Monday, August 27, 2007

Juan Kouyoumdjian talks to Valencia Sailing

On Monday morning, Valencia Sailing met with Juan Kouyoumdjian, the renowned Argentinean boat designer, in his office in downtown Valencia to talk about all the issues that concern the America’s Cup from a designer’s point of view, particularly in light of the recent developments. The long and interesting discussion touched various matters and examined the possible scenarios that might play out during the following two years.

Valencia Sailing: Before we start talking about the present and future of the America’s Cup let’s start with its recent past. In its 32nd edition you were involved with BMW Oracle. The team’s racing yacht (USA-98) was supposed to be the “ultimate sailing machine”, referring to BMW’s car advertisements. Taking into consideration the budget, resources and aspirations of the American team, the final result was a failure. What went wrong? Was the boat’s design wrong?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: The result was an absolute failure of course. I don’t think it was all necessarily due to the boat, although I’m obviously biased. I think the design team as a whole worked fairly well at the end of the campaign and we achieved a goal that I’m still convinced had a lot more potential than what was shown in the final races. Don’t forget that up to the final stages the racing was going pretty well. We had only lost three races in the Round Robins. The first was to the Spanish on a very noticeable constant wind shift. During three of the four legs we went completely against the wind shift. The second was to the Chinese where we broke the headfoil. Obviously, it shouldn’t have broken.

Valencia Sailing: Yes, but you also encountered the same problem with the headfoil during fleet racing in Louis Vuitton Act 13.

Juan Kouyoumdjian: It wasn’t as dramatic but it was similar. Then we lost the final race to Emirates Team New Zealand, we had been beaten before and that race had some peculiarities as well, if we had not lost against the chinese, we could have finished 1st in the RR’s without having to sail against ETNZ in the last race. Nonetheless, I think we had done a fairly good job up to that point but then a series of issues in the team started working pretty bad. It is obviously very easy now to put the whole blame on Chris Dickson and it seems everybody has done so. It is very easy in such a project to find a person to crucify but I don’t think it’s the case. Chris had done very good things for the team as well as some bad ones, just like anybody else, he however, decided to assume all responsibilities and decisions. Unfortunately, at the end we didn’t work as a team, we were completely dissolved.

To answer your question directly, I don’t think the final result was directly related to a lack of performance of the boat. I think USA-98 was a very good boat. To be honest with you, if I were completely free to choose a boat to repeat those races, particularly the choppier ones during the final stages, I would pick USA-98 again, without any hesitation, neither SUI-100 nor NZL-92. You can again say I’m biased but that’s what I believe.

Valencia Sailing: Do you think BMW Oracle’s setup of having yourself and Bruce Farr working together on design was a mistake?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: There are two models nowadays. First, you have the more traditional model, for big-budget teams, of hiring 2-3 designers together with other very clever people, making them work in a coherent way while having a central coordinator whose role will be to assemble and coordinate all these little things done individually and independently. In BMW Oracle’s case that role was played by Ian Burns but also a number of other extremely clever people. Still, this is a model I don’t like at all and I think it doesn’t work as well. That doesn’t mean that once you’re on it you can’t make it work but my point is that you can go much further with a different model.

Valencia Sailing: Finally, did any other yacht impress you?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: Of course, I can’t claim the opposite. There was a series of features on some of the boats, particularly Alinghi’s, which we had explored before and adopted in one way or another. But we were very conservative. In fact, in BMW Oracle conservative design decisions were due to the nature of the team. This is quite related to the previous point, where you have a group of designers who only recommend what they believe is best and technical decisions are taken by sailors. These decisions are always conservative. I was definitely impressed by Alinghi’s boats.

On the other hand, I was also negatively impressed by other teams that seemed to be unable to get their act together. It is true that in Version 5, getting that fraction of percentage point of advance is difficult, but getting 95% of the performance is not that tough. I was impressed by teams that didn’t even manage to get that, regardless of their budget. When you build a new boat you should be able to get a minimum.

Valencia Sailing: Moving to the future of the world’s oldest sport event, you once said the America’s Cup in Valencia was like watching F1 races on tractors. If you were given a blank check what boat would you design for the America’s Cup since you don’t like these tractors?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: If you allow a very free rule where you only define the “engines”, that is the sail plan, then for sure you will end up with a multihull. From a boat design point of view or yacht performance point of view, there is nothing that will get you further than a multihull. There is an argument that multihulls are not dynamic and are difficult to tack. I don’t agree with that because the greatest evolutions of multihulls, particularly in France, were done with offshore racing in mind. They were optimized for single-handed or dual-handed people to cross oceans. They did have a series of inshore races, Grand Prix as they called them, and that was one of the reasons that class failed, because of the discrepancies of what kind of boat you have to design for inshore races against offshore races. In essence you cope with two different boats and unfortunately budgets were not sufficient.

My point is that if you dedicate the resources one has in the America’s Cup to make a multihull dedicated to match racing it will not take more than a year to achieve it. From a yacht design point of view, the multihull is the “ultimate racing machine”.

Valencia Sailing: Is match racing conceivable in multihulls? Is it as spectacular, particularly the prestart?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: There is no problem to match race in such yachts. It could also be as spectacular, not if the America’s Cup takes place next June because people will not have the time to sort things out, but in the longer term it can very well be as spectacular as the current class, or even more. Don’t forget these are races of boats equivalent to Formula 1 and there are no cars in the world that can accelerate as fast, break as fast or turn a corner as fast as an F1 car. So if one pretends to claim that the America’s Cup is the F1 of sailing then its boats have to be the fastest one on the race course.

Having said that, even if one thinks of restricting it in monohulls, which is fair enough, there is a lot of room for improvement in order to achieve something much more exciting than Version 5 of the America’s Cup Class.

Valencia Sailing: That brings us to what Alinghi presented last month, after successfully defending the America’s Cup. What are your first impressions regarding the future 90ft monohull based on the rough public information available?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: I think it’s great. Obviously, it is difficult to comment at this moment given the very generic information available. Hopefully we will get the details soon but I think it’s great; it’s a major step forward and I hope they don’t hold back and make a real change. I was happy when I read that was the philosophy of the move Alinghi had in mind. The only aspect I don’t like very much and I don’t agree with is the lifting keel. By doing that you take off a lot of the boat’s character. In my opinion, it is the logistics and the rest of the organization that have to adapt to the boat, not the other way round. By requiring lifting keels we adapt the boat to shallow harbours or other factors I’m not aware of and I don’t think it is correct. Of course, this talk is hypothetical and even that rule might change or get altered, so we will wait till we see what Alinghi has in mind.

Valencia Sailing: Have you been approached by any team or potential team to become their designer?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, we have been approached by 5 teams. Going back to Alinghi, I think they still have an enormous amount of advantage. I don’t want to make a comment that could fuel a controversy. I will let the future team I’m involved with to deal with that but I would like to comment that the protocol ruling the 33rd America’s Cup is a lot more one-sided than what it has been in the past.

Having said that, even if Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts or whoever is dealing with the issue in BMW Oracle, are successful in the New York Supreme Court, I still think Alinghi has a huge advantage. Even if the 33rd America’s Cup takes place next July on multihulls that cannot exceed 90ft in length or beam, Alinghi will still have the right to choose the venue of the race and make it public just a month before the date. This is a powerful weapon. That means BMW Oracle must design 2 boats, one for each type of venue Alinghi might choose. One could be a windy venue while the other one could be the contrary. Having less than a year ahead of you it is extremely costly and difficult not to mention not reasonable or even achievable.

In the world of multihulls, length is redundant because you can come up with a 40ft hydrofoiler that goes as fast as a 90ft because when you base your hydrodynamics on hydrofoils, length becomes irrelevant. It would be interesting to see a venue, although I doubt it will happen, where winds are never more than 8 knots and then one team appears with a 90ft multihull while the other comes with a 35-40ft hydrofoiler crewed by two people that takes off with 5 knots of wind. There is nothing you can do in that case. I can also argue that during prestart even a Tornado can infringe a series of penalties on a 90ft trimaran.

Alinghi could for example decide that racing takes place in Valencia at 10am when you are guaranteed to have 2-3 knots of wind or go to Tarifa in southern Spain where you have a minimum of 25 knots every day. You have to keep that in mind because it doesn’t mean at all BMW Oracle will win the races in case they win the lawsuit. Alinghi still has a huge advantage under all scenarios.

Valencia Sailing: Assuming the current protocol remains valid and Alinghi present the new 90ft monohull in the next couple of months, will you have enough time to design a competitive yacht or will Alinghi have an extremely big advantage over all challengers?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: In my opinion it is naive to think that Alinghi has put a lot of time and thought into this new rule. If they managed to win the Cup and at the same time they had the time to design the yacht and tank test it, well then they deserve to win the 33rd and 34th Cups!! I’m sure they talked about it when they were towed in and out, but I doubt they went beyond that point. They surely have the advantage of having brainstormed the new rule and their advantage will also depend on the amount of information they share with the challengers before they make the official announcement at the end of October.

Valencia Sailing: Assuming there is some kind of negotiated deal and the whole 33rd America’s Cup is raced with the current yachts, a plan presented by Vincenzo Onorato, would you be interested in joining a team?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: I don’t think it would be of the same interest for me. In any case, don’t forget that according to the present protocol, racing next year will take place with the current yachts and as a result such form of design will happen. Still, doing another Cup with the current Version 5 boats is significantly less appealing to me.

Valencia Sailing: If the current protocol remains in place and we have preliminary regattas next year in Valencia, will teams spend any time and resources on further development of their current Version 5 boats?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: I think Version 5 boats can be called a refinement evolution more than big-scope research. Obviously, there are always things to do but I think that due to the format of the race and the points the challengers will gain through these regattas it will be a waste of time and resources to do anything other than refinements on the current boats. It obviously depends on what boat you have but there are now 4-5 boats capable of winning races in any given day, so if you have one of those you are alright.

Valencia Sailing: You designed the previous winner of the Volvo Ocean Race and you are now with Ericsson Racing Team. Do you find designing Volvo Ocean Race boats more appealing than America’s Cup yachts?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: As a designer, the Volvo Ocean Race is tremendously more appealing than Version 5 America’s Cup Class yachts. It’s a lot more exciting and it’s still a concept-rule race. Whenever you play with concepts it’s a lot more appealing. Refinement is always important but it is only a parallel track, you still have to get right a concept. The fact you have to deal with kanting keels, daggerboards as well as aerodynamics is very interesting.

Valencia Sailing: Has the rule of the VOR boats changed significantly from the previous edition?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: The rule has changed a little bit, the corner of the box is getting closer. The boats we are designing right now are clearly a generation ahead of what we did last time. Hopefully, for the event organizers not ourselves, you will have boats that are much closer but still there are lots of differences. Hopefully, if the new America’s Cup rule proposed by Alinghi opens up in a similar way, it will be very exciting.

Valencia Sailing: Without any doubt it will be very exciting for you but will spectators be interested in watching races where the leading boat is 5 minutes ahead? Won’t that be boring? Designers that get the “wrong corner of the box” will be thrashed.

Juan Kouyoumdjian: You are making a wrong presumption. First of all, we got differences of 3-4 minutes already here in Valencia with the Version 5 boats.

Valencia Sailing: Surely, but against very weak teams such as China or +39 Challenge. On the other hand, Shosholoza could stay 25 seconds behind BMW Oracle or even beat Luna Rossa.

Juan Kouyoumdjian: Again, it’s an erroneous presumption to think that a new rule will create such discrepancies. Look at the trimarans. The rule is as open as possible and still you get extremely close racing. For sure, in the last season Groupama came with a new boat and was faster than anybody else but it was 3 years newer than the rest. In the America’s Cup cycle there will always be 4-5 teams that can afford to be at the top of the game and I don’t think the boats will necessarily be very different from each other.

In addition, if the rule is open it will be much fairer and will leave much more chances to the smaller and poorer teams. If you close the rule a lot, as it always has been in the America’s Cup and particularly the current Version 5, then it becomes an extremely expensive refinement race. You have to sail huge amounts of hours, keep two very professional crews, spend on sail development or even buy 30,000-euro tip cups on the spreaders. Therefore, if you don’t have such a budget you don’t win. If you have a very open rule, the importance of 30,000-euro Kevlar spreader tips is insignificant. Thus, a late entry or a low-budget team can benefit much more from an open rule.

If you keep Version 5, as some people have suggested, somebody that hasn’t started doing two-boat testing on the water by the end of 2007 will not win the Cup. Guaranteed! How many teams are able to do that right now?

Valencia Sailing: Yes but I’ll mention Shosholoza once again. It was a small team with limited resources and low budget. Still, they were able to stay close behind their opponents in racing. Isn’t that a contradiction to what you said?

Juan Kouyoumdjian: I disagree with you. At what position did they finish the round robins? Seventh. In the America’s Cup such a position in the scoretable doesn’t count. Even if you are 20 seconds behind you are still seventh. I remember in the debriefings we had after the races with Shosholoza talking about how we managed to pass them in both cases and with Version 5 boats passing is virtually impossible. If you pass somebody through the same waters it means you are going faster. I also remember how quickly we put time once we were ahead.

I also remember in the debriefings discussing that once you are ahead of somebody 40 seconds you don’t want to extend the lead any further. Being more than 40, 30 or even 25 seconds ahead of somebody can be a dangerous position in match racing, especially in Valencia that time of the year where the wind can change significantly. I think you read too much into it.

Valencia Sailing: Last but not least, let’s talk about the other projects and classes you are involved in. I don’t remember seeing any TP52 or GP42 boat from you.

Juan Kouyoumdjian: We are doing a 100ft boat for an American client, built at Cookson. It’s a very exciting yacht and is scheduled to make her debut in Newport next year. It’s a very nice and innovative project.

As far as the other classes are concerned, we designed a TP52 boat only once but we had some rule issues. Essentially, we found some characteristics of the rule we thought would be beneficial to the performance of the yacht but the chief measurer and the person in charge of the class at that time (2 years ago) refused to give us a certificate for no other reason than the fact it didn’t look like the other boats. As a result, we decided that until the TP52 doesn’t come up with a proper rule we will not be involved.

But even if somebody comes and asks us to design a TP52 yacht, we will not have the time to do it because all our resources are fully dedicated to the VOR and AC. We are 15 people now and 22 very soon but still fully dedicated to these two classes.

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