A Champion Racing Yacht Designer, Chasing Perfection

Juan Kouyoumdjian has become the dominant designer of the ultimate yacht race through cutting-edge R&D and an indefatigable perfectionism.

Juan Kouyoumdjian has designed the last two winners of sailing’s most demanding competition, the Volvo Ocean Race, a nine-month, 39,000-nautical-mile marathon around the globe. This year, however, the reigning champ is guaranteed to lose. True, the race is far from over. There are three legs to go, starting with the transatlantic Miami-to-Lisbon crossing, which began weekend before last. But make no mistake. Juan, as he’s known in sailing circles, will come up short. In fact, he’ll have two losing boats this time. There’s also a good chance he’ll lose and still win.

Juan Kouyoumdjian

Kouyoumdjian designed three of the six yachts in the race. As we reported in “Lessons in Winning Fans from the World’s Most Elite Niche Sport,” four boats remain in close contention. Three are his, including the top two, Team Telefonica and Groupama sailing team (named after their sponsors). If sailing were a major sport, ESPN’s headline punsters would be having a field day: Juan More Time! Still the Juan! Juan Shining Moment!

Kouyoumdjian, 40, has become the dominant designer of the ultimate yacht race through cutting-edge R&D, a lifetime of sailing, and an indefatigable pursuit of perfection that often wins out over his business sensibility. After agreeing to create a boat for Puma Ocean Racing by Berg, he asked for more time to do additional research. But he didn’t ask to renegotiate his fee. “Which is bizarre,” says Kimo Worthington, general manager of the Puma team, which finished first on the Miami leg, catapulting itself back in the race. “He doesn’t want more money. He wants to make the boat go faster. That’s the beauty of Juan.”

When we reach Kouyoumdjian by phone at Juan Yacht Design in Valencia on the coast of Spain, it’s late in the day. Church bells are ringing across the square from his studio. He’s preparing for another event when he isn’t checking the tricked-out Volvo race site. It’s true, he says, he often does extra R&D on his own dime. “That’s how we’ve been doing it for years,” he says. “We want to get it right.”

Building a 70-foot sailboat with a 100-foot mast that can safely and speedily circle the planet is a massive math and engineering problem. Kouyoumdjian, who grew up sailing in Argentina and later earned degrees in naval architecture and yacht design, creates elaborate computer simulation models. “We’ve been one of the firsts, if not the first, to invest heavily in this technology,” he says. He tweaks the virtual hull shape, keel weight, sail configuration and other characteristics and tests the impact of air and water–the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics–in countless scenarios. When the conditions are right, the boats lift out of the water and surf, enabling them to travel faster than the wind, peaking at around 45 mph.

When the conditions aren’t ideal, the boat still needs to sail. Because the race follows a different route every three years, Kouyoumdjian has to build a boat that’s right for the specific race, the route, and the expected weather conditions–light wind, big wind, even dangerous storm winds. His team analyzes 25 years of weather data for each leg of the race. The art is making sense of those numbers. As Kouyoumdjian put its, in a cryptic line that Russell Crowe somehow didn’t utter in A Beautiful Mind, “Statistics are like a bikini: What they show is exciting, but what they hide is essential.”

Eight or so months of construction and millions of dollars later–the yachts cost nearly $10 million apiece–Kouyoumdjian hits the water with the client’s 11-person team. “The first phase is understanding what is actually happening and how different it is to what you thought should be happening,” he says. “Designing a boat and racing a boat are two different things. You have to be able to feel the boat. It requires hours on the water.”

A carbon-fiber wheel

Like any design, the boat is a series of compromises. “It’s impossible to have good design everywhere,” Kouyoumdjian says. The key is identifying–and getting the crew to understand–the conditions in which a vessel performs efficiently. Once you know how to find “the equilibrium of the forces of the moment,” he says, you know how to sail that boat.

If one of his yachts finishes first this year’s race, giving him a Volvo three-peat, Kouyoumdjian insists that little will change for him and his studio. He hasn’t had to pitch for new business in years. He actually turns down projects, which is harder on his clientele than him. “The wealthy people we deal with are not used to taking no for an answer,” he says.

Kouyoumdjian won’t have time for them. He’ll be busy figuring out why two of his boats didn’t win.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug