Lunch with superyacht designer Martin Francis
by Mark Chisnell
After looking for a boat and finding nothing suitable, he decided to design and build his own. Undeterred by a complete lack of formal training, he settled on a 14m sloop and set to work.
The result was an eye-catching brushed-aluminium boat with a red mast called, prosaically, Prototype.
‘It went like a rocket, of course it went like a rocket, it had no interior weight!’ says Francis of the initial sea trial. He kept the boat for five years, before his finances forced him to sell it. He hasn’t owned a boat bigger than a rowing skiff since, but Prototypehad turned heads and changed his life. He was asked to design a 25m ketch called Deva, then two 26m sloops were ordered, plus a couple of smaller boats and suddenly, Francis remembers, ‘On the strength of my one boat, I had five new builds going on.’
These sailing boats – many of which were built in a shed in Biot by Chantiers Navals de Biot – tend to be forgotten when Francis’s design output is considered, probably because of the high profile of the subsequent motor yachts. But looking at the pictures and lines plans you can see the origins of trends in superyacht design that have unfolded over the last 30 years.
He was also involved in the racing scene during this period, thanks to his connection with Jeremy Rogers, and subsequently worked on the design of the 1989-90 Whitbread Race entry, British Defender. Built for a German owner, and incorporating an innovative frameless structure, she was ultimately chartered and raced around the world by a team of British servicemen.
For lunch, Francis had picked a restaurant that he had been using ever since he had built those early sailing yachts in Biot: Galerie des Arcades, filled with art and memorabilia. We let owner André’s son Marco direct our choices and are treated to a feast of Provençal cooking. Despite the quality of the food, Francis is willing to pick up the story of his busy career.
‘I never thought of being a naval architect until I did this boat for myself and it worked, and people suddenly started asking me to do boats,’ he says. Before he knew it, ‘I had the four largest sloops in the world sailing around simultaneously.’
It says a lot for his confidence that he took this on with no technical training – but what happened next was even more remarkable.