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Davidson takes a bow

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

America's Cup yacht designer Laurie Davidson died in Auckland, New Zealand on 4 October 2021. This is a tribute I wrote about him in 2007.

If you were to count the many thousands of men and women – okay, mostly men – who have been involved in the America’s Cup, there is only a tiny proportion whose names have climbed to the masthead of the America’s Cup honours board: the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

This year, New Zealand designer Laurie Davidson will join them – and he’s pretty chuffed.

Davidson, who turned 80 last year, has had to display the type of confidentiality usually reserved for drawings of wing keels since late last year when he heard the news by telephone from Bruce Kirby, a member of the 19-member selection committee for the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

The actual walls of the hall are in the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island. Since 1992, they have honoured those who have featured prominently in the America’s Cup’s 156-year history. Many of its occupants are in the ‘late’ category, but Davidson is still around to attend the 15th Annual Induction Ceremony to be held Sunday, June 24, 2007 in Valencia, Spain.

There are only four other designers who have produced more than one America’s Cup winner: Edward Burgess, Starling Burgess, Olin Stephens and Nathaniel Herreshoff.

As Davidson says: “It’s a reasonably distinguished company to be in.”

With his white hair and thick, square, black rimmed glasses Laurie Davidson is instantly recognisable to any America’s Cup follower; so too, is the double knuckle Davidson bow: his ticket to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

Davidson designed the bow – a forward overhang geometry that provides slightly greater sailing length within the rating – for Team New Zealand’s defender of the America’s Cup in 2000. That successful, five-nil defence – the first time the Cup had been successfully defended outside America – remains Davidson’s proudest moment. “Because – and this is the point,” he stresses – “it was done with a boat that was unique and everybody said it was wrong – well, not everybody, but a lot of people who thought they knew what they were talking about. They said it wasn’t right but it just walked away from the opposition.”

Seven years later, an age in America’s Cup technology, the Davidson bow will cleave the water for most of the boats competing in this year’s regatta.

In describing the double knuckle bow, Davidson says, “In my version of it, it lengthens the waterline and eases the initial entry of the boat into the water while still retaining the extra buoyancy features of what you might call the normal bow.”

Although it wasn’t an entirely new concept in bow design generally, Davidson says he developed it largely due to the restrictions of the America’s Cup class rule. “If you were designing a flat out race boat you would probably have what most of them [non-America’s Cup boats] have got these days, just a plumb stem.

“If the America’s Cup was raced in smooth water, if you were sure you were going to race just in smooth water, then I think the plumb bow would be the best way to go but in waves, the overhanging bow increases the length of the boat and helps it through the water.

“The older boats with the long overhang and stern overhang you could say were more graceful in a classical kind of way but the double knuckle bow looks pretty good and suits what the boat is basically designed for.”

Davidson had to fight some misgivings in-house to have the new bow tank tested, but even he didn’t expect it to have such an impact.

“No, I didn’t. But everybody picked it up and it’s been used ever since.”

Davidson’s connection with the America’s Cup goes back to Fremantle in 1987 when he worked alongside Ron Holland, Bruce Farr and Russell Bowler designing the fibreglass, 12-metre KZ boats – he still has boxes of rolled up drawings in storage from those days.

He took a back seat during the furore of the 1988 big boat campaign but joined Team New Zealand in San Diego at the invitation of Peter Blake in 1995. The opportunity made the most of his ability to nut out a design rule.

“Yeah, I like to work with rules for two reasons,” he says. “One: to sort of analyse and try and get the best results out of it, and the other is: most of these rules are also studied by most of the top designers in the world and it’s good to compete against them.”

Like competing on the water but competing on paper?

“I guess so,” he agrees. “I’ve really only been seriously interested in two rules: the IOR rule which started about 1969 and finally ran its course about 1990. And then they changed to IMS which I didn’t bother with because, to do it properly, it required quite a bit of computer power and I wasn’t into computers in those days so I’ve never had much to do with that.

“Then my opportunity in the America’s Cup came along when Peter Blake got me to do the ’ninety-five boat and that’s how I got into the AC stuff.”

In the 1995 challenge, Davidson was the designer of NZL32 and Doug Peterson was the designer of NZL38. Both designers and other technicians contributed to the rig and other details after the basic design was established. NZL32 won the Cup in five straight races over the American Cup defender.

Davidson sailed on the Team New Zealand boat in 1995 as 17th man until part-way through the contest when the powers that be closed the position to people with technical knowledge – not that it mattered. “We didn’t need to do anything because both our boats – 38, which we used in the beginning, and then 32 which we kept until the Louis Vuitton finals – were so much better than the other boats.

