A new golden age

Activity on the world-wide ocean racing scene has been growing very nicely over the past few years, with increasing numbers of sailors, events, and boat types involved. It’s clear that, although certain isolated events have suffered setbacks, ocean racing as a whole is enjoying robust good health. And although the usual debates and complaints can still be heard, there is a wealth of opportunities for just about anyone who wishes to become involved.

Soon after the May/June issue of Ocean Navigator had gone to press, Steve Shidler’s team aboard their high-efficiency 60-foot trimaran Revolution were shipwrecked on an uncharted reef just off the shore of Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border (see Chartroom Chatter, page 4).

With the pressure off, other challengers for the ’round-the-world power record seem to be taking plenty of time preparing for their own attempts. Sid Stapleton has announced a new departure date of March 1999 for his 77-foot catamaranwhich is still under construction in San Diego. Likewise, the British team on the 115-foot trimaran Cable and Wireless appears to be taking more time to finalize preparation for their eastbound circumnavigation out of Gibraltar.

Whitbread superlatives

The new leg-by-leg points system introduced for this running of the Whitbread has done a fantastic job of keeping the competition boiling as the nine professional crews near the end of their nine-leg marathon. This is not to say that the overall win is really still up for grabs. At the time of this writing, only Swedish Match skippered by Gunnar Krantz still has a mathematical chance of beating EF Language commanded by Whitbread newcomer Paul Cayard. With a background in Star class boats, match racing, and the America’s Cup, Cayard was considered a long shot last September when he took over command of EF Language after Whitbread legend Laurie Smith jumped ship to head up the rival Silk Cut campaign.

Since then, however, Cayard has consistently displayed a level of expertise in strategic race management that sets new standards for this race. In contrast, Smith’s more limited successes are a win on leg six and a new monohull record of 449 miles in 24 hours (averaging 18.7 knots). At least five of the W-60 crews are skilled and tough enough to sail for 30 days at a stretch with the full-press intensity of an overnight sprint. It’s a brutal grindwet bunks, icy green water everywhere, and two tons of packed sails and other gear that must be lugged to windward after every tack or gybe. But through it all, Cayard and his navigator Mark Rudiger have nearly always managed to find a way to be among the leaders at the post, for a 1-5-1-4-1-2-3 record, so far. Not all their weather decisions have panned out; on quite a few occasions EF Language has fallen well back. But Cayard and Rudiger have always kept their cool and displayed an exceptional willingness to absorb additional short-term losses in order to set the stage for long-term redemption.

As I write this, the Whitbread fleet is approaching the finish of the penultimate transatlantic leg, and the two overall front runners have shifted to a more tactical mode. Cayard is sticking close to Swedish Match to forestall any chance of the only remaining contender for overall honors breaking away and putting several boats between the two. Krantz now appears more concerned about staying close behind Merit Cup (skippered by Grant Dalton) who has a good chance of overtaking Swedish Match for second overall. With the distance from leader to tail-ender less than 70 miles, and with the fleet spread north-to-south across a 200-mile front, there are sure to be dramatic developments up to the very end. Without question, this nine-month, 32,000-mile saga will have lived up to its billing as the height of ocean racing.

Kudos must go to Quokka Sports Inc. and the Whitbread race organizers for pioneering Internet techniques that have enabled almost a million people to track the progress of this Whitbread like no other ocean race in history. The Whitbread web site is quite complex, but those who took time to learn the ropes often found themselves becoming addicted. In addition, TV coverage (even in sailing-shy North America) has been exceptional. Most of the Whitbread specials will be over by the time this issue is distributed, but ABC is planning a wrap-up on June 28, and ESPN will broadcast Whitbread highlights on December 26 and 28. Perhaps this race was too protracted to hold the attention of the general public from start to finish, but, without question, it has done more to put ocean racing in the public eye than anything yet. On the other hand, it looks like there could be even more spectacular events ahead.

