La classe Ultim reste fragilisée, selon Vincent Lauriot-Prévost

Vincent Lauriot-Prévost: “Ocean Racing allows us to come up with useful innovations”

To try to understand what is happening with the Covid crisis, Tip & Shaft set up a series of interviews around the topic of sail racing. Today, we listen to the designer, Vincent Lauriot-Prévost, co-founder with Marc Van Peteghem of the VPLP team, which designed three of the eight new boats built for the 2020 Vendée Globe (Charal, Hugo Boss and DMG Mori), as well as the two future Ultim trimarans, currently being built for Macif and the Banque Populaire team.

How do you feel about the end of the partnership between Macif and François Gabart’s Ultim programme?
Of course, I’m disappointed, as this means he will face some difficulties in finding a use for his new boat, but I remain hopeful for someone like François and believe a new project like this one will interest other partners. I remember when Groupama decided to stop after fifteen years as a partner to Franck. It was very similar, but I think these sailors are able to bounce back after this sort of setback.

Are you worried about the future of the circuit for the Ultimes?
This is a recent class set up by four partners, who are still trying to attract others. It hasn’t yet shown what it is capable of achieving except with the Brest Atlantiques, which was something of a warm-up. The rest has been slow to take off. Macif pulling out is bound to weaken it, as did the departure of Gitana, but the boats are there and are exceptional enough to attract attention. There are not many such boats in the world able to offer such a platform measuring 32 metres by 23 and which fly, soon with a control system. These boats are the boats of the future and a wonderful showcase. Having said that, I think that their fragility comes from the fact that this class is limited in its range of partners and new entrants, particularly from abroad.

“THE ULTIM CLASS STILL UNDER OBSERVATION”

How can they attract more?
It’s always hard to make a cake when you don’t have all the ingredients from the start; in this case, they are lacking races and experience with these boats, which could attract new entrants. There have been several contacts with foreigners interested in such projects with partners. Owners who have done the Caribbean 600 came to sail on the boat [Macif] and were interested in buying her, but I think that the class is still under observation with people waiting before they jump in. The start of the last Route du Rhum was of course quite tough and the delays that resulted from that upset plans. Brest Atlantiques showed that it was possible to sail around the Atlantic but with a few incidents and what we are going through today does not favour the situation with part of the programme being cancelled.

What has been the impact of this period on VPLP?
There has been an impact as several projects that were pushed back may be cancelled: a Multi50 project, a bid for a big racing monohull, a 45m cruising catamaran, the client of which suspended the studies and launch, but I hope that they won’t be cancelled. There has been a decline in business, so some of our staff have been furloughed. Having said that, this is a Vendée Globe year and they are never very busy. It all tends to kick off in the six months following the finish of the Vendée Globe and I hope that the example of Jérémie Beyou and Charal has shown that it is not a good idea to wait until the last minute to start building a boat. Alongside all that, we are in the end quite lucky to have a wide range of business activities: we build cruisers, series boats too which were pre-sold and have to be delivered in 6-18 months from now. We have business in the world of maritime transport and in that area, the directives about reducing carbon have not changed. Quite the reverse, the interest shown by owners for what we do is still solid.

Are you hoping to diversify and enter the world with owner-sailors, like the J Class, 52 Super Series, Maxis, as you did with Comanche?
That is a market that is not easy to enter. It is true we might have hoped that Comanche would serve as a calling card, even if we can see that there have not been any 100-foot boats built since then. In the other series where there are already designers at work, it is a bit like our situation. When you are well set up, you don’t let too many others enter the field (smiles)With the 52 Super Series for example, it is very much a closed shop with two designers (Botin Partners and Judel/Vrolijk) who are unwilling to let others have a go. But we are starting to position ourselves in projects involving owner-sailors with programmes like the Giraglia, Middle Sea Race, Fastnet, Palma Week, but it is hard to find our way in. We recently did an 80-foot monohull for an Italian owner: it looks like we haven’t been chosen, but we would like to be involved in that sort of project, as these are owners that are aiming for line honours and our image is based around boats that sail quickly rather than have a favourable IRC handicap, so that may be an advantage for us.

“THE NEW BOATS ARE ALL SPONSORED BY NEWCOMERS,
EXCEPT FOR HUGO BOSS”
With the economic crisis ahead, are you worried about the French type of ocean racing, which is backed by commercial partners?

