Meet Will Sofrin '01 - Designer, Author, Builder, Adventurer

Meet Will Sofrin '01 - Designer, Author, Builder, Adventurer

You graduated from IYRS's Boatbuilding & Restoration program back in 2001. Take us through what you’ve been up to.

My career has been an exceptionally winding path of opportunity and surprises. It all started with me being hired to help complete the restoration of the 12-Meter yacht Onawa for McMillen Yachts and to be one of here hired crew members for the America's Cup Jubilee and then the Prada Classic Yacht Challenge in the Mediterranean. I knew that I wanted to sail for a living, and I used my wooden boat-building skillset to help leverage crewing opportunities as I navigated the sailing industry. I worked on a variety of yachts & ships, working my way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a captain. Some highlights of the boats I've worked on include the American Tall Ship Rose, the Herreshoff Schooner Mariette, the Fife Schooner Adventuress (then a ketch), and the Bruce King ketch, Whitehawk.    By the end of my 20's I achieved and, in many ways, exceeded my sailing ambitions and goals.

I realized that I wanted to continue growing, so I decided that I was at an excellent point to pivot and try something new. By the suggestion of a real estate developer I had worked for, I made a career shift into the luxury residential home industry. I relocated to New York City, where I joined the corporate world, specializing in product development and sales outreach. I toured the country, meeting a variety of specialized tradespeople and building relationships with other creative entrepreneurs.   

While doing this, I kept my foot in the boating industry by developing a limited-edition print series of a select number of NGH's original designs. He did not draw lines plans of his designs, and the project allowed me to develop plans of some famous designs and some that had no surviving visual references. This project spun off into a customizable boat print business that is still operating. Because of the project, I was offered to teach a traditional drafting techniques course at MIT and complete two research projects. The research projects were privately funded, one was about exploring the application of Photogrammetry, and the other was using open-source software for building 3D models.   

In 2014, I relocated to Los Angeles and launched my creative studio, offering a spectrum of design & art services. My more recent work has been architecturally focused, specifically on managing the restoration of historic homes and developing ground-up architectural packages for residential homes & estates. I have become a bit of a historical expert in Los Angeles, having been appointed by the Mayor to sit on a historic preservation board that oversees the most historically intact neighborhood in Los Angeles. I also have a fabrication shop that produces the art pieces and the custom furniture that I design for my projects.

We tell our students that the skills they learn here can translate into countless career opportunities. You’ve truly lived that. Do you have a favorite IYRS memory?

My favorite IYRS memory is not very academic. It happened in the middle of September during my first year. I had been at IYRS for only a couple of weeks and was still acclimating to the program's routine and environment. We had an unscheduled special morning meeting that included the students and all the administration staff. Hurricane Floyd, the largest storm of the 1999 storm season, was headed towards New England, and we were told that everyone was to stop all work and pitch in and help prepare the campus for the Hurricane. IYRS was still relatively small at the time, and that meant that every hand was needed.   

The first thing we needed to do was to move Coronet [a 131’ double masted schooner built in 1885 being restored at IYRS] out to a mooring. She was still in the water with her lower masts up, and fortunately, she still had working engines. Casey Fasciano, a friend of the school, came down to take her off the dock and bring her out to a mooring. He made it seem so easy despite the deteriorating weather conditions and the fact that all of his deckhands were a bunch of office staff and students who had never helped to move a boat that large.

We were then divided into small groups to break up the floating docks and break down Restoration Hall. All of the shop machinery needed to be moved to the second floor using the bridge crane. We also needed to haul all of the small craft and securely store them and the raw lumber and miscellaneous building materials stored around the campus.  

We worked hard all morning, making significant progress. Pizza was ordered for lunch, and we all took a break to recharge for the final afternoon push. I saw many new faces and got to meet several volunteers and board members who also came down with their sleeves rolled up to lend a hand. The camaraderie exhibited by the volunteers, administrators, and board members expanded my understanding of the people that had created IYRS. I saw another perspective that day, and I saw how important IYRS was to the local community.

The camaraderie of our IYRS community is one of the most special things about our school. I love this story – this is exactly what would happen today. Though let’s not wish any major hurricanes on Newport to test it out!

Talk to me about the impact IYRS has had on your life and career.  

