Juan Fast Tractor

By Kimball Livingston
(the pics too)

Wanna have fun? Go talk to Juan K about Volvo boats, running a design office, and of course this boat race that's happening in Valencia. Listen to him talk about "doing Formula One on a tractor," and mobile Cup teams, and be sure to check out the 128-cpu computer that arrived last November and hasn't been shut down since.

Ask Juan Kouyoumdjian for a sound bite re. the next Volvo Ocean Race and you get this about an itinerary still in development: "The course is just barely clear enough that we know how to design for it, and as a designer you never know enough. We find it hard to find data for wind, and especially waves, for Leg 5 between Singapore and Qingdao, China—it's still possible the race will stop somewhere else in China—but we think that if boats break in the next race, it will be on that leg. The passage between the mainland and Taiwan shoals from two kilometers to 200 meters. Think, strong current, big waves, probably plenty of wind. Upwind. These boats can go 15 knots in those conditions, and jumping off waves, that's hard on boats and people." (For those who came in late: Juan and his people built their own weather analysis of the last Volvo course, bet on additional breeze, and designed powerful hull forms that allowed ABN AMRO to run away with the race; now they're working for Ericsson.)

Ask for a sound bite re. the opposition at America's Cup 32 (along with Farr Yacht Design, Juan K is part of the heavyweight design team for BMW Oracle) and he says, for example: "Team New Zealand is an institution, but they're under a lot of pressure. It's understood that it will be easier for New Zealand to be part of the future of the Cup if they are a defender. I admire that team for knowing their ingredients and how to put together a recipe around them, but they have a lot to lose here. At the risk of being wrong—we haven't sailed against them enough to really know—I'd say the boat lacks a touch of speed. That team can compensate with rigs, sails, sailing talent, but if you give that boat to any of the second-tier teams, you won't see them going any faster."

Cool. We got live. But to learn more, first you must arrive at 2 Avenida de Aragn, 46021, Valencia, Spain, alongside what once was the river Turia but is now a city park that snakes through the heart of the city. It probably has nothing to do with the presence of Juan Kouyoumdjian's office that somebody decided to place this Cup reminder in the plaza alongside. Then again . . .

Juan Yacht Design is in that mixed-use building in the background.

Up on the second floor, Juan opened the door talking into a cell phone, waved me in, and later apologized (unnecessarily) for taking the time to wrap up that conversation.

The Valencia office opened in January, 2004 after Juan finished his commitments to the 2003 Prada challenge and closed an office in Milan. It's not unique for a design office to follow the America's Cup, though Juan describes his work for BMW Oracle as being done in "sessions" rather than "a three-year marathon." And change happens. "Now we have 15 people," he says. "Some are married, with kids. It's more difficult to manage these things."

Juan and his wife, Kelly, (they met at university in the UK) do not have kids, or not yet. When they moved to Valencia, Juan says, "We lived in an apartment upstairs, which gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of extra time here in the office. Until I got an ultimatum from Kelly. Then we bought a house outside of town. That's a different Spain."

If the Cup leaves Valencia, so will the shop. Juan says, "I hope we can bring the Cup to San Francisco, but I will always have Argentina in my heart."

It's been a busy time. Except for a 55-footer just launched in the UK, an Open 60 for Pindar, and a 100-foot cant-keel, water-ballasted, all-out racer in the works for an American client, Juan K has been turning work away, he says: "We have a consulting relationship with BMW Oracle. It had to be that way, or it would have conflicted with other projects I was already working on, and anyway, it's good. I tend to work best in intense sessions; that's better for me than a three-year marathon. And I'm best on big-picture, conceptual work; the team has fantastic engineers who are more capable with the details."

So what's ahead for BMW Oracle?

"If we get to the match, it will be a new story, because Alinghi is probably at a different level. Their way of working is different from our way, because the defender can assume that he will be racing in June."

And getting there?''

"This is Chris Dickson's team, and right now I can't think of anybody else I'd rather have skippering the boat. A few months ago I wasn't ready to say that, but he made it clear from the beginning that he was the guru on top, involved in every decision. That suits his management style, to work with people he trusts to supply recommendations, and then he rules. This will be his victory or his loss."

On gamesmanship on the racetrack—

"The boys care about having the top spot at the end of the round robins. They want to choose their opponent for the semis. That race against Prada was a real race (BMW Oracle passed on the second weather leg and extended). If two boats have equal speed it's all but impossible to come from behind, so to be able to come from behind to pass both Prada and New Zealand, and then to keep them behind us, is very encouraging.

"There was a tactical error on the part of New Zealand that let us get through, but it's important that after we got through, we added to the lead."

Okay, so there's a big-picture way to look at boat design. Is there also a big-picture look to this whole America's Cup thingamajig besides watching out for a runaway freight train?

"I wish the Cup fleet was more technologically advanced," says Juan K.

Forgive me if I don't act surprised.

"When they developed the ACC rule [following the 1988 big boat-catamaran knot-up] it represented a big jump forward from the 12 Meter. But the rule hasn't changed in pace with the times. It's sweet and sour to work with this rule, dealing with so many restrictions. At times it feels like doing Formula One on a tractor."

And the racing system as we find it in Valencia?

"America's Cup Management has a misunderstanding of the value of quality versus quantity. We have three clear divisions, and that's not what the cup has been about for all these years. I would rather see the future of the Cup focused on the quality and glamour of the event—and a rating rule that does not block evolution just to keep small teams alive. I think China is being led down the garden path."

So, Mr. Juan K, do you have a crystal-ball view of the future, one might ask? And he might answer that nothing is crystal clear when you try to look ahead from here. There are plans for a post-Cup event in Germany in August, and Larry Ellison seems determined to have an event of some sort in San Francisco in September come hell or high water—St. Francis Yacht Club moved its annual cruise to Tinsley Island forward a week to accommodate a regatta, so there'd better be racing—and yet:

"Right now, nobody can say whether there will be an Act in September or a Cup in 2009 or 2011 or what. And with the Deed of Gift giving all the power to the winner, it creates problems for people who want to build a circuit of races. It's difficult to organize [Ellison wants to put the challenger racing on-circuit, Formula One style] because you need to budget on a two-three year time frame, and launching that process would take four, maybe six months to digest."

But change happens, yes?

"The future of the Cup is not going to be based in a 'somewhere.' Each team will have a base, but they will be mobile, and there will be a split between the circuit and the Cup."

Thanks Juan, let's stop before we use up all the space on the internet—KL

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