Superyacht Spotlight: Persak & Wurmfeld

The yacht design and naval architecture office of Carl Persak and Jeremy Wurmfeld is close to the water, but not in a sleepy harbor town like Newport, Rhode Island, or Annapolis, Maryland, where you’d expect to find an American yacht design firm. However, the trendy old warehouse building in the hip neighborhood where they work—in the shadow of New York City’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge—couldn’t be a more fitting headquarters for a small, nimble, and fresh-thinking design firm that’s challenging the superyacht status quo.

Persak (above right) and Wurmfeld (above left) sure didn’t start out to shake things up. In fact, they met as designers at Sparkman & Stephens, the quintessentially traditional yacht design firm that has literally designed and defined a specific “American Yachting” aesthetic for more than 75 years. Wurmfeld studied yacht design and eventually began work as a yacht designer at S & S after a stint as a yacht captain in the Eastern Caribbean, while Persak holds both engineering and yacht design degrees and had worked at several different design firms before joining the New York-based firm.

Inevitably, they started sharing their own design ideas and philosophies almost as soon as they met, and it was only a matter of time before they struck out on their own. Wurmfeld left S & S to do his own thing first in 2004, while Persak started his own firm in 2006. They joined forces and started Persak & Wurmfeld in 2007.

The 281-foot M/V Cakewalk is one of many complex projects P & W have helped complete.

Engineering AND design
I may be stating the obvious here: yacht design may be a somewhat romantic art, but it’s also a tough business. And Persak and Wurmfeld didn’t just waltz into a benefactor who was willing to fund their keel-up creative flights of fancy, especially when the global economy suffered, shall we say, a hiccup shortly after they opened for business.

However, the combination of design, engineering, and large project management acumen they bring to the table is always in demand, and they cut their teeth first by providing complex engineering project management on several, large-scale, multi-year superyacht builds. As a result, P & W earned a reputation as the firm to call when you need to get large, and often over-budget and behind-schedule, builds back on schedule, and across the finish line. That reputation and revenue from those multi-year projects eventually afforded them the freedom to sketch, brainstorm, and develop their own designs.

A diverse design portfolio

“Our love is really doing the whole process,” says Persak at his desk in their open office space. “Everything from design, to detailed shop drawings, 3D modeling, engineering and project management, to eventually getting the boat built and sailing. We go above and beyond the scope of conventional yacht design firms.” And that’s what they’ve been able to do with several of their designs. One of Wurmfeld’s first designs has also been one of the most consistently built. The e33 entered a crowded field of daysailers/one design racers in 2006, and its classic lines, comfortable cockpit, modern underbody, and peppy performance has always been well received. The design enjoys a steady and respectable production run, but they’d be the first to admit it hasn’t shaken the status quo.

The cool thing is these guys are game for anything, and they smiled when they told me they design what interests them as well as what interests their clients. And that they want to do something unique. It’s obvious when you look at the spectrum of their sailboat design portfolio that includes everything from a 25-foot, ultra-high performance trimaran, to a 44-foot performance cruising monohull, to a radical reimagining of what a large offshore cruising catamaran can be.

They’ve also designed an interesting range of edgy and angular motor yachts that top out in the stratosphere at nearly 300 feet long. But it’s their “Performance Schooner Series,” and P & W’s collaboration with the Derecktor Yard located not too far up the coast from NYC that really intrigued me.

Back to the schooner?

There aren’t too many 144-foot-long, flush-deck, uber-modern, ocean-going schooners with an adjustable draft torpedo keel on the world market these days. And there are absolutely zero uber-modern, ocean-going schooners that are designed and engineered to be built in the USA, except for the P & W-designed 144-foot schooner, and its smaller (119-foot), but no less aggressive, sistership that grabbed my attention.

“Why the schooner rig?” I ask.

“The flexibility of the sail plan in a broad spectrum of conditions is perfect for a modern superyacht,” Wurmfeld replies.

Makes perfect sense, even more so when you consider the fresh thinking in the overall design. You could say its slab-sided hull and flush deck may have been inspired by Wally Yachts and other modern European statement makers, but to my eye, the distinctive “swoop” of the single line sweeping back from the bowsprit to the wide-open stern, and the large, single square hull port is a refreshing and uniquely American improvisation on Luca Brenta’s masterstrokes. Wurmfeld describes the deck as “forming a single wave that grows from the transom, crests over the raised salon, and slopes gently towards the bow,” but no matter what we say, the distinctive hull and powerful schooner rig they’ve designed meld together to cut a striking profile that will turn heads in Monaco as well as Miami.

These schooners should also be as fast as they look. They’re designed to have relatively lightweight aluminum hulls, the decks and rigs are to be built of carbon fiber, and the 144-footer will be able to carry nearly 1,000 square meters of upwind sail area, and many, many more in the large A-sail that tacks on to the long, fixed bowsprit. The specs also feature highly engineered keels that can put tons of ballast deep below the waterline while under sail, and retract to more civilized, harbor-friendly depths when it’s time to attract attention at the dock.

Made in the USA
A design of the size and scope of P & W’s Schooner Series isn’t all that remarkable for European superyacht powerhouses like Royal Huisman, Pendennis, Perini Navi, or others, but it represents a big bet on big American boat building in general. “We believe in what we are doing,” says Wurmfeld. “It just seems crazy to us that there haven’t been many big boats built in the states recently, and we want to change that.”

The partnership with Derecktor makes perfect sense. The uniquely American yard has been building yachts—from past America’s Cup winners to large sailing and powerboats—at their Mamaroneck, New York location for over 65 years. The yard is a short drive from P&W’s Brooklyn office, and most importantly, the power of their collaboration has already been proven when P & W worked as project engineers to help Derecktor complete one of the largest (281 feet) and most complex powerboat builds ever to be launched in the States back in 2010. But Wurmfeld is also quick to point out they believe in the future of all American custom boat builders including Hinckley, Lyman Morse Boatbuilding, Co., Hodgdon Yachts, and others.

“We see what we’re doing as an American story,” Wurmfeld adds as our meeting winds down. “Actually, a New York story,” he adds. “I mean here we are. New York City. A pretty important city on the global economic stage, with no shortage of people who’d love to build large and distinctive yacht here if they could. Well they can, and we’d like to think they will.”

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