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Beneath the fluorescent pink, the ideas of a fearless sailing innovator

2019 October 1

I hope I’m not too agitated to write my usual dignified publisher’s column, but I have to admit to being in an awestruck state of amazement and bedazzlement. I just read a news release about the new Hugo Boss round-the-world racing yacht and . . . holy cow! This could be the most important advance in sailing since the invention of antifouling bottom paint.

I’ll try to settle down and share some of the mind-blowing factoids I garnered from the news release.

“The hull’s glossy black finish echoes the sleek brand identity of the team’s title partner, Hugo Boss, whose Boss brand logo has been cleverly created from silver carbon fiber and embedded into the hull itself.”

Incredible, and there’s even more.

“The distinctive black hull is in stark contrast to accents of fluorescent pink which can be seen across the boat’s coach roof, keel and rudder. The bespoke fluoro tone is a first for the IMOCA class.”

Wow! Talk about a technological breakthrough!

This PR masterpiece was accompanied by photos of the boat at its launching, which I studied avidly. After lingering over the stunning images of the fantastic silver carbon fiber logo and bespoke fluoro tone, I noticed something else. The shape of the hull and its appendages had a familiar look. In the sudden thrall of deja vu, it seemed to me I had seen this before.

In fact, I had seen the boat before. Not that exact boat, but drawings and photos of an exotic monohull that could have been a smaller, not quite identical twin of the Hugo Boss phenom.

What I had seen—back in 2012— was the SpeedDream 27, a boat with a hull shape, keel, foils, rudders and rig that were startlingly similar to those same features of Hugo Boss. It was followed a year later by a design for the SpeedDream 50, to which the Boss boat has an even closer resemblance. The SpeedDreams were designed by Vlad Murnikov.

I went back to the news release, not just to savor more of the rich hyperbole, but to find a mention of Murnikov. I found this: “Hugo Boss is the product of more than two years of painstaking design and build work undertaken by the Alex Thomson ocean racing team, together with more than 100 naval architects, engineers and boat builders.”

There was nothing about Vlad Murnikov, so I rang him up to ask if he had some sort of role in the latest IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association) design. Vlad said no he didn’t and had not even been consulted by the Hugo Boss campaign. 

Well, maybe not officially consulted, but someone in that amazing team of 100 had obviously studied the SpeedDream designs.

About which, Vlad takes a philosophical tack. “I feel good about this,” he told me. “I can say I influenced the development of modern sailing.”

If that sounds hyperbolic, it isn’t. Vlad began influencing sailing when as struggling architect (not the naval variety) in Russia he designed the 83-foot sailboat that would be named Fazisi. 

How he managed to get the boat built in the then disintegrating Soviet Union and compete in the 1989 Whitbread race with barely enough funding to buy groceries for the crew is one of the epic stories in the lore of round-the-world racing. 

Fazisi took her designer to America on a leg of the race that ended in Fort Lauderdale, and Vlad, with his wife and son, settled on the East Coast. Vlad went to work in the Ted Hood design office before setting off on his own and unleashing his imagination. Fazisi had innovative design features, but nothing like the wild stuff her designer would come up with later.

The Murnikov-designed mxRay, for example. 

The 13-footer with a bowsprit was the first singlehanded dinghy to carry an asymmetric spinnaker. With it, the boat was timed sailing faster than 25 knots. More than 300 of the boats were sold.

That was one radical rocket, yet it seems rather conservative when compared to the SpeedDream 27, a monohull keelboat designed to sail as fast as the fastest multihulls. Its secret weapon is what Vlad named the Flying Keel.

It’s a canting keel, not your garden variety canting keel, but one that cants to beyond 90 degrees. In other words, it rises out the water, increasing its righting moment effectiveness and eliminating its drag. The monohull, with foils, double rudders, long sprit, shallow angular hull and enormous rig, then sails like a multihull flying a hull.

And looks like a miniature Hugo Boss. 

The SpeedDream 27 is not just a dream living on Vlad’s computer. It exists. A prototype was built. More than $1 million, most of it supplied by Yandex, a search engine company that was the Russian equivalent of Google, was spent on its development. The concept worked so well that it led to a 50-foot version Vlad designed for veteran round-the-world racer Mike Golding.

That boat wasn’t built and the 27 has not gone into production. As Vlad put it, “It’s hard to do something as radical as I do with my designs” and turn it into business success.

Vlad noted that for all its similarities, the Boss boat does not copy the Flying Keel. “It still seems too extreme for most designers, but its time will come and that will revolutionize the entire world of yacht racing.”

The skipper of Hugo Boss, Alex Thomson, seems to think his boat has already accomplished that. “We display the courage to lead,” he bragged. “We innovate, we push boundaries and we’re not afraid to do things differently. We certainly are not afraid to explore things that have never been done before.”

Never been done before? He must have been referring to bespoke fluoro tones.

Much of the rest of the Boss boat concept was done seven years ago by someone who has proven himself truly unafraid to do things differently—a Russian immigrant named Vlad Murnikov.