Gianluca Guelfi, the Italian designer of the Class 40s that go faster INTERVIEW

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Gianluca Guelfi
Gianluca Guelfi was born in Pietrasanta (Lucca) in 1988. He designed the Class 40s by Ambrogio Beccaria, Alberto Riva and Andrea Fornaro. Boats out of the chorus and very fast. He cut his teeth in Marc Lombard’s studio and collaborated, even before graduation, with Bert Mauri. Today he lives in Lorient where he has his studio with partner Fabio D’Angeli. In his spare time, he paints in watercolor and acrylic.

Our “cousins” were right on the money. At the start of the Transat Jacques Vabre, among the Class 40s, French commentators on France 3 were talking about the favored les italiens with their rounded bow boats. Those of winner Ambrogio Beccaria, author of a masterful performance, Alberto Riva and Andrea Fornaro(eighth after a struggle for the podium), the Musa 40s designed by a rising design star.


Gianluca Guelfi, prodigy designer

A 35-year-old boy named Gianluca Guelfi, class of 1988 from Pietrasanta: a “genius” born in that Versilia generous with waves for surfing but poor in wind. A guy who on sailboats had never gone but, by studying, understood how they worked. That as soon as he could he went to learn from the French and that now, transalpine (where, moreover, he lives, in Lorient) he is highly respected. And some even fear it. We chatted with him and found out how… Gianluca Guelfi became Gianluca Guelfi(we also honored him at the Sailor of the Year 2023 in the “Innovation” category).

Gianluca, what is your first memory related to the sea?

I was born in “Italian California,” so my memories are related to surfing. I was more dedicated to the wind than to the waves. Yes, I took a drift sailing course, but the spark didn’t go off.

Were there any sailors in the family?

No, I am the son of a Milanese man and an Italian mother born in Libya. Sorry to disappoint you, but I did not grow up on bread and sail….

But so how did your passion for boats come about?

Two things have always interested me since my teenage years. Physics, and the sea.

After CSU, I also took the pre-test for the Pisa Normal. But I soon realized that it was not theoretical physics that fascinated me. A theory can be beautiful. But it still remains a theory. Difficult for a function, or an equation, to make you vibrate with passion. I was more fascinated by the practical application of a theory, and its “craft” implementation. And what is more handcrafted, yet at the same time complex, than a boat? The trait d’union between my interests. Physics and the sea. At 18, after high school, I decided that I would design boats.

Without knowing how to boat.

While attending courses in Naval Engineering and Architecture between Genoa and La Spezia, I had my first real boating experiences. I’ve also been to Caprera, a couple of times (but I’m not a Caprerino!). Anyway, in the basic courses, they used to tell me “Gianluca, it is not possible that you have never gone boating. You already know everything! Also how to adjust the sails“. I knew everything because I had studied in books, and I put what I learned into practice. They would definitely call me an edge geek!

What boats would you have liked to design someday?

Oceanic ones. Not the “big series,” cruising ones. There industrial processes and logic take over, which I am less interested in. I liked the idea of building the boat around the person who would sail it. Skipper and boat are two elements that must work together. And I was fascinated, after reading Giovanni Soldini’s “Nel Blu,” by the world of Brittany and Normandy. Where people built boats in their garages, where passion rhymed with self-building. A different world of “pirates” from that of Italy, where instead sailing is “yachting.”

That’s why you went to France as soon as you could.

I had to approach the ocean, navigate, learn. During my junior year, I wrote to a lot of French design firms for internships. Fortunately for me, I got an answer from Marc Lombard’s. Little did it matter that I did not speak French. I immediately took a house in La Rochelle, close to the studio. In the office, they would tell me, “Know that in the chair where you are now, Guillaume Verdier and many other designers sat here, hopefully it will bring you good luck.”

Eric Levet mentored by Gianluca Guelfi
Eric Levet, a naval architect and project manager at Lombard Studio, has taught Gianluca Guelfi so much that he counts him among his “mentors.”

I learned so much from Lombard, especially from the one who was my mentor in the study, Eric Levet. I understood what an ocean boat was, really, and how to work as a team. I learned the art of detail, the pursuit of lightness from the best virtuosos of construction. As an intern, my first team design experience was with the Marsaudon Composites 34 “Patton,” an IRC boat with a hull optimized for offshore sailing that won a lot. Eric wanted me on board to test it after the launch in Lorient. Sailing on a boat that I had helped “think up” was beautiful. The Sailing Newspaper also reported on that boat.

Gianluca Guelfi MC34 Patton
The MC34 Patton is the first boat followed by Gianluca Guelfi, as an intern, as part of Marc Lombard’s study.

