Germán Frers and his son Mani are among the most popular and revered yacht designers of their era. Tim Jeffery finds out what makes them tick
It was the economist J K Galbraith who said that there was “no absolute standard of beauty. That,” he added, “is precisely what makes its pursuit so interesting.” That interest in the pursuit of beauty is something that Germán Frers and his son Mani have spent their working lives striving to attain. In the process they have created some of the most revered yachts and are among the most admired designers of their era.
“It’s a gift in a way,” says Germán about the felicitous lines that mark out a Frers design. The essence of his work is in the emotion-stirring aesthetics. “It comes naturally,” he says. “But it’s also a belief I have that design should transcend generations. It’s easy to do something fashionable, something that has momentary success but doesn’t last very long.”
Mani tells the story of being in St Tropez last year when his father was racing Fjord III, the classic 50ft yacht built in 1947. “He said: ‘Come and see this boat. It was one I really loved as a kid’. So I arrived in St Tropez and it was full of white classic yachts. I didn’t know where Fjord was but I picked this one boat out straightaway. So there is some sort of connection. It was the first time I thought there might be something in genes and inheritance.”
Just as one line – the sheer – can define a boat, so it connects Germán and Mani. “I discussed sheer lines with my father and we see things exactly the same way. Yet he never taught me that. As a kid I was simply picking up a pencil and was in the design office every day, surrounded by photos of beautiful yachts and hearing all sorts of stories at the dinner table at home. There are plenty of guys in the office yet no one picks up the sheer that my father and I can draw.”
And how they can draw. Both Frers are responsible for some of the world’s most desirable yachts and Germán, now 76, has no thoughts of winding down. “I am not planning to retire,” he says, adding that he might “go gaga” if he did. “I’ve really enjoyed my profession and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.” Besides, the demand for his work is undiminished, particularly from clients of his own generation.
Mani is similarly committed to his craft. “We don’t realise the time it takes because we love what we do,” he says. “Then there is having the eye for it. We can work on a boat, review it, say it fits the brief but decide it is not the complete package. So we – how do you say it? – pull our sleeves up and do it again.”
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Mani and Germán now work less together: they are so close that they don’t need to. Across three generations the Frers family has been responsible for 1,300 designs. When Germán Sr was Germán Jr, his father was already a prolific designer in Argentina.
Back in the 1920s his father designed his first yacht, Fjord. Yachting was a nascent sport in Argentina, based mostly on imported International Rule inspired boats from the US or UK. Fjord was a Colin Archer style heavy double-ender, and it was Germán Sr’s idea of a proper yacht for ocean voyaging.
He later explored how plywood could be utilised, coming to similar conclusions as Ricus van de Stadt, Dutch boatbuilding pioneer. “He ended up drawing long waterline, hard chine, light displacement types,” explains Mani. “That was a huge step.”
The influence of his grandfather and father is manifest: “My father took over my grandfather’s mantle and made beautiful, fast boats of every size. To keep this tradition and rate of development you have to go at an intense rate. But this must be done from a very solid base.”
The Frers name came to international notice in 1954 when one of his designs, the 40ft Trucha 11 came 2nd overall in the Bermuda Race. A string of successes followed for a series of Frers-designed and owned yachts with the name Fjord.
His son was equally drawn to design and at just 16 drafted his first boat. It was for a friend of his father who had returned to Argentina from the US excited about the new material glass fibre. “He wanted a design and my father said: ‘I’ll let Germán Jr do it. Just go ahead’.”
The 10m yawl was launched in 1958 and represented the younger Germán’s ideals: flush deck, clean lines, aerodynamic with a rounded deck-edge. It represented a big step away from the light, chined boats his father was drawing which, though popular, were not treated kindly by the CCA (Cruising Club of America) rule, which evolved into the IOR (International Offshore) rule.
The younger Frers studied naval architecture at the University of Buenos Aires and then worked at Sparkman & Stephens in the United States from 1965 to 1968. The ability to fashion a beautiful yacht that was optimised to a rating was something that Frers honed while working at S&S before setting up on his own in Manhattan.
In time, Frers returned to Buenos Aires to run the studio his father started back in 1925. The 1971 and 1973 yachts Matrero and Reculta were making names for themselves in the Argentine Admiral’s Cup teams and the son was now established in his own right.
