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Just Say Yes

Sailor and yacht designer Ron Holland has always been one of my favorite people, and the explanation is easy: He’s a delight to be around. He’s easygoing and forgiving of mistakes in himself and in others. Mixing advice from Nike and nixing it from Nancy Reagan, his credo is “Just say yes.” If you fail, you’ve learned something and can do better next time. If you succeed, you can add to your list of wins. The strategy has served him incredibly well in racing and design.

One example of Ron’s forgiveness involved my review of his design for the breakthrough 148-foot (45.1-meter) expedition yacht Marco Polo. After the review was published, he called to thank me, and then paused. As is common, his rendering of the yacht’s profile had been reduced in size to fit the printed page, but unfortunately, it had been reduced more in length than in height. The result looked more akin to a tugboat than a yacht.

He was gracious in forgiveness, and I thought the matter was done, but I hadn’t reckoned with his sense of humor and timing.

Designer Ron Holland

Designer Ron Holland

A couple of years passed, and the full-size, properly proportioned Marco Polo was on display at the Monaco Yacht Show, her dark green hull a standout in the sea of white. Ron and I ended up at the Yacht Club de Monaco for lunch one day. As his party was eating dessert, he approached our table and asked if he could borrow me. He steered me to the man at the head of his table and, with a broad grin, said to him, “This is the man who shrank your yacht.”

They all enjoyed a laugh at my expense, but then Ron redeemed me a bit, sharing that of all the inquiries they’d had about the design, a significant number preferred what he called “the Little Toot version.” Though raised on opposite sides of the globe, we apparently shared not only an early love of boats and the water, but also of the classic children’s book about a wayward tugboat.

The second factor in Ron’s persona that makes him so likable is that he always has interesting stories and, thankfully, the gift of telling them well, usually with a subtle touch of humor. In one tale of being detained by the Cuban military while sailing around the island, he shares that the soldiers who boarded his yacht seemed to ease up a bit when his crew shared a Playboy magazine. Ron can’t help but add that it was aboard only for the article on fellow yachtsman Ted Turner, not for the pictures. (Sure.)

That story and many more are shared in Ron’s new memoir, “All The Oceans: Designing by the Seat of My Pants.” The title led me to believe that, like so many books by or about designers, his tome would be filled with technical details and dozens of intricate drawings. There’s a bit of that, but only in the broader context of how each boat created new memories and experiences for him, and for the boat’s owner and family.


Anyone who has lived through interesting times, particularly if they involve yachts, carries a travelogue of his life’s voyage inside his soul, but few ever manage to transfer the tales to paper. Ron has succeeded in doing just that.

Even if you’re intimately familiar with the designs from his board—one of the photos in the book is of him working at a drawing board, doing it the traditional way with splines and lead weights—this memoir opens many additional aspects for consideration. It begins with him as a youngster, more interested in sailing P Class dinghies off Torbay Beach in New Zealand than in pursing academic excellence, a “failing” he freely admits.

The 392 pages and more than 200 photographs that comprise “All The Oceans” recount Ron’s racing days in a series of ever-larger sailboats, then his transition into design—not initially as a career choice, but to create boats that would win more races. Along the way, he took a couple jobs in boatbuilding to learn the nitty-gritty of that trade, so his designs would be more soundly built. Finally, unable to resist the onslaught of requests that racing success brought, he moved into design full time.

As he enjoyed increasing success, Ron never lost sight of the fact that designs are not a goal in themselves, but rather a means to the owner’s end, whether that’s winning hard-fought races, enjoying relaxed cruising or exploring the most remote reaches of the world’s oceans. To this day, he continues to race and cruise aboard his creations, often tutoring the owner or crew in the finer points of maximizing the yacht’s potential.

It is that hands-on involvement that enables Ron to strike the delicate balance between the oft-conflicting demands of speed versus safety, a balance that becomes ever more critical as the size of the vessel increases. Ron addresses that point in his book, detailing the incredible power derived from the wind, the enormous loads imposed on the sails, rigging, fittings and hull, and the very real dangers to careless crew. It is an awareness for which I was personally grateful as I sailed aboard Santa Maria off the coast of Sardinia in the awesome winds of a mistral. One of a series of 184-foot (56-meter) yachts built by Perini Navi in a design collaboration with Ron, she provided a day of sailing that went well beyond exciting, testing the limits of our yacht and finding her worthy.

As a result of being not just willing but also prepared to “just say yes” as opportunities arose, Ron has succeeded across a broad spectrum, much more so than many designers past and present. His racing designs dominated the circuits for years, and as he moved into cruising yachts, both sail and power, his philosophy seldom failed him or his clients. A fair number of the world’s richest and most powerful people are on that list, and where he’s able, he shares how his life intersected theirs. The penultimate page of the book shows King Juan Carlos of Spain embracing Ron following a win in the 2017 International Six-Meter world championship.

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Fittingly, the final page is reserved for a photo of Ron back on Torbay Beach, 60 years after his early days there, once again with a P Class—a small but challenging boat that he credits with setting his life’s direction. “If you can sail a P Class,” he writes, “you can sail anything,” and sail anything he has.

“All The Oceans” gives us a chance to sail along through a life that has been improbable, yet incredible, and encourages us to make the best of whatever opportunities come our way. “Have a go,” he writes in the book’s closing paragraph, “and learn from it.”

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