Vladimir Ivanovich Yourkevitch (Russian: Владимир Иванович Юркевич, also spelled Yurkevich, 1885, Moscow - December 13, 1964) was a Russian naval engineer, developer of the modern design of ship hulls, and designer of the famous ocean liner SS Normandie. He worked in Russia, France and the United States.
Vladimir Yourkevitch attended Saint Petersburg Polytechnic Institute from 1903 to 1907; he was a pupil of Alexei Krylov. After graduation, he entered Kronstadt Naval School. One year later he received a degree as shipbuilding engineer and was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
He was assigned to work in the design bureau of the Baltic shipyard. After the defeat of Russia in the war with Japan and the actual loss of the navy in the Battle of Tsushima, the Naval Staff Headquarters was set up in Russia, which worked out a programme for the modernization of the Russian navy. The Baltic shipyard was supposed to play a special role in the realization of the programme.
The young engineer was entrusted to work on the biggest and fastest cruisers that existed at that time. According to specialists, the first Russian dreadnought Sevastopol, which was launched in 1911, "was many years ahead of the world in shipbuilding." Yourkevitch's famous "streamlined form" was realised for the first time in its construction.
In 1915, Yourkevitch was transferred to the Sailing Department of the Baltic shipyard. He was designated designer of the Forel and Ersh submarines. He took part in the design process and testing of 11 submarines of the AG type. He also was one of the main designer of 4 super-dreadnoughts: Borodino, Kinbourn, Izmail and Navarin. The new shape of hulls provided excellent results on the tests of the models, but the warships were not built because of the October Revolution.
During the Russian Civil War, Yourkevitch became an officer with the White Movement. In 1920, after the defeat of Wrangel's army in Crimea, he emigrated to Turkey. He wholly experienced all the hardships of living in a foreign country, including the absolute impossibility of working at his profession. He found a job as a stevedore. Then, with a group of immigrants, he set up an old car repair shop. Two years later he found himself in Paris.
Even at that time, Yourkevitch was an outstanding engineer. However, he had to work as a turner at the Renault car factory and as a draughtsman at a shipyard. He was trying to convince British shipbuilders to use the hull design he developed in Russia for the project of RMS Queen Mary, claiming it would be equivalent to a power boost of 1/6 but was rejected.
Only six years later did he get the opportunity to work based on his qualifications. He was employed by the large shipbuilding company Penhoët, which had a monopoly on the construction of passenger ships. Soon, the Penhoët company was commissioned to work out a project to construct a massive new transatlantic liner called the SS Normandie. Yourkevitch decided to design the body plan of the ship independently, which played a very significant role in his future life.
Work on the project started in 1929. To prove the superiority of his ideas, Yourkevitch believed he had to work until late at night. "He created his work in primitive, refugee-style surroundings, where the drawing board was the most sacred object. On the walls, on the floor and on the desks there were volumes of correspondence, tables, diagrams…" remembered one of Yourkevitch's friends.
After more than five years of painstaking labour, calculations and checking, the project was adopted. "I had to sustain a long fight: the forms I suggested were so different from the ones that were generally accepted, that I had to argue in their favour to the end. It cost me a lot of emotions," confessed Yourkevitch later.
The testing, which started first in Paris and then in Hamburg, proved the complete and obvious superiority of Yourkevich's model. It was the fastest of 25 models that had been suggested, mainly by French specialists. It struck everyone by the novelty of its hull, that combined a Bulbous bow with the Clipper-style of the top of the hull.
With France initially unaffected by the Great Depression, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique ("CGT" or "The French Line") started the construction of what would become the Normandie in 1931, and she was launched in 1932. But as the Depression reduced demand for transatlantic travel, CGT slowed her fitting-out, and she did not enter service for two and a half years. On her maiden voyage in May 1935 from Le Havre to New York, she crossed from the Bishop Rock to Ambrose light in four days, three hours and five minutes at an average speed of almost 30 knots, bettering the previous record by over a knot, and earning Normandie the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing. She later lost it to RMS Queen Mary, and then took it back before losing it for good. But the revolutionary design of Normandie's hull allowed her, with 160,000 h.p engines, to be almost as fast as Queen Mary, a ship virtually the same size but with 200,000 h.p. engines. Normandie also required much less fuel than Queen Mary. From that time the designs of almost all big ship hulls copied that of Normandie.
Yourkevitch himself was in New York City on 9 February 1942 when the Normandie accidentally caught fire in one of the World War II era's most astounding disasters. He could have saved this ship, based mostly on his intimate knowledge of the liner's ballast systems, but the NYC fire department would not call on him. They shot too much water to the wrong places and she capsized overnight. (The situation was also complicated by the fact that the ship's advanced fire suppression systems had been offline and un-staffed at the time). The United States Navy would later partner with him during what was then the largest and most complicated salvage operation on a passenger liner until the advent of the Costa Condordia incident of 2013. Even after the ship was but a blistered hull with most of her superstructure gone, he strongly believed she was salvageable. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others in the war department felt the same way, but further inspections of her innovative hull nevertheless uncovered damages and other issues in the ship and made her beyond repair according to experts. The idea of putting the former ocean liner to sea as an aircraft carrier was also shelved. The Normandie's eventual scrapping in 1946 was said to have been understandably heartbreaking to Yourkevitch, as well as associated maritime architects such has William Francis Gibbs, who would soon design his own masterpiece, the SS United States in 1951, with fireproofing especially in mind.
From then on, Yourkevitch was always accompanied by success. He managed to set up his own design bureau called BAKNI in France, then opened several branches throughout Europe and finally patented his body plan for the Normandie in Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, the USA, France and Japan. Leading European countries became BAKNI's regular customers not only for designing new ships, which were the fastest and the most economical in the world, but also for the reconstruction of old ones.
Yourkevitch moved to America on 5 March 1937. He founded a technical bureau in New York called Yourkevitch Ship Designs, Inc. and started negotiating with representatives of the naval and commercial fleets of the USA, as well as with private shipping companies. A. N. Vlasov, also a graduate from the Polytechnic Institute and the owner of over forty ocean liners, rendered Yourkevitch financial assistance and addressed his compatriots with the following appeal: "We, Russian-Americans, are very proud of the success of our talented compatriot and consider it our sacred duty to support his new enterprise in America… We view the cause of V. I. Yourkevitch as the National Cause of Russia."
The first testing of Yourkevitch's models took place in Washington, DC, in the government testing basin. They exceeded the results of the models designed by competitors. By 1938, 42 ships had been built or reconstructed according to Yourkevitch's designs.
From 1939 to 1945 Yourkevitch continued his scientific and educational studies. A number of his articles were dedicated to the problems of upgrading the form of the hull, to the ship's steadiness and speed and to the ocean liners of the future. He gave lectures on the theory of ship design at the University of Michigan and in the Shipbuilding Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1940, Yourkevitch started working as a technical consultant for the U.S. Maritime Administration and contributed to the design of US warships during World War II.
In the post-war years of 1954-1957 he worked on a project of a giant ship that would carry six thousand passengers from New York to Le Havre within three days for… only 50 dollars. Two ships of this class were supposed to service the line between the USA and Germany. For several years the American press made a fuss over the sensational project, but it was never realised. To a significant degree the realisation was hampered by the financial difficulties of the customer, and also by the shipping and airline companies that were afraid of losing passengers and profits.
Almost to the end of his days he worked as a consultant for big shipbuilding companies in England, Canada and the USA. Yourkevitch died in December 1964. He was buried at the Russian Orthodox cemetery at the Novo-Diveevo Convent in Nanuet, New York.