The designer who changed the world of performance sailing yachts and radicalised the industry.
After more than 40 years as one of the industry’s most famous designers, Ron Holland is in a reflective mood. “I think I’d call what I’m doing semi-retirement,” he says. “It’s really just the feeling of less pressure, and doing creative things that are particularly interesting to me. I class retirement as doing nothing, and I can’t see myself doing nothing.” With one of his latest designs, the 60-metre Perini Navi Perseus^3, being delivered in April, it’s a pretty full-on semi-retirement: the yacht’s 75-metre carbon fibre mast allows her to set some of the largest downwind sails in the world.
Growing up in New Zealand, his affinity with the water was a given. “Geography definitely played a big part,” says Holland. “In New Zealand you grow up on the beach. On my seventh birthday I was begging my parents for a dinghy, and I remember my father proudly showing me this little sailing boat he’d bought me. I hadn’t even thought about sailing,
I wanted a row boat! It was a P-Class, and I remember thinking, I don’t particularly want this little thing!” Luckily, the P-Class proved the best present, and Holland soon became a very accomplished sailor.
“I’d say I was a sailor before a designer. My designing was influenced by my experiences. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it was with me,” says Holland. “Becoming a designer wasn’t a strategic decision. I sailed to Australia when I was 15 and then did a boatbuilding apprenticeship in Browns Bay. I drew boats all the time – my school books were covered in them – but I never thought I could make a job out of it. At that time everyone designed their own boat and built it in their back yard. In 1968 I went to San Francisco and met the yacht designer Gary Mull, who offered me a job. Then I ended up in Florida, working for a designer and builder called Charlie Morgan. I designed and built a little raceboat for the quarter-ton regatta, called Eygthene. We won the regatta, and the prize was a free ship for your boat to England for the Quarter Ton Cup. I went to work Monday morning very proud and said to Charlie: ‘I want to race in the Quarter Ton Cup in England’, and he said ‘No!’ So I said, ‘See ya later!’ And I went to England and won the Quarter Ton Cup in 1973!”
Starting his own business happened organically: “Early on I wondered how can I create a business? And the only way I saw it was to design and build a boat and win races. I was invited to Ireland for the weekend and somebody said: ‘Ron, I’m going to do a boat’, so I offered to help. One thing led to another and I stayed for 40 years. I left and went to Vancouver in 2013 to have a change of scenery!”
Throughout those 40 years, Holland designed some of the industry’s most famous yachts, as well as the most ambitious. M5, ex-Mirabella V, is still the record holder for the world’s tallest mast – an astonishing 90 metres tall.
“I always used to say the next boat is my favourite, but there were some important yachts along the way. The first 100-foot yacht Whirlwind XII was an important step. The most technically challenging was M5, and she’s one of my proudest achievements for that reason. She’s such a giant thing, so different in every way, and it was a real experience.” Asked about the pressure of building a yacht that monumental, he is candid: “I never thought it wasn’t going to work, which I know is a surprising thing to say. We were doing Felicita West (now Spirit of the C’s) at the time, which was over 200 feet, so we’d crossed that barrier. The regulations put us under more pressure than her size. She was built at Vosper Thorneycroft, which is a British military shipyard, so there were all kinds of formalities, as well as the MCA rules. It was those sorts of things that could provide a few sleepless nights.”
Holland was very busy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. “When I look back at what we were doing, it was mad! On a plane somewhere every week.” And then came the unthinkable – the capsizing of Drum during the 1979 Fastnet Race. “When Simon Le Bon’s keel fell off, talk about publicity! When I saw what broke, I was shocked; whoever welded it must have been blind! I should have pushed to be more involved in the build. It went through the London High Court, and I had to defend my design. My design was fine in the end, but I had to sit around court with men yelling at each other, and that was an awful experience. My brother Philip was helming the boat at the time, and the story is that he had the only dry packet of cigarettes on board. When the keel fell off the boat rolled over, and he just climbed over like he was in a P-Class dinghy! He’s on the bottom, holding onto the rudder, smoking a cigarette while the others are in the water!”
Holland’s yachts are as varied as the owners he designs for. Ethereal was launched in 2009 at Royal Huisman: “She was for Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. His motivation was to test energy efficiency solutions – she’s the first battery powered hybrid propulsion boat. The eco-drive is a good thing and I’m disappointed that it’s not being embraced as much as it deserves to be by yards.”
Holland’s charisma and success make him popular on the speaking circuit. “A few times a year I do a presentation at a yacht club or chamber of commerce. One of my comments has always been, I’m not going to be one of those guys on my deathbed thinking, ‘Oh I wish I’d done that’. And then, in 2011, I had a stroke. So now my story goes: ‘That’s what I used to say, and now I’ve f***ing tested it!’ I’m lying in Vancouver General Hospital, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay Ron, so how about that cute little story where you have no regrets?’. The answer is easy: ‘Absolutely! No regrets!’ My career has been more than I ever could dream was going to happen.”
After he recovered from his illness, Holland had to decide what to do with the business he had spent years building up. “It’s something I haven’t said before in an interview, but what do you do at the end of your career?” he muses. “Some design companies have been taken over for good money. But then I thought, what if I’m not involved, and I see the latest ‘Ron Holland’ yacht and it’s nothing like I would have made? I couldn’t have that, so I just decided to stop. Now I only do special projects. I have a couple of new boats to work on for the next couple of years, which is great. I like the idea of being able to really concentrate on one boat at a time.”
Aside from special commissions, Holland’s main occupation is teaching. “I do an Introduction to Master of Engineering Studies in Yacht Engineering at Auckland University, and the most important lesson I’m teaching the students is to say ‘yes.’ Opportunities are all around, and you’ve got to grab them. This will be the 4th year I’ve taught the course. I can see all the teachers looking at me thinking ‘what the hell is he going to say next!’ I suppose teaching is so interesting to me because I didn’t do the school thing. I walk in there and I’m thinking: ‘I’m teaching? I never even studied at somewhere like this!’”
For someone who calls himself semi-retired, Holland still has a very full calendar. “I’m working on a book, as there’s a few stories to tell! I think it’s nice to reflect on what has happened – it’s so far lasted 40 years, which is pretty amazing! There’s around 30-40 over 100-foot Ron Holland Design yachts out there, which is staggering when you consider we’d never thought we’d do a 100-footer when we were starting off. They just didn’t exist in the same way.”
The face of the yachting industry has changed immeasurably over the years, not least in part due to Ron Holland’s revolutionary designs, and if his most recent are anything to go by, the next couple are going to be very special indeed.
A version of this story first appeared in SuperYacht World Issue 45.