You may not recognize Malcolm McKeon’s name, but you’ll surely recognize his designs. From the 163-foot (49.7-meter) Fitzroy-built Zefira to the 216-foot (66-meter) Vitters-built Aglaia, McKeon has had a hand in them, and more. A key designer at Dubois Naval Architects for many years, McKeon recently hung his own shingle, as Malcolm McKeon Yacht Design. Here, he discusses how he fell in love with boats at a young age, the joy of working with creative clients, and how carbon fiber is a “wonder material” that deserves more use.
Q: What spurred your interest in design, and when? What attracted you eventually to yacht design, and when?
A: My interest in design began at a young age; my mother is an internationally known artist who has lived in all corners of the world. My sister has also made a career in the art world, so my love for design must be in the genes. I learnt a lot from my mum about aesthetics, visualization and proportion, which has stood me in good stead with my career in yacht design. I became a keen sailor from the age of seven, persuading my dad to buy my first sailing dinghy, a New Zealand P Class design, in Fiji, where we lived at that time. My passion for sailing continued through to my student days in Hong Kong, where I progressed from dinghies to keel boats. I knew by then that my passion for yachts was more than just sailing; my interest was also in the design.
Q: When you started your career in yacht design, were there any established designers you most admired? If so, who, and why?
A: My career started with Dubois designing IOR racing yachts. At that time the leading yacht designers were Doug Peterson, German Frers, Ron Holland, and others. I admired each of them for their individual successes, but in my opinion the designer producing the most attractive-looking IOR designs then was German Frers; he had the finest sheerlines and well-proportioned stern shapes.
Q: How did you meet Ed Dubois? What was the experience like working in a studio so well-known especially for sailing yachts?
A: I first met Ed in 1976 when he came to Hong Kong, where he was building his first Admiral’s Cup yacht; I ended up sailing for the Hong Kong Admiral’s Cup Team on this yacht. Following the 1977 Admiral’s Cup, I stayed in the UK to study naval architecture. Ed set up his design office in 1977, and I worked there during my holidays, becoming employed full time following my graduation in 1981. I soon became a director and shareholder in the company and have been involved in every design that has been produced by the company since, until my recent departure.
Q: Among the yachts you’ve designed so far, do any stand out in terms of being among the most creative, or even the most fun? Which one(s), and why?
A: There have been many yachts that have stood out at the time as being creative, from the very first superyacht, the 121-foot Aquel, to one of my last projects with Dubois, the 216-foot Aglaia. Aquel was the first yacht to feature the wrap-around window, which was carried through to many other award-winning designs. The wrap-around window provided virtual 360-degree visibility from within the yacht’s interior; a feature never seen before on a sailing superyacht whilst also providing a very distinctive look. Aglaia was a departure from this look. The client was looking for a radical re-think on sailboat design, something I believe was successfully achieved with the design of Aglaia.
Q: Now that you have your own studio, among the things you’ve expressed interest in is doing more with carbon construction. Why is that? For example, do you feel you can offer clients more understanding of the material than other designers? Or, do you feel its full potential has not been reached?
A: I have always been a big fan of using carbon fiber; it is a wonder material. In the early days of IOR racing yachts, I was responsible for the composite engineering at Dubois, before specialist composite engineers, such as Gurit, arrived in the industry. So I am well versed with the advantages of using this material in yacht structure, provided it is engineered and constructed correctly. Carbon fiber certainly offers great potential. However, certain issues associated with using carbon fiber in superyachts need to be addressed, such as reliability, which potentially affects resale. Other concerns are noise, vibration and to a degree, cost.
Q: What are your views on “green” yachts—are more owners truly environmentally conscious and asking for more eco-friendly technology, or are they still focused on traditional performance and design/decor concepts?
A: Sailing yachts are perceived as being more “green” than motoryachts. In recent years I have designed large sailing yachts for clients who have moved from motoryachts, as they prefer the “greener” image. I believe that there is a lot we can do to both build and operate large sailing yachts in a “greener” way. One thing is to make the yacht more environmentally acceptable when arriving or departing an anchorage, but it is the longer term effects which are of particular interest to me. In general, clients are conscious of the environment and favor designs that use sustainable products and reduce emissions.
Q: Can you describe some projects you’re working on now?
A: Following my departure from Dubois, I have been retained by two clients to complete their projects, one a 46m sailing yacht building at Vitters; the other a 46m motoryacht building at the De Vries Feadship facility. I have two other potential sailboat projects that I am now working on: 30m and 52m designs, both in a contemporary style.
Q: These days, there are a good number of contracts for yachts in excess of 80 meters, and even 100 meters. Does that make your job easier, because there’s more room for creativity, or does that make it harder, because larger yachts are more complex?
A: Larger yacht designs certainly offer more scope for design innovation; there are relatively fewer of them being built, so there are many ideas which have not been tried yet. There is more room for creativity within the larger spaces that an 80m+ design offers. The designs can also be more complex, particularly the sailing systems that have to be devised to enable automated handling while still keeping an eye on maximizing sailing performance. I see there being more of these large sailing yachts in the future, as owners view them as having a greener and more romantic appeal, while still being able to retain the comfort and speed of a similarly sized motoryacht.