If there is ONE person to talk about the recently presented one-design VO65 it can only be Juan Kouyoumdjian, the Argentinean whose office designed the last two, and most probably the current, Volvo Ocean Race winners. We caught up with Kouyoumdjian and other members of his design office to assess the current and future status of the Volvo Ocean Race. It was a very interesting and eye-opening discussion that lasted more than one hour. As a result, in order not to make it too long, the interview is split into two installments [The second part will be published on Monday morning]:
VSail.info: As you understand, my first question can be no other but the VO65. Have you seen the new boat?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: No, I haven’t. I have just seen a rendering of it on a computer.
VSail.info: Let’s then take one thing at a time. First of all, are you in favor of having a one-design boat in the Volvo Ocean Race?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: No, I’m not in favor of a one-design boat. We sincerely love the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s been a very important part of our lives for the past few years. We lived great adventures through the Volvo, we had really good times and very good memories. We believe the Volvo Ocean Race is in some kind part of us, so we obviously wish the best for this race. We certainly don’t believe one-design is the best solution and I’m concerned by the impact of this decision in the future of this race and whether due diligence was done to arrive to this radical conclusion.
VSail.info: Why? Is it because your office wasn’t chosen for this new design? I hope it’s not sour grapes you are expressing here.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: No, no, it has nothing to do with that! It all depends on what the focus is. If we are talking about a grand prix offshore race then it’s not a good solution because you can’t really call grand prix something that is one-design. There have been a lot of good things that have come out of the development of the VO70 just as much as the Open60 or any class that is a development class. So, from that point of view it’s not the right choice.
Now, if the objective is a different one, if it’s a commercial objective or a marketing one then I can’t answer because I’m not an expert. I don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, whether it’s going to be a success or not. It’s not my field of expertise. I’m answering your question purely from the point of view of all the good that has come out from such an event as the Volvo or the Whitbread before, the primary events of grand prix offshore racing.
VSail.info: During the presentation, Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, mentioned quite a few times that one of the key elements of the new boat is cost reduction. In his view a team with a budget between 12 and 15 million euros can have a good chance with the new boat. In addition, this is probably the best road to obtaining at least eight teams in the next edition of the race.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: I can certainly agree with him in the fact that it would seem, looking ahead in the future and under the current situation, that achieving the objective of eight entries through cost reduction could be an important part of the process. But was this truly the best solution to achieve eight entries? Again, I’m not intrinsically embedded in the process but how much is this one-design going to cost? In order to reduce costs through the boat what is it going to cost?
VSail.info: According to Frostad’s statements and the official press release, the cost of the boat, “ready to sail”, will be approximately 4.5 million euros.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: If that’s the case then they aren’t saving that much. They are saving just half a million euros, three quarters of a million. Let’s say they save one million euros at the most! Is the cost-saving of one million really going to make the difference with the end result of a smaller, slower, less exciting boat? Ultimately, the concept might be right. Let’s reduce costs, let’s make the VOR for teams of 15 million euros and then we can get eight entries. That’s fine but what they are proposing is not in line with that objective.
VSail.info: You say the potential saving is about half to one million. Does that mean the current boats cost approximately 5 million euros?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, the boats we designed.
VSail.info: Obviously, I’m always referring to the boats designed by your office.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: I was told that Abu Dhabi cost twice as much but this doesn’t mean you can’t build a VO70 for 5 million euros. Obviously, Puma is different from Telefonica which in turn is different from Groupama but I can definitely confirm they are in that range of 5-5.5 million.
VSail.info: Have you been contacted by the Volvo Ocean Race in order to make a proposal for a one-design boat?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: NO. Capital N, capital O. I would like to make a comment regarding your previous question. The cost of 4.5 million will be for one boat but what if a team enters with two boats and embarks in two-boat testing? It’s going to be much higher.
VSail.info: Certainly and someone asked the same question during the press conference. I think it’s not clear whether they will allow two-boat teams, so we shouldn’t be making any judgments based on that assumption.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: This is where it is becoming a joke! One of the primary teams in the starting blocks to go ahead and possibly win the next race is basically thinking of doing a long period of two-boat testing and development to even get a third boat and then enter the race with two boats and win it. Why do they want a third boat? Because they have a tremendous program.
What do you have to do to win the next Volvo Ocean Race? It’s very simple. You have to be the richest and the first one in line. You buy the first two boats. You then engage yourself into an agreement to enter two boats. You do a very long period of two-boat testing and you then engage yourself to buy the eighth boat. By the way, when is the eighth boat going to be delivered because there won’t be enough time to build all these boats by the same boatyard.
A team that has the capacity to start two-boat testing tomorrow will obviously beat the team that will receive its boat two-three months before the start.
VSail.info: Of course but they can always implement rules that prohibit or severely limit two-boat testing.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes but the teams interested in doing that what are they going to do? They will do something else. In addition, take the team that enters first and buys the first boat. They can pick the best sailors they want from the beginning and then sail for a year. They can then buy one of the last boats to be built and it will be a better one than the first ones because everybody knows that construction improves over time. As a result, they will have more time on the water than anyone else and the best boat, even without two-boat testing. Don’t you think they will have an advantage over a team with just one boat that didn’t have much time to sail?
VSail.info: I agree but this is always under the assumption they allow teams to have two boats.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Even if they don’t allow two boats there will always be teams that have much more time on the water than others. If they allow two boats it will then become a race of who spends more money on the two boats and be the first.
VSail.info: Won’t that always be the case? Imagine we had no change at all and we continued with the current VO70. Who can prevent a rich team from coming here on July 9th to hire you? They will be the first, they will have the designers with the best pedigree and they can hire any sailor they want.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Why can’t we have another ABN AMRO situation? We were in the same situation when we started working with ABN AMRO. Why can’t we have a 25-year old designer out there, a brilliant, extremely clever guy that kicks our ass if someone gives him the chance? Who said we can’t have that once again? Why do you think this is impossible?
Not only that, imagine there were five teams right now interested in the next race. One comes to us, another one goes to another designer and so forth. They all can start building their boats at the same time and they will launch them more or less at the same time and not in intervals of 7-8 weeks as they now claim.
Anyway, I wish them the best of luck. What can I say? The Volvo Ocean Race has been very important to us, it’s part of our lives and we really like the idea of a grand prix offshore event. The world of sailing always needed it and this has been proven by history. Whatever has been developed through the Whitbreads and the Volvos has found its way to the normal boats people sail. The decision to do that on a one-design leaves a void open so that, eventually, somebody else could organize it. The Volvo Ocean Race has now become the Clipper Plus and if someone wants to organize a true grand prix offshore event we’ll be there.
If AUDI weren’t allowed to take their hybrid cars to Le Mans we would have never seen hybrid engines in our street cars. This is how development happens and now the Volvo Group has clearly said they don’t want any development in the Volvo Ocean Race. I hope that within their car design office they don’t have the same policy.
VSail.info: You are partly right with that but there is a big difference and I agree with Knut Frostad’s argument. What AUDI and BMW might develop in Le Mans will then be in a few years in my car and your car. In sailing however it’s different because there is no Beneteau team in the VOR that could develop their racing yacht and then apply the developments to their cruising sail boats.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes but this is not necessary. We did the First 30, a 30-footer with Beneteau, and right now I can think of two items in that boat that wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t discovered them through the development of our VO70 racing yachts.
VSail.info: What are these two items?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: The aft sections of the boat and the correct use of inflections in the back of the hull, for example. However, it’s not only about the features you find on the boats it’s also the methodologies and what we have developed here in the last 5-6 years in terms of software, approaches, analyses and tests. Although we apply them to racing yachts they can be applied to any Beneteau yacht. The improvements we have made from the ABN AMRO boats to the current ones are incredible.
There is another very important factor that you overlook which are the sponsors. If you look at the sponsors our boats had, particularly Ericsson, they all embraced and actively communicated that level of technology and development inherent in the Volvo Ocean Race, up to now. If you eliminate this aspect of the race you will completely change the sponsors that want to be involved. The sponsors that will fund a boat now will not be able to communicate and say “Look, my boat is winning and my technology is contributing to that!”.
With a one-design boat a commercial sponsor can’t communicate in that aspect and the only solution is to either put more money or pick the best sailors.
VSail.info: They put a premium on seamanship, on the sailors.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, but what can a sponsor add to that? Nothing. They just put money to hire the sailors or train longer or even buy two boats. Maybe this new race is targeted to teams related to stopovers. Maybe their goal is to have eight stopovers and eight teams related to these stopovers. In that case they don’t really care about the competitiveness of the race but they are only interested in having the race in their city.
VSail.info: Talking of stopovers, wouldn’t the Sanya team have more chances in a one-design race? Their boat is the slowest of the fleet, so no matter how brilliant sailors they might be, they have an inherent disadvantage.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: You will have the same situation with one-design, even more. With a one-design boat you will guarantee that the richest team will win. They will hire the best sailors first and, by the way, their salaries will double. I salute this because I think they weren’t paid enough to sail around the world in the conditions they do it. They seem to be lucky now and at least they should expect their salaries to double or triple. Not only that but the costs of refinements, whether it’s the sails, the mast tube, the trim of the boat, will go up.
Even a Laser gets refined and in the Laser world if you have more money and you are better prepared, you win. If that happens in the Laser class do you really think it won’t happen with a canting-keel 65 footer? This is definitely going to be the case. Maybe this is what we should do! We could be hired to optimize the one-design! Can you imagine that scenario?
