Tim Jeffery looks back at the life of one of sailing’s most influential designers

Few yacht designers were as influential as Ed Dubois, who died in March at the age of 63. He trailblazed a path from racing boats to superyachts and was one of the catalysts of growth in the superyacht industry over four decades.

Fittingly, his breakthrough big race boat was called Vanguard, commissioned by Hong Kong sailor David Lieu for the 1977 Admiral’s Cup. Dubois drew his first sailing superyacht a few years later.

The early 1980s brought a confluence of factors that allowed the big sailing yachts we now take for granted to take off. Back then, an 80ft IOR maxi was a big boat. Cruising alternatives of similar sizes were heavy and boxy if the accommodation ranged above one level or featured mine-like dark interiors.

One by one, the limiting factors to big sailing yacht performance fell away. Rigs grew as the maximum length of rod rigging increased. Bigger sails could be handled thanks to advances in furling devices and captive winches, and developments in high strength/low stretch ropes.

But the rise of sailing superyachts would not have taken hold in the 1980s unless the yachts’ aesthetics were right and the accommodation had not become more akin to sumptuous land-based apartments.

Ed Dubois got this spot-on with his very first superyacht, the 122ft Aquel II, launched in 1986. American Bob Milhous asked for proposals from top racing boat designer Ron Holland, who had just created his first 100-footer, Whirlwind XII, for Noel Lister and Martin Francis.

Dubois came to yacht design from a different direction, as an architect who had spent 20 years in Norman Foster’s practice and had so far drawn large maxi-inspired performance cruisers. He got the commission.

Aquel II broke the mould of superyacht design

Aquel II broke the mould of superyacht design.

Edward Dubois was born in 1952. The family is of French Huguenot origin, but Dubois and his brother and two sisters were brought up in suburban Surrey. His father, a shirtmaker, had a hard time as a World War II prisoner of war. His mother was a Wren (Women’s Royal Navy) who served in the remote radio listening station at Macrahanish on the Mull of Kintyre.

Dubois doodled boats in the margins of his schoolbooks. He had grown interested through trips with his mother to the boating lake in Kensington Gardens and to Greenwich to see the tea clipper Cutty Sark. Doreen Dubois also dispatched her son to Richard Skemp’s Able Boys summer camp in Milford Haven, part sailing school, part adventure training camp.

Dubois’s career kicked-off with a new yacht design course at Southampton College of Technology, followed by a summer job drafting for Alan Buchanan at his office in Jersey. It was a bit of a culture clash: Dubois’s flared jeans and Buchanan’s formal tweeds, but it proved a superb grounding.

Decades on, with the rest of his office using the latest computer tools such as Dassault’s powerful CATIA software suite, Dubois still used pencil, splines and weights to draw his lines, turning two dimensions into three in his mind’s eye.

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Dubois also had spells working at Yachts & Yachting magazine and Gorey boatyard and met his first client, George Skelley, in Jersey. Skelley owned the Borsalino restaurant.

Borsalino Trois was built for the 1976 Three Quarter Ton Cup. Her light airs performance matched the breathless summer of ’76 in the UK, and she won the British trials and that year’s Solent Points Championship. A vital part of the success was having John Oakeley as skipper.

Borsalino Trois was built for the 1976 Three Quarter Ton Cup

Borsalino Trois was built for the 1976 Three Quarter Ton Cup.

Commissions for quarter- and half-tonners followed, but through Miller & Whitworth sailmakers, Oakeley gave Dubois his entrée into bigger boats and the Far East market, which introduced him to David Lieu, for whom the 44ft Vanguard was designed.

Dubois also drew Richard Riggs’s lovely 1979 blue-hulled half-tonner Santa Evita which, with her rich varnished cabin top, attracted many envious glances. Santa Evita won design awards, but among those casting his eyes in her direction was David Sanders of Westerly Yachts.

When, in a Solent breeze, Santa Evita smoked past one his firm’s GK29s, he took the bold step of ending his link with Laurent Giles. Starting off with the 26ft Griffon and the 32ft Fulmar, Westerly Marine built 17 Dubois-designed models between 1979 and 2000, with production totalling 2,023 boats.