Double-handed transatlantic

The Transat AG2R is a two-leg, transocean one design race contested in 31-foot Beneteau Figaros. It routinely attracts not only renowned French professionals like Jean Le Cam and Florence Arthaud, but a full slate of up-and-comers who hope to gain recognition and top-level sponsorship. As this year’s AG2R nears its conclusion at St. Barts, the north-to-south distribution of the leaders in the 22-boat fleet bears a remarkable resemblance to the Whitbread fleet distribution. At last report, the northern contingent had passed the earlier leaders to the south. And, interestingly, one of the few non-French sailors in the race, Irish skipper Damian Foxall, is poised to finish in the top five, perhaps as high as third.Mini Transat Even more than the AG2R, the Mini Transat has been serving as farm club for future super stars of French pro sailing. But when the most recent edition left Brest last September, the 55-boat fleet (maximum allowed) included no fewer than 18 foreigners. Furthermore, British sailor Mark Turner was consistently among the front three, had the lead at times, and ultimately finished fifthslightly more than an hour behind the French winner, Magnen. Perhaps the French stranglehold on the major singlehanded and short-handed events is starting to loosen a bit.

Development and tragedy

The Gold Race (La Route de l’Or) from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn ended up drawing only three entries, but they were three of the very best ocean sailors. Yves Parlier, Isabelle Autissier, and Christophe Auguin each teamed up with three or four crewmembers for this event. They crossed the starting line on January 17.

Within hours, Parlier’s Aquitaine Innovations had stretched out into a commanding lead that Parlier never relinquished. After two previous major ocean races where Innovations suffered rig failures, Parlier’s exceptionally lightweight 60 with its super-efficient wing-mast rig performed well. With a crew of four to drive her, Innovations fulfilled her inherent potential by trimming more than five days from the previous course record. Parlier and crew sailed 13,205 miles in 57 days, three hours, and 21 minutes for an average speed of 9.6 knots.

Can open 60s get faster yet? Evidently, yes. Italian singlehanding sensation Giovanni Soldini has been working up Fila, an advanced Finot-designed 60 that combines Aquitaine Innovation’s rotating rig with the canting keel arrangement seen on Autissier’s PBR. Racing the clock on an west-to-east Atlantic record attempt, Soldini and his crew were within hours of shattering the existing monohull record by three days when Fila pitchpoled. Tragically, crewmember Andrea Romanelli died while attempting to reboard the inverted boat through the transom safety hatch (see Chartroom Chatter, page 10). Despite losing her buoyant rig during the “crash,” Fila righted promptly once the canting keel was fully inclined to one side. This reinforces what Autissier reported from the last Vendee Globe racethat canting keels are a valuable safety feature as well as a pathway to greater speed. And when it comes to sheer speed, open 60s are nipping at the heels of the oceangoing multihulls. Fila would certainly have averaged more than 14 knots across the Atlantic had she succeeded in completing the course. Naturally, with increasing speeds comes the risk of more violent accidents. However, the same holds true for 60-foot trimarans that are considerably more expensive to build and campaign than open 60 monohulls. For the time being, the 60-foot multihulls appear to be struggling, while the open 60 class is enjoying unprecedented growth.

Among the very newest open 60s are some innovations that may conceivably date even Fila and her contemporaries. Petit Navire was designed by Joubert/Nivelt for French sailors Loick Blanken and Dominic Vittet. She sports not only a swing keel, but an unstayed carbon wing mast that can be hydraulically canted to remain vertical as the hull heels.

An even more unusual 60, Project Amazon designed by Eric Sponberg, has a vee-bottomed hull with prominent chines that resembles a planing powerboat hull (see Chartroom Chatter, page 8). In addition, there are a large canting keel with adjustable trim tab and a twin wing-mast schooner rig. These, and many other open 60s, will compete this July in Atlantic Alone, a solo east-to-west race that serves as a feeder/qualifier for the Around Alone commencing next September.

Around Alone

This four-leg around-the-globe event is billed as “the longest race on earth for an individual in any sport.” It is also the only major solo race that starts and finishes in the U.S. rather than Europe. The kick-off is September 19, 1998, in Charleston, S.C., with the fleet visiting Cape Town, Auckland, and Punta del Este before returning the following May to Charleston. And what a fleet it will be: 25 to 30 starters are expected from a preliminary entry list that currently includes 39 paid-up hopefuls. Armchair sailors can follow the action on the Internet at www.aroundalone.com.