“I can still remember sailing against the French in San Diego on a day which for San Diego was rather unusual in that it blew pretty hard and we broke a mainsheet block and [the crew] had to spend some time fixing that going upwind. The loads on the gear are quite amazing.”

In the hi-tech world of the America’s Cup there was no avoiding computers.

“The person who really convinced me about the value of using a computer was Doug Peterson who I worked with in 1995, and we saw eye to eye on lots of things. He was very good with a computer and showed me what he was doing so after the Cup was over I bought my first computer and computer programme and started using it and there’s no doubt it’s a time saver.

“But I mean the computer doesn’t design the boat; you’ve still got to design it yourself but it’s easier to put it down on paper or to put it down on a hard drive and make alternations than if you’re drawing it with pencil and paper.”

Lawrence Karl Davidson enjoys working with rules so much that he has designed an entire America’s Cup class yacht to the latest rule, number five. “That was just for my own satisfaction,” he says. “I’d be very interested to see how it would stack up against what’s being used at the moment.”

In 1995, the IACC [International America’s Cup Class] rule was young, having been introduced in 1992.

“One of the restrictions was a maximum beam and it seemed to attract people and most of the boats for that first contest were getting up close to max beam but then Bill Koch came out with America3 which was about a metre narrower than the majority of the boats and won the thing, so it looked like heavy and narrow was the way to go. We just kept on developing that and getting narrower and narrower and I think this time [2007], all the boats are quite narrow.

“It might make them less powerful with less sail carrying power but of course Valencia appears to be a fairly light air venue and so it suits that venue.”

He enjoyed working as part of a design team. “It’s good to have other people to toss ideas to, if you feel confident that they know what they’re talking about. In the ‘95 team with Doug Peterson I was full of confidence, not so much in the 2000 team.”

In 2000, Davidson was chief designer for Team New Zealand, and other teams were using NZL32 as their starting point but Davidson produced the Davidson bow. It won every race against the Challenger, Luna Rossa from Italy.

Davidson says he had made up his mind, before the contest ended, to leave Team New Zealand in 2000 and it was made easier when Craig McCaw invited him to join OneWorld. Davidson had lived in the Pacific northwest for eight years so it was like going home again.

However, in 2002/03, OneWorld had its controversy surrounding America’s Cup lawyer Sean Reeves. The debate drained time and energy from the campaign and ultimately cost OneWorld one win for every contest: “which made it almost impossible to get any further”, Davidson says.

Team New Zealand suffered similar distractions with the hula. “I think the hula was a good idea but the measurer shouldn’t have allowed it to be built in the first place, and when they did get permission to build it they didn’t shape it right.

“It was disastrous anyhow and of course losing the mast was just something that happens to everybody.”

Davidson had enjoyed success as an amateur designer, including with the M-Class, but it wasn’t until he was 42 that he was able to make it his living.

“A local boat builder recognised my ability and offered me a job as an in-house designer. In those days designing, of all things, ferrocement. I mean, what could be further from the lightweight stuff we build today but at least it got me into doing what I loved doing every day of the week and being paid for it.” He allows himself a Davidson chuckle, which is like a Muldoon chuckle, but lighter on the salt.

His recent design work has been confined to alterations on his house in Auckland’s East Coast Bays. “I’m not doing any design now and I don’t want to have to deal with people. I’m not very good at that.”

The view from his house gave him a top spot in watching the America’s Cup boats training through the summer and – touch wood – if Emirates Team New Zealand brings the Cup back to New Zealand, Davidson will be ordering a high-powered telescope for his top floor.

Meantime, he still gets a kick out of seeing his boats on the water. “Several times, I’ve seen a boat sailing along – not a Davidson 28 which is easily recognisable, usually a bigger boat and I’ve thought to myself: gee, that’s a good looking boat and it’s turned out to be one of mine.” It has even happened to him in Canada.

As for America’s Cup, 2007: “I think Alinghi has done a great job on the way they’ve organised these acts – shipping boats all around Europe and racing regattas in different places. I’m sure it’s brought more public awareness of the event but it’s also been to their advantage in that in the old America’s Cup format the defender just sits there with no friends and designs his boats and doesn’t know how good they are until they finally get out on the race track against the Challenger.

“This has allowed him to keep in touch, design-wise, with all the Challengers so I think they’ll be pretty hard to beat.”

His pick for Challenger? “I think Team New Zealand has got an excellent chance of being the Challenger. Their boats look good and they’ve done a pretty job of training. I watched them out here during the summer and they really worked hard and I don’t think they’re going to have any problems with their boats falling apart like they did in 2003.

“I think design-wise they are all pretty close.”

And did the young lad with an M-Class ever think he’d be drawing America’s Cup champions?

Another Davidson chuckle: “Never, never. No, it was never in my mind.”

Reprinted courtesy of Boating New Zealand.

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