The GdV “helped” you. Can you explain how?

True (smiles, ed.): I wrote my three-year thesis on a Class 40. I published an article titled “A Class 40 as a dissertation,” and it was noticed by the legendary Bert Mauri, who contacted me immediately. “I’m happy with the work you did, come and see me,” he said. In no time I was in the Rimini hills, with a job on my hands.

Bert Mauri, a great Romanian ocean sailing guru, “discovered” Guelfi and entrusted him with his first job. He was onto something.

He asked me to take care of the new composite rudder blades on the Class 40 Bet 1128, by Gaetano Mura. That was my debut as a “paid” designer. Bert is great. He introduced me to his friends as “the designer of the future,” and among many, he put me in touch with Pacifico d’Ettorre, a sailor from the Marche region with very original ideas…

What do you mean, original?

His hydrodynamic theories started from a concept that I report somewhat colorfully: “If sharp bows were more effective than round ones, man would be born with c…. a tip“. From there the idea of a Class 40 with a “scow” bow and increasing volumes in front was born. This project, the “Pacipat,” was also published by the Journal of Sailing (March 2013 issue, Gianluca waves it in front of me, ed.). The render went around a lot, was also posted on the Sailing Anarchy forum and sparked an international “case”…

janluca guelphs
The rendering of Pacipat, the Class 40 with a round prow that a young Guelfi designed for Civitanova sailor Pacifico D’Ettorre, which we published in the March 2013 Sailing Newspaper). The rendering made its way around the world reaching the “upper echelons” of the Class 40, and the class introduced a limit on bow volumes precisely after realizing the potential of this design.

Meaning?

It happened that a few months later there was a summit of Class 40 association planners in Paris. On the table was the boat render (the one you see in the image above, ed.). No one knew who had carried out this project, evidently judged to be innovative and capable of changing the rules of the classroom game. The French thought the British designed it, the British vice versa. Instead, surprise, an Italian student had drawn it! When I said in Marc Lombard’s studio that it was my work, they almost didn’t want to believe it!

However, that project resulted in the creation of a new rule in the Class 40 “box rule.” That is, the beam, measured at two meters from the bow to the stern, must not exceed 3.15 m. This was to limit the race for ever-increasing bow volumes that would have benefited the latest generation of hulls too much…

Meanwhile, after your bachelor’s degree, you return to Italy…

Yes, after graduation (110 cum laude, need I say it? ed.) I returned to the university but my head was in France. I gave all my master’s exams in one year instead of two, reserving my second year to do research at the Ecole Navale de Nantes laboratory…

What was on your mind this time?

I had taken over studies done by my friend Lionel Huetz, who is still involved in hydrodynamics in the Lombard studio today, to create an evolved VPP (Velocity Prediction Program, or software for predicting the theoretical performance of a boat, ed.) system. The “traditional” VPP systems, the ones also used for compensation systems, ORC, for instance, work with three degrees of freedom: heel, advance, drift.

The challenge was to create a much more “precise” one based on six degrees of freedom, while also taking into account parameters such as roll, pitch and yaw. A much more mathematically complex model, but more effective especially for planing, oceanic, and round bow boats, where the longitudinal trim of the boat is critical. In the world of nautical design, the system I had devised has already become old as “static,” but for the time (2015) it was quite innovative. Today we use dynamic VPPs, which take into account the behavior of the boat with the wave and the variable foil

Now you were ready to work in the sailing world….

Between saying and doing lies the… fate. While I was working at the laboratory in Nantes, a group of investors arrived who, perhaps mistaking me for a technician, asked us for a technical evaluation on a project for high-speed sea transport workboats-the goal was fuel economy. The analysis of the design was initially done with the old fluid dynamic method, we instead analyzed it with CFD (computational fluid dynamics): the system did not work. “But if you want, we will re-send it to you.”

The investors agreed and that was how A2V was born, a company I created in La Rochelle: the budget was great, I was earning three times as much as a recent graduate, I took an office above a wetsuit factory. We created, together with Lombard’s engineering department, a composite catamaran prototype of 11 x 9 m with a very special shape, the result of calculations of stationary aerodynamics rather than fluid dynamics. Everything perfect? Almost, there was a math problem to solve.

So what?

This is where what is still my partner and “problem solver” par excellence, Fabio D’Angeli, came in. I knew Fabio because he was a researcher at the University of Spezia and, on the faculty, was a household name for his brilliance. At the time, however, he was working in Scotland, in a sailmaker’s shop.

Fabio D’Angeli is the partner of Gianluca Guelfi. An overpowering mind, he does not like to be seen too much. “You give him a problem, he solves it for you,” Gianluca says.

