Friday 2 March 2012

a boat of our time

This interview with the award-winning boat designer Simon Rogers took place in November 2011, during research for the Boat Project book. Lymington- based Simon is the designer of the exquisite wooden vessel at the heart of Lone Twin's The Boat Project, an ACE 'Artists Taking The Lead' commission as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The boat and the book will be launched on 7 May at Thornham Marina, Emsworth, before a maiden voyage along the south coast from mid-May until August - with curated events and celebrations in Brighton, Portsmouth, Hastings, Margate, Milton Keynes and Weymouth. 

For full details of The Boat Project, the book, and to reserve tickets for the launch, see here.

DW: As the designer of the boat at the centre of The Boat Project, could you describe its particular attributes and qualities?

SR: It’s a boat of our time; and that was the first part of the original brief. It reflects modern design of the year 2012. In terms of its form, for example, the chines of the hull (the angles of its bottom) are very in vogue right now in high-performance yachting circuits. It’s not as light as one could make it – obviously we have the donations, and the materials, the fact that it’s made out of wood. But the idea was not to make something from the 1940s or 1950s. We are not trying to make a retro, clinker-built boat. We’re trying to build something that looks modern, and a proper reflection of what’s currently going on in the industry – and at the same time something that would be fun to sail.

It will plane; it has a planing hull so it will go quickly without pushing a lot of water around. It’s a very efficient, low-drag shape, with a fairly large sail area. Nonetheless it will be very easily driven, very light on the helm; and it will be a pleasure to sail – everything will be lightly loaded. Less experienced sailors, even those who have never sailed before, will be able to sail the boat with instruction.  There’s nothing there that’s going to bite you or be horrible; the winches are very small, the loads are all very small, and it will sail in a nicely balanced fashion.

Part of the original brief was to make something accessible to those who are less experienced. It’s a simple boat to sail, it’s not at all complicated. And it’s an easy boat to transport. Transportation by road was one of the driving features for the overall length of the boat. It could have been any length, but it had to be able to fit on a trailer; the maximum beam is 2m 55, and we’re at 2m 53. Obviously we wanted to stay within the weights of what was allowed on the road. It needs a 3.5-tonne towing vehicle, which Discoveries, Landrovers and so on can manage. And at the same time we wanted to be able to move it easily and quickly.

If an informed person looked at this boat, they would say that it had an association with a sports boat, which is a generic group of fast modern sailing boats. You’d look at this boat and think yes, this is of the same genre as a Melges 34, a Melges 32 or a Mumm 30, or indeed any high performance boat. It is a much heavier version of that style of boat, but we felt it was a decent reflection of 2012, which is really what it was all about.

In terms of the boat design, is there anything that’s particularly unique?

There are some functions within it that are specific to the particular project. For example, lots of boats have lifting keel systems, but the specific items that we’ve tackled are going to allow the boat to be transported easily as well. There are functions that other boats have had to tackle as well, but we’ve done it in maybe a slightly different way – if not markedly different. The lifting keel enables you to go into extremely shallow water, and to get the boat out of the water in extremely shallow water. If you put a trailer in, and lift the keel up, you can then take the boat in to about 500mm of water, not much more than knee deep. You’ve then got the trailer as well, so you’d be waist deep in water with the trailer. So you could get it out of a lake; if you wanted to go up to Rutland, or Grafham, or any of the major inland waterways, you’d be able to get the boat in and out of the water fairly easily. That was a big part of the design project. When we started the project, we didn’t have a clue where the boat would be operating. So we’ve tried to make it as adaptable and able to access as many bits of water as possible, without having to use a crane.

What kinds of knowledge do you glean from your own experiences as a sailor, lived understandings that enable you to approach the design of a boat?

Well, you have a trained, embodied experience that you draw on when you design a boat. I’ve been designing boats for 21 years within this business, and an entire childhood with boats. It would be hard to say which bit of experience I use for what; it’s all become a bit of a blur, and it’s all part of the design mix. But yes, in my opinion if you are going to design boats, you need to know how to sail. And the other most important thing, particularly with a project like this – and it is where we are probably a little bit unique - is that I’m also an apprentice served shipwright as well. So I do know how to build a wooden boat, and I do know how to construct pretty much anything that we design. In fact I won’t design anything that I don’t know how to build.

The really nice thing about working specifically with Mark Covell is that I don’t think I could have tackled this the way I have without having somebody like him being the project leader. I’ve known Mark for a long time, and he’s a tremendous boat builder and a great sailor, an Olympic silver medalist; he understands about boats. So between us, from a technical point of view, we’ve really had all the bases covered. And Gary and Gregg have been brilliant from that point of view, in just allowing us to get on with it.

