Kouyoumdjian Keeps His Eyes on The Prize

Juan K looks forward to new launches and new designs. "For the Record" from our July 2007 issue

Juan K 368

Gilles Martin-raget/bmw Oracle Racing

Until a year ago, Juan Kouyoumdjian was known mostly for his failures, innovative failures, but failures nonetheless. Krazy K-Yote Two, an IMS 50-footer with an unstayed rig designed for the 1999 Admiral’s Cup, was pulled from the competition after its rating was changed at the last minute. The 115-foot canting-keel, canting-rig Maiden Hong Kong, which Kouyoumdjian designed in 1999, took six years to finally reach the water andstill hasn’t done anything of note. A 33-foot one-design never got off the ground. The 35-year-old Argentine publicly put an end to this streak in the 2005-’06 Volvo Ocean Race. ABN AMRO One dominated the competition, winning easily, while ABN AMRO Two set the current 24-hour speed record for a monohull. Now he’s looking to add a few other trophies to his resume, including the America’s Cup. We found Juan K, as everyone calls him, seated comfortably in the plush BMW Oracle Racing lounge in Valencia, Spain.

You have an unabashed love for speed. Cup boats are slow. Why get involved with BMW Oracle Racing?

The boats themselves are archaic. But the technology applied to refine them is of the highest level in the sport. I think the beauty of the America’s Cup for a designer is to get to play with all these high-level techniques and systems to develop boats. They are tractors; they are super well-refined tractors with ceramic brakes and carbon-fiber discs and titanium valves, but nonetheless still tractors.


Did you ever consider going with a smaller campaign, where you might be in a position of more responsibility?

No, I never saw it that way. I felt fairly comfortable in this campaign, they gave me all the latitude I wanted.

As a designer, your reputation is important. Jason Ker’s reputation has been greatly enhanced by his work with Team Shosholoza, much as your star rose during the last Volvo Ocean Race.


Yes, except that there is a difference of result. I don’t see why you would enter a competition like this, or any competition, if it isn’t for winning.

Let’s move to another “dinosaur,” I hear you’re designing a new Star boat?

I’m taking it a little bit as a hobby. We’ve been working very closely with Robert Scheidt, developing a boat with him, which is going to come out now. A few other top sailors are showing interest in that.


The Star is a one-design, how can you build a “faster” one?

The Star is a one-design, but under the construction tolerances of almost 100 years ago. What we are doing now is playing inside the tolerances of the rule. The hull shape in the Star is defined by a sheer line, a chine line, and a centerline. Each has a 1-inch tolerance. Nowadays, a boat that is within 1 inch, one to another, could be last or first.

You’ve been doing quite a bit of Star sailing yourself. Will you go to the Olympics for Argentina?


I’m going to Portugal [for the World Sailing Games] in July. I’m taking that very seriously. If I’m up to the speed and the task, I would love to represent my country in the Olympics. I just don’t think yet I’m good enough or can put enough hours to do it correctly.

You first came to prominence with the Krazy K-Yote Two, a 50-footer designed with an unstayed rig for the 1999 Admiral’s Cup. Will that sort of technology ever make an impact?

The unstayed rig in Krazy K-Yote was very much a rule-optimized solution. It’s not something that you necessarily go for primarily because of weight, if you do it without any rules. The Open 60 deck-spreader rigs are sort of the next step beyond that and they’re very similar in concept, but by using deck outriggers you can reduce the weight and center of gravity of the mast considerably. You need to check out the Open 60 we’ve just put in the water, Pindar’s new boat. It has a very interesting rig concept with telescoping outriggers.

Can you tell us a little about it?

That boat is a very powerful Open 60. It’s over 6 meters wide and it’s got a very tall wingmast that rotates. The rig is held to the boat through a system of outriggers that are hydraulically adjusted so the rake of the rig can be modified. For some specific sail sets the rig is going to have a lot of rake aft and then for other ones it’s going to be raked forward. It keeps the boat balanced throughout the different sail combinations.

Now I’m guessing this boat will have chines, like your two Volvo 70s. What is the benefit of chines?

The way you use chines in an Open 60 is a little different than in a Volvo 70. The common thing is it allows you to design hull shape at the back of the boat, which considerably extends sailing length when you’re heeled. It has another benefit, which is sort of a reserve security. In case the boat goes through a broach, the chine, once it’s in the water, creates so much side force that it bears the boat away, back on track. It has, in the Volvo 70, very important stacking characteristics. The chine allows more weight farther down and farther out on the boat.

