Bob Johnson is a boat guy. And he’s a car guy. And he’s an M.I.T.-educated thinker who also happens to be the founder, president, and chief designer of Island Packet Yachts. He’s designed and built sturdy and seakindly offshore cruising boats for nearly three decades, and he’s the undisputed Grand Poobah of the modern full-keel cruising-boat market. As Island Packet prepares to celebrate 30 years in business, I caught up with him to hear how it all happened.
“I guess I was genetically programmed to be a boatbuilder,” he says from his office in Largo, Florida. “My ninth-grade civics paper was titled ‘My Career in Naval Architecture,’ and I was 14 when I built my first boat, a 12-foot, gaff-rigged, V-bottom catboat with a bowsprit. I built it in the carport, and Mom made the sails from muslin we bought at Sears.”
Just as that freshman in high school predicted, Johnson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, then a master’s in naval architecture and marine engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but his start in the boat business took a circuitous route. At graduation, he was a prime candidate for the draft during the Vietnam War, so he took a “critical skills” job at McDonnell Douglas designing and analyzing missiles and rockets in Southern California before getting into the sailboat business, which was decidedly less critical to the war effort. And in between, he took a sidestep into the offbeat world of surfboards.
“I joined W.A.V.E. Inc. in Ventura, California, in 1970 to help introduce aerospace technology into the surfboard-manufacturing process. This chapter in my career lasted five years and was the equivalent of earning an M.B.A. in grad school.” Or to put it another way, he took rocket science to the beach crowd.
“My partner and I designed and developed surfboards made with epoxy prepreg and an aluminum honeycomb shell. Hobie Alter bought the first 25 we built.”
But by then, Johnson was married with two kids, and he was concerned that his career track was moving away from the boats he loved. So he and his wife, Jeri, took the kids back to Florida to be closer to family and so he could finally get into the boat business. Not long after they arrived, he says, “I landed a design job at Irwin Yachts. One of my first assignments there was to modify an existing one-ton design from a fin keel to internally ballasted with triple daggerboards and to incorporate hard chines. It was built with a new material-Kevlar-and it was campaigned in the SORC. Pretty cool stuff at the time.”
He was soon promoted to plant manager of manufacturing, then hired away to be the designer/plant manager at the relatively new Endeavour Yachts.
“I was at Endeavour for three years, until 1979, when I left to start my own boatbuilding business, Traditional Watercraft.” That remains the proper name of the company, but thousands of owners and boat-show visitors know the company by the name of the boats he builds: Island Packet Yachts.
“I started by buying the almost-new molds for a 26-foot centerboard sloop called the Bombay Express from the recently defunct New Bombay Trading Company. I redesigned the interior, rig, and other elements and introduced the boat as the Island Packet. Since I had very limited capital, construction of the first boats was subcontracted out to the local custom shop that had built the plug and molds. My marketing consisted of a detailed brochure and classified ads in Cruising World, and the sales office was our kitchen at home.
“Thankfully, several courageous buyers were willing to take the leap and allowed me to get things rolling. I am and will be forever grateful to those early owners who bought and paid for those early boats, sight unseen,” says Johnson.
“After about 18 months, sales and earnings had increased to the point where I could afford to rent a building, hire a crew, move the office out of the kitchen, and start building the boats myself.” By 1983, Johnson and his team designed and built a larger model from scratch, the IP 31. The following year, he was able to purchase two acres near the company’s original shop and build the first of its own manufacturing buildings.
“We now own 10 acres and have 125,000 square feet of space. We’ve built about 2,200 Island Packets so far and have dealers around the United States and in Europe and Australia.”
So how does a guy who starts out in the high-tech world of aerospace and then makes a name for himself with radical surfboard and boat designs end up building what are viewed as traditional, sturdy, moderate-displacement, full-keel boats?