Among Dubois’s bigger race boats was the fractionally rigged 42-footer Police Car for Australian Peter Cantwell. She devoured the windy conditions of 1979 to be the top scoring boat in Australia’s victorious Admiral’s Cup team.

Police Car was top-scoring boat in the 1979 Admiral’s Cup

Police Car was top-scoring boat in the 1979 Admiral’s Cup.

Charming and witty

Humour always bubbled to the surface with Dubois and this exuberance was a key ingredient to his success. Charming and witty, he was gregarious, too. A dining table with Dubois at it would be laced with waspish gossip, side-splitting jokes, a wry insight on the day’s news and world affairs. He could recite Hilaire Belloc at length; a love of poetry and music remained a constant from his childhood.

And Dubois ensured no one lost sight of the joy associated with the serious business of building multi-million dollar seagoing yachts – an all too under-appreciated aspect of the superyacht business.

Then there was his style. Aquel II was a trendsetter for many reasons. First Dubois created her around the sightlines, envisaging what and how Bob Milhous would look out from inside and see on board the yacht.

That led to a raised deck and deckhouse. The impression of something svelte was created by running horizontal fin strakes along the side of the raised deck, which doubled up as neat ventilation breathers. A forward rake to a hoop made the shape of the deckhouse look agile as well as allowing the satcom dome to be integrated.

The leading edge of the deckhouse carried a subtle lip – like a “guards officer’s cap peak”, to use Dubois’s description – and it is a device still in use today to provide a purposeful stance to the superstructure and to reduce reflection for those looking out through the glass from the interior.

Dubois rarely got a sheerline or an overhang wrong and he tackled the problem of drawing the vast volume of a 122ft hull with a shapely termination at the stern by making a Ziggurat-style transom. The tiered full-width steps appeared to shrink the area and added a useful boarding facility.

Aquel II was as lithe and elegant as a much smaller yacht. The fact that she was Design 162 shows what a considerable body of work Dubois already had behind him.

Pioneering traits

Aquel II’s influence did not end there. Milhous chose to build the yacht in New Zealand. Among those who saw the construction was Neville Crichton. The Sydney-based New Zealander was an avid racer and had the William Garden-designed 96ft Chanel built in New Zealand too.

Crichton took note and commissioned Dubois’s third superyacht, Imagine II. After that came Esprit in 1991 and Espada in 1992. They pioneered what is now standard superyacht fare: a furling boom on the former; a carbon fibre mast on the latter.

Design no 405, Ngoni, still in build at the time of his death

Design no 405, Ngoni, still in build at the time of his death.

“I always thought there was a market for big sailboats that could be run by small crews,” said Crichton. Imagine featured the first of what was to become a Dubois signature, his treatment of the wraparound window line of the deckhouse. The kick-up of the lower line became irreversibly associated with the Dubois office, and was widely emulated by designers and builders.

Dubois contended that the focal point of any boat is around two-thirds of the way back, where the yacht is at her beamiest. “You are always focusing on that,” he told me. His yachts never lost sight of this golden ratio, which has underscored so much great architecture over the centuries.

Architecture at sea was how Dubois came to view his work. Recently he drew some of the boldest superyachts built, yet they have remained pleasing on the eye, winning a spate of awards.

“If I was asked how I’d like our boats to be considered in years to come I would say beautifully proportioned,” he said.

Dubois and his wife, Honor, worked tirelessly raising funds for the Dubois Child Cancer Fund, spurred on by the experience of Minna, one of their four children, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. In 2015, Dubois himself became ill with cancer and had a stroke, but was relishing working on the commission for a new and superlative 192ft sloop, Ngoni, currently being built at Royal Huisman in the Netherlands.

It says much about Dubois’s eye that he owned the lovely Zwerver, a motor yacht designed by the doyen Ray Hun, and Firebrand, the 1965 Admiral’s Cupper built for Dennis Millar, an absolute gem of Olin Stephens’s work. Dubois raced her with verve on the Solent classic circuit.