Grand Prix According To: Jason Ker

Although Jason Ker expends little energy on self-aggrandizement, the 33-year-old yacht designer is quickly becoming a household name among big-boat sailors, thanks to the success of his 55-foot IRC killer, /Aera/. From our September 2005 issue.

He learned his trade in Southampton, England, but yacht designer Jason Ker seems to have taken his credo from Teddy Roosevelt. He expends little energy on self-aggrandizement and practically mumbles in casual conversation. Nonetheless, thanks largely to one "big stick," a 55-foot IRC killer by the name of Aera, he is quickly becoming a household name among big-boat sailors. During a two-year world tour, Aera racked up a string of impressive results, including wins in the 2004 Rolex Big Boat Series and the 2004 Rolex Sydney to Hobart, which helped solidify Ker's reputation as a designer with a handle on the secret formula at the core of IRC. The latest project for the 33-year-old Brit is Team Shosholoza's RSA-83-the first America's Cup Class boat designed to Version 5 of the rule. However, the boat was rushed into the water just days before the first race of Act IV, sailed with a back-up mast and practice sails, and struggled mightily in the two Valencia Acts in late June. At 33, you've moved up the ladder quickly. What's your secret? I work pretty hard. I was very keen sailor before-well, still am-and that really helps if you understand boats and you understand the technical aspects. I have some good owners who have campaigned their boats well, that's helped my reputation. Is Aera at the top of that list? That's the biggest one because she did a bit of a world tour. With IRC moving to the United States it's been a good advert. We've got other boats; we did another boat last year which won the IRC (U.K.) Nationals this year and won seven of eight races in the 2004 Commodores Cup, won her class. Another one won her class as well. We have other boats, but they're lower profile because they're staying mostly in the U.K. and Ireland. How did you become involved in the Shosholoza campaign? I got a phone call about Christmas 2003; they were looking for a designer and they wanted me to come down to Cape Town to talk to Salvatore [Sarno, head of Team Shosholoza], which I did. We made a deal and went from there. Were you a bit surprised to get that phone call? I think they felt that there was another generation of designers yet to be explored. They'd seen Team New Zealand hire Marcelino Botin, who hasn't been involved in the America's Cup before. You could continue with the generation that has been doing it for four or five America's Cups or you could start fresh. Is your future riding, to some extent, on the results? It's fairly easy to see which boats are sailing fast and slow out there and the results don't always match up. People can see if sails are not set right, people can see if sails are not cut to fit the boat, etc. The general public, all they can see is the results. Within the industry it's less dangerous. Within the America's Cup, as long as the boat's fast it will be recognized as fast. Within the general public, it's not a good PR exercise. But then the general public don't buy America's Cup boats. RSA-83 wasn't really ready for Acts IV and V. What were you able to take away? Not a huge amount actually. We flew the flag for the week. Any insights on Version 5 of the rule? In '83 you could do a magic bullet approach where you've got a fantastic new concept and you come along and win the America's Cup with a winged keel. Nowadays-especially with the new rule getting quite tight-everyone's the same length, displacement, sail area. The boats in 2007 are going to be extremely similar in performance and the pecking order at the end of the day will be very close to the standard of the teams, from the sailing, sail design, sail trim. The hydrodynamics are going to be a pretty small difference. Did you take a leap forward with RSA-83? Just a few inches.We explored a few different options. We only had about three weeks of CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] time before we had to finalize our hull. We had no tank testing time at all. We couldn't afford to be radical. Do your successes in IRC with Aera and other boats mean you know something about the rule that others don't? I don't think so. The rule's a secret rule, but you know what's measured and isn't measured. The basic premises of most of the new boats the last three or four years are not very different. The differences are in hull shape, appendages, small differences in sailplans, nothing radical. So you haven't spent a lot of time trying to break the IRC riddle? You can't get too hung up on that. You can gain from trial certificates for individual boats, you can see at what point the spinnaker area starts to be penalized. You can make choices. But otherwise you can only gain so much from analyzing certificates. There's too many unknowns. A lot of designers liked the intellectual challenge of IMS. Do you miss it? I was never really in IMS. I can't say I miss it because the type of boats it drove people toward are pretty bizarre. They possibly could've made IMS work better if they hadn't been so scientifically pure about it. If they'd dumbed it down a bit and made sure there was a clear typeform toward a fast boat, I think it would've lasted longer. Do you favor development of a similar grand-prix type handicap rule? There's probably too much international politics to see that really happen. I've given up dreaming for it. The idea of certain level classes might be what's going to happen, and then people racing IRC in their clubs and regional events. I think the key thing is probably to make sure that the level classes work under IRC; you need to be able compete with other boats.