a thousand consoles and ship them in a container for $3,500, the way car manufacturers do it. It’s a flat-world model: Build where you can build it best; assemble in a cost-effective location.
Tell me, Gino. I’m your ultimate, deep-pockets client. Experienced, rich (I wish) and hungry to fund an adventure in multihull design. I want to make a difference. The sky’s the limit. Watcha got?
He wishes too but, okay, here we go.
"If you’re keen you could go for one of the hard wings we’re developing for the Harbor Wing project. Their first goal is an autonomous-sailing research/surveillance vessel, but the technology is pretty do-able as a means to produce a neat boat with shorthanded sailing capability, a lot of rig and the ability to depower instantly. That gets you past the limiting factor for big multihulls, that we can power them up for performance, but we can’t depower fast enough when there’s trouble. The Harbor Wing approach uses a computer-monitored rig that spins, so it can depower in an instant. That technology is a game changer, wide open right now to how far you want to automate, and it’s in need of a special client who’s willing to jump the curve.
“But really, the big next thing is to get rid of the rigs and go to alternate sail power. I think, not far into the future, we will adapt kites to racing and cruising. We’ll eliminate the rig, or a lot of it. First we have to solve launch-recovery issues and engineer autopilot capabilities into the kites. I can see setting enormous kites and being able to depower them in a moment. You would carry more sail in higher winds because the kite as a power source is trying to lift the boat, not turn it over. We just need to get Stan Honey and some other smart guys together to figure out the autopilot side so you can dial in, say, 80 percent power at 80 degrees apparent, and if the kite exceeds its power zone it self-feathers. I don’t know if this would ever get down to course racing, but it sure has possibilities for distance sailing. We’re playing around now with a kite idea on one of the Moorings powercats, to see if we can reduce fuel consumption on deliveries from South Africa.
“Look at our new 20-foot NACRA F20 carbon toy and then start dreaming what that would look like at 80 feet. The next generation of boats is going to play with foils, not l’Hydroptre-style where the boat lifts completely out of the water, but lifting maybe 70 percent or 80 percent. Those curved foils [also seen on both America’s Cup contenders] are definitely faster, especially downwind. They won’t slow you down unless you’re pushing them through the water in light air. Now launch a kite. Now imagine your alternate power sources. Hybrids. Fuel cells. They’re coming, and the high-end guys can afford to let us play.
“Man, I hope we get the first shot at that…"