As part of an ongoing series of profiles of Dutch yacht designers and naval architects, we talked to Gerard Dijkstra, founder of Amsterdam-based Dykstra Naval architects
AMSTERDAM – It was a unique undertaking, a million miles from conventional yacht building and design. Gerard Dijkstra knew that Wilhelm Prölss, a German engineer, tried in the 1960s to put square-rigged sails on a cargo vessel to add speed and save fuel. Ah, too soon. The idea flopped for lack of suitable, lightweight materials.
But could it work in the 1990s? On a luxury yacht? Dijkstra pitched the DynaRig idea to US venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the first owner of an 88m. (289ft.) superyacht to be called the Maltese Falcon. Perkins loved the idea. “A leap into the future,” he called it. “It’s as if the Wright Brothers said ‘Let’s skip all of this early stuff and shoot for a Boeing 747 jet’.”
“So, we started a 2-year feasibility project,” says Dijkstra.
It became a Herculean undertaking that devoured 90,000 design and development hours. In the midst of that, Perkins, who died in 2016, wondered why it had taken so long for the DynaRig to materialize. Replied Dijkstra, “Tom, you are supposed to help me into retirement. Not cause it!”
The Maltese Falcon was launched in 2006 with its 3 unstayed, computer-steered, rotating carbon masts, each holding 5 sails, rigged transversely. Push a button and sails are set in a matter of minutes. Push another one and you’ll come about in 90 seconds.
The Maltese Falcon has pride of place in the portfolio of Dykstra Naval Architects, the studio Dijkstra founded in Amsterdam in 1969. His legacy is writ large in photos and drawings on the walls of the DNA studio, now run by Thijs Nikkels. Now 75, Dijkstra retired, sort of, more than 12 years ago. He still shows up regularly at the DNA studio (which spells his name ‘Dykstra’ which is easier on non-Dutch eyes than Dijkstra).
Perkins’ “leap” into the future became a tiny bounce.
The superyacht market viewed the futuristic Maltese Falcon as too odd and risky for value retention. And, indeed, it took 12 years for the 2nd DynaRig to appear, on the 106m (348ft.) Black Pearl that Oceanco of the Netherlands delivered in 2019. It has 3 carbon masts, each 70m tall, holding almost 3,000 sq. m (32,292 sq. ft.) of sails
More will follow soon as the DynaRig captures the zeitgeist of the climate change era. Nikkels expects up to 10 DynaRig yachts will be built in the decade ahead.
Challenging work always finds Dijkstra. Celebrating that famous reputation was last November’s 50th anniversary of the DNA studio. By pure coincidence, 3 very edgy Dijkstra designs were in town then: The clipper Stad Amsterdam, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior with its energy-efficient, double A-Frame mast system and the Black Pearl. They are felicitous examples of DNA’s portfolio of 100+ big class, cruising and square-rigged yachts. And, of course, reborn 1930s J-Class America’s Cup racers.
Dijkstra has always been a pioneer. In the 1960s, a rugby accident ended his aerospace engineering studies. He “wanted to something with boats,” he remembers today, and found work at a British yard building a Gallant 53, a Van de Stadt design. He crewed on its first crossing to the West Indies where he ran charters and learned navigation from a sea captain.
In 1972, Dijkstra talked himself into the 2nd OSTAR (Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race) by promising to find sponsors for Second Life, a Van de Stadt-designed Ocean-72. He lost the mast which taught him “boats must be simple and functional.”
After the 2nd OSTAR, Dijkstra worked odd jobs at Dutch yards – technical support, sea trials, deliveries – studied design and drew his first aluminum Bestevaer. The slender, deep keel sailing craft kept course well “but was unforgiving,” says Dijkstra. “It heeled a lot.” He raced it in the 1976 OSTAR, a helter skelter event of 9m waves. After 12,000 miles, he returned to Britain to repair a damaged but still upright mast. He restarted the race and finished second.
In the 1980s, a UN project took him to Indonesia to develop new ‘mission boats’ that supply isolated locations. Dijkstra set up a laminated timber construction project. “As large trees grew too far from the coast,” he says, “we glued small pieces of wood and built more than 150 ships.”
While in Indonesia, Royal Huisman asked for his help in restoring the J-Class Endeavour. Lacking original drawings, he divined a lines plan from its digital hull measurements. That began an amazing class revival. Dijkstra also worked on restoring Ranger, Velsheda, Shamrock V, Endeavor, Hanuman and Rainbow.
In the early 1990s, he refitted the 55.5m (182ft.) 2-masted schooner Adela, giving the old, wooden ship a wider, steel hull which upset purists. Around 2000, Dijkstra returned to his Bestevaer. KM Yachtbuilders of the Netherlands has to date built 50 of the all-weather explorers that range from 40 to 100 ft. (12.2-30.5 m.) Their untreated aluminum hulls may win no beauty awards but are low-maintenance needing no paint job. Bestevaers have straight bows, a modest interior, 4 water-tight bulkheads and can do 180 miles daily. “What they cannot do,” says Dijkstra, “is plane at 20 knots. But a Bestevaer performs under all circumstances. It has lots of rigging but is easy to handle.”
This year sees the launch of the first a 53ft. Bestevaer motor yacht.
The clipper Stad Amsterdam, launched in 2000, was a commission from the Dutch capital’s city council. Dijkstra modeled it after a mid-19th century frigate but gave it a steel hull. “The original Stad Amsterdam was a trader with a bulky hull,” he says. “American clippers and also the Cutty Sark, had much nicer hulls. I combined the characteristics of up to 10 hulls.”
Another fruit of DNA’s innovative thinking is the motor-assisted sailing yacht Rainbow Warrior that Greenpeace uses for environmental protests and scientific excursions. Dijkstra: “For optimal sailing characteristics, we used the underwater hull of the 90m luxury superyacht Athena,” says Dijkstra. “So, we went back to sailing yacht technology.”