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Edward Dubois FREng - Architect at sea

“Edward Dubois FREng

Ed Dubois started his career designing yachts built for speed, then moved on to building top-of-the-range superyachts. His company has developed key design features that have been copied round the world. He talked to Michael Kenward OBE about some of his engineering innovations at Dubois Naval Architects’ HQ in Lymington.

Ask Ed Dubois about the famous ‘Dubois style’ and he seems almost embarrassed. “We started a trend. We didn’t really mean to.” He may be reluctant to trumpet his innovation but his design concept changed the shape, in more ways than one, of yachting. No longer did sailors rush around on deck, blasted by the elements, or have to go below deck with no way to see where they were going. By a few deft strokes on his drawing board he made it possible to stay above deck, out of the wind and rain, and still see where you are going.

It wasn’t so much a blinding insight that gave Dubois the idea, he insists. “Clients said ‘Look when we get out on a big boat, we don’t want to go down into a dungeon.’” Dubois’s solution was to wrap a screen around the cockpit compartment to maximise the light that entered the boat. “We started that. It has been copied many times, and I am flattered by that.”

Before then, no one had paid much attention to visibility, a state of affairs that Dubois puts down to the origins of most yacht designs. Before the mid 1980s, racing drove design. They were, as Dubois calls them, “day boats”. Crews rarely spent the night on board. Even boats as big as the yachts designed to race in the America’s Cup – 130-feet long and with a crew of 30 – usually returned to harbour at night. Back then sailing was about adventure, being outdoors and battling the elements, not the sort of thing to appeal to the wealthy individual in search of luxury.

Quality and comfort

Creating a wraparound screen changed the yacht market. Customers now approached Dubois to design what were, in effect, floating luxury hotels. “I can think of one customer who had never been on a sailing boat before,” said Dubois. “He was going to have a motor yacht. Then he saw our boat: he saw that you can have a luxurious interior, he went for a sail on it and realised that it did not lean over very much.” The customer also liked the idea that a sailing boat was “at least perceived as being greener” as Dubois puts it.

Design may have fuelled the interest in luxury superyachts, as they came to be known, but another important driver was, says Dubois, “the communications revolution”. You could be on your yacht, away from the world, and yet still be in touch.

There was one further ingredient that sparked off the boom in superyachts: there were more people with lots of money to spend. And it takes serious money to buy a superyacht. The week before he spoke to Setting sail

As a young teenager living in landlocked Surrey, Dubois had acquired a 16-foot Hornet class racing dinghy. “It was a wreck so I rebuilt it.” A family friend lived at Thorpe Bay, the affluent part of Southend, on the Thames Estuary. His father would drive him there at weekends so that he could sail and race. “I was a typical middle-class kid with a love of sailing.” Dubois was also fascinated by design. “I was obsessed, actually, with sailing and design.”

Dubois was all set to go to Southampton University to study ship science. Then he found his dream course, a college diploma in yacht and boat design at Southampton College of Technology, now Southampton Solent University. That course may have been less academic than an engineering degree but, as a practical course, it offered a term in industry, the real world, alongside two terms in college. That course exists to this day, albeit now as a degree, turning out another 30 would-be yacht designers a year, few of whom are likely to find a job in the business, warns Dubois. Then again, of the seven engineers working at Dubois Naval Architects all but one came off that course.

Dubois has maintained his connections with Southampton Solent, which awarded him an honorary degree as Doctor of Design in 2004. These days he also works with the university that he spurned. As home of the Wolfson Unit for Aerodynamic and Marine Research, it is the place to go for research in yacht design. It also has some of the tanks that Dubois Naval Architects uses when it wants to test new hull designs.

After his own training at Southampton, Dubois started as a yacht designer in Jersey. “I got fed up with Jersey after a bit. It was a great job but it was Jersey, which was tiny.” He landed a job with one of the world’s leading yacht designers, Sparkman & Stephens. But the job was in New York which meant waiting to get a work permit. With time to kill, Dubois became the technical editor of a yachting magazine, Making waves

That first 34-foot yacht – it would have cost £200,000 to build today – got Dubois, then just 23, noticed in racing circles. Dubois puts that yacht’s success partly down to freak weather at the time. In 1976 there was a drought in the UK. “A big high-pressure system came and stuck itself over north-west Europe.” The result was a season of what yachtsmen call ‘light airs’. “This boat was brilliant in light air.” That first yacht was “pretty average in a breeze” Dubois admits, but he picked up three more orders on the back of its success.

