Philippe Briand commands a reputation for combining beauty with high performance. Mark Chisnell met him at his London studio
There have been over 12,000 boats built to Philippe Briand designs in the last four decades in a remarkable career that began with a 25ft wooden boat to the International Offshore Rule (IOR) in the 1970s.
Briand was just 16 when that first boat was built, and he went on to win the legendary Admiral’s Cup – at the competitive height of the IOR – with a French team that included two of his designs.
He drew the French America’s Cup challengers from 1986 to 2000 and then, after moving onto superyachts, he designed the 42m Mari-Cha IV, a superlative ketch that held the Atlantic crossing record for monohulls for over 12 years.
It’s a career that had auspicious beginnings. The son of an Olympic Dragon sailor and sail loft owner, Briand first went afloat at the age of three in his father’s boats, graduating to his own Optimist at nine. “I was born in a family where we stick to talking only about boats, racing boats, at the dinner table.
“We were always deeply involved in racing. My father went to the Olympic Games in ’68 [where he was 8th]. He won the Dragon European Championship. He also owned the largest sail loft in Europe at this time,” he explains.
The first boat was a wooden Quarter Tonner (an IOR fixed rating class) that went on to win regattas and was replicated 11 times. “When I was 18 I went to work with Pelle Petterson in Sweden, and he’s been important to me because we worked on so many different kinds of designs.
“At this time he was designing a car, the Volvo P1800 sports car, and was a two-time medallist at the Olympic Games in the Star. He also designed a production boat, the Maxi, which was very successful in the Seventies and the largest production boat back then. I’m still very inspired by it.”
Briand worked with Petterson on the design of a World Championship winning 6 Metre and then the 12 Metre that Petterson sailed at the 1977 America’s Cup. It was famous for the below decks pedal-driven winches, “This was Pelle’s idea,” says Briand. It’s an idea that resurfaced very successfully for Team New Zealand at the America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017.
It was 1978 when Briand returned home and started his own design office in La Rochelle. He had no formal naval architecture background. “I was in a hurry and I wanted to get on designing boats.” Just six years later, in 1984, he won the One Ton Cup, probably the most competitive IOR class in the period. It was in a boat of his own design called Passion 2. Briand was just 28 and had already won the Half Ton Cup in Norway the previous year.
“This [setting up his own design office] was very brave of me when I look back. I even tried to set up a French challenge for the America’s Cup… I started designing a 12 Metre… We built two small scale model sailing boats and we had fantastic results…
“Unfortunately, this stopped there because we didn’t find sponsorship. I had to wait a bit, and I waited five more years. I met Marc Pajot and I was the one telling Marc that he should go for the America’s Cup. He found funding with a syndicate and we designed French Kiss, which was an extrapolation of the earlier design.” French Kiss reached the Challenger semi-finals in the ’87 America’s Cup in Fremantle.
Briand spent much of the next 13 years trying to win sailing’s most prestigious trophy with eight designs for six teams. He moved into superyacht design in 1995 after winning the commission for the 44m Mari-Cha III, and then went on to draw Mari-Cha IV.
He has built his subsequent career on the success of these lightweight high-performance cruiser-racers, building boats with many of the world’s most respected shipyards including Alloy Yachts, CNB, Groupe Beneteau, Perini Navi, Royal Huisman and Vitters.
“We design racing boats, we design sailing boats, production boats, big sailing yachts, we also design motor yachts and big motor yachts of different kinds,” Briand says. “We have two offices, one in La Rochelle in France, where the naval architects are based; that’s the original office.
“And since 2008 we’ve also been based in a studio in London, because I live here. The naval architecture and more of the engineering work is done in La Rochelle. We are ten people, so we are split about five and five. We have three designers here in London and an administrator, and in La Rochelle we have five naval architects.
“Our current developments in super sailing yachts are a 50m design and a 90m preliminary design for one of our repeat clients. In addition, we have always designed racing projects as part of our own R&D. That’s why we developed last winter a preliminary study of an AC75 and a scaled down version at 6.5m designed to be a potential test boat for syndicates. It’s great fun to work on this new kind of monohull defined by another Frenchman, Guillaume Verdier.”
The Briand office also has two 55m motor yachts under construction at Perini Navi, while the 58m Najiba was launched by Feadship last year. “We have two new projects on the drawing board now, which are a new kind of boat: one is an expedition boat for ice class [55m] and its purpose is to cross the north-east passage; and the other has its priority as beauty. So we are designing a very nice motor yacht, a low freeboard, a long flush deck, more inspired by the beauty of sailing.”
