Beauty on Board: How interior designer Susan Winchester realizes yacht owners’ dreams

Interior design poses many challenges, but perhaps no task is more exacting than the design of a yacht. 

“Every inch counts,” says Susan Winchester, and she should know. An established residential designer and textiles expert, she added yacht interiors to her portfolio 10 years ago. Raised on the shores of Lake Michigan, she calls herself “a child of the water” and is extremely well-versed in the demands of nautical design, from fabric choices (“There are certain fibers you just don’t want to use on the water”) to on-board storage (“When you start putting things away, get a pad of paper and write down where you put everything”). 

Her expertise was key for Christian Strong and Jack Thomasson, pictured above with Susan aboard the couple’s yacht, Passa la Page. Jack was the house planner for HGTV Dream Home for 20 years and worked on numerous other home-related TV shows, and the couple was integrally involved in the design of their own homes in Atlantic Beach, FL and Roswell, GA. 

“But doing a home was so different from doing a boat,” says Christian. “We looked for an expert,” adds Jack, “and that’s where Susan came in.” 

Both avid boaters, they’d originally intended to purchase a 53-foot sailboat at the Miami Boat Show in February of 2018. Then they decided to take an extra loop around the show and wound up meeting the Palmetto-based yacht builder David Marlow, who sold them on a 53-foot Marlow Explorer and connected them with Susan, who has built more than 30 yachts with Marlow. 

“Built” is the operative word, because when the couple began working with her, the boat didn’t exisit. 

“It was on paper,” says Susan, “a blueprint.” 

That meant Jack and Christian were able to partner with her throughout the design process, which lasted from March, 2018, to March of 2019. 

Marlow Yachts are customizable, but most have a traditional look, marked by extensive use of teak and other fine hardwoods. The couple wanted something brighter, more contemporary. They also wanted to make changes in the layout to afford them more space and better views. 

The view from the salon to the flybridge. Photos by Andrea Hillebrand.

Susan’s deep familiarity with Marlow Yachts was invaluable in realizing these changes. 

“You discover something new with every boat you build,” she says. For instance, she explains,“This is the first ‘53’ with galley forward” — meaning that passengers have a great view whether they’re dining or or cooking.

The “galley forward” arrangement.

Other innovations include three sleeping rooms below (unusual for this size boat), clever storage solutions, ample wall space for art, and his-and-hers (or rather, his-and-his) bathrooms in the master, with a shower in between. 

The master bedroom.
A guest room with twin berths, with the master beyond.
A guest berth.

Marlow yachts are designed at the company’s headquarters on Snead Island and built in China. Susan ships some elements to China for installation, like fabrics and light fixtures, and keeps others, like custom-ordered furnishings, in her own warehouse. Once construction is finished, the yachts are brought to the States via container ship, off-loaded in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and taken round to Snead, where Winchester brings everything aboard. 

The Miami Boat Show would once again play a role in the couple’s yacht-buying saga. The boat was featured there the year it was completed, and that’s where Jack and Christian first saw it. 

Aptly enough, given that she was working with an HGTV veteran, Susan managed to pull off a big reveal. 

“She was fun with keeping us at bay till it was ready for us to view,” says Jack. 

“It’s just so exciting that first time the owner gets to walk on board,” says Winchester. “It’s one of the best parts about what I do.” 

But… did they like it? 

The couple’s 6-year-old Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, Mia, enjoys being aboard.

“We were beside ourselves,” says Jack. 

“We knew what we picked over the year working with Susan,” adds Christian, “but it so exceeded any expectations we had. Walking in and immediately feeling the comfort… It wasn’t like we had to get used to it. We didn’t change a thing.” 

After the reveal, the couple decided to keep the boat in St. Pete’s Vinoy Marina in case they needed to take it to Palmetto to work out any kinks. But then something else happened, says Strong. 

“We very quickly fell in love with St. Pete.” 

And they weren’t the only ones: Strong’s 86-year-old mother bought a home on Snell Isle, and his sister bought in the Old Northeast. 

The yacht’s name — Passa la Page — was inspired directly by a phrase Strong heard growing up in his Italian-American household in Miami, where his mom raised five kids on her own. “If you were having a bad day or you were whining about something,” he recalls, “she’d always say that — passa la page — turn the page, move on.” 

The name of the boat echoes a familiar saying of Johnson’s mother.

It’s inscribed on the boat in an exact replica of his mother’s “beautiful penmanship,” says Christian, which she regained after recovering from a stroke several years ago. “We handed her a notepad and asked her to write it down, I gave it to my sister, who’s a graphic designer, to put it in the right format, and we gave it to Susan and Marlow.” 

So, I wondered, given that they’ve poured so much love and inspiration into Passa la Page, would this be the couple’s last boat? 

They answered with an emphatic “No!” 

Susan added, “I hope not!” 

A boater’s-eye view of Downtown St. Pete.
Sailing away to the next adventure.

Tags: