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Reviving a race — and the work of a design legend

The office walls behind Chris Cochran are covered with an armada of half models. Among them are Sayonara, Steinlager 2, Leopard, Plastic Fantastic and one that’s simply known as the Big Boat, an odd creation with an overall length of 133 feet that New Zealand used in 1988 for its Deed of Gift challenge for the America’s Cup, thus creating scandal and scrutiny.

Farr Yacht Design was tapped for the new 65-footers sailing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race.

These are mementos of an illustrious past at Farr Yacht Design in the Maritime Republic of Eastport, Maryland, but Cochran deals with the present and its own realities.

His gaze is fixed on the computer screens in front of him, which are plastered with columns of numbers, diagrams and photos of the carbon fiber laminate that belongs to Team Vestas Wind, the 65-footer that sailed up on a remote reef in the Indian Ocean last November during the current running of the Volvo Ocean Race and had to be salvaged. As a design engineer, Cochran is analyzing the structural integrity of the hull to determine what, if anything, can be reused as the Persico yard in Italy rebuilds the boat so the team can rejoin the race in its final stages.

Although Cochran’s puzzle offers a glimpse into the possibilities of modern composite construction, it also strikes me as a symbolic act because there is more to rebuild than a busted boat. For starters, there’s the race, which gained a worldwide following during the 1970s and ’80s but in recent years has came under criticism for high costs, dwindling participation, and boats that broke early and often, influencing the outcome. Then there’s the image of a firm for which the sky once was the limit.

Company founder and yacht designer Bruce Farr used to dominate the international regatta scene just as Ferdinand Porsche and Enzo Ferrari dominated auto racing. No matter the type of boat or which rule — 18-foot skiffs, IOR, IMS, ILC, ORC — Farr’s yachts were title contenders. According to the firm’s records, its designs won more than 40 world championships between 1970 and 2012.

The Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race), in particular, was Farr’s domain, from 1986 to 2002 — so much so that boats from other designers didn’t even make the podium several times. That’s because nothing breeds success like success; the best programs with the best sailors and the deepest pockets came calling. The client list has included Sir Peter Blake, Grant Dalton and Chris Dickson — all Kiwis like Farr — but also Americans such as Paul Cayard and John Kostecki.

“We had a two-boat program for sail development, we had three models in the test tank, and we let seven different designs sail around the world virtually, based on weather routing data,” says Thomas Michaelsen, campaign manager of the German team Illbruck Challenge, which Kostecki skippered and was the last team to win the VOR on a Farr-designed yacht. The team employed 60 people at peak times and spent more than $30 million on that campaign, according to Michaelsen. That’s twice as much as teams spend in the current VOR.

The right mix of talent

As a designer, Farr was given the space to do what he did best, but he also had competent help — builders such as Tim Cookson in New Zealand and Barry Carroll in Bristol, Rhode Island, who together built several hundred boats to Farr’s plans. Nothing helps a builder’s business like winning boats. And then there was the “Kiwi Connection,” which comprised Farr’s business partner Russell Bowler, an engineer and composite expert who made sure the vessels were built light and strong, and Geoff Stagg, who ran the sales division of Farr International and managed racing projects for clients, which included royalty, such as King Harald V of Norway. “Our boats were dominant because they were fast, seaworthy all-round boats,” Stagg says. “Bruce was a very good listener and understood what it takes to build a boat that goes around the world without breaking.”

But Farr’s fortunes flipped when the Volvo Ocean Race switched to the VO70. The boats were bigger, faster, more complex and prone to issues with canting keel mechanisms and hull delamination. It was a steep learning curve for all involved, and one of the Farr boats, Movistar, was abandoned in the 2005-06 race after a keel pivot bearing detached from the hull. What’s more, rival designer Juan Kouyoumdjian figured out the game before anyone else and walked away with three successive race winners.

It was a reminder that nobody, no matter how dominant, stays on top forever. Not the Raiders or the Yankees or Phil Jackson. In yachting there were prominent designers, such as Nathanael Herreshoff, Sparkman & Stephens, Camper & Nicholson and William Fife. All had their run but eventually had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant; not all succeeded.

