Nigel Irens speaks to about his record-breaking design, B&Q

As the clock counted down for the arrival of Ellen MacArthur it wasn’t particularly surprising to see Nigel Irens, designer of B&Q, pacing the dockside at the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth awaiting the news of whether his design had broken the world speed record.

For Irens, who, in association with Benoit Caberet, has designed many of the world’s greatest racing, cruising and power yachts, and has been at the forefront of multihull oceanic racing since the mid 80s, it was undoubtedly the most important day of his career. Commenting with just a few hours to go before MacArthur crossed the line, Irens said: “I feel incredibly happy because the design has done what it was designed to do – break the world speed record.”

But what gives B&Q the edge over Francis Joyon’s 1986 Van Peteghem/Lauriot Prévost-designed trimaran IDEC that broke the world speed record last year? Irens continued: “It’s much more recent than Joyon’s boat so we’ve had the benefit of more experience. In terms of reliability we’re drawing a lot on the disastrous year in 2002 with the carnage in the Route du Rhum and there was a huge amount learned from that.

“I was quite surprised in a way they [MacArthur and team] were prepared to still go ahead with this project but at least we were able to draw on the problems of the Route du Rhum and say, ‘okay, we’re not having that again, we’re going to change direction’. It meant accepting the rule to allow softer skins, energy absorbtion skins rather than the very rigid ones that failed before.”

Designing a yacht for such an ambitious record was no easy task but as Irens said unlike classes such the ORMA, there are no rule constraints so they can design exactly what they want. “It’s such a relief for us to design a boat which is, for once, not within the constraints of a rule. Although there are just a few rules in the ORMA class, they are extremely constraining. The obvious one, the one we are delighted to be able to escape from, is the length because it is so much more difficult to make a good sea boat at just 60ft.

“Making the boat 75ft you do of course take on a bit more weight and take on weight when you increase the height of the beams above the water because the bulkheads get bigger and the surface area of the hulls is greater and so on.”

Chatting about the conception of B&Q Irens says it’s like chucking the clay down on a wheel. “Our roles [Benoit Caberet and Irens], particularly my own role is at its most important at the very beginning of the project and it’s me who says: ‘This is the kind of boat I think we’ll need’. I then do some hand sketches or simple 3d cad sketches. Interestingly, I still have the original sketch of B&Q and she isn’t very different to what it was then.

“However, with Benoit we evolved the original sketch using the references we had for two boats, our most recent 60 footer – Fuji Generation – and the other was a boat I did in 1986. We did an in-depth investigation in to the distribution of buoyancy and we recreated the 1986 boat even though it hadn’t been designed on computer we reconstituted that and used the same tools and that led to the shape of B&Q. Once we got the shape sorted out, the design was exposed to Ellen and team to decide how they wanted it layed out. The rest is history.”

The recent spate of keel failures particularly in the Vendee Globe where three boats lost their keels including the British sailor Mike Golding whose keel dropped off just 50 miles from the finish line in Les Sables d”Olonne last week, has led to debates about how to resolve the situation and whether a designer/boatbuilder working party should be set up set the ball rolling.

Irens added his view on the current keel situation: “I think we’re in the equivalent situation we were in when we were learning about over-stiff panels on hulls. Clearly something is wrong, and clearly when there’s a whole batch of boats with possibly the same problem something will have to be done. Obviously they [design teams] will go back to the drawing board and try and find out what it was and make it better for next time. The thing to remember is that we as designers do as best we can but sometimes there are failures. But in a way it’s an advancement of what we’re doing and we learn from when something breaks, so that input is very important and they just seem to have hit a problem on the keels.”

And finally, with the news of MacAthur breaking the record Irens concluded: “I’ve know Ellen since she was 18 years old and she really has just walked through this profession and gone from challenge to challenge always going up a notch each time and always earning the right to go up a notch by making a success of what she does. She possesses an extraordinary combination of abilities and has complete dedication and concentration to succeed. She’s a very tough cookie and an amazing person mentally and physically.”