Juan Kouyoumdjian - ABN AMRO 1's designer - believes that from an engineering or scientific point of view there's no limit that would ensure boats not to break at VOR level of grand prix racing. Interview by Sue Pelling

Juan Kouyoumdjian – ABN AMRO 1’s designer – believes that from an engineering or scientific point of view there’s no limit that would ensure boats not to break at VOR level of grand prix racing. Interview by Sue Pelling

As the designer of ABN AMRO – the boat that’s leading the first leg of the VOR – what are your views on the design and current safety issues of the V070 and do you think the race organisers and class authorities have pushed the design limit to the extreme?

“First of all I can only feel for what happened to movistar and Pirates. Sometimes I see people being very critical about this but I personally cannot be, or shouldn’t be because it can happen to anyone and I think here these are very fundamental principals of the kind of yachting that we’re doing. If this [VOR] is going to be considered grand prix yachting, which I believe it is, it has to be understood that this is what it is, and things are bound to break.

“With the advent of this canting keel systems and increasing dramatically the performance of the boats I think this risk is even higher because right now we’re in a situation, and this is also true for 100ft superyachts that we’re doing. You cannot design these boats not to break. What I mean is there is no engineering in the world that would ensure you that you would go as fast as they do offshore and not to break, because it’s just impossible.

“I don’t think you can set a limit from any engineering or scientific point of view that would ensure boats not to break at this level. I think the wind is the least of the worries, it is the waves. I often say this, and I think it is a very interesting correlation, just imagine if in Formula 1 they introduced bumps and ramps. That’s exactly what’s happening. Imagine if Formula 1 cars had to go over a thousand bumps and ramps, they would smash themselves to pieces.”

But surely when you’re designing such a yacht you must have reservations about certain areas and whether these areas need ‘beefing up’ a bit to withstand the conditions?

“Yes, I do but I also know that if I do anything about it the boat is not going to win. There’s a fundamental junction here in the limit of the designer and the responsibility of the crew. The point I’m trying to make is that the breakage of these boats at this level, and outside the Volvo as well, is very much in the hands of the crew because again you cannot design them not to break.

So the way the crews use it, and I believe movistar has pushed it too hard, the way that the crews use the boats is very much the key because you cannot design them not to break because even if you keep on throwing in carbonfibre for example you don’t get to a point where you say ‘this is not breakable’.

But what about the safety side of things, what happens when these boats reach their first storm in the Southern Ocean?

“I can understand where you’re coming from and I can understand that this topic or this discussion is happening now because the yachting world is actually chasing these new generation of yacht racers, both boats and people, but I disagree with the notion of safety. I think the notion of safety is fundamentally dependent on the crew that is wishing to go out there. Just as much as a Formula 1 driver is asked to go around a corner at 5G, he decides to go then works very closely with the designers. I really disagree with the old fashioned, Knox-Johnston type of safety offshore, that’s gone, that doesn’t exist any more.”

Do you think that if it wasn’t for modern day communications limits would have been pushed so far? Has this made a big impact?

“I think so yes, I think for sure the notion every single person on the crew feels more in communication and linked to land. But not only that, the advances on waterproof technology and the fact crews keep themselves warm and less wet contribute a lot to how hard or how much they push the boat.

“What’s happened to the big multihulls in the Transat Jacques Vabre is a perfect example of the crew being the absolute fuse because it’s always been the crews who have pushed it a little bit too far. The example is that three of four of them in the fleet have survived in virtually the same kind of weather conditions. If we want the game to be that, then that’s what it is. The other argument/topic is: what kind of game do we want to play, or do the sponsors want to play?

Am I correct to say that the race organisers and class authorities are responsible for the design rules and you design to the rules. If the rules need changing it’s up to them?

“That’s exactly how it works. And because the advances on these designs put limits in a very grey area then the involvement of the crew and particularly the skipper on the decision-making or how much you push the design is fundamental.”

And finally, what’s the secret of speed on design of ABN AMRO 1, why is she currently so fast?

“It’s early to say but basically we’ve put a hell of a lot of attention and resources on minimizing the drag on those boats in between 12-18 kts of wind with a sailing angle of between 100 and 120 true wind angle, so that’s exactly what they’ve been doing over the past three or four days. Maybe the other boats have paid more attention to the under 8kt light wind stuff and that’s why they are faster in those conditions. We shall see.”