Marc van Peteghem of French design leaders VPLP talks extreme foiling, cruising cats and sustainability with Sam Fortescue
With Lagoon catamarans at one end of the spectrum and world-girdling Ultime class trimarans at the other, there’s not much in the multihull world that design studio VPLP has not turned its hand to. It is among the biggest of the French design offices, which seem to dominate this sector, and one of the best regarded.
Founded by the naval architects Vincent Lauriot-Prévost and Marc van Peteghem, who met during their studies at Southampton University in the late 1970s, the company has always carried the acronym of their two surnames.
“I called Vincent in February 1983 and said there’s maybe a first boat to design, do you want to partner with me?” recalls van Peteghem, who is now the cruising half of the VPLP duo. “We shared the same values and the same vision of the world and we’ve been partners ever since. When I was 12 or 13, I said I was going to be a yacht designer. Then it was only a question of patience.”
And though I say ‘cruising’, I use the term somewhat loosely, as van Peteghem has designed everything from dinghies to superyachts. While these days he takes care of clients such as Lagoon, Excess and Outremer, he and co-founder Lauriot-Prévost actually began their careers designing a radical 50ft foiling trimaran called Gérard Lambert.
The boat was built for Vincent Levy’s 1984 OSTAR and showed real potential until its loss during the Route du Rhum in 1986 following a collision with a cargo ship.
Voiles et Voiliers magazine noted at the time that the boat ‘sowed terror’ among competitors at the 1984 Trophée des Multicoques off south Brittany, where it was overhauling maxi-multihulls. VPLP was off to a winning start. Commissions for racing multihulls began to pour in for a rollcall of skippers that sounds like the offshore racing hall of fame: Kersauson, Le Cam, Tabarly, Arthaud.
That commitment to race boats has never waned, although it is more the preserve of Vannes-based Lauriot-Prévost. Together, they have drawn winning MOD70s, IMOCAs, and even the triumphant Oracle USA17, which swept all before it in the acrimonious 33rd America’s Cup held in Valencia in 2010. They were also the designers behind L’Hydroptère, the advanced foiling trimaran launched in 1994, which held the world speed record over one nautical mile from 2007 until 2012.
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Nonetheless, in the midst of all this frothy racing work, van Peteghem recalls being approached to design a 55ft cruising catamaran in the mid-1980s: a one-off for a nascent builder called Lagoon, which was then part of the well-regarded Jeanneau Techniques Avancées, which also built ocean-racing multis. It was the start of a relationship that has endured to this day, down more than two dozen different models spanning lengths from 37ft to 77ft, and some 5,000 boats launched.
Success with racing would not have been possible without the cruising work, says van Peteghem. “All the money we got from cruising boats was invested into new software and engineers and technology and knowledge to be better. And it’s still the case.” VPLP now employs 32 people, a third pure engineers, and the remainder naval architects and designers.
The Lagoon tie-up has been good to VPLP, but it has also helped the catamaran brand to become the most recognisable multihull in the world, with its vertical trawler windows and cavernous interior. So much so that the term ‘lagoon’ has come to apply generically to all catamarans in some parts of the world. It’s clearly a source of pride to van Peteghem, although he protests that he is a “humble person” when I put it to him.
“Lagoon has been a little bit forward of the market – offering more and more comfort and space, towards more of a floating home direction than it was at the start,” he says. “In the hull design, we’ve really made a lot of progress to make the comfort at sea as good as possible, and also to minimise the drag.”
Most recently with the launch of the new Excess brand, the owners of Lagoon have asked VPLP to take catamaran design in a slightly different direction. “We are drifting towards something that is lighter and trying to be a little bit faster,” says van Peteghem. With the simpler, curvier lines of its 11m, 12m and 15m models launched so far, it is also aiming to appeal to younger and sportier owners.
“We were very happy with the performance [of the first generation], but I think the next generation could be a bit more radical. It could be one step further in terms of an exciting sailing experience.”
At first, Groupe Beneteau wanted to find a different design office to underscore the different look and feel of the new range. But VPLP had a secret weapon, which enabled it to win the new business. And that weapon is, in fact, a man; a man called Patrick le Quément who ran Renault’s 350-strong design department for more than a decade before joining the team as a consultant.
“I convinced them that it was much better that we do [the design] ourselves because we had designed the Lagoons and we knew exactly how to move the dosage of the personality,” says le Quément. He shows me a mood board contrasting the two lines. While Lagoon is all ‘mineral’ – bold edges and manmade forms – Excess is ‘animal’, with flowing curves.
Le Quément brought a certain aesthetic flair with him, but he also introduced VPLP to a new way of working. The technique he’d developed at Renault was to break each new project down into just a few keywords, then produce various sketches that exaggerated one or other of those characteristics – in effect, turning each concept into an illustrated spectrum.
Allied to Autodesk software, which allows users to create quick, attractive renderings, this approach suddenly made it possible to visualise hundreds of different possibilities for each brief.
