Behind the Curtain: Designing Today's Best Boats

wakeboard boat
Part of the design process at Nautique involves clay modeling.WBM

Modern wakeboats are pretty incredible ­machines. They not only have to ­consistently churn waist-high surf waves and meaty wakeboard wakes, but they also have to look great, they have to be comfortable inside, and they have to do it all safely. We take for granted that our summer fun machine will do all these things, but there’s a small army behind the scenes making it all happen. The ­process of ­designing a boat is no small task and requires multiple departments, outside vendors and loads of technology all working in conjunction to put the puzzle together. We thought we would talk to the industry’s design veterans to see how they pull the strings to take the new model year from concept to reality.

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Part of the design process at Nautique involves clay modeling.WBM


In the past, designing and building a boat was a messy, ugly and downright hazardous thing. ­Three-dimensional rendering didn’t exist — at least, it wasn’t widely utilized — so boat manufacturers would literally cut up parts of other boats and Frankenstein them back together in new shapes with plywood, wood screws, glue, fiberglass, and the boat industry’s secret weapon: Bondo. Then they would take it out on the lake and see how it performed. Now if this sounds dangerous, that’s because it was. “It was a physical, one-off, hand-built hull,” says Matt Brown, Moomba’s product manager and 17-year boat-design veteran. “We would scab that thing together, and it was extremely dangerous. That was our R & D phase.”

The process was also very slow. It could take three years or more to get a running surface that worked ­properly. It also required highly skilled craftsmen who had learned through years of trial and error what might make a boat work. And might is the perfect word because hulls were still fickle at this point, and a good running surface was hard to come by. You can imagine having to try to create a lifting strake or a chine from raw materials and get ­everything perfect. It was the Wild West of the inboard days.

From a design standpoint, boats started to look similar. The industry was in a “me too” phase and, for the most part, the boat companies were looking at the competition and trying to replicate that. This was most likely a product of both the industry’s rapid evolution and the lack of adequate technology, but the latter was about to take a giant leap forward and get an advancement the current boatbuilding industry couldn’t do without: CAD.

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Every part of Axis and Malibu boats comes from 3-D CAD models.WBM


Computer-aided drafting changed the game for boat manufacturing. Gone were the days of trying to MacGyver together a rickety R & D boat to try and make a plug from it. Now every surface of a boat can be modeled with polygons on the computer, and pieces can be machined based on the CAD drawings. In fact, whole plugs can be cut from the 3-D art. This is the way things are done today, and depending on which manufacturer you talk to, the process may be fully CAD, or it may just lean heavily on it.

“The molds are made by creating the hulls and decks [in CAD], and the machine reads the surfaces and machines [each part] out to those surfaces. There’s no hand-shaping anymore,” says Danny Gasper, vice president of product design at Malibu Boats. “Every part of a Malibu boat comes from a 3-D CAD model.”

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Clay models might not have the exact accuracies of their CAD counterparts, but they look amazing.WBM

There are differences between companies, however. Tigé creates the bulk of its boats in a 3-D program, but there are still things done by hand. “You can’t ­really get a good sense of scale on a computer monitor,” says ­Danny Gutierrez, director of design and ­marketing for Tigé Boats. “Before we release a boat, we will go through the plug by hand and refine all the elements. It’s very hands-on with Tigé. There’s an element you get from rendering it out on the computer, but it doesn’t always translate to real life and from every angle.”

Still another method is employed by Nautique, and it’s romantically simple for such a tech-forward company. The original concept for the Nautique G23 was made out of clay. You read that correctly. Steve Carlton, Nautique’s product design and development chief designer, carved the G out of clay to present to the team for approval. After that approval was granted, of course, Carlton and his team moved into CAD and created the boat in one of the most state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in the marine industry. “I had the guys from Apple here a couple months back, and they said, ‘This is the coolest place I’ve ever been to in my life.’” But it all started from humble clay beginnings.

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Tigé's RZX2 in the design phase.WBM

It’s also important to note that there’s a big-picture series of events that needs to transpire to get a boat built, but with the advent of CAD, the majority of these things can happen simultaneously or, in many cases, nonlinearly. That means components can be designed and built immediately following completion of the CAD drawings. The companies do their designs based off the CAD’s surfaces and create most things at the same time within different departments. For example, a dash might be getting designed, sourced, constructed and tooled before the plug even gets to the factory. “Almost everything can happen simultaneously,” ­Gutierrez says. “If we waited for the ­fiberglass to be done, it would take forever.” This seems to be the same throughout all the ­companies. “I try to get at least 80 percent of the boat done before I get a master plug or an actual plug,” says Shane Stillman, ­Supreme/Centurion’s vice president of production and engineering.

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Every line and angle is taken into account before a boat hits the water like this Malibu.WBM


How do designers come up with the running surfaces? It depends on whether it’s a completely new model or a tweak of an existing running surface. Malibu gets its consistent, pro-level wakes across the line by making small tweaks year ­after year. “I’ve always made improvements on the existing,” Gasper says. “For the last 15 years, they’re just small ­improvements, but over that many years of those changes, it evolves to what we have now.”

Other companies will create entirely new running surfaces and lean on fluid-dynamics programs as well as CAD to give them a head start on water testing. “Fluid dynamics can tell you what’s happening at the boat, but we care more about 20 to 75 feet behind the boat,” Brown says. “[Fluid ­dynamics] is more about strength than anything else, or what will cause ­disturbances.” There is no program that will truly give you performance characteristics, which means the boat needs to be on the lake to deliver an accurate assessment of wake and handling. Nautique has a private R & D lake where Chief Engineer Eric Miller has been known to have a boat in the air in the morning for Bondo tweaks. Then they will run it and get it back up in the air that afternoon so it can be run that night. “It’s not uncommon to get two tweaks in a day,” Carlton says. “Whatever is going on that they’re tweaking, he is modifying in the [3-D] model in real time as well.”

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Boat design can often draw influence from the auto industry, whether it's inside the boat or out.WBM


So, where do the designers get their inspiration? It probably comes as no surprise that much of the style comes from the automotive industry. Just about every manufacturer has included “automotive-inspired” on their website as a selling point at one time or another. For example, Centurion’s exclusive Side by Side dash, which shows users certain applications on two communicating touchscreens, was directly inspired by a car. Stillman took inspiration from a Maserati when he created a hand-covered dash with double stitching, and Lexus inspired the front end of the Ri237.

“We look at custom automotive quite a bit,” says Ryan Lewis, chief designer for Supra. “We go to SEMA ­every year. We obviously look at the marine industry. We look at off-road sports for graphics and colors. Some of it I even pull from our own industry as well, like board manufacturers.” The original SA had a unique bow that was inspired by a cross between wakeboard tips and a Lamborghini Aventador.

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Malibu's molds are created by a machine that reads the CAD files of the hulls and decks.WBM


With all this progression and how tech-savvy the inboard industry currently is, it’s hard to imagine things going any further but, of course, we had to pose the question to the design gurus. For obvious reasons, many were tight-lipped when it came to the future, but they all agreed they work far in advance. “I try to work about a year to three years ahead of my team,” Carlton says. That seemed to be the general consensus. ­Whatever the future of inboards is, it already exists in the minds of these design gurus, and whether it comes from CAD, Bondo or clay, we can’t wait to see it.

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The Supra SA was inspired by style from the automotive industry.WBM