It’s not often that a Frenchman urges Americans to take more chances. With its 35-hour workweek and comprehensive social security net, France can make America look like the land of hazard and reward. To celebrated French naval architect Philippe Briand, though, who has seen more than 14,000 of his designs take to the water, it is clear the United States has missed a trick or two when it comes to designing sailing boats.
“The U.S. offers a lot for motorboating and sailing,” he tells me, pointing to the country’s phenomenal blend of lake sailing, island-hopping and proximity to some of the world’s finest bluewater cruising grounds. “But extraordinarily, the offer from the U.S. boat industry to the market did not evolve to innovation and attractiveness as much as the European one did, especially in sailing.”
“Today the most popular [boat] brands in the U.S. are French,” he adds. “At the top of the luxury range, the largest sailing superyachts owned by Americans have been built by Europeans. This is a fact. My advice would be to have the U.S. industry take more risk with sailing boat design, in a way to make them more attractive.”
This wasn’t always the case, Briand admits. “A long time ago we designed for Beneteau ‘an American product,’ supposed to be more suitable for American market,” he remembers. “It was a big failure.” He also cites the excitement around the development of the 12-Metre America’s Cup class in the 1970s as one of the reasons he got into yacht design in the first place, adding that Newport, Rhode Island, remains one of his favorite places. But in Briand’s mind that was then, this is now.
For those who might try and dismiss these comments as those of a designer in his twilight years, be warned, you do so at your peril. If Briand has been absent from the pages of sailing magazines in recent years, that is set to change. He has a PR team on board now and is making his opinions heard across a wide range of boating issues, from the environment to bringing new sailors into the sport.
Then, of course, there is the hugely successful Jeanneau Sun Odyssey range, a line of yachts that continues to bear his signature; his Vitruvius brand of superyachts; and any number of other cutting-edge projects he’s involved in: including an accessible foiling monohull, a “‘monocat” for charter and a new line of large, crewed catamarans, making him busy across the entire sailing spectrum.
With this in mind, when it comes to what many see as the stagnating popularity of sailing, Briand says it’s not so much because of the rising price of sailboats, but a number of other factors. “You get quite a lot for your money on a sailing yacht,” he insists, blaming instead the complexity of sailing for its slowing uptake, and noting how Jeanneau’s work in developing its Assisted Sail Trim system, which links a back-winding winch to a boat’s wind instruments and an autohelm, offers a way out. He also cites as concerns the maintenance required by sailboats and, crucially for him, discomfort. “When you’re in control of the heel, like on a catamaran, it’s a big success,” he says, no great surprise given his recent efforts in this area.
At the same time, Briand says a number of monohull brands are also beginning to successfully tackle these same issues: noting, in particular, how the industry has begun building much beamier, more stable monohulls than in years past. Just compare the hull shape of a 15-year-old Sun Odyssey 49, he says, with its traditional narrowing quarter and sugar-scoop stern, to the latest new 490. The new boat has a hard chine, squared-off transom and distinctly wedge-shaped lines, which see her beam carried right aft. “They have greater stability and greater volume, so it’s a win-win,” he explains.
Equally intriguing is the way Briand says Jeanneau, for example, is now mulling the idea of horizontal foils on its yachts. Not only do these provide external lift, effectively making the yacht lighter and faster, they can also reduce the angle of heel by as much as 5 degrees and dampen pitching, making for a much more comfortable ride.
“You need enough speed, so it’s not suitable for smaller boats,” Briand says. Nonetheless, it is an excellent example of how design features continue to trickle down from the world of high-end racing—supermaxi Wild Oats XI was an early pioneer of horizontal foils—in the process making cruising better, safer and faster as well. Other examples include the hard tops that are becoming increasingly common in the cruising sector and carbon spars.
Along these same lines, Briand, who says he doesn’t really consider himself a cruising sailor, recently created headlines when he released the concept for a 6.5m “flying yacht,” or Flyacht, that made use of America’s Cup foil technology and soft wing sails. His idea is to make top-end technology more accessible to normal sailors on normal budgets—a noble intention, though Briand admits he doesn’t yet know how much the yacht will cost. (The prototype now in-build now has a price tag of almost $400,000, but that would fall dramatically if it entered production.)
For all this, though, Briand still declares himself no fan of “too-exotic solutions.” Kite sails, for example, are a step too far for him. “If they were going to work, they would have been adopted by now,” as he puts it. Wing sails, on the other hand, he sees as a better bet—something Beneteau has also been working on. “Beneteau was very close. They had done the testing, and it made the boat extremely simple to sail, less maneuvering. People were much less tired after hours of sailing, which means something. They made some progress on standardization and price. Then they stopped because of internal politics. But it can restart.”
