Lunch with superyacht designer Martin Francis
by Mark Chisnell
More soberly, Francis also caught the sailing bug, and bought his first sailboat, a small single-handed MiniSail that pre-dated the Laser, which he sailed and raced around London’s lakes, rivers and reservoirs.
‘I was looking through a sailing magazine one day and there was a picture of a Halcyon 27 under a stormy sky at Burnham-on-Crouch,’ says Francis, ‘and it just flipped something I thought it must be really nice doing keelboat sailing. So with my then wife we decided to learn to sail and went on this course.’
After he returned from the rock ’n’ roll adventure and went back to engineering and architecture, the couple got an Invicta 26, a Folkboat derivative designed by EG van de Stadt. Francis bought the hull mouldings from Tylers and finished it with his wife, working weekends in a Poole boatyard, then successfully raced it with a friend at Poole Yacht Club. Although an aborted trip to the Mediterranean via the French canals got no further than a collision with a barge on the first night.
The Invicta 26 was followed by a Contessa 32 that cost £7,500, and was sold six years later for almost double. That may reflect more the economics of the early- to mid-1970s, with the oil shock and subsequent inflation, than about the value of Jeremy Rogers’ wonderful creation. The same economic malaise drove the next twist in Francis’s career. In 1975, with projects on hold or cancelled all around him, he and his wife took their young family to live closer to her parents on the French/Italian border.
While Francis was in Antibes, modifying a Contessa 35 ahead of the One Ton Cup, that the door opened to the next career twist
In France, Francis worked as a sales agent for Contessa – he had sailed his boat down there solo – but it wasn’t easy. ‘It wasn’t my thing at all,’ he remembers. In 1977 just talking to England meant travelling to Antibes and sending a telex asking them to call you back. But it was while he was in Antibes, modifying a Contessa 35 ahead of the One Ton Cup, that the door opened to the next career twist.
Francis was approached by a mast-maker who was short of staff. Francis accepted the offer and found himself working on the rigs for two French entries to the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World Race. One was 33 Export, led by a 23-year-old Alain Gabbay, the youngest skipper in the race.
The boat broke the mast on the first leg, and Francis went to South Africa to help with the repairs, and then on to New Zealand for more service and support work. By the time this adventure ended, business was still slow in France.
‘My wife said wouldn’t it be a nice idea to sail around the world,’ Francis says.