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The editor's focus

Marc Van Peteghem: naval architect, amongst other things...

21/05/2012

Marc Van Peteghem: naval architect, amongst other things...

An associate at the heart of the most verbose and eclectic architects' office in the world, as regards multihulls; a portrait of a man who is as discreet as he is talented. 

As an introduction, we pass via Vannes, to collect testimony from Vincent Lauriot-Prevost: associate, accomplice, friend, even flatmate at the time they were both at the naval architecture school in Southampton. It is actually hard to draw a portrait of one, without asking the opinion of the other, as their two names are so closely associated: VPLP. We immediately feel a deep respect between these two, and a real confidence. Undeniably the key to the longevity of an association which for over a quarter of a century has certainly had its highs and lows, but which no circumstances, no stroke of fate has destroyed.  "Marc? You'll see; he's a humanist, a visionary," the Golfe du Morbihan resident tells us.

A few days later, we find ourselves on a quay...a stone's throw from the Gare de Lyon. If you don't watch out, it is easy to miss the entrance, as like the original duo, it is very discreet. Crossing the first offices, occupied by an improbable company dealing with civil status archives for genealogy, makes us hesitant. Yet at the end, under a big glass roof, models of boats, posters, nautical magazines and reference works trace the whole modern history of the multihull. A large palm tree, a stylish office for our host, clocks telling the time in the four corners of the world, the space shared with half a dozen associates corresponds well with the man: sober.

He is just back from Bangladesh, confesses to suffering a bit from jet lag, but quickly forgets the time. Between a poster of BMW-Oracle, the America's Cup winner, and a photo of Hemisphere, the biggest sailing catamaran in the world, he wants above all to share his enthusiasm for jute fibre. He hurries off to find a sample, infused with resin, to convince us. Two and a half times cheaper than imported glass fibre, light, strong. This is the current challenge for the association he masterminds, watever.org. Present since 2005, notably in Bangladesh, alongside the Tara Tari boatyard, the creations and the projects are very concrete: sailing fishing boats for the FAO, school busses for Unicef...  His hands get carried away and his eyes are raised to evoke everything that can still be done. In Bangladesh again, but also in Senegal, in the Tuamotus... And even at Lyon, where he is following up the construction of a catamaran adapted for disabled people in an integration boatyard called Voil'Avenir. A humanist...

But let's start again from the beginning. Behind the round steel-rimmed glasses, the piercing blue eyes become vaguer. Fingers run through rebellious hair, looking for memories. At the end of the 50s, aboard the Bermudian cutter they had purchased, his parents roamed the Western Mediterranean basin. At that time, the children weren't taken aboard. They stayed with the grandparents, often in the Golfe du Morbihan. But these cruises by proxy were enough to feed an imagination, to decide on a vocation. After the classic apprenticeship in a dinghy, he didn't miss any of the major classics of the time: from La Rochelle to Marseilles, via the RORC races. His fellow crew members and friends were then called Olivier Moussy or Florence Arthaud (they are only a few months apart in age).  In 1978, his first big ocean race was the Atlantic Triangle (St Malo - Plymouth, passing via Cape Town and South America). It was during this event that, on a stopover at Fort de France, that Marc was offered an outing on the sister ship of Mike Birch's mythical Olympus.

This was THE shock: the ease, speed and agility of multihulls, but even more, that ‘third dimension', the beam, which opened up so many perspectives. What followed? He hides behind the words ‘luck' or ‘encounters' to mask a certain intuition, a lot of talent and unfailing determination. But when after ‘Maths Sup' you are admitted to ‘Maths Spé', you don't abandon everything to go to Southampton without a clear view of what you want to do in life. When you are at Southampton, you don't bunk off lectures to build, then prepare a Val 38 for mates who want to race Lorient - The Bermudas - Lorient, without the brilliant intuition that the multihull is the future of sailing.  

The precursors in the field, his ‘masters', were Anglo-Saxon: Greene and Newick. But when he was asked to design a trimaran for the OSTAR, he immediately called his French accomplice from Southampton. The boat was to be ‘Gérard Lambert', a trimaran with foils (already!) for the OSTAR. Whether in the hands of Vincent Levy or Olivier Moussy, it never met the circumstances which allowed it a memorable racing record, but its performance impressed the initiated.

Amongst them was a certain Olivier de Kersauson, who entrusted them with the design of his first trimaran. Their collaboration lasted for seventeen years. But there was also Jean Le Cam, convincing his sponsor in Formula 40 to build a VPLP trimaran, when everyone was swearing by the catamaran. The future proved them right, but it took a lot of guts to dare to design longer, more voluminous floats, which would finally become the ultimate weapon, whatever the format of the event: crewed Grand Prix, singlehanded ocean race, or round the world record attempt. In parallel, at the naming of ‘Poulain' a lady owner mentioned an order for two 50 - 55' catamarans. This was to be the beginning of the Lagoon saga, which, with more than 2,500 boats launched later, marked the nautical industry. Just as the super-yachts originating from his sketch book would haunt our dreams for a long time: Highest Honour, Douce France, Coriolan...

Although the word will of course never be uttered, the success is total. Without a doubt also because absolutely nothing has been left to chance. In all areas, including those which could appear secondary to certain people, Marc likes to surround himself with the best, and pulls the whole team along with him. From its beginnings, VPLP worked with CEA for the engineering. There would also be Dassault, then EADS for the Hydroptère. The same process of being demanding in the design, where long before the term became disreputable, he collaborated with the Renault design office. The ambition was the same regarding the tools employed. He has missed absolutely nothing of the developments in computing, from the slide rule to the first hull designed on a computer, via punched cards. Today, Marc works on the most specialized 3D programmes on the market, and tests his projects on digital test tanks, developed for the last America's Cup.

But his two passions will always remain design, real design, by hand, and the sea. He appreciates the whole length of a passage. The rhythm which, after three days, allows you to reinterpret time. He says that one day he will have to take the time to go cruising ‘because time is flying by'. He regrets that boat specifications nowadays only talk about the number of cabins, the looks, and encourage people to take aboard the comforts of life ashore, and neglect the moments of pleasure. The coffee in the silence of an anchorage. The moments of sharing, real discussions, interrupted, then taken up again, because you have the time. The succession of moments to be experienced with different people.

Finally, he doesn't only remember the good moments. Considers he has been extraordinarily lucky. Mentions few names, for fear of forgetting someone. Doesn't mention any victories, because "the best moments are when on a human level, something has happened. When through exchanges and understanding we succeed in interpreting a dream." He is proud (apart from a few orders) of remaining faithful to an image, his values, and simplicity. For the future, he is sure that we will return to the essentials, to the original meaning of being on the water. This will be a different architecture and attitude, faced with the sea, a hostile, yet so fragile environment.

Three minutes after we leave each other near the Bastille, the telephone rings: "It's Marc, I forgot to tell you about something really important: a project for rigid sails on cargo ships." Visionary...
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