“This just came in the mail,” says Gino Morrelli excitedly as he runs into the kitchen of his California home. In his hand is a booklet that may or may not grant him the International Proficiency Certificate (IPC) that is required to charter a bareboat in Croatia. “Now we can go on vacation in September!”
Morrelli, one half of the design power team Morrelli & Melvin, is one of the minds responsible for boats like the Rapido trimarans (read the Rapido 40 review here), multiple Leopards including the 47 PC and award-winning 38 and 44, HH catamarans, Invincible powerboats, the NACRA 17, and even the Windcat workboats that service offshore wind farms. If that weren’t enough, he also had a hand in designing for elite racers like America’s Cup campaigns and the maxi cat PlayStation during his career of four decades.
And still, he’s been sweating getting approval to run a European power cat for a week. Bureaucracy can be batty.
From Humble Beginnings
Gino Morrelli may be a top multihull designer today, but it wasn’t always bleeding edge technology and yacht design accolades. When he was young, his family moved from Texas to Southern California. They bought plans for and built a 33-foot Lock Crowther-designed plywood and epoxy trimaran, which was the boat that began Morrelli’s racing career. Self-taught in multihull design, he couldn’t have guessed the legacy he was starting.
Over the next 10 years, Morrelli launched and closed his first company building 18 square meter cats, and hung out in Hawaii after sailing there on a friend’s home-built 45-foot boat, just because there wasn’t much to do back home. The Hawaiian contacts he made during those years would stay with him for life.
“I was 21 and stupid,” he says. “Grunt crew work and surfing was fine with me.”
By 1984, Morrelli was taking professional sailing more seriously, designing and building the 60-foot Region de Picardie multihull. When racing off the coast of France in 45-knot mistral winds and 12-foot seas, the boat buried her hulls and pitchpoled, sending Morrelli 30 feet up and then down onto the reefed main. He suffered a compression fracture of his 12th vertebra and spent six months in France in a plexiglass corset.
Undeterred, just four years later his design and racing experience had him back stateside and joining the design team of the Stars & Stripes campaign for the 27th America’s Cup in 1988. This was a controversial race in which Michael Fay of New Zealand challenged the Americans with his beastly KZ-1—a 120-foot monohull sloop you could probably see from the moon. Dennis Conner countered with a 60-foot Morrelli co-designed catamaran. It was the first time in decades that the Cup wasn’t sailed in 12-Metres, and upon seeing the American catamaran, the New Zealanders went so far as to take legal action, challenging the validity of entering it in the race. The Americans and their cat ultimately won the court case and the Cup but ruffled a few feathers for bucking tradition in the process.
In between adventures, the company of Morrelli & Melvin took shape when Pete Melvin quit his day job and joined up with Morrelli. The partnership would yield many sought-after designs including a few Gunboats, numerous Leopard charter cats, the Rapido line of trimarans, various America’s Cup foils, and a whole new brand in the form of HH Catamarans.
A few years down the road, MM worked with “thrillionaire” Steve Fossett and created PlayStation, the 125-foot multihull with 7,274 square feet of sail area. The uber-cat set many records including New York to England in 4 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes, and 6 seconds at an average speed of 25.78 knots.
“The boat was designed to flex one hull 10 feet above the other, but still be stiff enough to hold up the 147-foot mast,” says Morrelli. “It was wacky.”
When not working on his latest speed machine, Morrelli is a fixture in the local yachting scene. He and his wife, Laura, often host dinners for the Knucklehead Yacht Club, a loose group of marine industry friends who share a love of red wine. The commodore of the moment is anyone unlucky enough to have left his or her garage door open—an invitation for someone else to deposit the traveling club cup, which is a Wilcox Crittenden marine head painted gold.
“Everyone tries to dodge being the ‘Commode D’Or’,” Morrelli laughs.
Morrelli calls Melvin his “second wife,” and their collaboration has lasted longer than many marriages. Melvin is Morrelli’s antithesis. A formally trained aerospace engineer and a two-time author of America’s Cup rules, Melvin was a sailing Olympian and has 25 national championship titles under his belt. Unlike Morrelli, who comes across like a laid-back Southern California surfer dude—all long hair, cheeky attitude, and usually talking—Melvin is measured, precise, uber-technical, and frugal with words. Together, this yin and yang team built a brand that developed a cult following over the past three decades.
Morrelli handles sales and customer/builder interface, often reeling in prospects from online inquiries. If a customer brings an idea, MM will generally try to design it, putting numbers to the dreams. Most of the business these days is generated via word of mouth, and currently the 800-pound gorilla in their client portfolio is Invincible Boats, which sells a line of multihull center console fishing craft.
MM’s project list includes slick speedsters like the Persico 72 with its T-foil rudders and 22-foot automated foils developed by VPP Gomboc optimization software. The company is also about to splash the first hull of the 88-foot HH Catamarans model.
