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