Ask the Architect: Q & A With Vripack and Francis Design

By Jenna Mehdi

From architecture designed to withstand the world’s harshest conditions to cutting-edge eco-technology, it is evident that the role of the naval architect in the superyacht build process and beyond is both utterly critical and highly understated. For the final part of our naval architecture series, we seized the opportunity to gain some invaluable insight into the life, challenges and ambitions of our industry’s most knowledgeable naval architects.

Part 4 of our 4-part series features Martin Francis (Director & Founder, Francis Design), Bart M. Bouwhuis (Creative Director, Vripack) and Joost Mertens (Fleet Manager, Vripack).

What is the most challenging part of a naval architect’s job specification? 

‘The most challenging factor is to be truly human centred,’ Joost Mertens of Vripack explained. This primacy of the client’s wishes has been a resounding theme throughout our investigation into naval architecture, and it seems only fitting to end with Joost’s neat explanation. ‘To get a deeper understanding of the client and what he defines as comfort, that’s a challenge. But in this challenge, there is an incredible educational experience with the owner. Once the naval architect gets it right, he can do the number crunching. But he needs to understand first what he needs to crunch.’ 

At the beginning of this series we may have assumed the answer to this question would be a technical one. Calculating very precise weight limits while incorporating all of the features necessary is a tricky art, for example, but one the naval architect is well versed in. And technology has come a long way, Bart reminded us. 

‘These days you can do multiple CFD runs in one day, allowing you to test things which really push the boundary. Now we are very rarely in the tanks anymore, so accurate is CFD - typically more accurate than in the tank. That’s made our job way more interesting, we can really start playing around with much more trial and error. In the old days you couldn’t afford to take any risks.’

Risk is an essential path to innovation - but this is not always the case for all parties involved. For me the challenge is dealing not with the technical things but the politics,’ Martin Francis told us. ‘Shipyards often have one vested interest. On a 157m project a few years ago, we went to three or four high profile shipyards with the idea. Every time they drew the boat, they drew what the client didn’t want. Our proposal was peer reviewed, by independent specialists, but we were told different things wouldn’t work by different yards. A lot of people are set in their own ways, and when they have a vast amount of work and the stakes are high, there is no motivation to innovate.’

What has been your favourite project to work on?

‘Probably Eco,’ Martin said, referring to the 74.5m Blohm + Voss superyacht now named Zeus. The yacht, built for experienced yacht owner Emilio Azcárraga, is the fastest yacht of its size and reaches impressive top speeds of up to 35 knots. ‘We broke new ground, and I had a special relationship with the client,’ Martin added. Martin headed up the entire project and was entrusted with the design, management and procurement for the build of the exceptional yacht; when the yard contract was commissioned, Azcárraga gave five million dollars to Francis and said: “When you need more, just give me a call.”

Exceptional owners make for exceptional projects, confirmed the team at Vripack, who chose as their most recent favourite the LeVen 90 - a 90 foot shallow draft motor yacht which can actually be beached onshore. Bart expanded, ‘He wanted four staterooms on his 90 footer and to do 30 knots - a difficult mix. This can only be solved by thinking holistically. We applied a high-speed slidehull® with a lot of volume and comfort. Now he’s at the beach, while his other friends are miles away at sea!’

Craziest owner requirement?

Martin responded, ‘To make a boat like Eco go 35 knots - which at the time was a case where the owner was prepared to fund the research.’ Although Eco was launched in 1991, she remains unrivalled as the fastest large yacht of her kind, giving a sense of the groundbreaking nature of the project at the time. ‘In a similar way Motor Yacht A with Melnichenko, where the crazy hull form was equally significant in terms of what it has brought with radical hull forms that have proven to work. Look at the number of inverted bows there are now; she certainly set off an enormous trend.’

A client’s attitude can certainly make or break the experience of a project, but to add to this, there is a great educational experience to be enjoyed between client and professional. 

Bart recounted, ‘About eight months ago a client reached out to us, super committed to building a 60m fossil fuel-free yacht. No fuel, no hydrogen. We thought this was not possible! But it wasn’t for us to judge. We explored extensively, and now we have passed concept validations and will soon go out to shipyards. The size has grown a little - it is now closer to 70m.’

This combination of passion, expertise and resource is the perfect cocktail needed to push the boundaries of possibility. We are reminded of Martin’s earlier comment on risk-taking.

‘Interestingly, that client talked to eight shipyards with this idea. All of them said no, it can’t be done. They don’t want to take the risk, it’s not their modus operandi,’ Bart added.

What advice would you give someone interested in going into naval architecture?

‘Listen, listen, listen!’ was the advice from the team at Vripack. ‘Ask questions on the objective. Why the boat, what is the purpose, what should it do, what should it bring. Which is very interesting for the naval architect - it is related to emotions, opinions and desires. Grab that emotion and make it scientific.’

And in terms of how to get there? Martin had some words of wisdom to provide on the topic: ‘If you want to be a yacht designer or naval architect, do an apprenticeship. Getting a job in a place where you admire the people and learning on the job if you can, as opposed to burying yourself in tuition fee debt. If you know what you want to do and are really motivated, even if it means making the tea somewhere and working your way up, go and do it. It’s no coincidence that the Elon Musks of the world are all drop outs.’

The experience offered by these architects serves as a refreshing reminder that creativity and passion can flourish in the most adverse of conditions. The lessons we have gleaned from this series are manifold; the job of a naval architect is fluid and complex, balancing competing requirements and overcoming various practical hurdles along the way. But it is the special relationship between naval architect and client which has the potential to create industry-wide change. With the right impetus (resources, passion, expertise), this relationship will cultivate a dialogue of learning and betterment within our industry, propelling us to the forefront of innovation - where we have the potential to thrive.

"To get a deeper understanding of the client and what he defines as comfort, that’s a challenge. But in this challenge, there is an incredible educational experience with the owner."

Joost Mertens, Vripack Fleet Manager

"To get a deeper understanding of the client and what he defines as comfort, that’s a challenge. But in this challenge, there is an incredible educational experience with the owner."

Joost Mertens, Vripack Fleet Manager
By Jenna Mehdi
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