Earlier this year he described the famous non-stop solo race around the world as “There is no other race that pushes the limits of design like the Vendee Globe.”
His two challenges to date, sixth in 2008-9 with Team Pindar and Brian Thompson and with Cheminées Poujoulat which was disqualified with Bernard Stamm in 2012-13 for receiving inadvertent outside assistance, did not realise their full potential.
Kouyoumdjian has worked advising other IMOCA clients since, not least on the optimisation of Vincent Riou’s PRB. Their relationship dates back five years and this summer sees PRB updated with new Juan-K designed foils, winning Defi Azimut and constantly proving one of the quickest IMOCAs in training races at Port La Foret
But the Vendée Globe project which many consider to mix all the exciting components of a 2020 podium finisher, combines the talents of the exceptional young French skipper Sébastien Simon - who at 28 years old has just won La Solitaire URGO-Le Figaro, who is working with 2004 Vendée Globe winning veteran Vincent Riou as project manager and Kouyoumdjian.
What stage are you at with the new IMOCA?
JK: “ The big part of the design, the conceptual work has been done. The moulds have been built and the boat, in terms of construction has already started. The carbon has been laid on the moulds and part of the structure has been started. So the conceptual phase is complete and we are in the detailing and execution phase.” The world has seen the only new gen IMOCA launched, how does your new boat differ? JK: “ It is quite different. The only new boat we have seen so far is Charal. And we certainly are not of the same philosophy. They are two different concepts for sure. Charal is a boat which looks extreme in many ways. I hate to comment on work done by other colleagues but to me Charal the hull represents an extreme looking for a reduction of wetted surface and at the same time the foils are very big looking for a load of force, a lot of load. The concept is a synthesis of three different extreme things put together, nothing is too extreme.”
You are not starting with clean sheet of paper with the new boat, what advantage is there in the work you have done with Vincent and PRB?
“ The first time we looked at foils was some time ago. I have been working with Vincent Riou and his PRB for five years now. At one point we envisaged whether we should put foils on for the last Vendée Globe and we decided it was not a good decision for many reasons. The rule in the past was different to now. Now the extra degree of freedom in the new rule changes things dramatically.
Winning the Defi Azimut is good news. JK: “ It was very good, we have done two training sessions and last weekend was a confirmation that the new foils are working well. The fact that we have been able to put foils on PRB and develop from that is very helpful in the big picture for the new boat. We are getting confirmations and measurements from an existing boat which is really important.”
How has the modelling changed in respect of the new generation IMOCAs and what do you learn?
" Modelling, we were very into modelling races around the world before, we did that for the Volvo in the past. That sort of modelling, the assimilations around the world has its pros and its cons. The pros are that it paints a picture, a potential picture of what different design characteristics or trends can perform against each other. But it is very statistical. Statistics is like a bikini. What they show is very exciting but what they hide is essential. And so it can lead you to erroneous decisions. And so this time we have not done that, we have not done the statistical simulations, simply because we have the experience of Vincent who says 'Look, a good Vendée boat is a boat which does these three things well, and if you do these three things well you will do well. So we focused on these three things, synthesized in terms of true wind angles and true wind speeds. So long as the boat does these three things very well, the rest is consequence. That saves a huge amount of computing time on the simulations, time can be spent refining the three key points. That is what we did this time. “
Presumably you are pleased to see the Volvo Ocean Race now come to IMOCAs?
“ I think it is great. My opinion is biased. I am quite anti one design so for the Volvo to adopt a rule which is not One Design and which is open like the IMOCA 60, which in the first page of the rule says everything which is not expressly forbidden is allowed. That is music to my ears. IMOCA as the governing body is creating two sub rules. There is the existing IMOCA which is applicable to the existing IMOCA boats which are focused on single handed rules. There is a new IMOCA sub rule which will be IMOCA Crewed in the sense it is for having more than one person on the boat. Essentially those rules are the same and I would say 95 or 98 per cent of the rules are the same but they differ in very slight details in which these details adapt it to whether you want to use it in more of crew, or single handed. Essentially both boats designed under each of these rules would be legal in the other opposed rule. It is not an exclusive but an inclusive division. It is more related to how you optimise to a purpose and the purpose of the Volvo is very different to that of a single hander. I would even argue that you grab an existing singlehanded IMOCA, lets say PRB because it is a boat I know very well, and put them in the context of a Volvo and the boats would be very difficult. You would have to sail them with a level of care and management which would be slow in the context of a Volvo. And if you sailed them in the context of the way a Volvo is sailed they would break very quickly. There is a management there to be done which impacts on the design . They are different."
