Stephen Pizzo, Quokka Sports Staff
9 November 1998

Cape Town, South Africa

"I don't like the boats. I don't like the race. I love the sea." ~

Jean-Marie Finot

As each boat arrives at the dock there is always a crush of reporters, family and race officials. There is always the flash of cameras and popping of champagne. And, if the boat was a Finot design, there is always a small, quiet man standing in the background, Jean-Marie Finot, the man who designed all but one of the remaining Class I boats in this race and two of the Class II boats.
As soon as the skipper spots Finot in the crowd he usually darts off the boat and makes a beeline for him. They embrace and the skipper begins to sing the praises of the boat that just brought him fast and safely 7,000 miles.

Finot does not fit the image of a world-famous designer of cutting edge Open Rule designs. He is a decidedly modest man. But, by the age of 55 this scientist-turned-boat designer has attained the status of guru to many multi-million dollar campaigns.

Finot sat down with us for an informal interview and chatted about how boat designs have changed over the 34 years he has been in the business, and how he makes his design decisions.
He said he prefers the Open Rule races like Around Alone over races like The Whitbread where the designer is boxed in to a narrow rule. "When I begin to design a boat I like to begin with no rules," said Finot. "When you are forced by other races to design a boat by a strict rule I do not like it because the boat might be fine for the rule, but not for the sailing. So in the 1980s when they changed from the IOR rule to the stricter IMS rule I knew I could no longer design boats for these kind of rules."

Finot said that, from inception to completion, each design he produces is a collaborative process in which he guides, but does not dictate. "First the skippers want a boat that is strong, that can start and finish the race," he explained. "After that the design is dictated by how that skipper wants the boat to sail. I design the boat around the skipper's needs."

But, as a father with five children of his own, Finot exudes a fatherly presence that he uses skillfully to gently nudge skippers in the right direction, without appearing to dictate. Each skipper begins the process, he said, with strong opinions one way or another, some good, some bad. "On the keel, the mast, the hull design, I present the conditions to the skipper," he said. "I tell what they gain and what they lose from each decision. It is always a balance. It is a political decision we come to together.

"For example, at first [Giovanni] Soldini told me he thought a wide boat was the best way," he added. "Then after a long discussion we had, he changed his mind and decided this was not the way to go. With Isabelle Autissier I give her two choices with wing mast and hull shape and she picked the one she has."
In the end, he said, the best boat is the one that when finished, has a balance between size and weight. "The boat must be both very stable and easy to steer with the automatic pilot," he explained.

Stability has been a point of contention about the Open 60 for some time and Finot bristles at any suggestion that his designs lack stability. "These boats are more stable than the normal cruising boat that you buy to sail recreationally," he replied with a dismissive wave of the hand. "How can we say they are not stable, because even without ballast they are stable enough. Look at Fedor [Konioukhov], the Russian. He is sailing without any water ballast at all and he has had no problems."

He also said he does not agree with those who complain that boats with canting keels are lacking in upwind conditions. "Well, you have to understand how to balance your boat for different kinds of sailing, with the canting keel and the water ballast," he said. "The fact is, that between the canting keel and the water ballast the overall speed is not statistically different. For the canting keel it is maybe 5% more speed."

As each boat arrives in port, Finot sucks each skipper dry of information.
How did the boat sail? How did she handle off the wind? How did the ballast work? What would they change next time? He spent a day last week out sailing with Josh Hall aboard Gartmore Investment Management getting a feel for the boat now that it has 7,000 miles under her keel. He takes no notes, but his mind is working overtime weighing the information for the next generation.

"I am already working on the next designs because the skippers are already coming to me," he said. "So, yes, I am thinking. The skippers are asking me about the next boats, proposing things and asking me if I think this or that change makes sense.
"I am looking at different hull shapes for example," he added. "You change the shape for more speed. And we are working for new rigging, rigging that is more fine, not so much weight, not so much backstay, not so much spreader. It is possible to design rigging that makes the boat better in all conditions -- running, reaching, beating."

Finot believes that, as fast as the new generation of Open 50s and 60s are, they are no where near their design limit yet. "No. I don't not believe we have reached the design limit yet. I believe they can still go faster," he said. "How much faster? Who knows. But, I have just finished designing a 25-footer on the same design as the Open 50s but without any ballast and they reach almost the same top speeds as these 50s."

When the boats are at sea Finot said he suffers the anxiety of a father whose children are in harm's way. "It is just terrible," he said, rolling his eyes skyward. "The last two years have been very, very hard on me. But, I have been very surprised that there have not been big problems on any of these boats and so it means we have done a good job."

Though seven of the boats in this race are Finot designs, he plays no favorites. Finot said he does not care which one wins. "I have five children back home and I have no favorite," he said.
"It does not matter to me which of them is first, just that they are all alive at the end of the race. Now, if the winner is a boat from another designer, then that's a different matter. That's a problem for me," he said with a wink and a chuckle.

As the interview ended Finot said, almost as an aside, "You know, I do not really like the boats. And, I do not like the race. I love the sea."

Ask any of the skippers who sail Finot boats and they will tell you that Finot's love for the sea is bred into the very fiber of his boats.

 

 

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