NEW YORK — Doug Peterson, a freethinking yacht designer who turned the offshore racing world on its head in the 1970s with breakthrough boats, and later contributed to the designs of two America’s Cup winners, died June 26 in San Diego. He was 71.
The cause was colon cancer, his daughter Laura Peterson said.
The yacht-racing world in the early 1970s was booming in North America after the establishment of a design rule that opened up competition to affordable new boats of different designs.
Mr. Peterson, a young, longhaired, bearded San Diegan, entered the yacht design scene on the West Coast, fresh from an apprenticeship with renowned yacht designer Wendell Calkins, who was known as Skip and whose ultralight ocean sailing yachts had won the Transpac race from Los Angeles to Hawaii.
Mr. Peterson’s breakthrough design was for a 34-foot yacht named Ganbare — Japanese for “go fight wind.”
He borrowed money from his grandmother to build it on speculation. Smaller and lighter than its competitors, Ganbare was more maneuverable and was faster than anything else of its size.
After winning the One Ton North American Championships with Ganbare, Mr. Peterson cobbled together a plan to take the boat to the 1973 One Ton World Championships in Genoa, Italy, the premier international offshore sailing competition of the time.
Ganbare won the first four races of the series. Mr. Peterson was penalized in one of the final races for rounding a mark the wrong way, and he eventually finished second. The result surprised the yacht-racing world and kicked off Mr. Peterson’s career.
Commissions flooded the new office of Peterson Design Inc., and boat builders on Shelter Island in his hometown, San Diego, began producing a new Peterson design out of cold-molded wood every seven weeks.
“Ganbare put him on the map,” said Dirk Kramers, chief engineer for the recent America’s Cup team Land Rover BAR and a design team member with Mr. Peterson during the successful American defense of the Cup in 1992 with America 3 (known as America Cubed). “By the late 1970s, he was the man.”
Douglas Blair Peterson was born on July 25, 1945, in Los Angeles and spent almost his entire life in San Diego. His father, Carlton Peterson, an aerospace engineer, bought an 11-foot Sabot single-sailed dinghy with the hope that sailing would reduce the stress of his work life. He would take young Doug and his brother on daysails to Treasure Island.
Mr. Peterson graduated from Point Loma High School in San Diego but later dropped out of Pasadena City College.
After his apprenticeship with Calkins, Mr. Peterson struck out on his own. The win record for Peterson’s designs in the 1970s and early 1980s included eight world championships and victories in every major sailing event, including the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and the Admiral’s Cup.
His sometimes angular hull and keel designs, inspired by aeronautical foil shapes, influenced a new generation of designers, who would eventually lead the design world and set trends in the market for recreational and racing sailboats.
Mr. Peterson was an intuitive designer who took very few notes, according to those who worked alongside him. By the time he joined his first America’s Cup campaign, Bill Koch’s America 3, he was a lead designer, successfully defending the trophy in 1992.
For the next Cup races, in 1995, Mr. Peterson joined Team New Zealand, for whom he helped create the Cup boat Black Magic. Russell Coutts and his Kiwi team handily defeated American Dennis Conner, 5-0, taking the Cup away from the United States. In 2000, he was on the design team for the Italian syndicate Luna Rossa, which lost to New Zealand in the finals.
He responded rapidly when challenged by new design rules.
“He was very good at quickly determining where a boat should be within that rule box,” said Jim Pugh, a racing and superyacht designer who worked for Peterson Design Inc. from 1976-1982. “A lot of people would take a lot of time and research to get to that space. A completely open, new rule, he could put his mind to that, and that’s what he enjoyed doing.”
Mr. Peterson was recently voted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.
Besides his daughter Laura, Mr. Peterson leaves his other children, Mark, Jamie, and Julia.