“I still love playing with go-fast designs and fast cars, too,” he says. “And I’m in awe of the raw power and crazy speeds that something like a Volvo Ocean Race boat can produce, but after watching the footage of those drag racers on P.B.S., I can’t say I’d want to cruise on something like that. The coolest thing for me is knowing that a large number of our owners have completed circumnavigations or made extended voyages across oceans to adventurous destinations. The fact that they select an Island Packet for these journeys and that they literally trust their lives with what we’re able to create is a huge source of pride.”
As I’ve learned over the years from chatting with Bob at boat shows and in his manufacturing facility, Johnson loves boats with his heart, but he also brings his scientific mind to the process, and he cares not only for his company but for the entire boatbuilding fraternity and boat-buying public.
“I’m also particularly proud of my involvement with an International Standards Organization technical work group that was created to write a new international standard for the stability assessment of sailboats,” he says.
The group’s agenda was prompted by the formation of the European Union and its desire for unified standards (called CE standards) to facilitate international trade. Johnson was asked by the National Marine Manufacturers Association to help represent the U.S. in this technical effort, and for the better part of the 1990’s he worked with a diverse international group of about 20 experts in boat design to create this new standard.
“I feel that the result, while complex, represents the most comprehensive and correct method to evaluate and document a boat’s stability characteristics and suitability for various ‘use environments,’ or weather conditions, that’s ever been available to the design community,” he says.
“So after all these years,” I ask, “are you still having fun?”
“Boatbuilding has always been fun, invigorating, and full of challenges-market pressures, economic cycles, and the like-and I still really enjoy the business and the people I work with every day. I stay close to all aspects of the business -too close, some say-and I remain very much a hands-on manager.”
Still, he says, the creative process for new products and designs is his favorite part of the job. “My two happy places are the drawing board-yes, I’m a dinosaur-and the tooling department where the plugs and molds for new models are built.”
“You don’t still use a drawing board, do you?” I ask with a wink and a nod. (My dad, a carpenter and trained draftsman, just finished designing his new house on a drawing board-the way he’s always done it.) “What about all the advancements in computer design?”
“Computers don’t design boats,” Johnson responds, in a decidedly non-crotchety way. “We use them here, and they certainly facilitate the process, but people design boats. I always draw each new design by hand, and this forms the basis for a set of accurate working plans used to build the plugs and, ultimately, the boat. I have a feel for working with a pencil that has a certain Zen for me after decades of drawing boats.”
That said, Johnson acknowledges that for some time, he’s turned his drawings over to Island Packet’s engineering staff for conversion into digital files. This can speed up the development process and creates renderings useful for marketing new models. “No,” he adds to underscore the point, “I don’t use a slide rule-anymore.”
Johnson is a bit of a paradox: always thinking ahead despite holding on to tried-and-true techniques. So I wasn’t surprised by his reply when I asked him where sailboat design is headed.
“I’m convinced that automated sail systems are a big part of sailing’s future. When fully integrated with onboard nav systems and typical instruments, this will enable anybody to get all the benefits of sailing without ever touching a line.” He describes a boat of the future in which all sailing functions-furling and unfurling, trimming, reefing-are powered by hydraulics and controlled by a central computer. “And it’ll be faster,” he predicts, “than virtually any crew would be able to sail the boat.” Sailing could be as easy as plugging in your destination, then keeping an eye on things from the comfort of the cockpit, with the boat’s systems taking care of everything else. “This will keep older folks in sailing longer, expand the appeal of sailing to a broader base of current nonsailors, and grow our industry in the process,” says Johnson, whose SP Cruiser, a sailing/motoring hybrid boat, was designed to do just that.
“We’re working to bring this technology to market. The slow economy has delayed the project somewhat, but it’s on our agenda. I’ve sailed a prototype of this system on a non-IP installation, and I’m convinced it has the potential to change sailing. And all the diehards who may pooh-pooh this can still trim and tweak a conventional rig to their heart’s content.”
“Oh, I’ve got to ask,” I say toward the end of our conversation. “Why are all Island Packets built with that off-white-colored gelcoat you use?”
“Bill,” he says with a smile, “it’s not off-white. It’s ivory. And we’ve always done it that way for one simple reason: It’s distinctive. You always know that an Island Packet is an Island Packet.”