A certain outspokenness has always been Briand’s hallmark. His first production design, for example, was the Ovni 28, drawn in 1978. Commissioned by Yves Roucher of the young French yard Alubat, the boat was meant to be an aluminum-hulled keelboat. “As a younger designer, I said to him I would not accept the job unless he chose to launch something more radical, a full centerboarder,” Briand remembers. “He [planned to] make hull #2 with a keel, but the demand never gave him the opportunity to switch! In the end, 1,000 centerboarders were built by the yard.”
The following year, Jeanneau got in touch after seeing Briand’s design for an IOR boat racing at La Rochelle. “She was noticed not because of her performance (10th overall), but because she was by far the most elegant. Jeanneau asked me to design a production boat out of her.” That boat became the Symphonie 32. Briand was just 22 at the time, and the partnership endures to this day, some 60 models later.
Of course, in the years since, Briand has also won plaudits (and orders) for various different superyachts. However, he says he remains as committed as ever to production sailing yachts, saying: “It’s a different challenge, but it’s a real one. With superyachts, you have one client, and the priority is to make it beautiful. They are looking for art…On a production cruising boat, it is much more rational. Production is a balance of priorities: design, function, cost and the life of a model. It is a more complex model.”
Beyond that, Briad, who helped to create eight different America’s Cup challengers across six different campaigns between 1986 and 2000 (and who’d his first appearance on the cover of a U.S. sailing magazine came in 1994 with SAIL after he won the One-Ton Cup aboard his own boat) says he wishes today’s sailing magazines and the yachting press, in general, would focus more on the evolution of yacht design.
“It is accelerating a lot at the moment. The future looks brilliant for yachting and the designs of yachts will play their part,” he says, as the subject turns to things like renewable energy onboard and the potential of hydrogen fuel cells to clean up the sailing world. “The evolution of design in sailing boats has been very impressive in comparison to other industries. Innovation is not always about materials, from wood to aluminum to carbon, where we are now. Most of the innovation comes from the racing field. The next step could be a new initiative around sustainability. The sailing yacht is a kind of wind machine, so we are the ones who know best about wind energy. In that way, we have already put a lot of energy and power into the development of wind power.
“Part of our mission with Jeanneau,” he notes, “is to get them to engage with sustainability. Recyclability is already on the way. Maybe the French are leading the way. It should induce some development to make boats more recyclable, and this will be part of our design next time.”
Meanwhile, in the here and now, another area receiving Briand’s attention is the ever-growing charter trade and the kinds of boats best suited to this kind of service. “We’re seeing a trend toward renting rather than buying,” he says, at the same time referencing a “46ft boat purely for charter” with a “totally new” layout and deck organization he has been working on.
This, it turns out, is Jeanneau’s brand-new Sun Loft 47, unveiled at the catamaran mecca that is the Grande Motte Multihull Show at the end of April. The design is certainly striking, billed as a “monocat,” a kind of hybrid design that strives to combine the best of both catamarans and monohulls. For example, while the boat is clearly a monohull in terms of its hull shape and rig, its broad beam and high topsides create enough volume to offer a staggering six double cabins, with four heads, plus a skipper’s cabin where the sail locker would normally be. Other noteworthy features include a broad open cockpit, with a galley on the same level and an awning that allows the entire platform to be fully eclosed against the elements.
As Briand puts it, the boat has been designed for cabin charter and is been driven hard by the needs of companies like Dream Yacht Charter trying to reach an “urban” clientele. “This is based on the real lifestyle of people when they go on a charter boat,” explains Briand. “We have designed the deck and accommodations closer to the real use. That’s very important. What provides the best functionality today is a catamaran. So this is an inspiration of the catamaran.”
Granted, Briand says, the concept might not yet be right for independent boatowners. However, Jeanneau has already secured dozens of orders for the new 46-footer from a number of charter companies. So don’t be surprised if you start to see elements of this design seep into the mainstream market as more and more would-be owners experience the benefits on holiday. In fact, I’d be surprised if Briand hasn’t already sketched out some ideas for an owner’s version too, against the day that sailors are ready to accept it—all with any eye toward continuing to define yachting’s future.
Briand Designs Through the Years
1978: Ovni 28 – Briand’s first commercial design
1978: 12-Metre Marianne - designed to compete in the 1980 America’s Cup, though never built
1979: Jeanneau Symphonie 32 – Briand’s first design for Jeanneau
1983: Freelance - Sailed by Briand to victory in the Half-Ton Cup
1985: French Kiss – The 12-Metre that surpassed expectations in the 1987 America’s Cup Challenger Trials
1986: Beneteau Oceanis 350 – First Briand design for Beneteau
1991: Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 47 CC - Briand’s first Sun Odyssey design
1997: Mari-Cha III – record-breaking 146ft ketch
2000: beHappy - Co-designed the unstable twin-keeled Swiss entry for the 31st America’s Cup
2003: Mari-Cha IV – Transatlantic record-breaker
2016: Badis (formerly Sybaris – A 229ft ketch, and Briand’s largest design to date
2018: Launch of the 6.5m FlyYacht foiling monohull concept