2008 Eureka! Award
A Q&A with Lou Varney, the brains behind Harken’s Pro-Trim Traveler and Rigtune Pro and winner of this year’s SAIL FKP Eureka! Award
By David Schmidt
What is your professional background?
I was originally a boatbuilder, and then I became a mast maker and a designer of high-end Grand Prix raceboat masts.
What led you to think up the Pro Trim?
I have been trimming mainsails for 20 plus years, sailing everything from small one-design boats to Maxi yachts. When you sail small one-design boats, you learn very quickly that being able to adjust the traveler is a key boatspeed tool. So, when it came to big-boat sailing, I realized that it was important to come up with ways of adjusting travelers on big boats with ease. As the boats got bigger, it was harder to do this with block-and-tackle systems. Also, boats that sail in IRC tend have less room inside due to more of an interior under this rule, so it was very hard to find space to run cascading blocks and ropes. So, the Pro-Trim was good solution for both these issues.
Did you have a lot of experience with mechanical devices before inventing the Pro-Trim?
When building my custom masts, I learned some different ways of adjusting things, making things lighter, etc. That’s how I learned.
Did you think of the Pro-Trim as a solution to a problem on a particular boat, or as a item to market to the general racing public?
As I said above, for sure it was a solution to the loads as boats got bigger, but also with IRC becoming more popular, and more cursing-type boats wanting better performance, I realized that it was a good solution.
How did you hook up with Harken?
I have worked with Harken for many years, selling complete systems and helping them come up with other product ideas. Harken is a very progressive company, and they are willing to try new things, as Peter and Olaf [Harken] are motivated by new ideas. I was also part of the development teams at Harken in the past.
I’ve read that you race on grand-prix boats — can you give me an overview of your sailing experiences?
I’ve been sailing competitively since 1975, but some career highlights include being on the America 3 team that won the America’s Cup in 1991/1992. I was on the winning boat for the Admiral’s Cup twice, the Sardinia Cup three times, and I was on the maxi Boomerang when she broke the Fastnet course record. I’ve been sailing on the very successful TP52 Patches for the past three years, and I have been very active in the Farr 40 class since its arrival, only missing two Farr 40 Worlds. Also, I was a part of the Eddie Ward Owen matching race team for four years, usually finishing in the top four results for most of the events that we did.
Have you invented things for sailboats before? If so, what?
Through my company, Diverse Yacht Services, we come up with many products that have become standard raceboat products, including loadcells, carbon-fiber vertical wands for the wind instruments, and ondeck sunlight-viewable portable screens that are waterproof. The list goes on…
Tell me about the impetus for the Rigtune Pro?
Again, this comes from racing on boats and the need to tune the mast to set-up for mainsail shapes and repeatability. As we have found, loadcell technology has worked well in other applications on sailboats.
Obviously, the Rigtune Pro is a piece of electronics, whereas the ProTrim is mechanical — did you invent the actual specific devices in both cases, or did you come up with the idea and then pass this along to someone else?
I worked a lot with a guy called Robert Cundall. He has taken a lot of my ideas and made them into something useable. He’s the guy who came up with our first loadcells over 20 years ago.
Do you eventually see bigger versions of the Rigtune Pro coming out that could handle rigging on maxi’s, etc.?
Our original version was made to work on a Farr 40, as I do a lot of Farr 40 sailing. I’m sure we’ll see bigger versions, but not in such mass production as the Rigtune Pro.
The ProTrim is a pretty unique way of eliminating complex cascading systems belowdecks. I’ve also read that the same technology that was used on the Pro-Trim could be used in other situations (or for other systems besides
a traveler) — do you have any plans to use this same technology on other areas of a boat? If so, can you speak about this?
Yes, we already have plans to control high-load systems, which may only be single drum systems, but they will be ideal for using this technology.
This has obviously been a big year for you with these two inventions — have you had similar years in the past, or is this the biggie?
The invention process has been over the last two years, but yes, it kept us all very busy. Harken has made the whole thing doable, though, with all their resources.
What three things on a sailboat (systems, or individual components) do you feel could benefit the most from clever thinking? Or, in other words, what systems/gear do you think needs re-evaluation in order to make sailing better and more fun, as both of these products have done?
We have some ideas of some other new systems, but I always like to try them out first before telling everyone about our ideas.