Designer Doug Zurn turns boating dreams into reality
An opportunity has knocked for yacht designer Doug Zurn more than once, and the 54-year-old from Marblehead, Massachusetts, has nearly always had the good sense to answer the call.
From an Early Age
Zurn always loved boats and grew up sailing on the Great Lakes. He graduated high school from University School east of Cleveland in 1982. His senior year design project was a sailboat instead of the house he was assigned, but a career in the marine industry seemed unlikely. His parents pushed him toward engineering, and in the mid-1980s, he was at the University of Arizona, yet he still dreamed of designing boats.
“I looked up naval architecture schools on microfilm and found the Westlawn correspondence course,” Zurn says, referring to the famous school that boasts graduates such as designers Tom Fexas, Gary Mull, Bruce King, and Jack Hargrave. “I moved back east, started the Westlake program and set a goal to get a boat built with my name on it within five years.”
Zurn moved to Marblehead and worked as a rigger with Dieter Empacher in the late 1980s, then Chuck Paine, and in the 1990s, he moved back to Cleveland and worked for Tartan Yachts for three years as a rigger and sailboat designer. He finished his Westlawn correspondence course in 1993 and had a boat launched with his name on it, the Tartan Yachts 4600.
“Tim Jackett, who now owns the company, was nice enough to share the credit,” Zurn said. “Working at Tartan was a really good education. I learned about tooling, building molds, and about custom boat building and relationships. I had more than a few tape balls thrown at me as I learned how my work affected other people’s work.”
A Lucky Break
In 1993, he moved back to Marblehead and opened Zurn Yacht Design; his first job was designing a sailboat for a family in Nantucket. He lived with a friend and worked at a boatyard to supplement his income, and then in 1996, his big break arrived in the form of designing the Shelter Island 38 for singer Billy Joel. Christened Joey, the twin-engine cruising runabout’s origin came from Zurn’s graduation thesis from the Westlawn School of Yacht Design. “We’ve built almost sixty of those now,” says Zurn. “That launched my career, and it showed me how I must mix the creative side with the business side. I have to listen to what people want; these are dream boats for most people.”
The next “knock of opportunity” came in 2000 when Bob Johnstone, who founded J/Boats in 1977 with his brother Rod, was looking for a powerboat design in the 34-foot range. Johnstone, and his son Peter, were impressed with the Shelter Island 38—and not just by her looks. “I saw pretty boats that were not functional and functional boats that were not pretty,” says Johnstone. “We asked ourselves, ‘What designer has the best eye for coming up with a pretty boat that is functional?’ Within ten seconds we both said, ‘Doug Zurn.’”
Johnstone commissioned designer Doug Zurn to draw a rendering, and they met at the Newport Boat Show. The design34-foot cruising powerboat was final after months of exchanging emails and faxes. They chose Boston BoatWorks to build, and the first MJM Yachts 34z launched in 2003. “My designs are about taking advantage of technology, core materials, high-strength fabrics —the best that is out there,” Zurn explains. “These boats last a long time, and Boston BoatWorks is a big reason why. They went from a ten-thousand-square-foot shop to sixty thousand square feet.”
A Prosperous Partnership
The relationship with Johnstone and Zurn has resulted in hundreds of boats launched, and the small “z” at the end denotes Zurn’s importance in the projects. The line begins with the 29z and runs up to the 50z. In between are the 34z, 35z, 36z, 40z, and 43z. “It started with the 34z and there have been some adaptations along the way,” says Johnstone.
“Doug is detail-oriented; however, the apprenticeships he had at Boston BoatWorks and Tartan Yachts grounded him. He knows well the challenge of taking your design and building it reasonably. Doug Zurn can do both, and that’s a big plus.”
More outboard-powered boats are being launched by MJM, including the new 35z. Equipped with twin Mercury Verado 300-horsepower, four-stroke outboard engines, the 35z races to a top speed of 39 knots. “The outboards are popular with many customers and it opens up design options,” says Zurn. “Again, it’s taking advantage of the modern technology that’s out there, and these outboards are state-of-the-art.”
Zurn utilizes the latest in technology in his designs but keeps things light inside the office with a staff of four employees and his mini golden doodle dog, Teak. He still races J/Boats (J/22) off Marblehead, where he lives with his wife, Kerry, teenage sons Bennett and Wade, and 11-year-old daughter Emma. “But I’m the only sailor,” he says, “though enjoy being in the water. Bennett likes to run around in our center console, a 20-footer of my own design. I call it a Gloucester 20.”
It’s clear from his voice that he’s proud of his designs but even prouder of his children who share his love of the boating life. “We’re in Marblehead, the sailing capital of the world,” Zurn says. “It’s a beautiful place to live and work, and to be inspired.”
For more from Yacht Designer Doug Zurn: zurnyachts.com
By Doug Thompson, Southern Boating May 2018