On board the 52.5 metre schooner Doña Francisca
by Cecile Gauert
Montevideo is a bustling port city where cruise ships, cargo ships and passenger ferries disgorge or embark people and cars travelling to and from nearby Buenos Aires. Like many ports around the world, there is a ship graveyard where rusted hulks come to rest and a dockside of nondescript metal buildings with no identifying markers or signage. It was against this unlikely backdrop, in January 2014, that the world first caught sight of the 52.5 metre Doña Francisca, one of the largest carbon sailing yachts ever built.
Why there and how? It has everything to do with the man who dreamed of Doña Francisca, the founder of ferry company Buquebus, which is also the company credited for the build. At first, he had very little interest in showcasing this beautiful yacht and only limited information was available but now the yacht is for sale, so its story needs to be told.
The sun shone brightly on January 4, 2014, as the schooner’s brightly painted hull emerged from her shed after nearly five years of gestation. Knee-deep in sediment-rich water, using ropes and muscle, a group of men coaxed the sailing yacht down a slipway, which had been recently dug out of the red earth. The event was recorded on someone's phone. After the hull, then painted a dark blue, straightened out and began floating on its lines, a flotilla of small rubber boats hurried to her side. Toward the end of the video, a voice is heard, "What do you think? Spectacular, no?"
The rest of the story has to be pieced together from a few news clips in Spanish, the former project management team, naval architect and designer Javier Soto Acebal and Flavio Constantino, the broker now tasked with finding a buyer for an extraordinary sailboat that hardly anyone has seen outside of South America.
The man who commissioned the yacht and wants her sold gave one interview in 2015 to Uruguayan newspaper El Pais and allowed photos to be published in a local magazine. He has hardly spoken about the yacht that the newspaper describes as "the most sophisticated product ever built in the country." The yacht has done a bit of sailing since then, cruising at least once the 180 nautical miles or so between Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, Uruguay, but she is capable of much more.
"Doña Francisca was designed and built to be easily run by a short crew of five using push-buttons and hydraulic-electric systems to control two 50 metre-high masts carrying more than 1,100 square meters (11,850 square foot) of sails," Constantino says. Soto Acebal confirms that the schooner was "intended for hard cruising", "strongly rigged and masted and sturdily built".
Despite these abilities, for a great part of her life since the day she first tasted water, she has been docked in Punta del Este, a nearly anonymous beauty among much smaller boats. It was in this ritzy resort town on a peninsula between the River Plate and the Atlantic Ocean that Constantino fist saw her. "When I heard about his boat, my reaction was I need to see it in person," he says. What he saw astonished him.
"I started talking with people and had a long conversation with Ezequiel (Sirito, project manager). In other circumstances, this boat would have been built by King Marine. The materials, techniques and masts are all by King Marine. The booms were made in Spain, the masts are 50m high and the stays in carbon fibre are made by a Swiss company. The execution is flawless," he says.
King Marine has built many racing yachts intended for the America's Cup, Volvo Ocean Race, TP52 and IRC series and was one of the connections between Sirito and Soto Acebal. Sirito also had been the project manager for Alexia, a Wally 100 designed by Soto Acebal Naval Architects and built by Wally in 2004. "He did a superb job and so I am forever grateful," Soto Acebal says, who also has to his credit a long list of performance sailing yachts.
Not long after Sirito returned to Argentina from Valencia, Spain, where he was general manager of King Marine, he became project manager for another of Soto Acebal's projects, Doña Francisca. Construction began in 2009 but the gestation of the project was even longer. Soto Acebal had already worked with the same owner, for whom he designed 22.5m Don Juan of London, a lovely "neo classic sloop, of course full carbon".
"Our relationship was very natural and absolutely non structured, like two old friends, that enjoy the same sport," says Soto Acebal, who designed for himself the neo classic Aries 31 Pilar. The sailing characteristics and looks of Pilar were a big influence on the design when he set out to elaborate the schooner from a very succinct brief: neo classic, small draft, room for an office.
One of the most challenging aspects of the brief, Soto Acebal says, was the 3.6 metre draft, which would allow the schooner to navigate the River Plate, which flows in Argentina to Uruguay. The owner told El Pais, "When we defined the silhouette, it gave us a length of 33 metres. I told him (Soto Acebal), make it a little larger because it will be my last boat." The eventual LOA, however, was not fully defined until the owner chose a location to build the yacht, a shed belonging to Buquebus in the port of Montevideo, which allowed them to go to a deck length of more than 45 metres.