Times change, rules change, tools change. Advanced software and powerful computers are a dime a dozen now. Tank-testing, velocity prediction, finite element method, simulations and 3-D modeling are in everybody’s tool kit. Then there is the small matter of a client’s checkbook, which decides whether it’s designing to win or merely hoping to finish in the money.

Winds of change

“I am 100 percent certain that if we had changed nothing, it would have been the end,” Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, says of his event. So the decision was made during the 2011-12 race to contract with Farr for the design of the new VO65 class. “We were looking for a designer with considerable experience in the race and also with a clear motivation to make the one-design class a success,” Frostad says, implying that Farr’s history with such classes as the Mumm 36, Farr 30 (formerly Mumm 30) and Farr 40, which are still going strong after 20 years, tipped the scale for this choice.

As these things go, politics and backroom dealings rarely come to light, and executives are trained to “stay on message,” but through four legs of the 2014-15 edition of the race the decisions seem to have paid off. The 65s are less expensive to build and operate. With standardized spare parts, a reduced number of sails and Volvo taking care of repair and maintenance during stopovers, a load of logistical and financial burden was taken off the teams.

Participation is up, with seven entries — perhaps not as many as Frostad wanted, but a step in the right direction. Better numbers are expected for 2017, when the VO65s will be used again. The boats are closely matched, which makes for tight racing that keeps the audience engaged. The top three finishers of the 6,130-mile leg from Sanya, China, to Auckland, New Zealand, arrived within eight minutes of each other. And except for Team Vestas Wind, which exited the gene pool through a rare navigation mistake, there were few breakdowns, none of them catastrophic.

Farr Yacht Design president Pat Shaughnessy and his platoon of Pez dispensers, each of which represents a project that's in the works.

Of course, the decision, as beneficial it might be, was not cheered by designers who’d lost lucrative commissions. “It is an unfortunate thing for most people — we are cognizant of that,” says Farr president Pat Shaughnessy. “At the same time, I don’t believe there would have been a Volvo Race, so you can make an argument that a lot of the industry probably would have been out of that style of work in any case.”

Tall, dark-haired and soft-spoken, Shaughnessy is the man in charge after the recent retirement of Farr and Bowler. At 45, he is a young chief executive leading a dozen engineers and designers, but 25 years at the firm did prepare him for the job. His desk overlooks Spa Creek on one side; a collection of colorful Pez dispensers guards the other. They’re more than a funny quirk; they figure in workflow management. Each one symbolizes a project and usually sits on the desk of the employee who’s assigned to it.

Dancing with many partners

In addition to the VOR, Shaughnessy has to stir other pots — for example, the Farr 280. This is a fresh one-design class that was developed with Premier Composite Technologies in Dubai and is intended to succeed the Farr 30. The attempt to replace the Farr 40 with the Farr 400 has yet to produce the desired results, so a lot is riding on the success of the 280.

Then there is the multihull business, from which Farr has been absent. That, however, is about to change. “We have a venture on the boards, an 85-foot high-performance cruising catamaran, a spec project,” Shaughnessy says. He hopes to get it in the water sometime in 2016.

And there’s the production-boat business that’s overshadowed by the Volvo hoopla, even though a Farr-designed Bavaria 46 won the Family Cruiser category at the 2015 European Yacht of the Year awards. “My first keelboat designs were cruising designs that were raced,” says Farr, who spends his golden years traveling, puttering about on powerboats and sailing for leisure.

He still has a need for speed, taking his Audi S4 or Lotus Exige S 260 out on a closed track for fun and to teach others safe car-handling skills. In his view, developing production yachts also honed the firm’s expertise for engineering and cost-efficient manufacturing, adding that “doing work for Beneteau and Bavaria was a logical progression.”

It makes sense, but it sounds unusual coming from a guy who became famous for designing full-throttle boats that race around the buoys and around the world — hopefully without finding a rock, like Team Vestas Wind. The Danes are in a different race now, scrambling to put their boat back together.

But Cochran, after finishing his analysis of recyclable bits and calculating where to fuse them with virgin laminate, cautioned that “less might be reused than originally thought.” Cutting out pieces from the old hull, he explains, also can compromise them because they were bonded well. That’s a mixed blessing for Team Vestas, but it’s peace of mind for the rest of the fleet in a race that has taken steps to stay relevant and might help Farr rekindle some glamour of the glory days.

May 2015 issue