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Yacht Design Course Syllabus - A Comprehensive Overview – 2002


Design school


In its 75 years, Westlawn has produced more practicing small-craft designers than many schools worldwide. And it’s not stopping there.


By Melanie Winters / Associate Editor



rmed with a major curriculum upgrade, a new bachelor’s degree program and a Hall of Fame to honor yacht designers, the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology is closing out its 75th anniversary year ready and eager to begin the next 75.

    In fact, says Westlawn director and alumnus Dave Gerr, these enhancements are only the beginning. 

    “We feel strongly that Westlawn is the place to go to learn small-craft design, and we’re committed to keeping it the best education in boat design anywhere,” he says.

    Gerr is not the only Westlawn graduate convinced of the program’s value and its future potential.

    “You could almost go to every yacht manufacturer in the United States and there are Westlawn graduates there,” says Michael Hartline, who completed his Westlawn training in 2001. Hartline is now the manager of design, tooling and functional engineering at Ocean Yachts Inc. in Egg Harbor City, N.J.

    “I love my job,” says Hartline, who used his Westlawn studies to work his way up from the production shop.

    Yacht designer Tom Fexas set up his own design firm in Stuart, Fla., after going through the Westlawn program in the 1960s. His firm, Tom Fexas Yacht Design, hires only Westlawn graduates. 

    “I know when they graduate from Westlawn they’re serious about yacht design,” he says. “A good percentage of new employees that come into the pleasure boat industry will come from Westlawn.”


Named for a farm  

    Westlawn was founded in 1930 by boat designers Gerald Taylor White and E.S. Nelson, who named it after White’s Montville, N.J., farm. Their idea was to teach boat design through correspondence. 

    The program originally focused exclusively on wooden-boat design, but by the late 1960s two factors had come together: the Westlawn program was falling behind as aluminum and fiberglass boat construction were gaining ground, and the boating industry was growing at a tremendous rate. In 1930 there were 1.5 million recreational boats, and by 1968 there were 8.44 million, according to Gerr. 

    So, in 1968 the National Association of Engine and Boat Manufacturers took over Westlawn and hired naval architect Jules Fleder. Current Westlawn board chairman Bob MacNeill also came aboard and supervised a complete revamping of the course — a process that was completed by future Westlawn president, Norm Nudelman. 

    Not only had much of the course been reworked, but both fiberglass and aluminum construction were added. The aluminum text was written in conjunction with the Aluminum Association by John Kingdon, a Westlawn graduate who had gone on to work for the American Bureau of Shipping. 

    Further texts were soon added, such as multihull design by graduate Bob Harris. Conrad Miller added the marine engine text, and the portion on electrical systems was written by Charles Kelly. Westlawn graduate John Ammerman, along with Halsey Herreshoff, wrote a new two-volume text on sailboat design.


The ABYC era  

    NAEBM merged with the Boating Industry Association to form the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which operated Westlawn until April 2003, when the American Boat & Yacht Council acquired Westlawn and Gerr took over as director.



    The course currently consists of 38 lessons divided into modules. Upon enrollment in Module 1, the new student receives a study kit with textbooks and lesson assignments, as well as a supplemental student guide and various reference drawings. The assignments are matched to each of the Westlawn texts and must be completed sequentially. Students study the text, answer questions, and mail in (or e-mail) their finished lessons. 

    There can be a great deal of interaction between the student and instructor during the course of completing a single lesson, says Gerr. The instructor reviews and grades the assignment, and returns it with a report filled with suggestions, advice and corrections. Student drawings are marked up and corrected as well. Often, additional example drawings and calculations are returned to the student to further explain aspects of the lesson. Students also call and e-mail with questions. 

    Every lesson, in every subject, must be passed with a grade of 75 percent or higher. If the grade is lower, the lesson is marked “preliminary” and returned to be redone. The next lesson can’t be submitted until the previous lesson has been passed. Students can redo a lesson as many times as they need to pass.


One of three

    There currently are only three accredited schools that have courses specifically dedicated to teaching small-craft design: Westlawn, The Landing School and the University of Southampton. What sets Westlawn apart is that it is strictly a correspondence school. 

    This allows a student to learn at home at his or her own pace. Some are able to devote large blocks of time to study and complete the entire course in two to 2-1/2 years. Four to five years is more common, while some have taken more than 10 years to finish. 