We’ve worked really hard on ensuring that as much of the timber that we have received becomes structural members within the boat. Of course we had no idea what was going to be donated before we started, or how much – so from that point of view it was quite a difficult task. And I think Gary and Gregg did a really good job of managing the donations, really focusing on the artistic aspects of the project, and letting Mark and I focus on the technical aspects. We’ve supplied the canvas and Gary and Gregg have worked on the artistic aspects and brought those other parts together – indeed the major parts, as that’s what it’s all about.

Normally we would know exactly what everything is going to be built of, and we’ve had to accept that certain things will be different. We get a particular piece of wood, and think that it would be great at doing a particular job, although it might be a little bit heavier than is ideal. When we first designed the boat, we assumed certain specific gravities for certain materials that we needed in order to make the boat float and do its job – and then made an allowance within the structure for the exhibits. We decided that where a donation is on the boat is irrelevant. It was unpredictable in terms of density - some of it might be very light, or very heavy, but we knew it was going to be wood. So we knew it was very unlikely to have a specific gravity greater than 1, in other words that it was going to sink. There aren’t many woods that sink, there are a few but not many. And we’re not going to get 40 square metres of lignum vitae! That would be an extremely unlikely scenario. And if we did, we wouldn’t be putting it on a boat like that because it’s extremely valuable! So we were able to make certain assumptions. We were looking at nearly 400 kilos of donations in some way, shape or form – and I suspect we’ll be somewhere close to that in the end. Obviously when we designed the boat we had to know what it was going to weigh at the end in order to get the displacements right and actually get the boat to float correctly.

Is the epoxy process something that you’ve used before?

Yes, we use it all the time. Basically what we have is a cored hull – a wooden core and glass laminates holding the surfaces together, or the donations, or whatever happens to be in the middle, and that does two things. First, the glass skins take the load. On a beam, the top and bottom surfaces do the hard work; and the bit in the middle, as long as it doesn’t crumple or sheer, holds the two laminates apart – just like an I-beam, a steel RSJ. So that does the tensile work, and the bit in the middle is what we call the core material, and that deals with the sheering loads. Wood is a good material in this context; as long as it keeps the skins at the correct separation and doesn’t sheer, then it works. And secondly, the glass skins and the epoxy keep the water out. So it’s two-fold. And then we can choose what we put in the middle, as long it does its bare essentials, and we’re away. A lot of production boats have balsa wood cores; that’s quite a normal production technique because it’s light, and also it’s very good in sheer.

As a material, are there things that wood allows or enables? In other words, what’s good about wood?

What’s really good about wood is that it is unidirectional, in that it’s very stiff down its grain. At the same time it’s not particularly weak across it. It’s not as good in that respect as some other materials, but it’s stronger one way and you get a longitudinal stiffness.

The process is this. First, you put up a bunch of transverse frames – very precisely cut building moulds – and then you bend the batons around them and glue them along the edges as you go: what we call edge-glued strip planking. That then takes on a natural curvature, and the long pieces of wood, the batons, take up the fair between frames right the way through; so you end up with a nice smooth, fair baton. You then cover that in glass fibre, flip it over, remove the inside frames – and now it’s pretty stiff and stable, if a little bit wobbly. Then you have to fair the surfaces, and then fibreglass the inside. So you now have two skins either side of a core material in the middle. We then fill and fair the outside of it, and away we go. It’s a very simple construction method which we could only really do in wood: because of its flexibility and strength, and the fact that it’s stiff in the fore and aft plane. If you were making a fibreglass boat, you’d have to make a full mould with a perfect surface on it. So the really lovely thing about wood is that you can form a shape very quickly and inexpensively.

Does the layer of donations on the hull have a structural function, or is it largely decorative?

Well, it’s a mixture of both really. We would normally have to reinforce the topsides for putting fenders along the side. We’ve got 10 mms of donations on the outside of the core. The core itself is thinner in that area because we have this material going on the outside. So we have engineered it so that you end up with something slightly tougher in the topside area, where the donations are integrated. It is heavier than you would normally build it, because the donations are there; but those donations definitely provide a structural component - although as I say it’s not the lightest way of doing it. We wouldn’t normally choose to build it this way, but because of the nature of the project it’s a very nice way of doing it.

