The sheer size and prominent placement of the nearly 20-foot-long test-tank model hanging from the rafters in Bill Tripp’s sun-filled yacht design studio in Norwalk, Connecticut, speaks volumes about his design philosophy—engineering first.
But after spending the better part of a day discussing beauty, and bow waves, and creativity, and new ways of doing things, and the seductively powerful feeling that comes from hand steering a responsive, well-designed, 40-meter-long yacht under full sail in 20 knots of breeze, it’s clear that engineering prowess is only one of the many reasons his firm’s reputation as the creators of some of the most distinctive, modern, and best sailing superyachts in the world continues to grow.
It’s in the DNA
Having a famous yacht designer in the family doesn’t guarantee that one will grow up to be a famous yacht designer, but it sure doesn’t hurt. So when Bill Tripp III saw how much his father, Bill Tripp Jr.—the designer of the iconic Hinckley Bermuda 40, Columbia 50, among others, and who was also at the forefront of the American fiberglass boat revolution in the early 1960s—loved designing boats, the dye was set pretty early on.
Tripp spent summers sailing on his father’s designs, but when it came time to go to college, he was drawn to studying the hard science of engineering instead of more “artistic” design endeavors. And he went to a highly respected engineering school in the American heartland (University of Michigan) that’s about 1,000 miles away from the nearest ocean. “Engineering is the language of design,” he says when I ask about how he got his start. “I loved engineering school and applying what I learned in naval architecture.”
After school, Tripp couldn’t have landed in a better place for a young naval architect. He worked as a chief designer under Doug Peterson when the International Offshore Rule reigned supreme and the popularity of sailboat racing in general was exploding. “We couldn’t design them fast enough,” he says of his early days working with the highly influential race boat designer. “He’s a brilliant guy and was also a very good teacher.”
|Eclipse in the notorious 1979 Fastnet Race.|
He also raced aboard Peterson-designed boats and was a member of the crew of the 39-foot long Admiral’s Cup racer Eclipse during the 1979 Fastnet Race. Eclipse was in fact the fastest Admiral’s Cup finisher (on corrected time) in that fatal race. And Tripp saw firsthand how the internal ballast he added before the race (glued and strapped into place) played a potentially life-saving role in Eclipse being able to recover from a 110-degree knockdown—and win its class—in the enormous seas. Waiting to see if the boat would bounce back up (and if his ballast would hold!) was “a pretty long three seconds,” he says mater-of-factly.
Later that year he was hired as the production engineer on Jim Kilroy’s Kialoa IV and he was also involved with other iconic maxis of the day including Condor, and Matador. He even worked on the design of a 270-foot US Coast Guard cutter—but, “I was always fascinated by the delicate balance of weight, stability, and speed in sailboat design,” he says. “And I wanted to sail on the boats I designed.”
Out on his own
Tripp founded Tripp Design Naval Architecture in a little office on Long Island Sound in Connecticut in 1984. His first commission, Breakaway, was a 37-footer that was immediately competitive on the American racing circuit, and his fledgling firm’s reputation for designing boats that were fast and seaworthy grew almost as quickly. Soon, Tripp’s IOR and early IMS designs were winning races around the world including: The Fastnet Race, Sydney Hobart, Newport Bermuda and eventually Rolex and IMS championships.
“Long Island Sound was our test tank,” he says like the engineer that he is. In the early days, he and his team designed a myriad of smaller race boats under 50 feet. “Each new design allowed us to experiment with different keels, and rigging, and construction materials. Seeing the effects of design changes in almost real time on the water was invaluable. We incorporated everything we learned from our earlier designs into the subsequent ones. And, we embraced the benefits of bulb keels early on.”
By the early 1990s, Tripp’s firm was making a name for itself designing bulb keels for maxis like Matador, and Kialoa IV and Condor when bulb keels were hardly common. “We were also one of the first firms to really figure out how to engineer and build a lifting keel that could combine all the sailing performance benefits of deep draft bulb keel, with the flexibility, maneuverability, and harbour access of a reliable retracting keel,” he says.
In fact, Tripp’s lifting bulb keels set the standard back in the 90s, and the basic engineering he and his team came up with then—hydraulic cylinders that are anchored above the keel box with beefy chain plates on deck and hang inside the keel foil—is what you’ll find on nearly all large keel lifting system today. “I wish we took out a patent,” he says with a smile.
Bigger is better
After a steady stream of success with his smaller designs, it was only a matter of time before his firm was approached by a client who wanted the sailing performance of a Tripp race boat in a much larger and more luxurious around-the-world cruiser.
“Each boat we do is always a reflection of its owner,” he says as we pour over photos of his first big commission (Cinderella II, 102 feet, launched in 1992) like he was going back through a valued family album. “And we’ve been lucky to work with owners who have always valued sailing performance and haven’t been afraid to push the envelop a little.” Cinderella’s technologically advanced deep bulb keel, composite hull based on his earlier IMS designs, and powerful carbon rig insured it was a quick and safe offshore passage maker, and was way out in front of conventional 100-foot cruising boats in that era.
