Van Oossanen: ship shape and brittle fashion

In the war between naval architects and designers, naval architect Perry van Oossanen says the architects are finally gaining the upper hand as showy designs give way to good sense and sustainability

author icon By Peter Shadbolt | 22 December 2020

Van Oossanen Naval Architects can rightly claim to be the titans of naval architecture. Managing director Perry van Oossanen’s father Piet, who founded the company, was behind the famous winged keel that won the America’s Cup for Australia in 1983.

The win for Australia was an epoch-making event, not just in yachting but in sport in general. It ended America’s 132-year domination of the cup and smashed the longest winning streak in sporting history.

Today the company is still innovating.

It has produced industry-changing patents such as the FDHF (fast displacement hull form) which combines the benefits of speed and comfort and the Hull Vane which cuts drag and boosts efficiency as much as 20%.

Perry Van Oossanen spoke with Asia-Pacific Boating about the company’s new direction, how, in the battle between naval architects and designers, the naval architects are finally gaining the upper hand, and how foils are set to push the boundaries of hydrodynamics. He also told us about the firm’s most preposterous client request.

It used to be all focused on design and the naval architects came second, but now that’s changing
– Perry Van Oossanen

Van Oossanen’s radical Hull Vane, a hydrofoil attached to the transom of a ship, can bring resistance savings of 15-20%

Q: You’ve recently gone through something of a corporate transformation this year. Can you tell us something about that?

PvO: Every couple of years you have to realise where you were going to and where it was that you actually ended up. Earlier this year, we brought on a consultant and we did some strategic brainstorming. What was important for us was how we wanted to position ourselves and the whole process gave us a lot of insights. It really helped us to refocus on what we’re doing and how to make that clearer to our clients. I think that we succeeded in this very well and it’s showed its results in a new corporate identity and a new focus altogether.

Q: What will you be focusing on? What has changed?

PvO: As a company, we’ve evolved quite a lot. We started out 20-25 years ago as consultants working mainly in the hydrodynamic area. We focused on hull resistance and propulsion only, but gradually we shifted more towards a full naval architecture studio which includes engineering and making building kits for boats. This is more in line with what clients are asking for at the moment – they don’t want all the trouble that comes with a big project. So they’re looking for a model – I hesitate to use the term one-stop-shop – but they’re looking for a proper partner in the project rather than just various small companies doing their own specific part. This (repositioning) has helped us to define what our vision is on these sorts of projects and how we can help our clients.

Q: So previously it was a situation where the client had to run around but now it’s you that’s doing the running around for them, is that correct?

PvO: Correct. Yes. Although that doesn’t sound quite so appealing (laughs).

Q: As naval architects, I imagine that what clients ask for and what you can deliver can sometimes be wildly at odds. How do you balance the competing demands of form and function?

PvO: As naval architects, we’ve made a clear decision not to be involved in the styling of the exterior and interior. We only focus on the technical requirements of projects. So we’re always working with other companies who will take on the form part, and we do the function, and sometimes you have a conflict of interest.

For instance, the designers may be looking for something in a particular shape or something in a particular position and then there are technical requirements that simply do not allow for that. How you solve it really depends on the relationship you have with the designer. You have to find some sort of synergy; with some people, and some companies, that’s going to be easier than with others. But in the end, most of our clients are shipyards that are more focused on the technical side; eventually they have to have something that is buildable rather than just good looking.

Project PHI, a Royal Huisman build, uses a fast-displacement hull on a 55m superyacht

Q: Are you sometimes the reality check side of the equation? Do you have to tell people we’d love to do that, but it’s not possible?

PvO: Sometimes

Q: Do you also sometimes think, that’s a really fascinating idea let’s give it a go?

PvO: Yes, of course. There’s one typical discussion that we always have with designers and others about the space in the forward part of the hull which is where the crew is. If you draw a layout in which you want to give the crew as little space as possible then you push them all the way forward, but then, at a certain point, they’re pushed so far forward they’re outside the boat. This means you have to draw a wider hull in the forward part. If there’s a focus on efficiency and performance, then there is going to be a direct conflict with a wide hull.

We always have a big discussion around this and you always have to find clever solutions either in the layout or in the hull shape. Of course if a designer has a good idea, it’s always a challenge. But on these projects it’s all about working together to come up with something that is better than you would have come up with by yourself. You have to challenge each other but also give each other some space to come up with the best solution.

Q: Where does the client stand in all of this?

PvO: In most projects, the client contracts an exterior designer, and they come up with a layout and everything is fixed, and the client has a certain view of the project. Then it’s up to the naval architect to draw an envelope around it and make it float. In those projects, it’s always a trade-off between comfort and performance – one of them is going to suffer. But today we’re seeing more and more clients and also shipyards coming to the naval architects first. They want to make sure that the project is feasible, it’s efficient, it’s comfortable. We then draw a technical platform and we hand that to the designer to draw some nice curves over it, to make it look good.

Q: So who’s in the ascendancy the designers or the technicians?

It’s turning. I think it used to be all focused on design and the naval architects came second, but now it’s changing so it’s the naval architect first dealing with the technical platform and then it’s the designer whose job it is to make it look good.

Van Oossanen believes the next big steps in terms of efficiency will come through foils, rather than hull design

Q: Your company was instrumental in the development of the fast-displacement hull. Can you tell me how that’s been developing and where you see it heading in the future? Have you gone as far as you can with that particular technical design?

