Malcolm McKeon and Ed Dubois Anatta

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Malcolm McKeon on his radical designs and why he left Ed Dubois after 30 years

10 August 2023 • Written by Elaine Bunting

A leading designer in the yachting industry for more than 30 years, Malcolm McKeon is famous for his groundbreaking sailing yachts. Elaine Bunting finds out what motivates him to keep on pushing boundaries.

You began sailing in Fiji as a child. Is that right?

Yes, we moved there when I was seven or eight and it was a really fantastic place to learn to sail. My dad, who worked for the British government overseas, wasn’t really into boating but we joined the yacht club and he bought me a P-Class dinghy and I taught myself to sail. I spent all my school holidays messing around in it. He then bought a motorboat and we used to live on this during the holidays.

Your mother was an artist. What influence did that have on you?

She had been to Edinburgh College of Art and ran painting classes at home, encouraging us to join in. It was those classes that first taught me the importance of aesthetics and proportions, and how to look at things differently.

Malcolm McKeon (far left) with Ed Dubois (far right) in 1976

Why did you decide to study yacht design?

When I was about 12 or 13 we moved from Fiji to Hong Kong. There I started sailing Lasers and 505s, then keelboats, Dragons and eventually IOR-style boats. In 1977, racing in the  Admiral’s Cup brought me to England. I loved sailing, loved looking at boats and the shape of them, so I decided to study yacht design at Southampton.

Racing introduced you to the late British yacht designer Ed Dubois. Can you tell us more?

I had already been sailing with a group in Hong Kong and we were both part of the crew and got on really well. He knew I was about to start the yacht design course and he said: “Well, you know there’s a place here for you.” I think he could see from quite early on that I had something to offer.

I started working for Ed during my holidays, delivering boats as well as doing regattas, then, after I graduated in 1981, I started working alongside him full time, in a partnership that lasted 31 years.

Malcolm McKeon

That must have been a really exciting time

Yes, it was incredible. We were designing all the race boats in those days: half-tonners and three-quarter-tonners. There were so many boats built back then, and the boats we did were really quite varied, even for the same year, to make sure you covered all ground in terms of a light-air regatta or heavy-air regatta.

From the race boats we progressed to production boats with Westerly and Wauquiez in France. Boats were getting bigger by then and we were designing larger cruising boats in the 15- to 21-metre range. And then we had the opportunity to build a boat in New Zealand for an American client, a 37 metre called Aquel II, which was the biggest sloop in the world at the time. That was an amazing opportunity.

Aquel II was our first break into superyachts and we designed what we called the wraparound window, which gave this fantastic panoramic view from within the saloon. It came about because the owner said he loved the look of a Riva motorboat, which I was always a fan of and had pictures of on my wall. So I drew this big wraparound window and the owner loved it. We went on to refine that concept for several years to come.

Before Aquel II, larger yachts would have ventilators visible on the deck and the windows were still small. I thought they all looked rather dated. I’ve always felt that when you’re on a boat you want to be able to see outside, to see what’s going on, and feel that connection to your surroundings, which is one of the reasons why  I have such a passion for more contemporary boats rather than the classics. When designing a classic yacht, there are certain design parameters you need to follow, or the classic look is lost – and I find that limits creativity; beautiful to look at all the same, however!

Trimming on Admiral's Cupper Vanguard in Hon Kong

After three decades working with Ed Dubois you chose to go your own way. Why was that?

It took a long time. You don’t stay with somebody for 31 years and then plan to go and set up on your own; it’s something you’d normally do after a few years. It had become impossible to work together in the end, we had developed very different approaches to design, and I was no longer enjoying it.

I actually left to take some time out and had no intention of setting up on my own, but there were a few projects under way at the Dubois studio that required my ongoing involvement.

One was Como [a 41-metre motor yacht] for Neville Crichton – I had designed all his boats and he just said: “Right, you’re going to finish it, so find yourself a desk and a computer.”

In 10 years of Malcolm McKeon Yacht Design, you’ve done so much and your designs have transformed yacht design…

I’ve got a fantastic team working with me. You need creative people to bounce ideas off and develop designs as we go.

After designing Aquel II, Ed and I stuck with very similar-looking designs right up until the design of Salperton. I felt that Salperton III  [a 44-metre yacht designed for owner Barry Houghton and launched in 2007] was when the change really came. The subtleties of the design are difficult to explain, but I felt it was a big change in direction, as was [the 66-metre] Aglaia [launched in 2012]. That owner was also super supportive when I left the Dubois studio.

In Salperton III, Dubois and McKeon created a completely flush deck forward of the deck saloon

What would keep you designing more yachts in the future?

We had an enquiry for a 19-metre shallow-draught centreboard yacht for the Bahamas, and we were so excited about that because we haven’t done a boat like that for ages. That’s small, I know, but the team was determined to put a lot of effort into it. Sadly, the client decided not to put the design into build but it was great to look at something a little different.

We are also designing a few tenders and chase boats, and that is quite exciting, too. We haven’t pushed into the production boat market because we’ve been so busy, but if an opportunity presents itself, I’d be keen to work with a production boat company again. I think we’ve got lots to offer that market sector.

Has the evolution in materials made a big difference to your designs?

Absolutely. Material development has been the biggest influence in making these big yachts sail well. In the early days there’d be aluminium masts with Nitronic rigging and the size of the boat and the mast was limited by that technology. Now, with the use of carbon, the limit is far, far greater. You can achieve so much more in terms of sailing performance and stability, which you’d really struggle to do with aluminium rigs.

Lifting keels are another factor. The lifting keel technology has dramatically helped the performance of these sailing superyachts. Boats nowadays, with carbon rigs and high-tech sails, are so different and so much more enjoyable to be on, and they are easier to sail better with fewer people. In terms of responsiveness and acceleration, the boats are a world apart.

Aquel II cruises past the Sydney Opera house in 1985

You’ve always said that car design is a more exciting area than yacht design...

Yes, I buy a lot of car magazines which look at the latest concepts. But with boats it can be quite hard to get someone to do something too radical, because it’s a risk and a big investment. In the initial design stages, it can be quite hard for a client to envision, although 3D renders and modelling have helped enormously, and that allows us to be a little bit more adventurous.

Still, whenever I receive a brief from a client and I go to present the design, I am always armed with the design that I think is close to what they want, as well as something more radical or two other ideas. I just say: “Look, this is what you could do.” They usually say, “Wow, that’s amazing but I don’t think we want to take the risk.”  It takes time for design to progress.

You’ve always been a great proponent of using glass. Why is that?

I like to use glass as both an aesthetic feature and a structural element. The glass sections we’re putting into hulls are getting bigger and bigger. It was a struggle with the classification societies to begin with but I think they’re becoming more accepting, and the manufacturers are doing a lot more work to prove the strength of them.

On a 60-metre yacht we designed that’s just been launched, there are some exceptionally big windows but already we’re pushing the envelope on the next design, and it’s even more extreme, with floor-to-ceiling glass in the cabin and in the hull below the weather deck. They’re very big windows! In this way, glass becomes an experiential feature of the design – when you’re lying in bed you see straight out to the ocean.

What other aspects of modern design excite you?

Architecture – the way buildings are used and what they look like. I would like to design a classic yacht in a modern way. I’ve got a contemporary version that I developed for a client who went cold on it. I’m waiting for somebody to come along that I can show it to. It has a classic profile but is more contemporary in terms of the plan form and a lot of glass in the superstructure.

My thing is always looking forward and not backwards in life. I don’t really dwell too much on the past. I always think that what’s ahead of you is much more interesting and more fun.

First published in the September 2023 Life Under Sail supplement. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.


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