They’ve changed the Volvo 70 rule a bit, hopefully to encourage more reliable boats. Do you like the changes they’ve made?

I would like to make a comment on that. You could choose to redesign the rule based on boats that didn’t fail or you could choose to redesign the rule based on boats that did fail. That’s what they chose to do; they chose to look at those failures. There are only two boats that did the race completely.

Those were your boats?

Yes. I was very disappointed with Volvo when they decided to emphasize things around failures, not successes. The modifications they’ve done in the rule have only made boats more complicated to both design and sail and certainly a lot more expensive.

How much improvement can we expect in the second generation? Will the boats be closer in speed?

I would hope that they would be a lot closer. First, because I hope there will be more designers involved, and second, I hope that boats are a lot closer together because we are already into the third- and fourth-generation boats. Having said that, I believe there is a lot of speed on the table to be taken.

When do we see a canting keel on a 30-foot one-design?

Canting keels are more interesting on big boats simply because you cannot scale draft as much as you can scale length. For example you could do a 40-footer with a 4.5-meter draft and if you extrapolate that to a 100-footer, it would mean you’d have to have a 9-to-9.5-meter draft. That is unrealistic. Therefore, the requirement of increasing righting moment in bigger boats is a lot greater.

If you end up with canting keels in 30-footers, even though you would increase the performance of the boats, you very quickly get to situations where you would have a Mini Cooper on steroids, and it gets out of hand. Imagine a 30-footer with a 45-degree canting keel – the stability of that boat is extremely volatile. If you get caught with a bad jibe or with the keel on the wrong side, the boat just flips over. We have found that that limit is around 38 feet, and that is why we have designed this 38-footer being built in Holland right now, it is like a 38-foot Volvo 70.

Many famous yacht designers have a signature one-design. Will we see a Juan K one-design down the road?

This 38 could be it. That represents very much what we believe a modern one-design should be. But I never thought about it that way. Right now we cannot cope with more than three projects a year. We are very happy to remain in a Volvo/America’s Cup world and we have turned down a lot of interesting projects, TP 52s, GP 42s, that we just cannot do.

In the next 5 or 10 years, what about the sport will change? Where’s the next big technological jump in terms of speed?

I think the answer to your question is to be divided in two. One side is what engineering is allowing you to do today. And from that perspective I can see boats just taking off the water. And when you start getting to the 40-plus knots of boatspeed through hydrofoils and so forth you hit the wall of cavitation, and therefore the morphing foils. I think sooner or later some people will find the need to go that way. But the other side of the equation is what sailors want to do. There are still a lot of sailors that enjoy sailing on very big, heavy, slow boats. I don’t think in the general world of sailing there is an interest there to go at more than 40 knots over the water.

What is the status of Maiden Hong Kong, the 115-footer you designed for Frank Pong?

I think Frank Pong should answer that. I sailed that boat in the end of January for the first time. That’s a boat we designed in 1999 or 2000. It’s been a bit of a disappointment. Hopefully Frank Pong will find a way to reverse that. I wouldn’t be surprised if something very interesting and new comes out of that program. But I stepped away from that project.

You also designed a TP 52 for him that ran afoul of the class organization. What happened to that?

We adopted a rigid Kevlar backstay that fits all conditions of the rule. Basically we’ve been told, ‘You’re only welcome here if you do boats that are similar to the others.’ So we felt that was not for us, and Frank Pong decided it was not for him either. The boat is now being measured under IRC.

How did the rigid backstay work?

The whole backstay was a Kevlar rod, with a given stiffness, whenever you eased it, it bended backward behind the boat.

What would you like to achieve over the next five years?

We brainstormed this the other day in the office. We have opted to give ourselves the biggest possible chance to win the next Volvo, and we want to win the America’s Cup as well.

Would you prefer to head your own design effort?

I’m always willing to work on a team. Having said that, I cope much better with responsibility and for the next Cup I will do it in a position of full responsibility.

So even though it’s sailed with slow dinosaurs, the Cup still has a powerful attraction?

Yes. But I’m hoping for a rule change. My answer just now has been very biased by the assumption that there will be some kind of rule change.

A massive rule change?

I don’t think a massive change is feasible. But staying within the topology of the existing boats, making them lighter, more exciting downwind, and faster overall, could be a big plus for the motivation of designers, particularly myself, but also from a spectator point of view.