    “It took me a long time,” says Hartline, who graduated after eight years of part-time study. “The course was long, I was married with children and working a full-time job,” he explains. “If it wasn’t for the way the school was set up, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” 

    Hartline started his career at Ocean Yachts as a part-timer sweeping floors and cleaning the bathrooms, eventually moving up to full-time as a woodworker. When he tried to get into the company’s research and development department, Ocean Yachts designer and Westlawn graduate David Martin took an interest. He became Hartline’s mentor and convinced him to enroll in Westlawn.



A fatter paycheck  

    Hartline continued to receive promotions as he advanced his knowledge and skills through Westlawn, and now works part time with Martin while keeping his full-time position as engineering supervisor. He says it’s much more rewarding and offers better pay than any of his previous titles. 

    “Because I finished Westlawn my pay is considerably more,” he says.

    Gerr says Westlawn’s curriculum is so extensive that many students find work in the marine industry well before completing the course. He got his first job as a designer when he had finished only a bit more than the first two modules. Working more than 60 hours a week designing megayachts and commercial vessels, it took Gerr many more years (working part time) to get his Westlawn diploma. 

    Fexas says it took him the average four years to complete the course, while working as an engineer on a passenger ship — back when students did not have the advantage of e-mail. He already had an engineering degree, but he says that didn’t provide him the training he needed for designing pleasure yachts. 

    “There’s a big difference between designing big ships and pleasure yachts,” he explains. “The concepts are the same, but the material is different,” he says, adding that the Westlawn course also turned out to be much tougher. 

    “It was more difficult to go through four years at Westlawn than four years of engineering school,” says Fexas. 

    Both he and Hartline say finishing such a difficult program was a reward in itself. “I felt like a champion,” says Hartline.


Staying current  

    Under Gerr’s direction, Westlawn is initiating another upgrade to its curriculum. This “Student Guide 2nd Edition” will serve as a fifth module, enlarging the four-module format that has been Westlawn’s standard for some two decades. 

    The new edition covers many of the changes that have occurred in the industry over the past 25 years — changes in composite construction; computers and CAD applications; sail materials; and systems and electronics. 

    Gerr says the new edition also expands on many subjects that were covered in previous course material, including: detailed discussion of hydrostatic, stability and weight calculations; sailboat mast and rigging calculation and layout; advanced composite construction design; fin-keel design; the preliminary design process; CAD usage and applications; and multihull design.


On the drawing boards …

   In the next few months, Westlawn will be introducing four new continuing- education courses to meet industry demand for technician training: drivetrain installations; exhaust systems; fuel systems; rudders and steering systems. 

    Westlawn also is developing a bachelor’s degree program in small-craft naval architecture with a four-year college in New York state. Westlawn’s professional diploma will count for 60 credits (for the major) in the 120-credit bachelor’s degree. This will be the first four-year bachelor’s program in small-craft naval architecture offered in the United States, according to Gerr. 

    In addition to all of these curriculum enhancements, Westlawn will have access to more resources since moving its Connecticut office into the Mystic Seaport Museum. This includes the G.W. Blunt White Library and the Daniel S. Gregory Ships Plans Library.  [In February 2010, Westlawn moved its campus to the Boat School, in Eastport, Maine, while maintaining the ABYC/Westlawn Research Center at Mystic Seaport.]

    The newly established North American Boat Designers Hall of Fame is also housed at the Mystic Seaport Museum. The Hall of Fame is sponsored by Westlawn, The Landing School and ABYC, and the plan is to induct two — or perhaps more — individuals every year who have demonstrated long-term and important contributions to the art and science of boat design. 

    The first two inductees — Olin J. Stephens and the late Philip L. Rhodes — were honored at Westlawn’s 75th anniversary Diamond Jubilee celebration held in Miami last February. 

    Westlawn also used the occasion to honor Norman Nudelman, its provost, with a Lifetime Education Award. The Westlawn graduate has more than 20 years’ experience as a distance educator, having served Westlawn as an instructor in yacht design, supervisor of instruction, and vice president of education. He retired in 1997 after six years as Westlawn’s president. 

    “Considering the importance and success of many Westlawn alumni, it’s been surprising to me how few folks really understood what Westlawn is or what it has done,” says Gerr. “We’ve produced more practicing small-craft designers than many of the other institutions in the world combined. This includes Westlawn alumni on 14 different America’s Cup campaigns that we know of, and designers such as Jack Hargrave, Bill Shaw, Bruce King, Tom Fexas and many, many others. 

    “It’s a pretty remarkable record,” says Gerr.




Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology

c/o Maine Maritime Museum

243 Washington Street

Bath, Maine 04530

Tel: 800-832-7430

Tel: 207-747-0088

Fax: 207-747-0084

Email: [email protected]

Web: www.westlawn.edu




© 2005 Soundings Trade Only. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.