His father is the legendary creator of more than 600 yachts, including America’s Cup challengers such as Il Moro di Venezia and Luna Rossa, and maxiboat winners Flyer and Boomerang.

Yacht design, seamanship and a great passion for sailing are in Germàn Frers jr’s blood. 

And it could not be otherwise because, according to him, the greatest quality of a yacht designer is a thorough understanding of the culture of the sea...

In your portfolio there is an impressive series of winning yachts, such as Stealth, Wally 77, Genie of the Lamp, Ten PF, Este 24, the Volvo 60 Amer One. What are the greatest challenges facing a designer in the development of a racing yacht?

The first challenge in yacht design in general is to understand your client. This is particularly difficult when working for a production yacht or a one-off customised boat. The human element is sometimes even more unpredictable than the weather at sea!

Your skill, as a creative mind, is to be able to figure out, sometimes only through a few meetings and discussions, how your customer sails, and what he expects from a yacht.

And, above all, what is his level of symbiosis with the sea, how much he is able to read its signals.

Paradoxically, this is actually easier when working on a large-scale racing project such as an America’s Cup challenger, because in that case the users – the crew – work extremely closely with us designers as one team.

The other challenge is to always be able to put your design into discussion until the very end. Unlike other engineering disciplines, there are very limited rules in yacht design and the racing yacht, even after finalisation, can be adapted until the last minute.

If you are set in your ways, not open to exploring new materials, not willing to listen to other parties involved – such as sail or mast makers, or professional sailors – you may well end up with a solution that is not optimised. In racing terms, a low performer rather than a winner.

What makes a yacht a successful racing machine?

A good racing yacht should represent the perfect balance between the human and the natural elements.

It should be as adaptable as possible to different weather conditions. Although most people think this is true for all-purpose boats or for ‘round the world racers more than for America’s Cup yachts, this is not actually the case.

Of course, we know four years in advance on which waters the next America’s Cup will be sailed, but the weather is always highly unpredictable, especially at sea.

If your challenger is a ‘static’ boat, that performs perfectly in one condition and does not allow for any flexibility, then you have already lost from the start.

The most successful boats are those that are continuously designed. Changes – even quite radical ones – to the keel or the helm, the sails and even the hull, should be allowed to occur on a racing yacht even when it is already in the water.

This is what happens with America’s Cup boats that we say are never finished. Ideally, this is what would happen with every serious racing yacht. Of course, budgets do not often allow for this.

A racing yacht should also be very ‘sensitive’, and respond smoothly yet effectively to the helmsman’s commands. When the relationship between the skipper and the boat is similar to the one between the jockey and his horse, then we are on the good track.

And this depends on both the yacht and the crew.

The human element is, as a matter of fact, what makes the real difference between one yacht and the other. And I do not only refer to the way the crew races the yacht. If the crew is truly professional, they have a ‘feel’ for the boat and the sea, and they can provide extremely useful feedback to us designers.

Since a yacht is the result of continuous improvements, this feedback is of utmost importance.

Do you follow a particular design process in the design of a yacht?

Basically, no. We tried once to standardise our activities, to frame them into a design process, but we came to the conclusion that it was impossible. Some yacht designers do it. But I think this might force us into conceiving every boat in the same way.

The way I see it, if you want to keep innovation going, you cannot cage yourself in a design process. We are not talking about industrial engineering and manufacturing, we are not creating solutions that need to be mass produced.

Yacht design is almost craftsmanship, very much based on manual work and on the contribution of a limited number of individuals when compared with an industrial product creation process.

Just think of the numbers: when talking about large yachts (25 metres, for instance) there are rarely more than twenty units made and sold world-wide! Of course, we also do larger production yachts, and these might get above the 150 units. Still tiny numbers...

The fact is that every boat presents you with a different challenge. It all depends on what the customer wants, on his way of sailing and racing. 

Also, we work with naval building sites all over the world. Each one of them has a different way of working, different qualities and weak points. Standardising our way of dealing with the builders would be quite impossible, and certainly very inefficient.

Processes are normally developed to make creativity sustainable in the future. In other words, to disconnect the final output from an individual’s creativity and initiative, to make it the logical result of an established way of working that is repeatable.

This is extremely good in industry, but not in a craft based skill like yacht design, where each ‘product’ has to be different in order to be good.

What are the most critical moments in the design phase? 

The most important phase is the beginning of a project. In this intense stage that lasts one to six months, we analyse solutions, materials, construction techniques and partners.

We also get a lot of feedback on weather patterns, especially for yachts that are specifically built for a particular race (like the America’s Cup or the Volvo Round the world race).

At this moment, weather patterns, together with timing and budgets, are our only constraints. We are basically free to take any direction we want and this initial decision is of key importance because all the work that will follow will be based on it.

Just like in yacht racing, also in yacht design it is really important to have an excellent start!

Your studio designs primarily the hull, and the overall structure of the boat and its accessories. What about the sails?

Sails and masts are designed and developed separately. We rely on the skills and experience of the best craftsmen in this domain. We work very closely with them, sometimes even in the same place.