PvO: It was developed some 10 years ago where we’d been working on relatively fast projects. Traditionally people chose a hard chine hull form – a typical semi-displacement hull form – for those types of projects. It’s quite a decent choice if you’re only focused on the high-speed part of the project, but the reality is that most of those projects rarely ever do their maximum speed. In 90-95% of the time, the crews use lower speeds in most situations and a hard chime hull is really, really inferior to a well designed round-build hull.  Of course, at the other end of the equation, a round-build hull or a displacement hull has its limits in terms of maximum speed, so we set out to bridge the gap between those two.  That is what a fast-displacement hull is all about. It’s a comfortable round-build hull which is very efficient at low speed, but still has a high-speed capability. I think it’s now proven – not only by our own projects – but also because the fast-displacement hull has now been adopted by many other naval architects and shipyards. It’s quite a successful concept and is what the client wants from a hull form. As to where it’s heading, we’re still developing it. We still try to improve on ourselves in every project but there’s still room for improvement. We also think that the next big step in terms of efficiency will be more on the side of using foils,  rather than any new big steps in hull design.

Q: So are foils something that you’re looking at quite intently at the moment?

PvO: Yes, we are at the moment. Of course, we have the Hull Vane. The founder of our company my father, Piet van Oossanen, invented the Hull Vane, which is a spoiler for ships. We fixed a steel hydrofoil to the transom of a ship and it can bring a resistance saving of about 15 to 20% in, in certain cases. We have now totally separated that from our business – it is now produced by a separate company with separate products. But indeed we’re looking to use technology like that in most of our projects. Whereas the hull vane is focusing on the aft end, uh, of the hull, we’re now looking at how we can use foils in other parts of the hull to gain back energy from the flow. As the ship passes through the water, it puts a lot of energy into making waves when it’s diverting the water. Our big focus now is to see how we can gain back that energy by putting foils in smart positions to help propel the boat.

Q: Can you tell us about general trends with clients? What sort of things are they asking for?

PvO: I think every client is very, very different and has their own specific requirements and it’s difficult to find trends in those requests. I think in general, there’s a big awareness of sustainability, so for our part of the job that meanspower reduction. So how can you use as little power as possible to do the same thing basically? On the other hand, comfort is also a big issue as people want to be on a yacht but they also want to feel like they’re in an apartment. We’re very much looking at how to reduce motion when at anchor, for example, or when underway and for that foils can also be a major, major step. And then, of course, there’s the ever-growing size of the tenders and toys that need to come on board. That has greatly affected the layout of yachts – where, for example, do you put a 12m tender on a 40m yacht. That’s quite a daunting task sometimes.

We once had a client for a 20m yacht who wanted to land a helicopter on it. We had to say that’s really not possible
– Perry Van Oossanen

Royal Huisman’s Project PHI

Q: Do you sometimes get ludicrous requests? Clients that want to put a billiard table, for instance, on a superyacht or something like that?

PvO: Well, we once had a client for a 20m yacht who wanted to land a helicopter on it. We had to say that’s really not possible. But sometimes certain ideas just won’t work and it’s part of our job to say no to clients and to tell them it’s really not feasible.


Q: But it’s not often that clients are asking you for projects that offend the laws of physics?

PvO:  No, not very often though. No.

Q: What are the trends as far as sustainability is concerned? What are clients asking for? Is it simply a question of distance and speed or are there any other new developments?

PvO: The market in general is very focused on power generation. Do you use a conventional diesel direct system or a hybrid system? Or do you go to diesel-electric? These are major questions that always comes up with every project. It’s often better to ask the question how sustainable is it really to go from a diesel direct to a hybrid system? The gains in fuel consumption are often very, very small and, if you look at the full lifecycle a hybrid system, it’s probably worse for the environment than a diesel direct system. For us, it’s important to stay close to what we’re good at – focusing on reducing the power for propulsion and the power for auxiliary. Independent of the question of how will we generate the power, it’s about minimising it from the start and then asking yourself questions about how to go about doing that.

Q: How feasible are certain things like hydrogen fuel cells or solar power. Are these kind of ill  stin the realm of science fiction?

PvO: I don’t think it’s science fiction but, for example, if you look at solar panels, the power you can generate is still very limited especially compared with the power that you need onboard. Even on my house I’ve put I’ve put quite a decent number of solar panels, but I can only generate in a year’s time maybe 5,000 kilowatts. If you’re looking at a yacht, you’d use that kind of power in just two or three days. You’ll never get the appropriate number of solar panels.

That said, if you have a client who wants to invest in (solar panels) it’s always good to have them because it will always contribute something, but you have to realise it will only cover a very small amount of the total power demand.

As for hydrogen, I think that that is technologically speaking, ready to go. The only thing that’s missing is the whole infrastructure. Where can you get your fuel? Everybody’s waiting to see where it will go, what the next step will be before the whole infrastructure is laid out? So there has to be some sort of critical mass in a certain direction that can really become a reality.

Dynamiq GTT 135

Q: Where do you see the future of the industry in general? Where will Van Oossanen be in five years’ time?

PvO: As a company, we’re still growing and I think we have a firm position in the market, people know to find us for a certain type of project. I do not see these types of projects changing over the next five years. However, things are also developing fast and five years is a long time so you have to be careful but I don’t think the industry will totally change.

It’s further down the track where it will be interesting – maybe in 10, 15 or 20 years. Then I wonder if the motor yacht as we know it will still exist. New technologies could require a totally different kind of yacht; will they still be allowed by regulation and the law and will they still be acceptable for the public?

Q: And you think it could change as quickly as that?

PvO:  Maybe. As far as global warming is concerned, if we do not manage to change something in the next 10 years, then, then the steps we’ll have to take in 15 or 20 years will be much, much bigger than now. I think that the change at the moment with is going rather slowly. We’re using more fuel per annum which mean we’ll have to take huge steps in the next two or three decades.

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