With his scholarly spectacles, rumpled hair and unassuming demeanor, Gerry Dykstra looks more like a kindly professor than a single-handed sailor. Now retired, at least officially, he spends nearly as much time sailing the high latitudes of northern Europe as he does on dry land.
He was literally fresh off the boat when we met at the Amsterdam office of Dykstra Naval Architects (today headed up by Managing Director Thys Nikkels), having left his 53-foot aluminum sloop in Iceland and flown home via the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten in Norway.
“My wife, Loontje, and I have always preferred sailing in colder climates,” Dykstra says. “The waters are pristine, there’s very little habitation, and you see very few other boats, which can’t be said for the Med or the Caribbean. I think we saw nine other yachts all season cruising Iceland and Greenland.
“The ice can be a nuisance, of course, but it’s also very beautiful,” he adds in a manner that belies the dangers of sailing Arctic waters in a small boat, especially for a couple in their 70s and 80s.
Dykstra is one of his generation’s leading designers of large sailing yachts. He is best known for classic schooners such as the 295-foot (90-meter) Athena and the 169-foot (51.6-meter) Meteor, both built by Royal Huisman, as well as the 289-foot (88-meter) Perini Navi Maltese Falcon and various J-Class rebuilds. More recently, the studio that bears his name also devised the naval architecture and rig design of the 469-foot (143-meter) Nobiskrug sailing yacht A and the 350-foot (106.7-meter) Oceanco Black Pearl. Projects like these have won Dykstra Naval Architects 26 industry awards.
“Gerry is a genuine innovator and belongs to a fraternity of designers that is now disappearing in a world full of imitators,” says fellow naval architect Rob Doyle, who worked with Ron Holland on large sailing yacht projects for Perini Navi. “He has never shied away from difficult or unusual projects and is always willing to try an unconventional solution to a problem. We naval architects envy some of the amazing projects he has completed.”
In the Netherlands, however, a nation obsessed with the sea and sailing, Dykstra is also widely recognized as a veteran of single-handed ocean races such as the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (better known as the OSTAR) and as a navigator and watch leader aboard Flyer, the Sparkman & Stephens-designed yacht that won the 1977 Whitbread Round the World Race. He worked as a professional sailor until 1980.
“Racing was how I found my early clients,” says Dykstra, who dropped out of aeronautics studies in college to go sailing before reapplying to study naval architecture. “In fact, I was my own first customer when I designed Bestevaer 1 for my second OSTAR in 1976, and my own boat, Bestevaer 2, is based on the same design.”
Given that Nathanael Herreshoff ranks among his heroes, alongside Scottish naval architect George Lennox Watson, it comes as no surprise that Dykstra has been more involved than any other modern-day designer in the J-Class racers, which were originally built to Herreshoff’s Universal Rule for the America’s Cup. Starting in 1984, when American yachtswoman Elizabeth Meyer began the five-year rebuild of JK4 Endeavour, Dykstra’s team has gained hands-on experience by rebuilding JK3 Shamrock V and JK7 Velsheda, refitting J5 Ranger and designing the new builds JK6 Hanuman and JH2 Rainbow.
But without a doubt, the yacht that made Dykstra a yachting star was the Maltese Falcon. Built for the American venture capitalist Tom Perkins, her revolutionary DynaRig, comprising three freestanding, carbon fiber masts, each with five in-furling sails, burst onto the superyacht scene in 2006.
“Maltese Falcon certainly helped to raise the company’s profile,” says Dykstra, who adds a proviso. “Don’t forget: Only two DynaRigs have been built so far, Maltese Falcon and now Black Pearl, so the guys in the office here would have carried on doing what they do regardless.”
Perini Navi recently announced a joint venture to develop the sail technology further, as well as a letter of intent to build a 301-foot (92-meter) yacht with a DynaRig—or “Falcon Rig,” as Perini calls it—while Dutch shipyard Royal Huisman has announced a 288-foot (88-meter) DynaRig concept called Lotus.
An obscure German engineer invented the DynaRig in the 1960s, but Dykstra was the first to put the concept into practice, largely thanks to the development of lightweight and very strong carbon composites.
“We delivered four proposals to Perini Navi that ranged from the quite traditional to the completely radical, but when Tom saw the DynaRig, he made up his mind in seconds,” Dykstra says. “He came to my office in the morning, and by the time he left in the afternoon, I had a piece of paper with our fees and his signature.”
The days of a handshake and a signature are over, replaced by binding contracts and nondisclosure agreements. This is not the only aspect of the business that has changed, Dykstra says.
“The single biggest change has been the rapid development of computer software in every aspect of yacht design,” he says. “When I was a university student, we used the old punch cards for data processing. By the 1970s we had progressed to using the Commodore 64 gaming console for hydrodynamic and VPP calculations. Now the digital design tools at our disposal are hugely powerful and CFD has largely taken over from tank testing.”
The market for large sailing yachts also has changed. Declining demand in recent years has led to a number of sailing yacht builders going out of business, with shipyards such as Nobiskrug and Oceanco, primarily known for motoryachts, stepping in to replace them.
“The nature of yacht ownership has changed,” Dykstra says. “In the days of Jim Clark [who owned Athena] and Tom Perkins, owners started with small sailing boats and worked their way up in size as they became more successful in business, building up their knowledge and experience in the process. There’s less sailing culture today, and first-time owners are more likely to buy a big motoryacht that’s easier to operate, requires less learning and has more living space.”
Environmental awareness may yet lead to a revival of sailing and sustainability, a subject that Dykstra Naval Architects takes seriously. Next year, the Dykstra-designed 249-foot (76-meter) clipper ship Stad Amsterdam is scheduled to depart on a two-year world tour to promote the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals; and Black Pearl can cross the Atlantic Ocean under sail without using any fuel, thanks to regenerative energy systems that can run a full house load without generators.
A pet project of Dykstra’s is the Wind-Assisted Shipping Project (WASP), a concept for a multipurpose cargo ship with hybrid propulsion and four DynaRig masts. Dykstra Naval Architects designed Rainbow Warrior III for Greenpeace with sustainability in mind, to sail primarily under wind power from an A-frame rig that can carry far more sail than a conventional mast of the same size. The studio is also donating its time to develop a low-cost, versatile and sustainable expedition schooner for the nonprofit charity Sea Mercy, which brings health care to remote island communities.
“All the technology is available, and we could build a WASP tomorrow if the will was there,” Dykstra says. “The problem is that diesel fuel is relatively cheap, and the big shipping companies are unwilling to invest in something that may not see a return for several years.”
Despite his acheivements and with typical Dutch modesty, Gerard Dykstra has always kept a low profile, preferring to deflect praise onto the team working behind the scenes.
“Designers often have big egos, but I like to think we’ve never had that in the office,” he says. “The challenge was to create a team that could continue even when I wasn’t there. I’m most proud of how they have developed and maintained the ocean values that are so important to me.”
For more information: dykstra-na.nl
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue.