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Farr has designing eye on world racing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Chesapeake Bay may not have a successor to George Collins' Chessie Racing in next year's Volvo Ocean Race, but five of the boats that will race around the world have been designed in Annapolis.

Farr Yacht Design Ltd., which produced EF Language, the Sweden-based winner of the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race, is out to repeat its success in the world's toughest ocean race.

It might be said that winning the race has become almost routine for New Zealander Bruce Farr and his Back Creek design team. They had boats in every Whitbread since 1981, winning in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998.

With a Swedish auto maker, Volvo, replacing a British brewery, Whitbread, as chief sponsor, the involvement of the Farr group remains a constant - and dominating - presence in an ever-changing scene.

New rules, materials and a different course for the Volvo present the designers with fresh challenges and open up the opportunity for innovation.

"There is no absolute measure of the fastest design," said Stephen A. Morris, a member of Farr's Volvo-60s design team. "We don't have any tools that can absolutely predict which boat is going to sail round the world faster."

One thing Morris does know: After a training sail off the Atlantic coast of Spain on a Farr-designed Whitbread-60, he would not sail round the world in any one of the Volvo boats.

"They are very noisy and uncomfortable," he said. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to sail one of these things round the world. But they seem to enjoy it and come back time and time again."

A boat's performance will depend not only on its hull design but its sail selection and its crew's ability.

But you may still wonder how a single design team can produce five boats for five different syndicates, each demanding that its boat be fastest.

It's simple.

The Farr designers use their own research - which for next year's race started 18 months ago - to produce what they believe is the fastest template. The syndicates add their own touches, be it refinement to the rig, a change in the keel, or a modified deck layout.

Farr's research is shared, but each syndicate's approach is proprietary.

"You end up with a package that has their fingerprints over it," said Russell Bowler, Farr's vice president.

The design of the Volvo-60s is governed by some of the tightest restrictions on the international racing circuit.

"People have found roughly where the right place in the rules is, so you can't make a breakthrough in the basic design of the boat," said Farr, who made his mark sailing, designing and building dinghies in his native New Zealand.

The major rule changes this year allow the use of lighter, stronger carbon masts, and legitimize the controversial Code One upwind foresail with which Paul Cayard surprised the competition in the last Volvo. Cayard found a way round a girth rule meant to restrict the sail to downwind use, forcing the rest of the Whitbread fleet to play catch-up. That rule has been dropped, and the race is on to develop the most effective and largest upwind sail.

The new Volvo rules also require boats to have more bulkheads and equipment for safety. And course changes will put the boats through some different weather patterns, which have had to be factored into the design.

Designer Morris initially thought the carbon mast would enable the Volvo-60's crucial center of gravity to be lowered, making it more stable.

But requirements for the extra safety gear and additional batteries meant that introduction of the carbon mast contributed only a net weight difference of plus or minus 50 pounds, still significant in a boat in which crews will share toothpaste to save an ounce of baggage.

"At the end of all that research, you always end up with more questions than answers," said Morris. "All we know is, hull shapes are significantly faster than last time. We aren't going to say what these changes are, but they can't be anything like the bow, because the rules just don't allow it.

"We look at the unrestricted parts of the hull and beaver away there until we strike gold."

To see which of the five Farr designs is fastest, keep an eye on their client syndicates - illbruck Challenge, News Corporation, Tyco, Assa Abloy, and Team SEB.

"If you went out there," said Bowler, pointing to the design offices, "and asked everyone which they would back if they were forced to put a dollar on a boat, you would probably get five different answers."

The Farr team also is designing a boat to compete for yachting's most prestigious trophy, the America's Cup, a regatta it has yet to win.

A designer can only be involved with a single America's Cup entrant, and the Farr team is working for software entrepreneur Larry Ellison's OracleRACING syndicate.

Here, the starting point has been Black Magic, the innovative New Zealand boat that trounced Italy's Prada syndicate, 5-0, in Auckland earlier this year. It introduced a new "knuckle" bow, "millenium" rig, and refined wing keel, all of which the Farr team has analyzed.

"We would be lying if we said Black Magic hadn't influenced our design," said Farr. "But we have to go way over that hurdle. We have to find something substantially better, because [Team New Zealand is] going to improve on that."

He views the Kiwis - with their two consecutive America's Cup wins, the best boat, and a continuous research program - as clearly the team to beat. Next come the Italians, who went straight from their America's Cup defeat into a new development program with an uninterrupted flow of funding from fashion house Prada.

Farr's earlier success spurred his move from Auckland to Annapolis, where he works in an office overlooking Back Creek.

After making his original mark in dinghy racing, he turned his attention to larger boats under the International Offshore Rule introduced in the 1970s.

As his reputation grew, he and Bowler, partners since 1980, decided they needed to establish a presence in the Northern Hemisphere, where many of their boats were being sold.

After deciding the West Coast was too far from Europe and Newport, R.I., had too many yacht designers, they settled in Annapolis, attracted by Chesapeake Bay and its nearby airports.

From here, they have pioneered the introduction of composite sandwich construction for hulls, developed Kevlar as a reinforcing agent, and spurred development of carbon spars, earning recognition as the world's foremost designers of both racing and cruising boats.

If you have a boating event or experience to share, Gilbert Lewthwaite can be contacted on 202-416-0262, or be e-mail at gilbertlewthwaite@hotmail.com.

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