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On Watch - Bill MacGowan

Bill MacGowanA popular figure on the Newport, Rhode Island sailing scene since the early 1980s, Bill MacGowan’s influence and work is present all around town, both on the water and ashore. But you’re most likely to find Bill and his family on the water, whether racing, harbor touring, surfing or paddleboarding. “Newport is one of the greatest harbors and sailing venues in the world, and it has beautiful beaches with decent waves,” says Bill. “We start in the morning at the beach and end up at the harbor in the afternoon for one thing or another.”

© Meghan Sepe

Bill’s love of the water began at an early age. “I was 5 or 6 when I learned to sail with my grandpa at Bullhead Yacht Club in Southampton, New York, where we summered with him,” recalls Bill, who lives in Middletown. “My family, with two brothers and two sisters (I’m the middle one), lived in Manhasset the rest of the year. When I was a teenager, I started racing on bigger boats on Long Island Sound out of Manhasset Bay Yacht Club and Knickerbocker Yacht Club. In adulthood, my mentor was my big brother Andy MacGowan, who was an America’s Cup sailor in the 1970s. (Bill’s younger brother Johnny also sailed with several Cup campaigns in the ‘80s.) I worked for Andy at Newport Offshore Shipyard, which is where I learned pretty much every aspect of boat building and rigging.”

“Andy got me started in offshore sailing, with campaigns based on Long Island Sound,” says Bill, “but I was pretty preoccupied with lacrosse in high school [Manhasset High] and college [University of North Carolina, which he attended on a lacrosse scholarship].” When I moved to Newport to work for him, I had done a short stint on Ticonderoga as the mate, and I started doing deliveries and racing one-tonners, 50-footers, etc. Eventually, I wound up on Kialoa III.”

“My wife Barby [President of Media Pro International in Newport] signed onto Kialoa III as the cook right after she graduated from the University of Texas. I was the first mate. She jokes to this day that she knew nothing about cooking, but those were different times, and besides, Jim [Kilroy], the owner, was on the Scarsdale diet so she kept the menus simple with lots of steamed vegetables and oatmeal!”

From about 1981 to ‘82, when Kialoa III was cruising, Bill was first mate. When racing (and subsequently on Kialoa IV), he trimmed and did lots of other things. He and Barby then decided to move ashore.  

Bill’s first boat was an Interclub, which he and Barby sailed on Newport Harbor with other frostbiters crazy enough to brave the cold in a boat that can’t be righted after a capsize. In 1991, after sailing different backyard boats on Narragansett Bay, he designed and built a 28-foot custom racer. “We own the legendary P28 Macx,” he says. “She has quite a (good) reputation on the Bay! The list of world-class sailors who have sailed on Macx is amazingly long. Macx was built the year our son was born; he’s now 25. I’ve made only one major upgrade, and she’s still a very contemporary and great sailing boat. All of the races we do on Narragansett Bay with her are a blast!”

Bill and Barby also own a classic 21-foot Staudacher mahogany runabout named Loon. “We rescued Loon from someone’s backyard after a friend told us about her, says Bill. “I had to rebuild the engine and refinish the deck and hull. She’s our beautiful boat for doing the ultimate harbor cruise at sunset in Newport…and we have quivers of surfboards and paddleboards, too.”

Bill owns Mac Designs, a multi-service design studio in Newport specializing in graphic design and signage for marine-oriented businesses. “It was 1982 when I got a call from Peter Wilson, who is now co-owner of MCM Marine,” says Bill. “He had worked at the shipyard with me, and he knew I had an art degree. He wanted a sign for the Canada 1 America’s Cup team. When I delivered the sign, the owner of the building where it was being hung requested similar signs for all the syndicates. By the end of that year, our small apartment had become a small sign company: Mac Designs.”

“We do everything from hull and sail graphics to large format printing and boat/vehicle wraps to branding for events such as the Volvo Ocean Race Newport Stopover and the World Match Racing Tour. Last year, we became Official Fabricators for SeaDek Marine Nonskid after our client base became large enough to support that. Many of the grand-prix campaigns we were working for realized how great it was for their decks, so we do that now too, as a separate business called Performance SailTools.”

With so many interesting and challenging projects, Bill has trouble choosing one as his favorite. “I can’t really name one, but for boats, I like the simple lines of the striping on the Numbers hull, the branding of the various Ramblers (90, 100 and 88 feet), and the complete graphics aboard Vesper. They go from hull to deck to sails, and there is SeaDek in the cockpit with the iconic 007 logo they use. For events, it would have to be all of them. After the America’s Cup World Series Newport, I remember feeling great satisfaction when the event was over and I was looking back on it!”

Reflecting on the best aspect of sailing, Bill says,“It’s the people. We all have the same thing in common. We love teamwork and trying to outwit Mother Nature on the open ocean or the racecourse. We’re exposed to beautiful environments, amazing new friends and incredible adventures. It’s a disconnect from land that some people never get to experience. Whether I’m invited to sail aboard a one-design such as Ninkasi (a Melges 32), a 12-Metre such as Victory ’83, a maxi such as Rambler or a superyacht such as Rosehearty, I feel pretty lucky that I get these kinds of opportunities.”


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WindCheck Magazine November December