I try to be pragmatic and not dramatize the situation. I remember what happened before: eight years ago at the finish of the Vendée Globe, we did not really know if we would do a new boat because there was to be a new rule that in reality meant that we didn’t know if the new Imoca would actually outperform the current generation and older ones. We had a little panic but in the end we did six boats. If we said today that there will be no new boats for the next Vendée Globe, I remember that four years ago, people were saying that the Imoca class was deserted by its big sponsors like Gitana, Safran, Saint-Michel. Yes, they did stop, but in has come Charal, Corum, L’Occitane and so on. So the new boats are all, with the exception of Hugo Boss, new to the Imoca. Today I am confident that the next Vendée Globe will start it will be one of the only major sporting events of this year 2020 to take place, it is the opportunity to show that sailing has strong values that are very durable. We are going to have more than 70 days of racing to fully utilise and show that there is an excellent card to play. If we do not show that the ocean sailing is a super package, it is reliable, and which endures these upsets then we will be missing out on something. The situation has been difficult for sailors because they have not sailed, but I see that their horizon is clearing much faster than in other sports.

The period is a good time for reflections on the environmental role of ocean racing, do these themes concern you at VPLP?
Yes, very much and it is nothing especially new to us, we have been engaged by these topics for years especially in everything we do for maritime transport. We also have a specialist in house who follows movements such as La Vague or discussions within the Imoca class. But what I think is that we have to approach it pragmatically, that is to say put our knowledge and skills into projects that exist and not necessarily those which are  abstract and just intentions. I think that it is by doing this that we will move forward.

How can we move forward and make ocean racing boats less environmentally impactful?
I think we first need to know what we are talking about and therefore make this talked about life cycle analysis for this type of boat and these types of program. Once we’ve done that, we can focus on the important things. Today, you can of course make a linen card table or a tiller in jute fibers, but, that’s just a bit of the picture. If we want to go further, we have to improve our knowledge and so learn before we incorporate these ideas.  We are still talking about racing and when we want to race we want to win. I’m not sure we’ll find someone today who has a winning goal but who will agree to make concessions only for a matter of the message. When I see that people say everything has to be changed and that it can’t be as it has been I accept that. But we should look at the whole picture, so we don’t make these changes but still have 200 RIBs on the water carrying 400hp engines doing more than 25kts. We also have to be thinking to limit the travel required by plane, the transport of containers and all the energy required to send images and to make hours and hours of communications. And then what do we see in the villages the next morning after the start of a race? Tons of waste and giveaways in the gutters and in the  docks, what does it mean? A guy like Francis Joyon is clear in his head about this, he starts by saying “I’m going to consume less”. He does not tell himself how to consume just as much but just use cleaner stuff.

“IF INNOVATIONS BRING US A VIRTUOUS PURPOSE EVERYONE WINS”

Do you think ocean racing is useful to society?
Yes, it is thanks to racing boats and particularly to Open boats that we are evolve and progress. If we stay one design maybe it is more economical at first, then when you try to take the next second step that which we are going to want to transpose into mass use, it will is completely blocked. The offshore racing laboratory may not be exemplary but it does foster useful innovations we are able to design. Today, when we make foils, it is to go as quickly as possible then when we transfer them to a passenger boat project we are working on, it is to compete with the plane or the helicopter and make it fast and comfortable for the passenger whilst reducing consumption. This is transposing a concept that is 100% dedicated to performance to other uses. The wings in maritime transport are exactly the same: they were designed for the America’s Cup but are transposed to maritime transport to save energy. And these will continue to filter through other innovations, such as automatic control and adjustment systems to make them effectively light and lower consumption, but also horizontal sonars for detecting obstacles currently tested on Imoca and Ultime. If they lead to virtuous use, everyone wins.

Speaking of the America’s Cup, do you think we will see boats like this sailing in other competitions later?
I’m waiting to see, but I think that at some point a boat must be reliable in its stability. Here, what scares me a little is that the stability of AC75 comes from speed and that without speed, they are not stable. Maybe tomorrow we will have found systems that make this risk of falling over on its side less likely, but I don’t think we will make owner’s boats like these and these are also not very reasonable for ocean racing.

What is their use, if not to satisfy the desires of a few billionaires?
We will probably not decline the concept much, but if it is not used, there will surely be a lot to learn from all the work that has been done around its use. And in terms of rigging and sail plans for example, there will be development paths.

Photo: Yvan Zedda #RDR18

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