'Speed is beauty' for yacht architect

July 07, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

When he was 11, Bruce Farr got fed up with the dinghy his father had built him.

He begged for a sleek Zephyr like the one a friend had, but his father told him that if he wanted a new boat, he would have to build it. So the little boy presented his father with plans for a 10-foot-6-inch racer -- the first design of a man who would become one of the preeminent yacht designers in the world.

At his firm's airy office overlooking an Annapolis boatyard, Mr. Farr, 45, and his associates have designed 28 world champions and posted victories in nearly every class of racers. This year, the top eight finishers in the Whitbread 60 class of the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race were designed by Mr. Farr.

"He's probably the most successful yachting architect in the world right now," says ESPN sports commentator Gary Jobson, who also lives in Annapolis.

In yacht racing circles, he is known for design innovations that test the limits of the rules. In the 1970s he introduced a light, dinghy-like design that captured the Quarter Ton Cup in France. He startled the sailing world in 1987 by designing a fiberglass boat for the America's Cup.

Mr. Farr's partner, Russell Bowler, says Mr. Farr's understanding of boats is "almost uncanny."

What he knows, Mr. Farr learned from a life on the water.

He was born in Auckland, New Zealand, the son of a nurse and a commercial printer. His parents took him on their cruiser when he was 6 months old.

By the time he was 8, his father had quit the printing business and taken up commercial fishing, moving the family to the village of Leigh, 50 miles from Auckland.

Like many New Zealand boys, Mr. Farr learned boat-building from his father. By the time he was 9, he was sailing on his own.

He looks back on that first design as the impetus for his career. "It's really when I established my interest and love of design and building, instead of just a love of sailing," he says.

Sailing gave the small, shy boy confidence. Although he wasn't a stellar student, he won the New Zealand Moth class championship and several regional contests by the time he graduated from high school.

He decided his future was in boats. "Perhaps it was just the fear of the alternatives," Mr. Farr says.

Despite a tradition of sailing in New Zealand, the country had no schools that taught boat design. The designers were builders, so Mr. Farr went to work for a builder.

After a three-year apprenticeship, he formed a boat design and building operation. By 24, he had switched to designing full time.

In 1980, he teamed with Mr. Bowler, a fellow New Zealander and a pioneer in composite materials technology.

They were so successful in New Zealand that they decided to takeon the international market. In 1981, after considering Europe, and the American West Coast, they brought Farr and Associates to Annapolis.

Now, models of Farr designs line the walls of the firm's reception area on Third Street. They include Whitbread winners Steinlager II and UBS Switzerland, the Quarter Ton world champion, Vibes, and the Three Quarter Ton winner, Lone.

Mr. Farr doesn't have his own office, but works with the staff of 11 engineers and designers in a large room outfitted with computers and drawing tables.

When he is not staring at a computer screen or poring over blueprints, he is on the road talking with clients, looking for new customers or attending boat shows. Frequently he works 50 to 70 hours a week.

He has designed more than 300 yachts. Although he designs customcruising yachts and mass production boats, the bulk of the business at Farr and Associates is in race design. The firm receives a commission of between 5 percent and 8 percent on the racers that cost more than $1 million.

The typical Farr boat is sleek, light and tends to have a stubby bow. "Bruce does not go for beauty, he goes for speed. But he'll probably tell you that speed is beauty," Mr. Jobson says.

"We like to think it's a difference between style and styling," Mr. Farr says.

Although the Farr team knows how to use innovative materials andunorthodox designs to achieve speed, part of the secret to Mr. Farr's success is his knack for finding loopholes in yacht racing's complicated design rules, Mr. Jobson says.

"He pushes the edge," says Bill Trenkle, who oversees boat design for sailing champion Dennis Conner.

Sometimes his innovations create controversy, such as Mr. Conner's protest of Mr. Farr's fiberglass New Zealand entry in the 1987 America's Cup regatta. Although America's Cup entries always had been made of aluminum or wood, the rules didn't prohibit fiberglass, and the Farr design stood.

The next year, the New Zealanders challenged Mr. Conner with a 132-foot sloop designed by Mr. Farr. Mr. Conner responded with a catamaran, a fast, two-hulled vessel that easily defeated the Farr boat and put the America's Cup into the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the use of a catamaran proper.

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