I called him, he immediately agreed to come to La Rochelle: since the problem to be solved was hydrodynamic, I found at great expense a Soviet fluid dynamics book dating back to the Cold War, concerning ekranoplanes (Russian aircraft made to fly on water, a link between the seaplane and the hydrofoil, ed.) In that book was the solution, and Fabio found it in less than a month.

Soviet ekranoplanes were the inspiration for the workboats designed by Guelfi and D’Angeli.

We brewed the design: going into the field of aerodynamics, with the boat lifted by the apparent wind, you can make it more efficient in terms of load bearing. If in water 5 kg of load generates a resistance of 1 kg, in air the same resistance is generated by 30 kg. Our prototype was 6 times more efficient than a “traditional boat.”

The prototype work boat designed by Gianluca Guelfi and Fabio D’Angeli when they worked for A2V.

Of these workboats, we made two 12-meter boats, one 20-meter boat, and the design for a 25-meter boat: the winning idea had been to bring on the aerodynamics the weight of the boats, taking advantage of the motorboat-derived step hulls. I managed to show our project to all the big names in powerboating before they left us-Fabio Buzzi, Franco Harrauer, and even Renato Sonny Levi.

But how did you get back, then, into the sailing world?

One of these A2V boats went into operation in Gabon. He had a technical problem, and I had to fly to Africa to fix it. I thought our boats had a positive impact on shipping and the environment because they consumed less. Instead, I discovered that the world does not work that way.

Increases in technical efficiency result in an increase in human pollution capacity. Our boats allowed us to go for oil even further inland in Gabon, up the river. Then I said no more. I had already opposed the use of our technology for military purposes. But it really was too much. Just replace oil with ivory, and I felt like I was in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I decided that I would go back-or rather, I would start for real-to design sailboats. The ones that I liked. And Ambrose Beccaria, Bogi, was fundamental for me.

How?

I knew that this Italian guy who had recovered a broken-down Mini in Portugal and put it back together with his own hands had arrived in La Rochelle. In La Rochelle he was sleeping in the boat, I told him, “Come to my place, I have an extra bed.” He came with the dog and the girl. I immediately intuited that he was a thoroughbred horse, a very strong sailor capable of writing the history of the sport. And that she would be the right person to build a boat around. We hung out a lot, I got to know his characteristics and skills. I was lucky enough to sail with him at the prologue of the Mini Transat (the one in 2019, won by Ambrose, ed.).

Gianluca Guelfi designer
Ambrose’s first refurbished Mini after the boat wrecked at the previous Transat with another skipper.

Thus was born the Musa 40 AllaGrande?

He told me about his plans and the partners involved. Initially I was planning to build the boat in cooperation with Lombard but then we decided to go out on our own. We decided, because the first thing I did was to ask Fabio to follow me and leave A2V.

AllaGrande, created by San Giorgio Marine in Genoa, is built for Bogi and is based on its features. We understood that the Mach 4s (the now penultimate generation of Class 40s, ed.) had come to full power because they used the old stern forms. Paradoxically, to make the boat easier to carry, with a boat with a round bow, it is on the stern that you have to intervene. We did a lot of work in CFD, proceeding “step by step” and asking for continuous feedback from Ambrose.

Allagrande Pirelli by Ambrogio Beccaria
Allagrande Pirelli by Ambrogio Beccaria, boat designed by Musa 40.

How satisfying to see him at Route du Rhum, second in the first race! My other Class 40s are designed to skipper size. Alberto Riva’s is made to sail more “battened” than Bolina (Bogi, on the other hand, likes to sail more leaning), Andrea Fornaro’s is more like AllaGrande. And soon the 40′ will also come for Peter Luciani.

Andrea Fornaro
Influence2 by Andrea Fornaro, the other Muse 40.

Do you have other projects in mind?

I am working on some refits of polar expedition boats (one is the 28 m Paratì II) and I do not exclude, in the future, dealing with one-offs.

The polar expedition boat “Paratí II” equipped to take on the Arctic and Antarctic
of which Gianluca Guelfi is overseeing the refit. Is 28 meters long.

Your myth designer?

Herreshoff. He made it all up.

Guelfi and D’Angeli’s “cruising” Musa 40 uses a futuristic deckhouse that runs all the way to the bow to increase space below deck. “I don’t want to design mass-produced boats; that’s not my world,” Guelfi explains. “But this is a semi-custom and might appeal to a certain type of sports owner.”

The most beautiful boat in the history of sailing?

I do Italian. The Amerigo Vespucci (I sailed on it, show!). And the French: the Helium 980, my boat. A 32-foot displacement by master Jacques Fauroux.

Eugene Ruocco


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