Eleuthra 60: Master of Arts and Sciences
The same instincts that make a winning sailor make a winning boatbuilder, says Eric Bruneel--a man who knows a thing or two about both
If an executive has worked 20 years for one employer and shown a good hand for the business, his decision to take a well-earned sabbatical shouldn't surprise anyone. And if he used that time to write a memoir or embark on a leisurely cruise, it would all seem normal enough. These are the things that bring life into focus. What's rare, though, is the businessman who would take a leave to build a stripped-out raceboat and set off alone, upwind, against the gales of the North Atlantic, as Eric Bruneel recently did. Sailing a purpose-built trimaran in the 2004 Singlehanded Transat race, the 46-year-old managing director of Fountaine Pajot didn't merely complete the passage from England to Boston; on his first attempt, he won his class and set a new transatlantic record for 50-foot multihulls, slicing more than two days off the existing mark.
Bruneel's closest competitor in that race was Rich Wilson, who holds the nonstop record from Hong Kong to New York. He trailed Bruneel into Boston by 23 hours. "Eric had an interesting and well-prepared boat," Wilson said of his rival. "He made good decisions and showed a lot of guts."
Bruneel's success in that race may not have brought him the kind of singlehander stardom enjoyed by his countrymen Michel Desjoyeux, Vincent Riou, Jean LeCam, Bruno Peyron, or Yves Parlier, but that wasn't the point. And while Bruneel's talent for marketing has surely had something to do with making Fountaine Pajot the most prolific builder of cruising catamarans in the world, he seems to have withheld that talent from promoting his own exploits. What's clear, though, is that the same instincts that drive the disciplined sailor deeply inform the boats his company builds.
Going Big, Going Small
Last winter, in the balmy southeasterlies that travel across the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas and into Biscayne Bay, I sailed with Bruneel aboard the Eleuthera 60, Fountaine Pajot's newest flagship. As I saw from the scale of the spacious cat and from several Transat accounts, Bruneel is a man who knows when to go big and when to go small.
"This is the biggest fiberglass structure in the world that's resin infused in one shot," Bruneel said of the hull we were standing on. At 60 feet overall length, the Eleuthera is a symbol for how the company and the boats have grown since Fountaine Pajot went into business nearly three decades ago.
Founded in 1976 by Jean-François Fountaine and Yves Pajot (brother of America's Cup challenger Marc), the Fountaine Pajot yard near La Rochelle, France, initially built racing dinghies: 505s, 470s, and 420s, monohulls all. From there, the yard graduated into IOR Half-Tonners, which twice won the prestigious Figaro solo race. Fountaine Pajot's entrée into the multihull arena came in 1981, when the yard built Royale, a 60-foot offshore racing trimaran for Loïc Caradec. The company commenced its run of production cats in 1983 with the launch of the first Louisiane, a 37-foot cruising cat of foam-core-sandwich construction.
Eric Bruneel, who holds a degree in accounting, joined the company in 1983, bringing with him the idea for a day-cruising catamaran with simple accommodations that he'd designed with his friend Gildas Cornic; they called it the Corneel 26. That boat went on to earn a Bateaux magazine nomination as boat of the year.
From those beginnings, Fountaine Pajot's growth through the years has been steady. In 2004, the company employed approximately 400 craftsmen, delivered some 140 boats (ranging from 34 to 75 feet), and reported revenues of 38.5 million euros.
Yet, for all that, it was arguably going small that put Bruneel on the Transat podium. Following the adage that races can be won at the finish but lost before the start, he hedged his bets early. First, he gathered weather data with meteorologist Jean-Yves Bernot--just as the stormy 2002 Route du Rhum race was under way and many of its 60-foot multihulls were forced to retire, several having dismasted or capsized.
"I knew that the Singlehanded Transat was going to be sailed mostly upwind in rough conditions," said Bruneel, "so I decided to remain conservative by choosing a smaller rig that saved weight and was easier on the skipper with fewer sail changes. We calculated the trade-off in lost sail area and performance and found that it would be less than one day."
As it turned out, the 2004 Transat was a bruising affair that took the competitors farther north than any other race had in the past. Consistent 50-knot winds and four fronts battered the 33-boat fleet. The long list of Did Not Finishers included some of the best-known names in solo ocean racing. Bernard Stamm's Cheminées Poujoulat-Amor Lux lost her keel and capsized; Jean-Pierre Dick's Virbac capsized and dismasted; Vincent Riou's PRB lost the stick and retired; Dominique Wavre's Temenos was knocked down twice.
Meanwhile, Bruneel, with his small rig, was sitting pretty. And he made the most of it, keeping his spartan Trilogic moving fast toward Boston, while others fought for survival or repaired the damage their boats had sustained. Because his craft was manageable, Bruneel was able to spend hours down below, hunched over a screen, analyzing weather patterns and planning his next tactical move.
"His decision to use a shorter rig was courageous," Wilson said, "but absolutely correct in terms of seamanship."
On each day of last February's Miami boat show, between 500 and 600 visitors signed the guest book to board the Eleuthera 60. They were drawn by the boat's impressive size and by the striking appearance that was shaped by Berret-Racoupeau Yacht Design: oval hull ports, round skylights, a large cockpit with teak sole, and a banquet-sized dinner table.
"We asked Berret-Racoupeau to come up with a bigger boat with a large, comfortable cockpit that accommodates different groups of people who do different things at the same time," Bruneel said. "Those who sail shouldn't interfere with lunch and vice versa."
Most of the crowd had to wait to get a close-up look, but once aboard, they fanned out on deck, turning winches, hopping on the helm seat, or gazing up the 72-foot mast. Below, they opened cupboards and drawers, ran their fingers along the douka-wood surfaces, tried out the plush island berth in the owner's cabin, and estimated the contents that the huge stainless-steel fridge/freezer could hold. It didn't take much fantasy to imagine a rollicking party on this boat, accompanied by thumping rhythms, cold drinks, and exotic food.