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Multiplast

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Franck Martin, Jack Michal, Gilles Ollier, Yann Penfornis, Alan Cattelliot. Photo Jacques Vapillon/Windevents.

How did it all start?

Multiplast is, indisputably, the world leader in composite multihull design and construction. Anyone who feels like challenging that statement need only reflect on its unrivalled record. No other yard has produced so many high tech multis: Crédit Agricole III, Jet Services I, II, IV & V, Elf Aquitaine II & III, Commodore Explorer, Région Haute Normandie II, Biscuits La Trinitaine II, Club Med, Innovation Explorer, Team Adventure, Geronimo, Orange II and now Groupama 3.

BYM News went to the latest launch and took the opportunity of spending a couple of hours with team leader, Gilles Ollier, to learn some of the secrets behind this incredible success story.

In 1978, Mike Birch won the Route du Rhum in the trimaran Olympus. It was the first time that a multihull had beaten a monohull and it changed sailing history.

I had already designed my first multihull in 1969, a proa. It went well first time out, finishing third in the La Rochelle to Lorient race, behind Charente Maritime and Elf Aquitaine and it beat Elf Aquitaine, 3 weeks later. The real turning point though came in 1979, after Birch’s success, when I got an order to design the first Jet Services. The design was done, there was a sponsor, but when we started looking for a yard to build it we came to a halt. We could not find a yard capable of building such a technically advanced boat, so we all met to discuss what to do. Should we just stop the project, should we go for a less technically demanding design? In 5 minutes we’d decided to start our own yard; Multiplast was created for just that one boat, but when it was finished there was another order, then another and we haven’t stopped since 1980.

When did carbon fibre start to be used in boats?

Carbon fibre was invented by researchers in English laboratories. It was perfected towards the end of the 1940s, but only used in research laboratories and a bit in industry. In the 60s, the Japanese took up the European work and, at the same time, took it to the industrial stage. Around 1970, it was being used in the aerospace industry and for armaments, but only for state of the art work. It was in the mid 70s that it started to be used on multihulls and, more than anything, it allowed great progress in performance. It is very simple, multis are performance boats, but going fast is not just a question of form, if you have a boat that is lighter, but just as solid as another boat, it will be faster. Carbon fibre is as strong as steel, but 5 times lighter and half the weight of aluminium. So, the biggest progress in multihull construction is in the advanced technical aspects that carbon fibre enables us to create, which is why we have invested a great deal in the study of this material, both as naval architects and as constructors.

We noticed rivets on Groupama’s beams, does this mean you sometimes have to use metal to reinforce certain areas?

The arms on Groupama are constructed in an unusual way, like an RSG, with the top and bottom sections bonded to the vertical section. It was not Multiplast that decided on that type of arm, we have not designed Groupama 3, we just made it and it was apparent that - on the curved section of the arms - there would be movement and this would lead to the sections wanting to come apart. The only solution was a mechanical one, to use rivets so the sections cannot come apart. It is the fruit of experience from Groupama 2. 

Multiplast beams are designed differently; four sections are bonded to form a box and then the whole wrapped in carbon fibre.

Groupama 3. Photo Marian Martin/BYM News

Does an outside designer create conflicts created?

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No, when there are outside architects, they design and Multiplast just constructs. We don’t get involved in the design at all, we only advise on matters of safety, if we believe there is a risk of failure we warn the client. We have had the experience of six giant multihulls, we have sailed on all six boats, we have had contact with the crews and skippers and received a huge amount of feedback. We do not offer any advice or opinion on matters that might make a boat go faster, we only comment on matters related to the safety of the boat and people.

We have been told the big drawback of carbon fibre is that it does not flex?

That isn’t true. In the early 90s, when the first all carbon hulls were made, many people said it is too rigid, it will split! They were wrong. Yesterday, in Lorient, I saw the first carbon fibre boat that we designed and built; it has never had a hull failure and is still sailing today. The thing that a composite structure cannot take is a big shock, like hitting a container, for example. The fact is that there are no bad materials, just bad applications of a material. Carbon, properly used, is just as good as any other material for monohulls and multihulls. All the America’s Cup boats are carbon, all the Vendée Globe boats are carbon, all the Volvo Ocean Race boats are carbon. The problems that have occurred with the Volvo boats have nothing to do with the material, they are down to the workmanship.

When Russel Bowler talks of problems of delamination with age, he is both right and wrong. He is just a designer, what he lacks is the practical every day experience in the workshop. That is the difference, the strong point of Multiplast; I don’t know all the composite yards, but I think it is the only one with this combination of naval architecture and hands on practical experience. When Yann Penfornis was supervising the build of Groupama he would be in the workshop at least once every hour. It is only in boats that you often have this division; I was a big Formula One fan and there you do not have an engineer sitting in Switzerland with a car being built in the UK and, in important building construction, the architect will spend a lot of time with the craftsmen. With boats, you lose a lot when you have the naval architect in one place and the construction in another. Bowler is, however, correct about problems due to aging; old composites, which have been worked, do not have the same mechanical properties as new ones. All materials fatigue and carbon is no exception. With the right safety factor, a carbon hull will be good for 2 or 3 world tours; in the first one there should be no failures, next year there will be a risk of minor failure and, third time round, a risk of some major failure.

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The right safety factor to cope with the highest loadings likely to be encountered is very important. America’s Cup boats, for example, don’t need such a big one because they hardly sail at all and only inshore and in good weather. The problems occur when you get boats like the 60 footers, that have been designed for regattas, setting off on the Route du Rhum; they were not made for it, so they break.

Some people think carbon is a miracle material, but it is not; it is just better than other materials. There are no miracle materials, no bad materials, just bad choice and application of materials. If you design a round the world boat and do not take the fatigue factor into account, you are going to get failures. If you calculate correctly and build correctly you will not have failures; Orange II went round the world at an average of 22 knots and nothing failed.

Orange II. Photo Giles Martin-Raget

In Part 2, Giles Ollier talks about the design and construction of successful performance boats. Read on.