His career didn’t exactly start here, but the Tampa Bay area was a key marker on lauded yacht designer Ron Holland’s long, successful journey. A visionary, an adventurer, a tireless innovator and the creator of a new generation of 100-foot-plus super yachts, Holland worked for a time at Pinellas-based Morgan Yachts, and it was in the Morgan shipyard that he built his first really, really famous sailing vessel. Like Holland himself, it’s the stuff of legend.
Holland will talk about those early days Friday night at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, and again Saturday afternoon at Haslam’s Books, where he’ll sign his just-published autobiography, All the Oceans: Designing by the Seat of My Pants.
“I came here in ’72, and working for Charley Morgan in Largo really was the beginning of the whole story that ended up me being a successful yacht designer,” Holland, 71, recalled in a phone interview from the Yacht Club, where he was reminiscing with friends Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been back a few times, but it’s been 20 years. So it’s really quite meaningful for me to be here.”
Friday’s presentation, he added, “is very much part of that history.”
Holland grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, where, he recalls, every family had a boat – the majority of them built right at home – to sail Harukai Gulf and the Firth of Themes.
By 15, he was crewing on yachts, and competing in races and regattas, and made the 1,000-mile journey from Auckland to Sydney, Australia aboard at 236-foot ketch. He became an apprentice boat builder.
In 1966 – at the age of 18 – he received his first design commission, which led to more, and he traveled to San Francisco as a Trainee Naval Architect, under celebrated yacht designer Gary Mull.
Holland arrived in St. Petersburg in 1972, accepting a job with Charley Morgan, whose Morgan Yachts was one of the most successful design and construction companies in the States. He became a well-known figure out the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, and in his memoir he recalls the organization “was primarily a social club but they also had a good racing organization … I spent most weekends racing around the magnificent Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico aboard a variety of yachts.”
It was here that Holland designed the first of his legendary vessels – a 24-foot racing boat called a “quarter tonner.” Called Eygthene, the scrappy little yacht was built for approximately $6,000.
From All the Oceans: “I drew a deep breath and approached senior members of the yacht club committee with a proposal that they organize an event that would showcase the Quarter-Ton class on Tampa Bay: a level-rating event, a true test of the relative merits of the yachts. Considering I was not even a member of the club – and a New Zealander to boot – was probably asking a bit much.
“But to my gratitude, instead of rejecting the idea as just the madcap scheme of a wild-eyed newcomer, the committee embraced the proposal, and they set about the big task of mounting the grandly titled US Quarter-Ton Mid-Winter Series, America’s first such championship.
“As an incentive to potential entrants, one of the yacht club members threw in a tempting prize: the winner would earn the right to represent the USA at the world championship in Weymouth, England.”
The Tampa Bay race attracted quarter-tonners from all over the world. Holland and Eygthene won, and as a designer, sailor and world traveler, he was – literally – was off to the races. He never looked back.
Holland-designed yachts have won races, set records and sliced through every ocean on the planet for more than four decades.
“People encouraged me quite a few years ago to do a book,” said the yachtsman, who resides in Vancouver, British Columbia. “And I realized hey, it’s only half the story. But now was the right time, although there’s still some projects with old clients that would like me to be involved.”
The book, Holland suggests, was a full-time job, too. “So I guess you could say that I’m retired from yacht design, but there’s still a lot to do.”