Like everything, when you’re engineering something you have to understand the mode; things have different modes of failure – how possible failure occurs. So, for example, boats have to be stiff longitudinally because you’ve got a force in the back stave trying to snap it in half, or athwart-ships (from one side to the other, at right angles to the keel). Or it has to be made stiff longitudinally and athwart-ships where the main mast bulkhead is, to take the rigging loads. On the topside of the hull, do we need the donations for panel stiffness, to stop the water getting in? Probably not. Do we need it from a longitudinal stiffness point of view, in that mode? No, we probably don’t.  Do we need it from the point of view of fender impact and toughness in the topside? Yes, we do. So it’s not a straightforward answer to your question, which is perhaps a little complex than it seems; but in engineering terms, in certain modes, yes, it is definitely useful.

Are there any particular problems with the epoxy system?

In the old days there used to be certain health problems. There were certain epoxies that were rather toxic, and as time has gone by they have become increasingly friendly. An epoxy is a fairly nasty matrix; it’s not something you’d want to inhale too much. A lot of the stuff is vacuum bagged, which means that when the resin is laid in, it doesn’t actually produce any fumes per se at any significant levels until you start to heat it. Obviously it depends on the epoxy. You put a plastic bag over it, vacuum it all down, and then all the nasty fumes go outside the factory. So it’s like a closed mould, and it works pretty well. But if it does get on your skin, it can be fairly nasty; and certain early epoxies were known to be mildly carcinogenic.

What’s the life expectancy of an epoxy hull in contact with water?

We don’t really know. We’ve been going forty or fifty years with epoxies, and we still don’t know. But to all intents and purposes an epoxy hull should last a lifetime, certainly.

Is the wood effectively completely stable within the epoxy?

Yes, it is. If you use a polyester resin, it does absorb water, at very microscopic levels, through osmosis; tiny amounts of water are drawn in and wick up the fibres, and then causes problems. But an epoxy is a pretty perfect barrier that waterproofs the wood; pretty much 100% it’s sealed, and a wooden core is protected – unless of course you puncture the skin at any point. An epoxy is a like a skin, a polythene membrane; but if you puncture that membrane, the water will pass through and then travel down the fibres of the wood. So you only need one little pinprick and it can create quite a few problems. Over a period of time you’ll fill the core up with water. And if you think about a hull being pushed down into the water, you have a head of pressure, and the water is trying to push in quite aggressively. However if the laminates are thick enough it’s not really a problem.

In your role as a designer, you create a sort of Platonic model, a detailed schematic outline of an ideal, something virtual, in a set of drawings. And then there’s a handing over of this plan, which is a kind of map or score, for others to realize as a three-dimensional form. After this handover, what is the nature of your relationship to what then goes in the build shed, and to how the journey proposed by that map actually takes shape materially?

I pop in and out. Of course there’s a high level of trust; which is why when Mark approached me I was keen – with lots of others, I probably wouldn’t have taken it on. Mark’s an absolute perfectionist, he loves doing things really well. He’s obsessive in the nicest possible way. Passionate might be the best word to describe him. And I knew the result was going to be good before we started. In a project like this, when you’re not milling surfaces like you do with a lot of production moulds, when you’re strip planking there is an element of interpretation; and the builder does have significant input into how you tackle certain problems. Mark will give me a quick call and say, can I do it like this? And I’ll say yes. There are five hundred ways of achieving the same result, and one that I’ve chosen is based on the fact of our normal approach. But if Mark says, well actually I’ve got a piece of balustrade here from a Victorian house; and I’d like to do it this way so that I can use this piece of timber; then there’s a quick hand calculation to make sure it’s okay, and yes, fantastic, go for it. So that dialogue is ongoing. I get phone calls from Mark all the time.

So for example we modified the hog down the centre of the boat - that’s the centre line structure – with bits of timber from HMS Victory and from Warrior. We modified the design to be able to incorporate those specific bits of timber when we got them. Because why would you not use those timbers under the mast step? Wonderfully dense, strong, stiff pieces of oak that are several hundred years old, with all of their associated history. It’s what the projects all about. It’s a little bit heavier than we planned, but it’s low down in the structure. An extra 10 kilos of weight in the bottom of the boat, but the incorporation of such materials is the point of the project; and that’s the fun part – working with these historically and personally laden materials. With a project like this you need to be flexible, and Mark’s been superb to work with from that point of view.

We started with certain constraints, and what we’ve tried to do is build something that’s going to be fun, fast and exciting at all levels. If you are a complete beginner, you can still go sailing and enjoy it. If you are an expert, you can sail it and understand its pedigree. You can look at aspects of the boat and the project as a whole and say, yes, that’s a good-looking boat, and a fair reflection of what’s going on. Although it’s not the lightest, there are features whose genre and styling are those of a modern boat. That’s something that most people, whether experienced or not experienced, will relate to, and it’s a really important feature of the design. People have a picture of a boat having to be that old classic thing with big overhangs, built using overlapped clinker boards, steam-bent frames and so on. That was the 1940s. This boat will be launched in 2012, and we wanted to have something that reflected the current moment. That was something that Mark got hold of very early on, and he helped steer Gregg and Gary away from that older idea. When Mark came to me as a designer, he knew the direction we would be coming from – we’re all about high-performance sailing boats, that’s what we do for a living. Of course the materials are a little bit different. I’ve done lots of cedar strip boats in the past, so I’ve got a lot of experience there, but it is about producing a boat that is going to be appreciated by the general public for what it is.