I always tell anyone that the most remarkable thing I got out of IYRS was the ability to learn. The environment of Restoration Hall is unique and magical. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work and learn in a large and beautiful shop that had the best machinery available and a fantastic water view. The environment nurtures creativity and exploration. There was little pressure when it came to a deadline or budget management. It was ok to make mistakes so long as you learned from them. I feel that being responsible for the execution of the entire process of restoring a boat gave me a better understanding of how to plan, manage and execute projects.   The restoration program taught me techniques through restoration and reconstruction. I believe that the opportunity to observe the failures on older boats provides a platform that establishes a more analytical way of processing how the engineering of construction methods applies to the intended design. Did I learn more through repair rather than if I had built a boat from scratch? I think so. Humans seem to visit their doctor when something is wrong mostly. Medical students begin their residencies in a hospital. They learn more from the sick than they do from the healthy. I think that the curriculum of the Restoration Program worked very much like that.

Your analogy to medical residencies is so on point. Being able to take apart a boat plank by plank and see how and why it was built the way it was is foundational to understanding boat design and new builds. It’s how we teach the program to this day.  Do you have any projects you've done that are especially near to your heart?

Fortunately-unfortunately, the majority of my client base engages me because of my references and because I do not promote my work. I don't take out advertisements, and you won't find much of anything about my work on social media. My work is generated strictly through referral.  Clients stay loyal to me for that reason, and it has allowed me to strictly focus on executing the job on hand.

My favorite current project has been ongoing for three years. It is a 100-year old estate in Southern California.

The home, a 5,000 sq/ft Spanish Colonial, has been designated as a potential historic landmark, meaning that there is a lot of red tape. My business is managing the project as well as serving as the designated historical expert. We have developed all of the architectural plans for the renovation of the main house and the two planned accessory structures that will be built. The main house is built into a hillside, and we had to raise the entire structure to build a new foundation that would allow better water mitigation to ensure the house will still be around for another 100 years. The home's architecture means that there are many sculptural elements, and unfortunately, there is a shortage of skilled tradesmen able to execute the work adequately. I have had to set up weekly training sessions on-site to discuss and explore various techniques that will be used to help achieve the goals of the homeowner. I will be spending the next month working with the G.C. to teach his team how to strike fair curves and steam bend wood because of the curved applications in the historic architecture.

I recently developed campus plans for The Boring Company. The Boring Company is located next to the Space X and Tesla Design Studios in Hawthorn, CA. This project was inspiring because I was able to tour the Tesla and Space X design studios and facilities. Seeing Space X firsthand was life-changing because I could really see the physical scale of the work being done in that facility. It's one thing to see those rockets on a screen, and it is another to see them up close and personal while they are being constructed.

I also have a furniture building shop that specializes in mechanical furniture. This has been expanding over the last few years. It started when I designed a walnut sit/stand desk that concealed all of the moving parts. All cords are carefully channeled and hidden, and there is a spot on one of the legs that the power cord runs through to meet a floor outlet. None of the woodshops I worked with would build it, so I had to build the first three. Orders have continued to roll in, which has helped me expand production via two other shops trained to build my pieces. My engineering is unconventional when it comes to furniture design. I incorporate my knowledge from wooden boat construction to enhance the integrity of my pieces.

What is something people might not know about Will Sofrin?

I have been writing a book about my passage on the American Tall Ship Rose (a 180-foot-long replica of a Colonial-era British warship). We sailed her from Newport, Rhode Island to San Diego, California, to star as Jack Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, in the feature film Master and Commander: Far Side of the World.

The book is a blow-by-blow account as it follows the 29 other crew members and me, eight women and twenty-two men, living, working together, and all managing to make it to California without a single person dying or getting hurt despite all that was thrown at us. 

We collided with a horrific storm (Force-12 conditions) that almost sank the ship in the North Atlantic. Later in the journey, we were dismasted while under full sail just North of Columbia in the Caribbean Sea. We dodged water spouts, learned how to do some quick-fix engineering, and I even had to learn how to use a firehose to fend off pirates near the coast of El Salvador.

Despite all the bad, we made the best of our situation, diving headfirst into the different cultures of the foreign islands and cities that we visited along the way. Sinsheimer Literary picked up the book last month, and we are hoping that it will be hitting the bookstore shelves sometime in the next 12-18 months.

I also was one of the founders of the IYRS Alumni Regatta, along with Jeff Schuldheiss and Manos Castrinakis.

The IYRS Alumni Regatta is still a favorite day for us. We’ll be looking forward to your next visit so you can get out on the water for some friendly competition!