Who else to talk about the Volvo Ocean Race other than Juan Kouyoumdjian, the Argentinean yacht designer whose designs won two consecutive races, first with ABN AMRO 1 in 2005-6 and then with Eircsson 4 in 2008-9. We met him in his Valencia office for a very interesting discussion and in this 1st part, Kouyoumdjian talks about the details of his last campaign with Ericsson.
The second installment of the interview will appear next week and Kouyoumdjian will talk about his involvement in the TP52 class and the AUDI Medcup circuit in 2010 and briefly comment on the current situation in the America’s Cup.
Valencia Sailing: Two victories in two consecutive Volvo Ocean Races. What is the key? Is Juan K the best designer or do the best teams choose Juan K design?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: First of all, races are won by crews. We, as yacht designers, can only contribute as much as we can to making their job easier, but ultimately it’s a sport, a sailing event and it’s up to crew to win. I give full credit to the crew of Ericsson 4 that managed to win the race. I’m sure they would have won the race with another boat as well, particularly Ericsson 3.
Valencia Sailing: Do you mean that Telefonica could have also won had they chosen you as their yacht designer?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: It’s very difficult to say that and this is a very conditional, speculative question. We were very happy with the boats we did, the crews were very happy with the boats we did for the them. Unfortunately, the boats that took part in the race were not the boats we had designed, neither Ericsson 4 nor 3. They were greatly handicapped by the measurers before the race start and in the case of Eircsson 4, during the race.
Valencia Sailing: Can you give us more details on that claim?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, the boats were designed with approximately 350 kg of more bulb weight than they actually ended up racing with and the arguments the measurers used to get rid of that weight from the bulbs were completely arbitrary. It’s not a matter of my opinion against theirs, I claim that because I can prove it and I can prove that they acted in a nonprofessional way. There are two issues here. First, the penalty Ericsson 3 received before race start for the keel and, second, the prohibition of using on Ericsson 4 the keel we had designed for her. These two points are still an argument of discussion here in my office and it’s something we still have deep embedded in our veins. We still are very angry about it and I hold the measurement group of the VOR responsible for having manipulated that operation.
Valencia Sailing: That question was intended to come later but since you touched the issue I’ll bring it up. I have here with me the jury decision of October 2nd, 2008, concerning precisely the issue of the Ericsson 3 bulb. Did you cheat, did you play with the word “solid”?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: No, we didn’t play with the notion of the word “solid” at all. The question here is not the definition of the word “solid” and everybody agrees on its definition. The real question is what the definition of the word “solid” applies to and the rule clearly states that the notion of the word “solid” is applicable to a part of the keel fin, which is the basic construction of the keel fin. The way the measurers tried to apply the rule was to the whole keel fin and not as the rule says to its basic construction. Nobody disputed there was no problem at all with the definition of the word “solid” the jury decided to apply. It was WHAT they were applying it to! Read the entire jury decision and you’ll find it very interesting. It basically says that Ericsson did everything they could to amend the problem.
Valencia Sailing: Yes, but it also states that the rest of teams didn’t think that.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: It’s not the jury’s job nor responsability to impose a penalty based on what the other teams think, besides the other teams were not aware that the document submitted by the Chief Measurer to the Jury was forged. The jury had the opinion Ericsson did everything they could in their best endeavor to fix and amend that problem. Regardless of whether we agreed or not with the demands of the measurers, we decided to comply with those demands and according to the jury that modification to the keel didn’t ascertain a performance advantage. As a result, I still try to understand why the jury decided to penalize Ericsson 3! If they did their best endeavor to satisfy the measurers’ demands and they didn’t get any performance advantage why were they penalized?
Valencia Sailing: Finally, after the modifications you still had a shortfall of 625 grams.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, 625 grams on a total weight of 1,800 kg, which is well inside the measurement precision of the scale. To me this is insulting. I would like to furthermore declare that in this jury case there was no hearing. The jury chairman being Brian Willis I invite you to read his latest affidavit in favor of BMW Oracle in the NY Court where he basically says that it’s not correct to impose a penalty without a hearing. Still, that’s exactly what he did with Ericsson! The very essence of a hearing is for the Jury to be able understand who is right and who is wrong, who is lying and who is telling the truth. If we had had a hearing, the Jury wouldn’t have based its decision on a falsified document. What is even more surprising is that after the Jury learnt that such document was forged, Ericsson requested a re-opening of the case which was denied!
Valencia Sailing: I don’t understand what motives the race organization could have to act in that way.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: You know, 350 kg of bulb more than anyone else was perceived to be a very big performance advantage to start with and I think it wasn’t probably so clear back then but it’s clear by now, that it is in VOR’s interest to keep the performance as close as possible within the fleet.
Valencia Sailing: Let’s now go back to the big picture of the 2008-09 VOR. Can you single out your best and worst personal moments as designer of the Ericsson team?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: There were a lot of good moments and it’s difficult to put one ahead of the others but if I had to choose right now, probably the worst one was exactly the keel situation in Alicante. It felt and still feels utterly unfair to me. Second one was the obstinance and perseverance of the measurers to disqualify Ericsson 4 in Singapore for 1.2mm of extra length out of a total of 21,500mm which again turned out not to be true. When everybody was training for the in-shore race in Singapore, Ericsson 4 spent 4 days inside the shed with the measurers doing everything they could to demonstrate she was 1.2mm too long. That issue eventually went to the jury and the jury told the measurers to bugger off!
The nice moment came right after all that harangue, pressure and stubbornness by the VOR organization (given the fact measurers depend on the VOR organization) when Ericsson 4 won the in-shore race in Singapore. We were beaten down so badly, and to answer to all that persecution with a victory felt very nice.
Valencia Sailing: Were the Ericsson boats a direct development of the ABN AMRO designs?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, they were a direct development. In fact, we started the construction of Ericsson 3 practically 3 months after design. She is a very quick evolution of ABN AMRO 1 and then we went on with a bigger R&D process that concluded with Ericsson 4. This is something we are also doing right now. Since June of this year we are continuing the R&D of what we call the “Generation 5″ and “Generation 6″ VOR designs, a continuation of the Ericsson 3 and 4 campaigns.
Valencia Sailing: Now that Ericsson have officially announced their withdrawal from the race what’s in store for your design office in the Volvo Ocean Race?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: As I told you, we are producing a very thorough and well-thought R&D program which we divide itself into 2 types of boats. The first one, called “Generation 5″ (G5), will go into production at the end of this year and focus into teams that want to start building boats from January onwards. Then there is another concept we call “Generation 6″ (G6). I think that each team should make its own strategy but I think that G5 is suited to teams that don’t have a boat right now or that need a boat to go sailing quickly while G6 would be more suited for teams that have a history and background of racing and can afford to wait longer for the build. Having said that, in our design office we only have room to work with just three G6 because we don’t have the resources to work with more. To work with more then 3 will finally defeat the purpose of G6 itself.
Valencia Sailing: You said that construction of G5 could begin at the start of next year. What is the time frame for G6?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: The basis of G6 is to work in a very personalized way with those 3 teams. Therefore, we will adapt and be a completely flexible part of the strategic decisions of each of these 3 teams. We will adapt to them. If one team wants to start building tomorrow then we’ll start building tomorrow. On the other hand, if one wants to build at the very latest, which will be approximately November of 2010, we’ll also adapt to that. That’s the basis and key of G6; we become part of their teams. This involvement demands such a level of investment and resources that we can only do it with 3 teams.
Valencia Sailing: Has the new VO70 rule been finalized?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: No it hasn’t and to be honest this is quite a bit of a struggle for us. We started all this process on the basis of what Volvo had told us, to have the rules clear already before the end of the previous race. For many reasons this hasn’t been the case and I hope that we are now getting into the final stages of both the Notice of Race as well as Version 3 of the VO70 rule. As of today, we have none of them.
Valencia Sailing: How will this affect your current R&D process?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: It will not be very different because from what we already now right now the design will become much more a case of refinement. There is no more room for big-picture changes, there is no more room to do what we did with ABN AMRO 1. So, who says refinement, says hours on the development tools and the different bits and pieces of the boat. From what we’ve seen so far from the various Version 3 drafts we have narrowed down the design game to a very refined area.
Valencia Sailing: Doesn’t this go against the organizers’ wish to reduces costs? Won’t again the bigger teams with more budget on development benefit?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: In one sense yes and in another sense no and it is important to understand. There is a lot of people that use the lack of budget to justify their lack of performance. Money and budget are obviously important but they don’t guarantee victory. For sure it helps winning but in all events there were several teams with big budgets that didn’t win or didn’t even come second. It’s also a good excuse to say, “You know, I didn’t perform as well as you did because I didn’t have the same amount of money you had”. Winning is winning and it’s difficult to win whether you have little or a lot of money.
That’s the global answer to your question. The most specific answer is yes. A design which is focused on refinement can be more expensive than a design which is focused on the big picture. It’s also easier for us because we start from a very strong point.
Valencia Sailing: Budget caps or limits are a buzz word in the Volvo Ocean Race, the Medcup, the America’s Cup and every major sailing circuit. In your personal opinion, are they first of all desirable and second are they policeable? How effective can they be?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: You just touched the key of the issue. In principle, we agree with any rule, of any kind, whether it’s budget, displacement, height of the mast or weight of the bulb. Still every rule that is not easily controllable or policeable, defeats the very purpose of the rule and shouldn’t be part of the game at this level. I don’t want to get involved into politics, there has been way too much politics in the last VOR, I’m sick of it and I don’t want to be part of it again. The only thing I’m asking for is clear rules. If somebody from Volvo comes to me and says “We will put a budget cap here and another one there” and they have the capacity to properly control it, we will adapt to that. There is no problem at all. Again, we will adapt to any rule, but our only wish is that they are clear, not subjective or cannot be manipulated.
Valencia Sailing: Did you like the route the 2008-09 VOR had? Do you agree with cutting 1 or 2 stopovers?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: I’m a simple serviceman in this race, I’m a simple yacht designer. If this race exists it is because it creates a business and marketing platform for all that invest in it. As a result, I think that these questions should be answered by those that have an interest and make a profit out of it. Having personally been involved with people like that I think they are very interested in the format we had last time because having this contact with their clients in different regions of the planet was the very reason they did it in the first place. Although I’m not a marketing specialist, I sensed they were very happy with it, so I will let them make the final decision.
On the other hand, what we sailors/designers like is a round-the-world race and it has to remain a round-the-world race. For example when I hear that there is the intention to have the final leg score double or triple points, something like a medal race, so that the race is not won before it’s finished, that to me is a nonsense. Imagine if that was the case in the last leg between Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. Well, winning that leg isn’t representative of winning a round-the-world race. There is something that marketing and business people have to understand. It is a marketing and business platform because, first of all, it is a great design and human adventure and only because of that. It’s not the other way round.
Valencia Sailing: Last but not least, in order to close our VOR discussion. There were 8 boats in the last race from 6 teams and in the previous 2 editions you worked for the strongest entries. The organizers want to lower costs in order to attract more entries. Would you rather have a few strong teams or a larger number with probably weaker entries?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Let me first point out that you are only perceiving ABN-AMRO and Ericsson as the strongest teams because they won. Let me remind you that at the start of the 1st race, ABN-AMRO 1 in particular, was not received as the strongest entry. The strongest team was clearly thought to be Movistar and in fact had the same budget. In the latest edition, due to the previous victory of ABN-AMRO, Ericsson was perceived to be a strong team but let me remind you that both Telefonica and Puma were perceived to be as strong in terms of budget.
To answer now your question specifically, it doesn’t seem natural to me to condition quality for quantity. Marketing people will argue that quantity is quality but this is true only in the marketing world. In the sports and design world it doesn’t work like that. For sure, I would love to have a Volvo Ocean Race with 15 or even 20 entries, who wouldn’t. But we have to be careful how low we are prepared to compromise quality in order to achieve those quantities. In this game, quantity is inversely proportional to quality. Just consider a simple fact. Is it feasible to have 15-20 properly built VO70 yachts? For that reason I’m astonished how long it’s taking Volvo Event Management to come out with these rules because even if we had 12-15 teams ready and able to get going on their process tomorrow morning how are we going to do to have all those boats built in time?