E-Newsletter Q&A Robert Ullberg, Robert Ullberg, VP of Engineering and Product Development, Bertram Yacht
By dthompson ~ March 4th, 2013. Filed under: Current Issue.
Robert Ullberg, VP of Engineering
and Product Development, Bertram Yacht
Passion for sportfishing design
inspired by tournament fishing
along the Texas Gulf Coast
By Doug Thompson
Robert Ullberg clearly remembers when he decided to become a sportfishing boat designer. During a billfish tournament in the mid-1980s with his father near Port Isabel off the Texas coast, he saw a Tom Fexas-designed Southern Cross sportfishing boat outrun all the other boats at the start.
“At that moment I knew I was going to work for Tom Fexas and design boats,” said Ullberg, 46, during an interview with Southern Boating aboard a Bertram 80 at the Miami Yacht and Brokerage Show in February. Ullberg joined Bertram last summer as the builder’s vice president of Engineering and Product Development. “The tourney was a Bimini start and the Fexas-design boat just walked away from us.”
After the tourney, Ullberg climbed aboard the boat and learned about the fully-cored bottom design that the Australian-based builder Southern Cross used instead of the solid bottoms most builders were using during the 1980s.
“I knew right away I had to go the Miami Boat Show, find Tom Fexas and tell him I wanted to work for him,” Ullberg said. “That’s what I did. I went to the show, met him and sent him drawings.”
After earning a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Maine in 1991, Ullberg joined Tom Fexas Yacht Design in Stuart, Florida, and worked there for six years before founding Ullberg Yacht Design. After 16 years of running his own company, he joined Bertram last year. He sat down with Southern Boating for a Q&A session about his career.
SB: You began your career at Tom Fexas Yacht Design. How did working with this storied designer help you?
RU: On my first day of work, I came to the office all dressed up with a tie on. Tom Fexas came out with scissors and cut my tie off. I didn’t know whether to be upset or embarrassed, and Fexas said, “That gentleman over there will explain to you why we don’t wear ties here.”
I learned that when you lean over a drafting table your tie can slip and go over the ink that’s on the Mylars we drew on back then. If that happens, you’ve got a problem and it’s not a ruined tie. You have ruined your drawing. That’s why you will see pictures of designer Ray Hunt wearing a tie, but it’s a bow tie.
I learned so much from Fexas, but one important thing was before you go forward on a project, look back. Someone else has probably already done it, perfected it and thrown it away. You can learn a lot from following this broken road to perfection.
Another important lesson was to always have fun. If you are having fun then the rest of your job comes easy.
When I left Fexas I had his full blessing, and we remained close until he passed [away] almost five years ago. I bought all the assets of Tom Fexas Yacht Design afterward and I take huge pleasure in having all the drawings and file boxes. If you come to my library it’s all laid out. I am the curator. I donated all the Midnight Lace models to the Stuart Maritime Museum, but I have everything else.
SB: Technological advances in engines and boatbuilding in the last 20 years have been rapid. How have these breakthroughs improved sportfishing boats?
RU: It’s the advancement in diesel technology that makes these boats perform. In the 1980s the top speed was 30 knots; in the 1990s it was 40 knots. Now we are getting into 50 knots.
We are passing the next barrier. My hat is off to Caterpillar and MTU; they have taken these engines to a new level. Hull bottoms have a lot to do with it, but it’s the horsepower that is really amazing.
But there has to be a balance. It’s a three-legged stool of speed, comfort and quality—speed we can get by cramming in horsepower. Comfort can be a detriment to speed because, to make it luxurious and sound proof, you have to add weight. Quality we have to build in from the ground up.
You must talk to the owner and find out what they value most. Yes, you can take weight out, but in some cases less weight can actually be a detriment to the ride.
SB: What do sportfishing boat owners place more value on: speed or seaworthiness?
RU: The first thing an owner asks is “How fast does it go?” But soon after they get used to the speed, the sea keeping or seaworthiness is crucial. With the improvement of gyros, you can stabilize the boat at zero speed or even at speeds under 15 knots, but at higher speeds the gyros don’t do much.
You are constantly adjusting the trim tabs to find that sweet spot, because a 3- to 5-foot chop is totally different than a 10-foot rolling swell. The other thing is that most people willingly go out in rough seas.
The mantra at Bertram is that you may not go out in it, but you can get caught in it. And if you do, you have the right tools to get through the storm or turn around and get out of it. The saying “Thank God it’s a Bertram” is very true.
SB: Tell our readers about the new series of Bertram Sportfishing models. When is the first model scheduled for public launch?
RU: We are still early in the conceptual stages and the first one is going to be a new 60, which will replace the 57. The new 60 will be dialed in for tournament sportfishing, and we hope to introduce it in late 2014.
This is my first project with Bertram and it’s tough. I have big shoes to fill with guys like Ray Hunt and Dave Napier preceding me. I have to look back on the past and I don’t want to ignore that history.
We have sketches and design review meetings within both Bertram and the Ferretti Group. I have two gentlemen who work with me in the studio, Richard Lamarre and Justin Verde, and we are working on the sketches. We can’t afford to run with the latest and greatest technology only to find out in five years it is crap. It’s our responsibility to do our homework and put out the best.
After the new 60, we will come out with another model. We’re just not sure if it will be larger or smaller.
SB: Where and what type of boating and fishing do you enjoy? Do you own a boat?
RU: I used to tell people that I own all types of boats, and that they are all in my phone. I just call up the owner of a boat I designed and ask if I can come for a visit.
Actually, I have owned mostly smaller boats, because when you are in business for yourself and starting a family, you don’t have the time or funding for a big boat. When my son Seaton was born—he is 16 now—I bought a flats skiff at the Sherriff’s auction and put a motor on it.
It’s the best boat I have ever owned. I say that because it’s the boat that introduced my son to fishing and the sea. It’s a simple skiff and Seaton can drive it onto a beach or into the mangroves and he won’t hurt it. Of course, he has claimed it for his own and that’s fantastic for me. He’s addicted to fishing. However, it’s a luxury to have clients who are friends, and they always say I can bring Seaton along on a fishing trip. Seaton caught his first white marlin in a white marlin tournament on a boat I designed. I’m not sure who got the bigger thrill!