The boat Soto Acebal designed is a fascinating blend of classic lines, and modern hydrodynamics. "I studied deeply the cross sections above the water of many designers of the past, mainly: B.B. Crowninshield, John Alden, William Hand, Nat Herreshoff and Olin Stephens, all Americans," he says. "On the Europe side my favourites are Johan Anker, W. Fife, Charles Nicholson."
He took great care to master the forms and recreate them using modern computers but took more liberties below the water line where he was, as he says, "aggressive with hydrodynamics and tried to distribute the volume of the required displacement as best as I could". For the underwater lines, he drew from a long line of racing boats and studies done for the Pilgrim project he did with Andre Hoek and Luca Bassani, a 200ft high-performance classic to be built in carbon.
Although Soto Acebal says he does not have a style, his approach is to keep lines simple. "My objective from the preliminary sketches was to keep the houses, cockpit, entrances to a minimum. Less is more in any corner of the boat. I do not like modern schooners with a lot systems, cables, houses, etc... they disturb the eye," he says. Soto Acebal also has a profound dislike of stainless steel ("I hate it"), which accounts for the unusual and beautiful bronze finish on winches and hardware on a sparse and impeccable deck.
The details all work to make a beautiful and cohesive ensemble. Harken developed the high-tech blocks, which look like classic wooden ones, specifically for the boat and they are now a standard in their catalogue. Sobo Escobal eschewed colored ropes and specified the carbon standing rigging be covered with a beige color to match.
Montevideo was not the team's first choice as a build location for a large yacht in carbon. They would have rather built in Argentina, but the owner, a citizen of Uruguay, was determined to show such a project could be done the country where he built his hugely successful transportation business, Sirito says. The first order of business became to create a suitable environment for delicate carbon fiber work.
"We wanted to use pre-preg, like for cars and performance boats. But for that, we'd have to build an oven as big as the boat. So, imagine a 50 by 15 by 10 metre oven that could bring to 80 to 85 degrees Celsius. So that was impossible and would have cost more than the boat. So finally we decided on using infusion," Sirito says. "It's very complex system, but you get a very good quality product, similar to pre-preg and much more cost-effective. I had the experience in Valencia building a big MOD out of carbon, so this was more-or-less the same, but much bigger.
"Little by little we built the mould, which was pre-cut in Buenos Aires and we shipped everything to Montevideo, and then once the mould was finished, we start laying up the carbon layers. I brought a French guy (Pierre Calmon of Resoltech) who is especially trained in infusion just to design the process and keep track of everything we did, because it's a very critical moment. Imagine you put in almost two tons of resin in one hour," he says. "Everything went perfect."
The numbers reflect this. The boat, which was certified by Italian classification society RINA, is light with a displacement of 215 tonnes. As a matter of comparison, Baltic's Pink Gin, slightly larger at 53.9 metres, displaces 250 tonnes. Soto Acebal also designed the Edwardian-inspired interior after a "long, deep, focused study of interiors of the past", which brought him to a number of British clubs in Buenos Aires. The interior crafted from 30-year old mahogany was built by Locapi, a company in Argentina that does fine furniture and interiors for luxury hotels, and the project is holding pride of place on the company's website.
Several years on, the team behind this project has moved on but the achievement of this complex and spectacular build lingers in their mind. "It is one of the proudest moments I will ever have," Soto Acebal says. "A small office in the South that can design a boat like this, completely alone; all the exterior and interior styling was 100 per cent our creation. We hand sketched a lot, then we did two-dimensional card drawing and at the end we did full 3D of absolutely all the interior and exterior houses.
"One day I realised this was the biggest carbon boat built in all of America, or at least I have not found another one, and it was done proudly in Uruguay."
The owner does not speak of his motivations, except to say he has been sailing since a young child in that interview published in El Pais. His biography shows that he has been an innovator in relentless pursuit of the next big thing and that he built his company from nothing. Buquebus recently entered into a contract with Incat Tasmania Pty Ltd for the construction of a new 130m LNG- high-speed ferry, the world's largest aluminium vessel.
One is left to speculate whether he enjoyed the challenge of building this high-tech classic in a country with no track record of superyacht building. The location may differ, but the ingredients are the same as they usually are in creating superyachts: Passion, money and the right people made Doña Francisca possible.