“In those days,” says Dubois, “the formula was go and design a boat that wins lots of races. That way you will get more orders for racing boats, as well as becoming popular with the production boat builders.” As well as designing one offs, Dubois has produced designs that yacht makers can turn into production runs, a business that earns a royalty on every new yacht.

The next twist of fate also involved extraordinary weather. This time it was far from ‘light air’. In 1979 a force 11 storm hit the Fastnet Race, 15 race crew and four other sailors in the area drowned, but Dubois had another winner. That year’s race was the culmination of the five-race competition for the Admiral’s Cup. A Dubois design, Architect at Sea

As in many areas of engineering, design was crucial to the success of Dubois’s business. “Iconsider myself to be an engineer, albeit one who knows how to design things that float.” Until 20 years ago, he says, yacht design “was a mixture of simple engineering and art. Now it is more complicated engineering but there is still an artistic element.” The artistic elements include the below-deck design. His design team won’t fit a boat around the plans of an interior designer. Dubois likes to describe what they do as “architecture on the water”.

Dubois attributes the success of his yachts partly to his interest in the hydrodynamics of hulls moving through water. He confesses to being keen on playing around with numbers to get the hydrodynamics right. He will, despite his enthusiasm for working on the drawing board, even turn to the computer for assistance, in the shape of finite element analysis, although the company usually farms out this particular aspect of structural design.

Finite element analysis is just one of the areas where yacht designers turn to engineering for tools and techniques. However, no one would put a huge effort into research that simply sets out to create better yachts. “It is still a cottage industry so can’t commission expensive research programmes. Yachts aren’t driven by commercial needs,” says Dubois. “Given that boats do not need to be at the leading edge of technology,” he adds “the engineering moves, in some cases, quite slowly.” Yacht makers have, though, adopted materials from aerospace. Like some aerospace components, yacht hulls are often made in autoclaves using composites. “Practically all masts are now made out of carbon fibre in autoclaves. That is at the top end of composite engineering, akin to aerospace engineering.”

For larger yachts, anything over 40 metres, aluminium is usually the material of choice for the hull. “It is a relatively low-tech material, but it is a good boat building material, in that it is quick and it adapts to being fitted out very easily. You just bolt bits on.” Aluminium has its problems, though. “It corrodes quite merrily with electrolysis. But you can protect against that.” Get it right, says Dubois, and the yacht will last forever.

While today’s racing yachts usually have aluminium or high-tech composites as their hulls, for his own sailing pleasure Dubois prefers a more natural material, wood. His own yacht actually came from the drawing boards of Sparkman and Stevens, the company that he never did go to work for. “I bought that in ‘98,” he says pointing to a photo on his office wall. “She was built in 1965, a classic really. Very successful at racing in her day.”

That Dubois is happy with an old classic reflects the fact that he no longer sees racing as the only thing worth doing. “If you had told me in 1990 that there would be a time when you don’t actually want to do racing, I would have said that you are joking, that it is not going to happen.” This fixation had an effect on Dubois’s social life. “I didn’t get married until I was 44. It was all about being a yacht designer and racing on yachts that I had designed. It did seem terribly important at the time.”

Ask Dubois about his hobbies these days and he laughs and quickly comes up with “looking after the children”. He has four of them, two girls and two boys, aged from 4 to 12. “I still love sailing as a pastime,” Dubois insists. But much as it was his own schoolboy obsession, Dubois says that he doesn’t try to push sailing with his children. “I am hoping that they will like sailing. Not for reasons of being a yacht designer but because it is just a fantastic sport. It gives children such an enormous responsibility.” It is also a job that can take you all over the world, so long as you are one of an elite handful of superyacht designers.

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