Interview with Kurt Hughes of Multihull Designs

Diane interviews legendary multihull designer Kurt Hughes. It is a huge honor to talk to him. This discussion is quite technical, and everyone will enjoy and learn from Kurt’s knowledge. He gives an excellent history of his experiences in design and how Hughes designs are special.

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This is Diane we’re at CatamaranSite doing another interview. This time we have designer Kurt Hughes with us. Kurt can you give us a little bit of background about yourself?

I first found out about multihulls reading Arthur Piver’s books and I got my degree in architecture.

But when I started architecture school, I started building my first boat, and actually I sailed it the week I graduated. It turned out to be the fastest boat in Seattle, which blew everybody’s mind. It was a 31-foot trimaran. I was still working as an architect when I sold some plans and one thing led to another. Pretty soon, that’s all I was doing.

That’s very cool. Are you mostly doing custom design or stock plans?

Probably 50/50. There was an interesting thing that happened when I started out. If I would have gotten my naval architecture degree, it wouldn’t have helped because of the coming change. Only later did I figure out that Seattle had a unique convergence going on. Something called MaxSurf came out, which was a lines drawing program running on a Mac. It was about five thousand dollars a seat, and a friend of mine, Dave Vicante, wrote a Dos-based program and sold it for fifty dollars a seat. Those drawings would port into AutoCAD, or somebody started generic CAD in Seattle, and AutoCAD was three thousand dollars a seat, and generic AD was forty nine dollars. Aldis, which became Adobe, had the best EPS format and generic CAD wrote an EPS format to Aldis. We’re all using the local Microsoft DOS.

So I gave a lecture in Southampton, England. What I’d done is I’d set up my camera to take slides of the progress on the screen. From the lines drawing program, to the CAD drawing, to renderings, and I took pictures of all those. After that lecture, the self-declared leading computer wizard in boat design came up to me and he said, “We can’t do that! How do you do that?” I realized something unique had gone on in Seattle.

It sounds like you were really at the cutting edge when you first started coming out with the designs.

No naval architecture program did that back then.

Well that’s cool! So you kind of learned by doing. What’s happened with your plans since then? Where are they being built?

They’re being built all over the world. Some in India going on now, I had some in Tunisia, Japan, Brazil, every European country, and of course Australia and New Zealand have always been favorites.

They’re certainly “sailing” all over the world. You have some beautiful designs. What are some of your more popular designs for people who are specifically cruising them?

There’s a 42-foot catamaran that was one of my earlier designs. In fact, I had a thing when I started out. I did something called cylinder molding, which hadn’t been done before, using full sheets of plywood. I was able to develop hull shapes in just a couple of days using cylinder molding, but it was building from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

I figured everybody wouldn’t know how to do that, so I had something where I said, “If you pay for my airfare and my board, I’ll come build your hulls for you.” An Australian in Perth took me up on that, and [I] built his hulls. He later sailed it around the world. In fact, two of those have gone around the world. That’s one of the more popular ones. A 42-foot catamaran.

That’s really interesting. What are some of the elements of your design that make them stand out to people? What are some special things?

I like boats that sail well, so no fat hulls, no fat boats.

Yes, we had a low-volume catamaran too.

I like it set up for short-handing. For a while I had a Formula-40 trimaran, and it was set up for short-handing. The first time I reefed it, the wind was too strong. I reefed in about 20 seconds by myself, and that’s because everything was led to the helm. So I really think it’s important if you’re going to be short-handed, to have the deck hardware aimed at the helm.

Do you sail all of your designs yourself, and get out and test them that way?

The more work I’ve done, the less I can sail.

That’s fair enough.

I’ve sailed on a lot of them but, certainly not all of them.

I think about 20 years ago, my office manager said, “You know, you’ve got a thousand designs under construction.”

I said, “Really?”

But that was back when they had a database. Everything goes out to PDF now, so there’s no mailing, there’s no database.

I know you also designed trimarans as well as catamarans, is one more popular than the other?

It depends on what you’re going to do. If performance is what you’re interested in, then a trimaran is probably better. If you want a living room, a catamaran is better. Occasionally, I’ve had a design that was a big trimaran that had a cabin like a catamaran, but that was like a 79-footer.

That would be that would be tricky to get into a lot of marinas I guess.


You told me that one of your important considerations is speed, and performance. What are some of the other important considerations that you take into account when you’re designing a cruising boat?

Well certainly sea-kindliness. The fast hulls are more sea-kindly because they don’t get heaved as much in the waves. Of course good short-handings setup, and also having the designs reflect what the people want. If everything’s on CAD, it’s pretty easy to change a stock design to fit somebody’s individual needs, and I think that’s important.

That makes sense. How have you seen multihull design change through the years? I know the boats are quite a bit different than they did initially.

They started out being a lot fatter boats, with no emphasis on performance. Certainly, many of them have performed better than mine and performed better than most. Then also, carbon fiber has become popular and that has improved the breed even though it’s more expensive. Things like reverse bows give a better ride. That’s pretty much it.

What about the future? Where do you think it’ll go in the future?

Gold-plated naval architecture jobs, our offices will start doing catamarans. People wouldn’t let us tie up to their boats 10 years ago.

Well, okay.

Instead of being five or ten prominent designers, there’ll be hundreds of them. They’ll be designed during virtual reality, so that you can see what your boat is like in real life.

That’s kind of cool to think about. You could walk around inside the boat.


Designers can see things as they go. If somebody’s interested in chatting with you about a boat, how do they reach you? What’s the best way to reach you?

Sounds good. Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about your designs, or about what you’re doing?

Sounds great! Thanks so much for your time, Kurt. It was fun talking to you.

Good talking to you!

Diane Selkirk

By Diane Selkirk

I love to travel and have spent the past seven years sailing with my family aboard our 40 Woods Meander catamaran - traveling from B.C.'s north coast, to the west coast of the US, Mexico, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and on to St Helena, South America, the Caribbean and Central America.

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