It was interesting at the outset that Gregg and Gary weren’t boat specialists, and I think they have appreciated what it is we do. To the layman, what is modern? There aren’t so many preconceived ideas, and what we’ve done is focused everybody’s minds by presenting what is; and it will become abundantly clear when you see it that it’s not a historical reproduction of something that has been done years ago. It is fresh, fast, new; it will be fun to sail; it will be beautifully balanced to steer; everything will be lightly loaded. It’s 2 tonnes rather than 1.4 tonnes. The structural weight of this boat will be about 700 kilos; if we were using a fabulously light material and all the latest technology, we could build it at 200 kilos. 400 kilos would be a very nice middle ground, in carbon. But because we’re using wood we’re 40 or 50 percent heavier. That’s what The Boat Project is about, and we were able to shape it towards its current form. That form will be recognizable, whereas the actual visible impact you get will be quite different. At a distance you’ll see a modern boat, in the genre of a high-performance planing hull form; and as you get closer, the donated exhibits will become more apparent and it will look extraordinary. That will really catch people’s eyes and make them go ‘wow!’

So a dual layering of the contemporary and something that, on closer viewing, looks hand-made in an unusual way; a combination out of which a layered complexity emerges …

Yes, there’s a second impact. So it’s very much two-fold: modern and artisanal in a unique way. Visually, it will make a very strong impact; I think it will be exquisite. The combination of woods in the cuddy, for example, is lovely, and a lot of skill has gone in to producing that structure. Commercially you would never be able to justify doing it – and it makes for a completely unique work of art. That’s what makes it so exciting for me. And there’s another notable thing for me: in 2008, in the last Olympic Games in Beijing, my cousin won a silver medal, and with the Games coming to London, our feeling was that somehow we needed to get involved. We spent two years trying to find a way to do this. We were looking at support boats for the yacht and dinghy racing as part of the sailing events, but the funding was cut, budgets were reduced, and things got tighter and tighter. And we found ourselves in a situation where we weren’t going to be involved. So when Mark approached us in the summer of 2010 and asked if we were interested, I pretty much tore his arms off! Or maybe we both ripped each other’s arms off, because we immediately clicked – and likewise with Gary and Gregg when we met up a few weeks later; we instantly hit it off, and were absolutely on the same page. That was very rewarding. So not only is a really fun boat, but actually it’s a great movement to be involved with. And to have let the Olympic Games go past and not to be involved would have been a tragedy for us.

There are so many aspects to the project, and people will latch on to the aspects that engage them. You mentioned layers, and this is a very good way of describing the project. And that’s why it’s so interesting to so many different groups of people. This boat isn’t just about creating something for sailors; it’s for everybody. As long as you’re interested in a piece of wood and its background, the broader context of its story, then there’s something to get excited about.

Gary and Gregg were both in Totnes at the time of the build of Pete Goss’s boat Team Phillips, as I was; and there was an enormous community engagement and spirit around that project, people felt very involved. It feels to me that there’s a trace of something related in this project. In terms of the kinds of hopes and wishes that people invest, the possibilities of a new life in a new vessel for those donated objects, which are like little talismans of continuity, and then collectively an ongoing interest as the boat takes shape and finally emerges in its finished form …

Yes, there is a palpable sense of community around the project. Of course anybody that has made a donation has had input into the boat itself and is implicated. They will have a natural affinity for some part of them is integrated inside this particular project - they are in it. With well over a thousand donations, that’s a lot of people, just at that first level or layer. Then there are the artistic aspects of the project, which bring another wide group of people; and then the sailing aspects, which engage yet another group of people. And ultimately it’s a bit like an onion with all of the different layers. You start with a small idea – engineering meets art and sport in a water-based context - and organically the whole thing grows and attracts different kinds of people. I know about the sailing aspects and community, and I’m confident that those people will enjoy it immensely. And I’m very proud to be involved, and honoured to have been able to create the first bit – the framework – from which the other elements and layers can build and grow.

Simon Rogers interviewed by David Williams, Lymington, November 2011. For Simon Rogers' yacht design website, see here

Photo by Gary Winters at the Boat Show, London, January 2012