Handicapping revolts

The Newport-Bermuda Race gets underway on June 19 and will, for the first time, be sailed under the new Americap System. This is a simplified derivative of the IMS (International Measurement System) that features single-number handicapping and a secret handicapping formula. The latter is intended to make the system impossible for designers to manipulate. However, after some years of experience with the supposedly secret Channel Handicapping System in the U.K., designers appear to have gotten a very good handle on which speed-enhancing features the CHS punishes and which ones get off lightly. Purpose-built CHS “rule beaters” are cropping up in increasing numbers. More Europeans appear to be favoring the more complex, but also more accurate and versatile, IMS. However, to further complicate the picture, a British-based technical team has set out to develop yet another handicapping system called the IR2000.

Premier North American offshore events such as the recent GMC Yukon/Yachting Key West Race are increasingly dominated by big-boat one-design classes such as the 1D48, Corel 45, Farr 40, and Mumm 30. Without question, these new classes are stealing the thunder from high-level IMS racing. Not only do they offer top performance at moderate cost, but many impose strict limitations on professionals within the crew and/or specify amateur/owner drivers. PHRF handicapping remains popular in North America, but has no direct counterpart abroad. Traditionally favored by the less serious competitors, it has also become a proving ground for new designs that are too offbeat to race under IMS. This year’s PHRF fleet at Key West was dominated by Red Hornet, the prototype Dynaflyer 40 featuring twin foils and canting ballast (see “Offbeat Synergy,” Issue No. 85). Now entering production as the Schock 40, this $160,000 giant killer is a another likely candidate for one-design success.Victoria-Maui: triumph for Corinthianism.

A race that got its start in 1965 as a low-key family alternative to the TransPac will be sailed for the 16th time this June/July. There are 27 yachts expected, nearly double the 1996 race, which attracted only 14. And, in keeping with the intentions of the original race organizers, the fleet is mostly modest cruiser/racers sailed by amateur crews. I recently sailed a day race aboard a fairly typical Vic-Maui competitor, a Newport 41 named Maestro, owned by David and Brigitta Shore. This boat is a old and heavyone of the earliest C & C designs dating back to the mid 1960s. Nevertheless, given a bit of breeze, and in the hands of a very experienced, dedicated crew, she consistently shows near the top of the heap in Pacific Northwest events. The core crew of seven have sailed together for years, devoting much of their free time to the care and upgrading of the boat. And yes, like a growing number of race boats, the Maestro gang even maintain their own web site (www. radiant.net/maestro).

Jules Verne and The Race

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the non-stop, ’round-the-world record attempts for the Jules Verne trophy that will culminate at the turn of the century in the no-limits monster yacht contest known simply as The Race. The current Jules Verne record of 71 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes was set last year by Oliver de Kersauson and crew aboard the 80-foot trimaran Sport Elec. It took de Kersauson five attempts before the weather conditions came together to allow the boat to complete a record run; so it may well be that 71 days represents the edge of the performance envelope for the current generation of maxi-multihulls. That said, Tracy Edwards and her 10-women crew aboard Royal Sun Alliance (the former Enza), had recovered from a slow start to close within a day of Sport Elec’s record pace when they lost their rig during a recent Jules Verne attempt.

When it comes to The Race or upcoming Jules Verne attempts, most observers anticipate performance breakthroughs will come from a new class of monster yachts in the 100- to 140-foot range. Many of the biggest names in ocean racing have announced plans and launched fund-raising programs. At this point, two programs are well into the construction phase: a mega-catamaran designed by Morelli and Melvin for American Steve Fossett, and an ultra-light wave-piercing catamaran with twin Aero Rigs designed by Adrian Thompson for British sailor Peter Goss. Other teams are considering huge trimarans, monohulls, and even a four-hulled (quadmaran?) configuration.

It’s not impossible that we are witnessing the early stages of a new Golden Age of oceangoing sail, because sailing technology on this scale might have commercial ramifications.

By Ocean Navigator