Every hull has its own characteristics, and the sails have to adapt to both the hull and mast. It has to be close teamwork.

How do you test your designs for performance?

We do various types of simulations. We use naval tanks that are 300 metre long by five to ten metres wide. Our 1:3 scale model, built with the selected material that will actually be used for the final yacht, is pushed back and forth on the water surface whilst a dynamometer measures the forces and the resistance of the hull.

We often compare different hull shapes in these simulations, in order to choose the one that is best suited for our purpose.

These tests are very costly and we cannot obviously use them as ‘trial and error’ tools. On the basis of one test, we need to be able to evaluate what went wrong (or right).

This is sometimes not that easy, since the results can be fuzzy – after all you are dealing with natural elements and changeable variables. Correct analysis is a key for the further development of the project in the right direction.

What I mean to say is that tests certainly help, but only if you are able to interpret the results in the correct way. Despite what it might seem, this is not a science, but rather an art, a skill that is developed through experience.

We also test the sails, the mast, the keel, and the helm in a ‘gallery of the wind’, and perform a great number of computer-based simulations. We work with several 3D programs, to design and produce 3D models for structural work and finite element analysis.

This design loop is completed with the use of various velocity prediction programs including our own highly developed in-house version of this and a computational fluid dynamics program. These simulations are becoming progressively accurate, and we use them for all the boats we design.

So you no longer have great surprises when you put a boat in the water?

Surprise on our boats, no. We know how they are going to perform in specific conditions. Yet, there are always surprises about what the competitors have done!

In an important race, everyone is taking out his best, and you never know what materials, technologies, forms, sails or racing tactics the competitors have chosen.

The balance of all these, together with the weather pattern, will make up the final results of the race. The uncertainty is the fun of it. 

Is it the yacht design or the crew that makes the winner?

Again, it is all a question of balance. In the past, when yacht racing was a popular sport for amateurs, then definitely the design of a yacht had much more impact on the final performance. Today, I would say it’s fifty-fifty.

How many times do you test an America’s Cup yacht?

This depends on the budget, because simulations cost a lot. Ideally, we would carry out parallel tests for each new design of the boat in the tank for the hull, and in the wind gallery for the accessories for two years, following the process through computer-based tests. 

In reality, the first design concepts are tested through the computer, and only when we get our ideas clarified, we develop a first prototype for the tank test. 

What are the most important aspects to be considered in the design of a cruising yacht?

In the earlier phases, the design of cruising and racing yachts are not dramatically different. It’s only priorities that change. With cruising the focus is not on speed, hence there is not as much attention on the shape of the hull.

I said a racing yacht has first of all to be flexible ‘til the last minute... A cruising boat should be beautiful, pleasurable to sail, comfortable for the crew, agile and adaptable to many weather conditions. A place where you can enjoy your time. 

You certainly should not suffer on a cruising boat as professional sailors do on the Volvo Ocean Race yachts... No, of course, not. Yet, you have to suffer sometimes when you are sailing, and this is just part of the game!

You get wet, and cold. It’s sometimes difficult to sleep. You have to keep the night watches. All this strengthens you and makes you really understand what the sea – and nature – is all about.

We all have the tendency to live in a ‘padded’ environment, artificially heated or cooled throughout the year. But nature is not comfortable, at least not in the way we conceive this word in western societies. People who cannot accept this cannot really understand the pleasure of sailing to the full.

How do you keep up to date with the latest technological and material developments? 

We are constantly in contact with the industry, as well as with naval building sites and researchers. Being always at the front end, especially in new materials and manufacturing technologies, is extremely important, especially for racing yachts, where one metre over ten minutes might make the difference between winning or losing. 

What are the disciplines involved in yacht design?

Many: from hydrodynamics and aerodynamics, to materials and mechanical engineering, from structural analysis, to mathematics and physics. If you master these disciplines you could, in theory, engineer a boat. But a boat is not to be engineered. It has to be felt. 

Unlike a car or a train or an aeroplane, that only travels through one element at a time, a yacht sails on waters whose movements are dictated by multiple variables and its ‘engine’, the sails, are powered by the wind. It is possible to learn about this complexity, and about dealing with it.

But it is not possible to fully understand it unless one feels it and lives with it. In other words, although many scientific disciplines are integral (and highly necessary) parts of yacht design, the most important knowledge area is certainly that created by experience on the sea.

In my opinion, a good yacht designer has to be a sailor, he has to have a ‘feel’ for the sea, and for the element. He has to have intuitive skills that only come through being wholly imbued with the culture of the sea where respect and modesty are prime.

Do you feel that your skills are more linked to engineering or creative design?

I think that a yacht designer has to be an engineer and an artist. You have a great responsibility when you design a new boat: people’s safety at sea depends on your work.

So, you must be rational, thorough, aim for what’s best for your client. On the other hand, unless you’re a bit crazy, visionary and aim for continuous innovation, and you do not have an inherent ‘gut’ feeling for understanding the sea, you will never create a winning yacht. Balance, once again, is the key word.  

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