With her graceful lines, but muscular performance, Elfje is one of the few superyachts to be designed for a woman owner. Elaine Bunting speaks to her designer André Hoek
Some say the ideal yacht is one that sails like a racer, has the accommodation of a cruiser and the looks of a classic. That’s a wry joke because at the average yacht size this is an almost impossible combination. But if money and scale weren’t an issue, what would the ideal performance cruiser look like?
Elfje is one owner’s vision of the consummate yacht. The 172ft ketch is one of the outstanding launches of last year, and has drawn admiring looks everywhere. You can see why.
Upwind, her dominant features are that powerful plumb bow, long bowsprit and deeply roached sails, shapes akin to the modern offshore racer. But at rest you see a yacht with a graceful, but unexaggerated sheerline tapering to a long overhang at the transom. If a superyacht can ever be called demure, Elfje can, right down to the shade of her hull, an unusual light grey-blue colour.
Is Elfje a muscular yacht or more of a graceful feminine form? It’s an interesting question in this case because she is one of the very few superyachts to have been designed for a woman owner.
Her identity was closely guarded until this summer when she agreed to be interviewed about Elfje by Georgie Ainslie, wife of Sir Ben, and a fellow trustee of the 1851 Trust, set up to inspire young people through sailing and the technology used in the marine industry.
Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, is also linked through 11th Hour Racing, a project that aims to build sustainability practices into high-performance racing projects and is in partnership with Ben Ainslie Racing.
Schmidt is an enthusiastic, long-time racer who also owns a Swan 80, Selene, and the design brief was for a comfortable long-range cruiser that would be capable of good performance in superyacht regattas. Above all, the yacht was to be elegant.
André Hoek was commissioned to design the yacht and Royal Huisman in the Netherlands to build her. The result is the pleasing combination of features that Hoek describes as “basically a bit of a masculine shape, but a very feminine look. It’s an interesting combination and when people see her at anchor, everyone says ‘Wow!’”
Hoek, a quietly spoken man with a professorial air, is one of the most influential designers of the last few decades and a master of the neo-classic form, famous for creating yachts with long overhangs, flush decks, elegant deckhouses and coachroofs that are as attractive to look at as they are comfortable to sail.
It is a style he has made his own, from such big yachts such as the 179ft ketch Adele, launched in 2005, to the range of Truly Classic designs (Sir Ben and Lady Ainslie own a Truly Classic 65). Hoek is an intensely enthusiastic proponent of the big sailing yacht movement and has built up a formidable design team in Edam.
The lead time of the project gave them an unusual opportunity to flex their muscles by studying the performance of various hull shapes. They carried out CFD analysis of five different hulls with varying volume distribution, but all with the same waterline length and displacement.
Based on the results, a 20ft model of the best hull was made and tank-tested in Marin, Netherlands. Wind tunnel testing was performed at the Wolfson Unit in Southampton.
“The tank testing data and the CFD data were very close, which was pleasing,” says Hoek. “Then from the hull shape we went back to the design, built a 3D model and optimised the righting moment, mast positions, keel fin and bulb. It took half a year in total, and it was a fascinating project.”
Research into balance
A prime objective was to arrive at a ketch rig that would be mannerly and well-balanced. “Ketches often have issues with weather helm when sheeting on the mizzen, especially when power reaching, and we wanted to predict rudder angles at the design stage,” Hoek elaborates. “Elfje has a [carbon] spade rudder and lifting keel and we did a lot of research with regard to balance.”
Trim tabs were added to the keel at design stage. André Hoek feels these should help with pointing and accelerating out of tacks. So that Elfje can access shallower anchorages, her T-keel with ‘beaver-tail’ bulb can be raised to reduce draught from 7.10m (23ft) to 4.50m (15ft).
Elfje sports a Southern Spars rig with ECsix carbon plus continuous flexible rigging. Her carbon bowsprit is a thunderous weapon, incorporating furlers for the headsail and Code 0. The engineering posed a particular stress load challenge for manufacturer Southern Spars. “We pushed for it. There was a fight, but in the end they were integrated. It gets the tacks [of the sails] lower for racing and makes it possible to go sailing with the same gear as for cruising,” says Hoek.
The bobstay fittings have been cleverly integrated into an extraordinarily fine forefoot, which is connected to a titanium reinforcement tube within the hull.
With such a strong emphasis on performance, it was important that sailhandling be fast, versatile for cruising yet efficient for racing. The demand for big hydraulic packages capable of rapid sail hoists and drops has boomed in recent years (see this month’s Supersail World) and the systems on board had to be designed so that up to 15 power-hungry hydraulic functions could be operated at once.
Beneath Elfje’s timeless lines lies some intriguing technology. Energy efficiency and sustainability were high up on the owner’s priorities, and it promoted a joint quest for a state-of-the-art hybrid power system by Royal Huisman’s R&D team and Whisper Power.
The solution chosen combines a flywheel generator from the main engine with variable speed and variable output generators backed up by a lightweight lithium-ion ‘peak shaving’ battery bank. This system is some two tonnes lighter than one with conventional generators and, as the variable-speed generators run at a lower speed of around 1,200pm, they are around ten per cent more fuel-efficient.
On deck, the idea was to create a private area for the owner with separate deckhouse and cockpit aft. The profile of deckhouses is low and modest, which complements the sweeping sheerline. Clutter is banished. There is no fixed bimini, for example, and the 19ft tender is stowed beneath a carbon hatch on the flush foredeck.
The interior of Elfje, designed by Hampshire-based Redman Whiteley Dixon, is clean-looking and light, and uses sustainable timbers such as European walnut and light oak. One of the showcase features is a circular glass-topped saloon table over an opening in the hull so that the sea and marine life can be seen beneath.
As for the name, that was chosen because Wendy Schmidt considers 11 her lucky number and the design team gave the project the Dutch word ‘elf’. That eventually mutated into ‘elfje’, after a fairy, or sprite, and a children’s poetry form. The term stuck and is epitomised by the winged emblem on the yacht’s big asymmetric spinnaker.
Is Elfje as quick as she is sleek? In her first superyacht regatta, St Barths Bucket, she tied for 1st in class. Hoek raced on board and was benchmarking her against Marie, a similar-sized ketch launched in 2010, which he also designed.
“Elfje is quick upwind, as St Barths proved, consistently much quicker than Marie, which has a skeg rudder and fixed keel. This is a better hull shape, basically. And we were sailing against yachts that have big sloop rigs and a longer waterline, we were beating them upwind and downwind. We didn’t expect that. I was very pleased. This is definitely an evolution.”