Beauty is one of the fundamentals of Briand’s design philosophy. “For me, design is based on values and there are four values which are common in all our designs, sailing or motor. There is ‘beauty’, first and foremost. Then there is ‘performance’, and now we recently added ‘green’ and ‘explorer’. I think these four values give a sense to yachting…
“Beauty of course is basic for yachts and I used to say that the primary function of the boat is to be beautiful. We always intend to design beautiful boats… it’s still our first aim. And although we express this in production boats and our shipyard yachts, I think style in itself does not mean anything.
“The design, the style has to express the internal beauty of the boat, so the guts of the boat, the technical aspect, the efficiency. That’s the reason why we work, we are also naval architects and so we know about the engineering and the technical aspect and for us the second priority is performance, because performance is the meaning of transportation.
“Performance also means to have a good boat at sea, comfortable, seaworthy, a good motion at sea. All the aspects which make you comfortable aboard the boat and getting the special relationship that sometimes you have with your boat, something that sometimes people do not understand. When we are on the boat we have this interaction, like, we could have with another person – this is performance for us, that’s important.
“This is also the time that these two other values [green and explorer vessels] also need to be included in yachting; they are a bit related. Green, I think it’s something we could not miss today and yachting is not very advanced on this aspect, to be honest.
“There is still a lot to do, but as a designer I’m looking forward; I think it’s our responsibility to go this way, to create an environmentally friendly boat where the owner will be proud to be on board. Not a boat smoking and pushing the sea and polluting.
“And finally, one important beauty of yachts and boats is that they have this ability to explore 70 per cent of the earth – which is the sea. The boats are not only designed to get between Portofino and Porto Cervo. Of course, we are selling boats today for this purpose, but if we want to develop interest for yachting tomorrow, we should explain that the boat is also useable for more waters; that you can explore the Baltic and not only the Mediterranean. So exploration is something we need to promote… to explain to people that they can use their boat for an infinite territory.” A fine thought.
Philippe Briand on his milestone designs
“The boat I love to sail was the Mari-Cha IV, because this was 42m long, but so easy to sail – easy sailing, fast. So this was a real enjoyment. She held the Atlantic record for 12 years and is still a fantastic boat.”
“Of course the most iconic is Vertigo because it’s the largest one, at 67m. There was Galileo, an explorer boat; it was the kind of boat that did 85,000 miles in three years. This boat was really used. That’s a nice boat.”
“We had P2 [38m], we designed a boat for Perini Navi; this also was an achievement because we had to make a Perini fast, which was not the image of the shipyard previously.”
“In production boats, I am also proud of the big successes like we have today in the CNB 76 or the Jeanneau 64. I am proud of it because if you sail a boat it means it should be a good design, and the cost is part of the design. Of course, there is a lot of soul because it’s a good project, but the project is also good because the designer has considered this aspect. So it’s an achievement.”
“We designed Inouï for an owner who wanted 30 per cent performance yacht and 70 per cent cruising yacht with a timeless look… However, we also succeeded in selling the idea of a high-tech rig and the square top mainsail. Now, ten years later the owner is mainly racing the superyacht ‘tour’ with professional crew and excited about new sails.”
“Of course my preferred design is always the last one! I like simple lines, basically. I like beauty. I like the rubber, not the pen. Take away lines and keep only the one that is absolutely necessary for the functionality – this is usable simplicity.”
Briand in brief
Hobbies: Sailing. “My wife pushes me to travel, so we just came back this morning from Botswana. I tried to find some water there, so I was happy. I am so passionate about design. I did a rough calculation – I’ve spent around 250,000 hours of my life thinking about boats. I believe this has created some kind of background and experience. This is not talent, I don’t call this a gift or talent, but it is only time thinking about designing boats.”
Inspirations: My father, Michel, an Olympic Dragon sailor, and founder of Tasker Sails in France; and Pelle Petterson, Swedish yacht designer, Olympic medallist and America’s Cup skipper.
“I was born in this environment and so, of course, I go sailing and racing. I quickly understood that the technical aspect was the priority for winning a race. My father was also manufacturing the masts, sails, winches. I had this opportunity to meet with the best designers of the time because we were in France and they were coming to the sail loft. That was his network, so I used this network… then I started designing. I was 11.”
Career highlights: “Personally [the highlight was] when I won the One Ton Cup [in 1984] myself as designer and the skipper of the boat. This was an achievement.”
Career lowlights: “I’m still frustrated about racing. I would like to design more racing boats and get successful in this, which is my passion. I think we are in a sport, and like every sport people believe more in young guys, which may be normal when we are on board the boat, but what about technical engineering and architecture? It makes no sense.”
About the author
Mark Chisnell has written 16 books, which have been translated into five languages. He has sailed and worked with seven America’s Cup teams and won three World Championships. He runs the Technical Innovation Group for Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team.
First published in the July 2018 issue of Supersail World.