VSail.info: Wouldn’t that depend on what the rules allow you to do on a boat?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Pierre, we could do it right now on a Laser! If we can do it on a Laser, don’t you think we can do much more on a brand new canting-keel 65-footer? The concept of one-design is a utopia, it’s unfeasible. Again, if, I say if, they allow a two-boat team, they are guaranteed to win because they will have the best sailors and the best boats.
It’s not going to work. You can quote me on that. I haven’t thought about it much but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced it’s not going to work. The announcement is very nice but the reality is that it’s not going to work. Still, it depends on your definition of the word “work”.
VSail.info: One of the primary objectives is to have at least eight teams on the starting line.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: We can have eight teams with VO70′s as well. There are 4 or 5 of them that can be used again. If the objective is to have at least eight, the most logical option would have been to use the existing boats because you would only have to build four new ones! The objective is not to simply have eight teams but also bring down costs. If I understand well, Knut Forstad claimed that team budgets can be brought down to 15 million euros. This is not going to work.
Not only that, with the current boats we have a Volvo so close that it will be decided in the last in-port race! We currently have three boats that can win it or lose it in the last in-port and one of the arguments against multiple designers and an open design was that there would be a boat that would mathematically win three stopovers before the finish. How stupid is that?
VSail.info: However, if Telefonica hadn’t had suffered the unfortunate breakages a few hundred miles before the finish in Lorient, all top-three boats would have been your designs.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: You asked me earlier on what would have happened if the richest team came next week, after the finish of this race, and immediately hired us for the next one, assuming we had VO70′s again. This is what happened at the end of the previous edition. Knut Frostad asked us not to sign an exclusivity agreement with anybody but open it up to more teams. This is how we ended up with our current three teams plus a generic design which could have been used by the least-funded teams. When people present problems, and Frostad presented it as a problem back then, there is always a way to find a solution without going to extremes.
Frostad came to see us here in Valencia back in February or March and we had lunch together. He basically told us that something had to be done, that Volvo Group wanted at least eight teams and that costs had to come down. We then discussed one of the other options that consisted in freezing the R&D, something that goes against our very own business interests, we engaged not to do any more R&D and offered the drawings of our boats, giving them the freedom to do whatever they wanted with them. There were three or four boats that could be reused and we moved on that path. We then answered his questions regarding that option but, obviously, the decision had already been taken some time ago. We were a bit foolish.
At the time, he was saying he was considering five different options and one-design was just one of them. It wasn’t about picking a one-design package, it was about analyzing five alternatives. One-design was an option, leaving everything as it is was another one and freezing R&D was another alternative. He was in a process trying to assess which of the five alternatives was the best one, as he claimed. It now seems though they already had the one-design package in process at the time.
VSail.info: My understanding is, from what was said during the presentation, that they have been working on that with the four boatyards during the last six months.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: That’s another issue! Four boatyards! How can that be cheaper? This also raises another problem, which is responsibility. If something breaks on a boat, which one of these four yards will be responsible?
VSail.info: I don’t know, I’m not an expert on those issues but I would guess the boatyard that built the broken component.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: But who sells the VO65′s? Is it Green Marine? Will Green Marine take responsibility for the work of Persico or Multiplast? It’s not going to work. Don’t forget that what we have here is four different companies trying to make a profit because I don’t think they are doing this for free. Maybe they are doing it for free, I don’t know, but these happen to be the four most expensive boatyards on this planet! So, they need to come out with a more exciting boat, a faster boat, build it quicker, build it cheaper but at the same time all the actions they seem to be taking go against these very criteria! Somebody is doing a bad joke, this really seems like a bad joke! In any case, I, again, wish them the best of luck.
VSail.info: That’s why I asked at the beginning whether what you express here is sour grapes. You didn’t get the job, someone else got it and your design office is left out of a sector where you, undeniably, had great success.
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Why do you assume that we didn’t get THE job? We have already been asked to optimize the one-design. If we wish, we can be involved again.
VSail.info: Are you saying that a potential future team has asked your office to optimize the Volvo one-design?
Juan Kouyoumdjian: Yes, in the case it was going to be a one-design.
Coming back to your previous question, we don’t think there was a selection process where someone else was chosen and we lost. We were never asked to make any offer, what we discussed were just the pros and cons of the five alternative options. If cost reduction is one of the primary goals, the first thing you do is to invite bids. In fact, the last thing you would ever do is to go to one guy and four boatyards. That’s the most expensive thing you can do. The Volvo Ocean Race has been a very important part of our lives, they have chosen a path towards the future, Knut Frostad has himself made a choice and we can only wish him the best of luck.