James Roy on the Transitioning Role of the Naval Architect


When I was at school there was one subject that I really did not enjoy: Chemistry. I was drawn more to the world of physics and mechanics. Fast forward and having qualified and practiced as a naval architect for 26 years I find myself almost studying chemistry again – urrgh!So what is the chemistry that is challenging us? The answer is simple, carbon, or rather how to avoid it. The responsibility for answering this question must no longer be viewed as the domain of others, it is becoming a question that many professions are having to play a role in answering, whether they like it or not.

The job of engineering superyachts to meet specific performance criteria for noise, speed, seakeeping or any other functional performance criteria is relatively simple. Being able to guide and advise clients on project strategy and technology choices to avoid obsolescence, deliver on sustainability aspirations, and avoid future regulatory traps is more complex, but in many ways an increasingly important skill.

The question of carbon, and the skills to guide future choices, is not confined to our own domain of yachts / ships and the marine industry, it impacts all aspects of humanity, wherever energy is used. As stated in Vaclav Smil’s book on Energy & Civilisation, “Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done.”

Humanity has undergone previous energy transitions, however the one that faces us is the hardest yet, as we are forced to downscale in terms of energy density, no one solution will fit all and we must adapt across all aspects of our lives to different solutions. The innovation needed to deliver these solutions is vast and we are now faced with a bewildering choice of strategies and technologies to pursue, some mature but many embryonic and of low readiness level at scale.Unfortunately there are no absolute answers as to which is correct for the application to superyachts. Many if not most will fail (such is the nature of innovation). How therefore do we become skilled in guiding our clients in the choices available to them? Even with on-point geopolitical insight, encyclopaedic knowledge of technical development across multiple industries, and access to significant innovation capital there is significant risk in making the wrong choices in the development of a high value asset such as a superyacht. Part of the solution is to go back to school, thankfully (for me) not to the subject of chemistry, but science in general, and the notion of a hypothesis; a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

Part of our research, development and innovation programme in the area of energy system architecture is based on formulating hypotheses based on the limited absolute evidence and facts we have about the future, together with varying probable outcomes. Through a long term and repetitive programme of technical platform development we progressively test our hypotheses against the ever-changing real world of energy transition. In this way, step by step we are refining our strategies and independent and unbiased insight about how best to guide our clients in making the right choices.A key characteristic to avoid is that of bias. Where we believe in our own ideas (or indeed those of others) without any level of scepticism we are likely to be blinded by bias. This will lead us to derive a solution that is unlikely to be fit for the long term.

To remove bias demands that we shed our technical egos, we need to stop engineering everything over and over again in the name of ‘bespoke’ and invest in progressive development. We also need to shift our perspective of how a yacht should be configured. The ultimate ‘yacht of the future’ will be very different in proportions, form and technical backbone than those of today. And through innovation it will also do more, while consuming less.These are exciting times to be a naval architect, the opportunity to lead rather than follow is in front of all of us, we just need to transition our range of skills.

Back to the Whitepaper