“That design started life as a 77-footer, but the owner wanted so much stuff added—including a custom-designed carbon fiber Jacuzzi on the flybridge—that we had to bump it up.”
Design work may keep the lights on, but the profit comes partly from reimagining previous MM boats that are aging out, especially in the Hawaiian USCG-certified whale watching fleets. For example, Sail Maui will soon be receiving a carbon 57-foot charter cat with tillers so guests can experience steering an exciting boat while on a snorkeling excursion.
Many of MM’s Hawaiian cat designs are reaching maturity at the same time, and owners are eyeing carbon fiber replacements because carbon only adds about 2% to the total cost of construction but creates bulletproof boats that will probably outlast the companies that are buying them. On stiff carbon boats, the hatches and windows stay put longer and the filler and paint doesn’t crack.
The sail area on these Hawaiian leisure boats is restricted since they’re carrying paying passengers, so it’s a bit like sailing an HH with a second reef, but these sailboats are seriously stylish carbon lookers designed to thrill the clientele.
“We’re basically working ourselves out of a job with boats that will outlast their purpose and us,” laughs Morrelli. “But with the market acceptance of carbon and an engineering cycle that’s changing quickly, we’re basically not building the same kind of boat we were even five years ago.”
Repeat business also pops up in the form of modifications or repairs needed on performance boats like older MM Gunboats or one-off performance designs as they move from owner to owner. “The refits are quite interesting,” he says. “All these boats are like our kids and they follow us. We learn a lot from them.”
Work shifted for MM during the pandemic when demand skyrocketed with the YOLO effect (you only live once), and deep pockets led the escapist movement. MM let their office space go and the team began working remotely, which Morrelli says has been terrific. The last three years have been the most lucrative in MM history.
But while business was booming, travel restrictions curtailed Morrelli’s usual schedule of spending half his time in China shepherding HH Catamarans through the build process. Out of boredom, he discovered cycling. As is his nature, he became obsessed. He got in shape but smashed his fingers when his aluminum handlebars collapsed on a hill in Aspen and sent him flying. The accident didn’t slow him down a bit, however, because when asked what he’s proud of, he skips right over the boat designs in favor of a new accolade: “I now hold the record as the fastest rider over 65 to make it up Los Trancos hill near Newport Beach.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s hanging up designing in favor of Lycra yet. He’s still investing in the next generation of speed machines. Morrelli believes the future is all about foiling, although with all the electronics and hydraulics, it’s expensive to fly. Dedicated to the cause, Melvin and two other MM staffers are now back on the road to the Cup as part of New York Yacht Club’s American Magic syndicate, which is vying for the 37th America’s Cup in 2024. After enjoying numerous blazing fast editions in cats, the boat du jour for the next Cup will be a monohull once again, something of a departure from Morrelli’s career path. But it doesn’t faze him.
“Boats have basically become foil delivery devices,” says Morrelli. “The hulls almost don’t make a difference anymore.”
In fact, foiling is all about reduced windage on these flying machines, which is the reason for the shift to foiling monohulls—they have less wind resistance than cats do. “Also, length isn’t your friend anymore,” he adds. “The upcoming AC40s are nearly equal in performance to the previous AC75s.”
Another area receiving special attention is electrification. MM currently has several electrified cat brands under contract, but they’re steering clear of any kind of exclusivity because it’s a crapshoot who will come up with a better power solution and survive a market shakeout. “There are too many entrants, and it will eventually be a race to the bottom in terms of price,” says Morrelli. “Everything has to fly to be fast and efficient. Our strategy is to perfect foils and watch what happens next with propulsion.”
So, What’s the Plan?
As both Morrelli and Melvin contemplate the future, they speculate whether they can successfully transition their team to younger visionaries and still retain the MM mystique. Designers Sparkman & Stephens, who launched in the 1930s, managed to do so, and Van Peteghem and Lauriot-Prevost of VPLP seem to be currently in the process, but it’s a tricky business to hang onto brand cachet as founders contemplate taking less active roles. Morrelli also says that he’s having too much fun to slow down just yet.
Morrelli’s dance card is often full of invitations to crew in the Caribbean regattas of the glitterati or sail with high-profile cruisers, and both are a great way to enjoy other people’s boats. Lately, however, boat ownership is looming large. The target is a Leopard 47 PC or some other MM-designed power cat to enjoy in local waters.
“Laura and I are looking for a boat that can let us goof off at Catalina Island,” he says. “But with [his daughter] Netty’s wedding coming up and work pouring in, we’re probably a year or two out, so we’ll just keep adding weeks to our annual European vacation until a boat finds us.”
Morrelli is well aware that you’re only as good as your last performance, so MM must keep taking risks, pushing the envelope, innovating and wowing the world. For now, though, he’s pretty jazzed about his newly minted chartering credentials, and just plans to wow the tourists in the Med.
Zuzana Prochazka is SAIL magazine’s charter editor and part of the Top 10 Best Boats review team.
For more MM designs, visit morrellimelvin.com.
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