By Chris Landry
Talkin’ Boats with the President of Hunt Yachts
Meet Peter Van Lancker, a jack-of-all-marine-trades. He can build and design boats. He knows how to start up a company and run it on a lean budget. And he is an avid boater — both sail and power.
Peter Van Lancker’s résumé includes positions with some of the most prominent builders in the industry — Tillotson-Pearson, Black Watch, Boston Whaler and OMC. He now is president of Hunt Yachts in Portsmouth, R.I., which builds a line of deep-vee boats designed by C. Raymond Hunt and Associates. These include the Surfhunter 25, 29 and 33, plus Harrier 25 and 36. A new Hunt 52 is expected to be completed by summer. (Editor’s note: This interview was first published in early 2009. The 52 launched in the summer of 2009; see Boats Blog: First Ride on a Hunt 52.)
Q: Designing a boat is a series of trade-offs — is this sometimes difficult to impart to the customer?
A: Oh, yes. Because many times a customer will want to put 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag. It’s difficult to explain to a customer about the compromises of space and weight and performance and cost. And ultimately you can only put so much in a boat. You want to sleep six? Well, you can’t do that in a 36-foot boat. You can’t be all things to all people, but we try to come up with the best package for the mission of the boat.
Q: With the Hunt 52, you jumped from 36 to 52 feet. That’s quite a leap. Why not build something in the 40-foot range first?
A: When we first started, we were looking at a boat in the mid-40s, but the customers we were working with drove us to a larger boat just to fit in the accommodations they wanted. We had contact with Global Yacht Builders in Taiwan, and that was instrumental on the manufacturing side of it.
Q: What is the relationship between Hunt Yachts and Global Yacht Builders?
A: This relationship really began [when] Global Yachts hired Hunt to design the GLOBALarrow 68. And then I saw an opportunity in that they were a qualified builder … and the 52 project was built around that contact with Global Yacht Builders.
Q: What’s next after the 52 —even bigger?
A: It depends on what we can afford. We’re currently working on a 25 center console, a 42 Hunt and something in the mid-30 range. We’re [designers] and engineers by trade, so that stuff comes naturally to us, and we have a close relationship with the design firm [C. Raymond Hunt and Associates].
Q: What materials and methods are used to build Hunt boats?
A: It depends on what’s most suitable for the design, weight and speed of the boat. Sometimes we use core; sometimes we’ll [resin] infuse or use different resin systems. The Hunt design firm designs with aluminum construction all the way to carbon fiber construction, depending on the mission of the boat. Our 52 is infused; our 36 is cored. The smaller boats have solid-glass bottoms. But it’s really done with the thought of what is best for that size range and the mission of that vessel.
Q: What are some of the innovations in manufacturing and design you’ve been associated with?
A: One of the more conspicuous was a small jet-powered boat when I was at Boston Whaler running engineering, and this was when the industry was trying to climb out of another recession. We put together a jet propulsion system and built the Whaler 13,and that set the stage to build more jetboats. Another [innovation] was we had to reengineer the foam flotation at Boston Whaler. You had to do that very carefully to retain the structures but change all the chemistry. The startup and growth of Hunt Yachts has been sort of an innovation because we were able to build a company in a very high-cost area without any real significant investment, built on its own back by careful decision making and management and application of resources in the area — technology and people and vendors.
Q: What are some of the most important advances in construction and design over the past 20 years?
A: There are just so many. It is hard to keep track of them — like everything in our society. It’s like an explosion of technologies and methodologies and materials and material science. It used to be simple. You look at any industry. Some have trickled down from aerospace. We have stronger composites and resins that have become more available to more builders. The computer has increased the degree of accuracy. And there’s an incredible variety in components for boats. It has given the builder the opportunity to define and distinguish his product much more.
Q: Have quality, professionalism and service improved in the marine industry over the past decade or so?
A: Yes, and I think there were improvements in the decade prior to that, as well. That has come about because companies have grown larger and so, in turn, they have had to become more professional. A lot of the training has come to the boat industry from other industries that were better-trained in terms of quality control and service. The industry is more mature and more sophisticated and scientific. We’re learning from other industries.
Q: In what area can boatbuilders improve?
A: The markets aren’t as big as we think they are. We have the ability to produce more product than necessary. So it’s more of a question of how do you compete against golf, tennis and other recreation. How do you grow the number of boaters?
Q: What do you like and dislike about today’s recreational boats?
A: What I don’t like are boats that give up driveability for condo-like spaces inside. You see a lot of boats that give way to dockside amenities, and they really suffer in ride quality. I don’t even think the consumer realizes the trade-off or compromise. Also, the sameness in the products. There’s no distinction between the brands anymore. What do I like? There’s a great deal of variety [in types of boats] available. There is a boat for every need.
Q: What is your favorite personal boat?
A: The Black Watch 26. I had one in Florida that was completely rebuilt, and I went to the Bahamas in it and went fishing in it. It’s a massive 26-foot boat and has a great-running hull. Right now, I have a cold-molded wood sailboat that was built in ’76 by a German craftsman, which was a one-off and a beautiful piece of furniture essentially. That’s something I am having some fun with. [Some] of my favorite hulls are some of the early Hunts. They were like some of the old Porsche 356s and the Porsche 911s and 912s. You can just manhandle them in a sea and drive them at great speeds, and they were just consistently predictable.
Q: What’s important in a boat for today’s boat buyer?
A: The most important thing is that his time on his boat is flawless — safe, fun and memorable. Today’s buyer is buying an experience from you. The boat is the vehicle to that experience. The boat needs to be flawless in its use and meeting the owner’s expectations. Our job is to keep them in the boat and using the boat as much as possible, and it’s challenging at times because there are a lot of pieces and parts in there.
Q: How is Hunt Yachts doing financially? Can you name some of the new boats coming down the pipeline?
A: We have backlog, so we’re ahead of the curve. We have several new models. We came out with a new Hunt Harrier 29 last September, and that has helped us tremendously. We’ve sold 10 of those. We recently sold a twin-jet 36. We have [the] new 52 that we’re now importing. Two years ago, we moved into a facility [in Portsmouth, R.I.] with its own service facility. We store about 60 or 70 of our customers’ boats and service them. We have been careful of how we manage ourselves. We build a distinctive boat that attracts a certain type of customer, and I think those buyers are still there. We’ll get through this with good management and a good customer base and good product.
Q: Which designers and builders have influenced you over the years?
A: Everett Pearson, Ted Hood, Garry Hoyt, the Johnstones, Michael Peters. I’ve learned from all these people and learned about business and designing boats. I’ve learned from engineers. I’ve learned how to manage manufacturing, how to manage a company, how to be scientific in process and be disciplined. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people. It’s part of the fun of it all.
Chris Landry is a staff writer for Soundings Magazine. This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.