Leading Palm Beach Towers, one of the top tower companies in boatbuilding, Drew McDowell is really just a regular guy. The son of an Ocean City, New Jersey, attorney, McDowell grew up detailing boats and fishing when he could during the summers. In 1983, at the age of 17, McDowell went to work for the Viking Yachts demo program as a mate. Two short years later, and while still in college, he was running that same program — which included sales, design, testing and tournament fishing — a position he held for the next 19 years. McDowell still fishes on the Viking demo tournament team as an angler, and he also travels extensively.
Q: When did you decide to retire as a captain and get into the tower business?
A: After our daughter was born in 1998. My last year running the Viking demo boat was in 2002. At that time, the program required a good amount of traveling between Mexico, the Bahamas and the East Coast, and I wanted to spend more time at home with my family.
Q: What has been your most memorable tournament or fishing trip?
A: I am fortunate to have so many great memories over the past 34 years of fishing with the Viking program, as crew and as an angler. It’s difficult to point out just one. The first summer I ran the demo, we won four tournaments. It was a very humbling and rewarding experience for a college kid. Another memorable win as captain was the 2000 Masters tournament — fishing alongside some of the greatest anglers and captains in the world is something I will never forget. As an angler, we were the top release boat in the White Marlin Open last year, competing against 384 other teams — that was pretty special. We were able to finish the season with some of the most epic white marlin fishing the Northeast has seen in many years — we caught 44 on an overnighter.
Q: What qualifies you to build towers?
A: From an early age, I had a fascination with designing and rigging towers for the demo boats and our customers. I always wanted to come up with the cleanest, best-looking, most functional towers and hardtops. What helped me the most over the years was being able to run and fish so many different boats. I could see what needed to be improved and changed. As the boats went from a 20-knot cruise to 30, then to 40 knots, in such a short period of time, the tower structures had to evolve: larger-diameter pipes, lighter fiberglass materials, added bracing. Growing up in the business also helped. We have an incredible team, and their focus and dedication are second to none. They are always providing ideas in styling, manufacturing and materials, which makes me proud to lead them every day.
Q: How long has Palm Beach Towers been in business, and how has it grown?
A: We started the company 16 years ago, just me and another guy who had been a welder/fabricator for another tower builder. Our first job was to build a tower for the new 45-foot Viking express. We had some rough design drawings, and it was a challenge as well as a learning experience, but the job came out pretty darn good for the first one. We fabricated all the parts, including the hardtop. The next month, we hired three more guys, including James DeHaven, who is still our supervisor in Florida. Three months later, we installed towers on two more 45-footers, and then a 65-footer. Today, we have 50 employees, many of whom have been with the company for over 10 years.
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Q: How many projects do you complete in a year?
A: At the end of our fiscal year in July 2018, we completed 80 full packages, along with a tremendous amount of service jobs.
Q: What is the typical lead time for one of your builds?
A: The ideal time is two to three months from first discussions, although most every situation is different. Some custom projects may last six to eight months, since we consider all the options with the customer and the builder, then provide build drawings, make a three-dimensional model of the tower, arrange backing-plate layout and needed reinforcements, do final measurements, do all the fabricating and, finally, the installation.
Q: When do you decide the overall look of your towers needs to change to stay relevant?
A: This is an area we look at every day, with every job on each boat, so change is part of our process. All boats are different, and the entire tower package is specific to the boat — from the smallest details of a teaser-line grommet to each angle and curve in the tower. Lighting, electronics and antenna mounting are all areas that continue to evolve as the components become smaller, brighter and with cleaner applications. Composites, laminating materials and the fabricating process in general will constantly continue to be elevated. We employ two full-time CAD designers to help us keep up with the constantly changing designs.
Q: What has been your most challenging build so far in your career?
A: The 90-foot Jarrett Bay Jaruco. We met with the owner and the Jarrett Bay design team over a year before the install to discuss their exact needs and ideas. It was made very clear that this needed to be the most advanced, lightweight and perfectly designed tower ever built. We also had many new design requirements like LED spreader-style light bars to wrap around the tower, clear-finished carbon-fiber control and electronics boxes, aft-facing flip-down boxes, misters, and high-polished bends and welds throughout.
Q: How do you prioritize such a massive project with so many requirements?
A: One of the highest priorities of this build was to save weight in every composite part, while keeping the ultimate in strength. This included fabricating Nomex-infused coring for the hardtop and standing platform. The hardtop needed to support over 600 pounds in radars, domes, horns and antennas while only using a single side brace for support. It also required a new, custom-designed radar pod to mount both a 12- and 8-foot X-band radar — and it needed to be strong, super lightweight and stylish. We started with a 2D profile drawing of the boat to provide the tower height and overall styling. After that, we moved into a full 3D model of the tower and tops on the boat — right down to every pad, light and antenna. Once that was complete and approved, we started the engineering aspects. The result was state-of-the-art; my team did a great job.
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Q: Tell us something about yourself that others may not know.
A: I am blessed with the most awesome wife any man could ever ask for. My profession requires a good amount of traveling and time, and she has been by my side and supported me in every way for 28 years. We are very proud of our daughter Megan, who is a junior at the University of Florida, studying animal science while pursuing her dreams to become a veterinarian. Every day I think about how lucky I am to have Debbie and Megan, to be surrounded by the outstanding people I get to work with, the position I have and all the wonderful people — customers and friends — I have met along the way. My life is full.