Van Peteghem now sees this as a major strength for VPLP. “We’ve made a lot of progress in understanding the preliminary phase of the design and fully understanding the part about the aesthetic,” he says. “Working with Patrick [le Quément], we learn. Our designs are certainly better now: because he’s there, but also because the other half of the design company is evolving.”
The potential was spotted early on by Xavier Desmarest, the CEO of catamaran brand Outremer. When he was building a team to create the ‘ultimate’ catamaran, he chose VPLP and le Quément, among others. The result was the award-winning 5X, designed for family living, but with good light-airs performance. Despite a price tag of well over €1m, more than 20 hulls have been sold to date.
VPLP also worked on a souped-up version, appropriately called No Limit. Built in carbon and with a foam-cored interior fit-out, the boat is 2.5 tonnes lighter than the typical production version.
Something completely different
With Lagoon as his biggest client, van Peteghem intrigues me by saying he thinks that simpler boats are the way of the future. On the face of it, the brand of “little houses on the water” is the exact opposite, with its growing equipment list and burgeoning interior volumes.
“The market is more or less like an ostrich that has swallowed a watermelon – over the years, it is talking to the same population,” explains van Peteghem. “In the 70s, people were sailing on simple boats. Over time, they got older and richer and wanted a bigger boat with more comfort – more, more, more – and we drift away from the pleasure of sailing.
“What about the younger generation? We’re asking ourselves how we will offer solutions that are closer to their aspirations and money. At the moment there’s no real offer of a really simple multihull inside in terms of space.”
Van Peteghem seems particularly animated on this point, and it soon becomes clear why. He lives out the conviction himself, sailing a 6.2m Muscadet designed in the 1960s by Frenchman Philippe Harlé. “She is a monohull built in plywood with 1.12m headroom, and I was in Corsica with my parents in it 45 years ago. I still have it as a family boat. For me, I don’t need much: what I like is to be at sea and really be close to the sea.”
He says he’d love to sail a catamaran that follows the same simple logic as this boat, with four berths and an easy sailplan. “There’d be no compromise on the galley, because I like cooking,” he says with a laugh. But as he puts it, he doesn’t have four bathrooms at home, so why does he need four heads on the boat?
His thoughts are bending towards a Mediterranean cruise with the family. “What I really like is to sail for at least three days, then you get away from the perception of time. There are no more set hours to do things – it’s another rhythm: you wake up, you remember all your dreams, you have a few hours to take care of the boat, you socialise with the rest of the crew. I really love that.”
Despite his personal sailing tastes, van Peteghem believes that technology can make yachting more sustainable in the future. VPLP has just finished working on a desktop project with aircraft builder Airbus, which owes more to aerodynamics than traditional hull shape.
The foiling S-Jet took its form from VPLP, combined with state-of-the-art fly-by-wire controls from Airbus. Two different rigs were designed, including one with a pair of OceanWing sails from VPLP to create a real flying boat. VPLP’s OceanWing has developed out of the towering 68m sail that drove US17 to victory in Valencia ten years ago. “I had the impression that if we could make it stowable, reefable, it might be a good solution for yachts and the shipping industry too.”
With French development money and other support, several prototypes have emerged, including that for 8m eco trimaran Gwalaz. “With a projected surface area of only 21m2, compared with 32m2 or 46m2 for standard rigs, the prototype OceanWing propels the boat to an equal or higher speed in every wind condition,” says van Peteghem.
A larger scale test is being carried out on the French hydrogen-powered boat Energy Observer, which uses two 12m wings. And the studio has also published renderings for a genre-defying 282-footer described as “a trimaran or stabilised monohull – with wings”. The concept explorer trimaran Komorebi’s towering OceanWings will get it up to 15 knots or allow it to burn 30% less fuel in hybrid mode.
Van Peteghem says there has been interest in the concept, but nothing serious. “Typically, it is an example of something a little too early. Timing is everything – you can have very good ideas, just not at the right time, when people are not ready to accept or to understand.”
Far from being disappointed by the lack of take-up to date, he is confident that the boat will lead to a concrete project, even if it metamorphosises along the way. After all when, it comes to size, VPLP has nothing to prove: the two largest sailing catamarans afloat came off its drawing boards.
They are the 145ft catamaran Hemisphere, which was delivered in 2011 by Pendennis of Falmouth, and 138ft Douce France from 1998. “A big multihull is the perfect platform because you have a huge range, and the sail and the power, plus the stability and the space. Owners keep their boats for decades.”
Van Peteghem believes that it is down to designers like him to push the industry in the right direction on sustainability, and on construction methods too. For glassfibre boats, for instance, he is thinking about how the constituent elements could be assembled without gluing, so they can be taken apart again.
“Changing is very difficult,” he observes. “You either change because you’re under pressure, or because you want to.” It’s all part of an approach that starts with making boats lighter and more efficient in light winds.
“Being light is being green,” he says. “When you sail in the Med and you have a boat which is able to sail in 6-7 knots of wind, then you are only going to use your engine 5% of the time. “If your boat needs 10-12 knots of wind, then you’re going to be using your engine 60-65% of the time.”
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.