By the mid-1980s he had become one of the most successful designers of the IOR era. The yacht names still resonate – Ron Amey’s Noryema, Ted Turner’s Tenacious King Juan Carlos’s Bribon – to name but a few.
Frers’s name was synonymous with success on the maxi circuit from the early days of Herbert van Karajan’s Helisara, through to Bevin Koeppel’s Congere, John Kahlbetzer’s Bumblebee, Huey Long’s Ondine, Bill Koch’s Matador, Raul Gardini’s Il Moro di Venezia and Jim Kilroy’s Kialoa. One of his most famous designs was Conny van Rietschoten’s Flyer II, which won the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race.
In the late 1980s Mani came to England to complete the renowned yacht design course at the Southampton Institute. After graduating in 1992, he went to Milan, where his father had opened a second office to service the 1992 Il Moro di VeneziaAmerica’s Cup campaign. Germán had been travelling monthly from Argentina but with Mani now in Italy he could remain mostly in Buenos Aires. This is largely how father and son have worked for the past 20 years.
The different generations have different working practices as well as different offices. Germán has a long-standing and close-knit team, including designer Nestor Fourcade, who has been with him for 42 years. Mani, by contrast, uses a global network of 40-plus specialists, relationships built up especially during his time as designer, with his father, in 2000 with the Prada/Luna Rossa America’s Cup campaign and as sole designer in 2003 and 2007 for Sweden’s Victory Challenge. In an age when corporate teams had taken over, Mani was probably the last named solo designer.
Each has a different way of working, too. Germán is close to his team in Buenos Aires –“It’s bit like those old marriages!” – while Mani admits to being happier at the drawing table, pencil in hand creating lines, or running a design through advanced software programs rather than communicating between offices.
But both Germán and Mani have worked on numerous projects together. “To have Mani make a success of it in his own right is very nice,”says Germán.“As long as he is happy, we continue with our good relationship and continue to cooperate on a couple of projects, I am happy. I thought that we would continue to work as I did with my father but I recognise there are difficulties in that. Different generations do things in a different way. It was similar for me.”
The family thread remains a strong tie between the three generations. Germán has reworked (for modern construction methods) a 20m ketch that was designed by his father but never built due to wartime material shortages. She was Recluta II and will employ the contemporary rig and gear saved from the original Recluta, which was lost in a grounding.
In all there are over 10,000 yachts bearing three generations of the Frers marque. It is a hallmark of Germán and Mani that they eschew self-promotion, despite having created some of the most innovative and revered yachts of the modern era.
Between them, the body of work includes Horst Holmberg’s 1981 ketch Volador, which stood at the cusp of modern systems taming large rigs for small crews and Gianni Agnelli’s 1987 Extra-Beat, which heralded the trend for high performance daysailers.
Other landmark designs have been Jim Clark’s 155ft sloop Hyperion, built in 1996, a fully networked vessel that had 60km of fibre optic cabling to her self-learning computer controlled systems. Then Agnelli’s Extra Beat follow-up, the 1995 Stealth – 98ft of pure speed and able to hold 30-knot speeds with minimal crew and scarcely more than a head, a sofa and means to boil a kettle.
One of the most beautiful designs is the 140ft classic ketch Rebecca, commissioned by owner Charles Butt in 1999 and still referenced 20 years later as one of the most soul-stirring and elegant yachts afloat.
Frank Gehry, the architect, chose to work with Germán Frers on his own, slightly eccentric flush-decked Foggy, launched in 2015, something that shows Frers is appreciated as much by the cognoscenti as by owners of humbler production boats. Asked about their popularity, Mani says: “Clients come to us because they could not find what they liked on the market. For them, none of the existing yachts were seakindly or efficient in terms of drag.”
Many clients come for motorboats, too, often from a sailing background. In 2017 Baltic Yachts launched the first MY78, for which Mani was the designer. It utilises lightweight composite construction and Mani believes it is a breakthrough combination of low displacement, high performance, fuel efficient, seakindly hull forms.
Germán Frers says all the miles that three generations have logged at sea go to shape yachts that are not just practical and efficient but sensuous too. “My father once said to me that ‘between the faces of Sophia Loren and San Martin [an 18th Century Argentine war hero] is only a few millimetres of difference, but the effect is very different’.” It is with these subtleties that the Frers, grandfather, father and son, have excelled.
First published in the December 2017 edition of Yachting World.