Cinderella II may have been the firm’s big project, but the real game-changer was Shaman, an 88-foot-long high-latitude cruiser Tripp designed for an owner who had extreme destinations like Spitsbergen, South Georgia Island, and Cape Horn on his wish list. And since it takes plenty of time and effort to get to all those far-flung places no matter how big a boat you have, he wanted a fast and fun-to-sail boat to get him across thousands of miles of ocean and back—a true “go anywhere” boat.
As a result, Shaman was probably the first Arctic explorer with a sophisticated, and relatively lightweight carbon fiber hull, low freeboard, plumb bow, powerful carbon spar, retractable spinnaker pole, water ballast, an ultra-stable retractable bulb keel, and a mainsheet traveler arch over the cockpit. And unlike most conventional/clunky expedition boats of the day, it was fast and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, it caused quite a stir when it was launched back in 1997. “A lightweight boat like that must be unsafe in the high latitudes,” said the pundits. Its impeccable performance and the well-catalogued adventures in the high latitudes proved them all wrong, and attracted more like-minded, sailing performance-oriented future owners to Tripp’s studio.
Tripp says “we” a lot, and it was eminently clear that his respect for his team is more than just lip service when he was called away and he asked his colleague Stephane Leveel to keep answering my incessant questions. Leveel is smart. He’s French. He’s been with Tripp since 2003. And he concisely explained how their firm made such a successful jump from the innovative yet moderately-sized Shaman into the rarefied world of superyacht design in a simple sentence: “We believe bigger boats should sail better, not worse, than smaller boats.”
That may be over-simplifying it a bit, however, that idea attracted the owner of what came to be one of the first true around-the-world-capable superyachts to combine a plumb bow to maximize waterline length, an advanced hull shape to reduce drag, a powerful, yet highly manageable rig that’s elegantly balanced with a deep bulb keel, captive winches hidden beneath uncluttered decks, and silky smooth mechanical steering (that’s basically a combination of rack and pinion and a cable steering system) that any sailor will drool over.
The 143-foot Alithia was designed for a family to sail around the world. It has stunningly modern lines and a stylish and efficient interior that Tripp’s firm developed in partnership with Andrew Winch Designs. Both Tripp and Leveel beam when they describe the almost magical feeling you get hand steering such a powerful, controllable, and easily driven 143-foot yacht on the breeze. And yet, when it was launched back in 2002, it was called “too edgy” by some who questioned that such a powerful and distinctive-looking yacht could also be so good offshore.
But maybe the world just need to catch up to Tripp. By 2006 when the 143-foot Mystere—a design that shares the same hull lines and many of the same features as Alithia—was launched, it won several Superyacht Awards including Best Sailing Yacht 30-40 meters.
Just as it was with the small boats in the beginning, Tripp and his team continue to use the knowledge they’ve gained on previous projects to expand the idea of what’s possible. Only now, they have a lot more experience, and with the right owner who happens to be female, Italian, and involved in the world of modern art, there’s really no limit to what they can do.
You might not think that the tall gunwales and ultra-minimalist flush deck that makes Esence such a compelling design were inspired by the great J/Class yachts. But according to Tripp, that’s exactly what excited him about being the naval architect on one of the more radical concepts conceived by Wally Yachts’ Luca Bassani.
A 148-footer with no cabin house, no lifelines, hardly any hull ports, and surrounded by an angular raised gunwale, it is obviously not for everybody. But, like good modern art it doesn’t just make a statement, it challenges you to question convention. And according to Tripp, the enormous deck space out makes the boat both safer and easier to sail as well. The flush deck obviously doesn’t hurt stability either. “Nobody called the J’s ‘classics’ back when they were the state-of-the-art boats of the day,” he says.
|Hinckley Bermuda 50|
Just as he’d hoped at the beginning, Tripp gets to sail on the boats he’s designed. He was just returning from racing aboard the 148-footer Saudade in Palma when I caught up with him again after our initial conversation. And he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact he’s opened an office in Amsterdam to be close to his European contacts. His firm has been consistently busy with a wide variety of superyacht designs, and they’ve also drawn the lines of the new Hinckley Bermuda 50 oh so many years after Tripp’s dad designed the Hinckley Bermuda 40. It’s a good bet that the son’s design that is due to debut this year might be just a wee bit faster than its famous predecessor. And there’s a certain beauty to that.
“But what about that enormous test-tank model hanging from the rafters?” I ask. “That must be quite a boat if you need to test a model that big, right?”
“Well,” he said. “We’re not quite ready to talk about it too much yet. But I can tell you however, it’s under construction now, it’s 283 feet long, it has dual rudders, an enormous retractable bulb keel, an it’s the biggest boat we’ve ever done by a large margin.”
What could he possibly do next?
This story originally appeared in the Oct-Dec 2014 issue of Supersail World in the UK. If you haven’t subscribed Yachting World yet, you should.