So could you win the Volvo and the Vendée Globe with the same boat?
“ In the format we are building right now to do the Vendée it would be very difficult for it to do the Volvo. But with fairly small and let’s say intelligent optimisations it would do the Volvo. I think it is probably easier to transform an existing IMOCA to be competitive in a Volvo than make a Volvo IMOCA to be competitive single handed. But to be competitive in having a serious chance of winning? That's difficult."
That means two separate boats?
“ Winning means winning before the start. Each race requires a specific boat. You can definitely participate and have a very good chance of scoring well if you don't do that. If the objective is winning, or substantially increasing the chances of winning, each race needs a boat.”
This latest generation of IMOCAs will be harder to sail?
“ I think in some conditions the new generation of IMOCAs will be easier to sail because you will require less sail changes and the boats could be more dry than in the past, but in other situations they are more difficult to sail because the speeds are substantially greater. Which means the management of the impacts are a lot greater the level of management is paramount. Right now the new IMOCA designs, particularly also because you foment the creation of dynamic righting moment within a context of a mast which has a structural limit. In essence the quantity of dynamic righting moment they impose on your boat is directly related to the management of the skipper. A skipper with a new generation IMOCA can very easily put the boat in a situation where the righting moment generated is way bigger than what the mast can withstand. So it is all about the management by the skipper. You need to have that those tools to perform, but you need to manage them. In the past you could create a more bullet-proof boat which could still perform well in a less destructive type of environment. I think the difficulty comes from achieving that management.
Is that not a frightening proposition?
“ I don't think it is frightening. It is part of the game. If you look at it from the point of view of the marketing guys who ended up doing a one design Volvo then it is scary because they don't care about design development, they don't see the design as part of the sport. I think it is more exciting than scary.”
And how much quicker will these new boats be in terms of 24 hour run/record?
“The records are very much related to weather patterns, but looking at it mathematically, increasing by ten to 15 per cent then it is easy to demonstrate. With the data we have right now if the record before for an IMOCA was close to 600 nautical miles, add ten to 15 per cent to that.”
Sébastien Simon, what are your thoughts on him having now worked with him for several months?
“ He is extremely talented. I knew of him when I met him but in the past few months I have got to know him better, to get to know his qualities, his intuitions. He is on of those skippers that you rarely come across. He has a method which is very good. He has a personality and a way to win which does not necessarily mean he will copy or do things the way others do. That personality to win is very important. That is related to his method. And it is not just the way of doing things differently for the sake of it. The answers are a very well thought through criteria and a way of thinking which I think is very strong . As a human he is someone I like a lot and have learned a lot with, with whom exchanges with him are easy and of great quality. Overall discovering him has been very satisfying.”
And so the new IMOCA is an exclusive project, you are doing no other new IMOCA designs?
“ We are doing the PRB and the new boat. We were offered to do another new boat but because of the engagements and the way we wanted to work on this particular project made it impossible to work with this other new boat so we had to pass that opportunity, unfortunately. We have restricted ourself to this exclusivity. There are other older generation boats which have asked us to help them. I think they will basically build new foils such as we designed for PRB and I think they will implement those foils into their boats, but those moves will improve the boats but I don't think that will make them winning boats. I think that does not compete and we are happy to help them. We are doing this boat for Seb very exclusively.”
It must be very pleasing to be back in the IMOCA class with a cutting edge project?
“After the last few years and in particular what happened in San Francisco some people lost trust in me and in what I do and the fact that high level people in our sport still trust me and are happy with the way I work and the way I think is very encouraging. The results are speaking for themselves. And it is satisfying to me that I still have something to say and something to give. I am fully dedicated to this. I am aware these are chances which rarely come by and I am take them fully. Hence why I do this in a very exclusive way, it is only this way that you can fully express yourself and feel part of the team and push the design to the limit that it needs to be pushed to. That is where I am right now.”