Budget racing

Adjectives like "affordable" and "inexpensive" are seldom applied to ocean racing sailboats, and for good reason. In the context of sports generally, ocean sailing is about as equipment-intensive as you can get, with the possible exceptions of motor racing and sports aviation.

Of course, generations of voyagers have demonstrated that it’s perfectly feasible to traverse oceans in very modest craft; and, in theory, it’s still possible to race offshore aboard a junk-rigged plywood sharpie in the spirit of Blondie Hassler. On the other hand, what most racers want is fast, exciting rides and close competition, which in turn mandates showing up at the starting line with equipment that’s pretty much on par with what the other guys are sailing with.

So, for a sport in which money spent often appears to correspond directly to competitive success, are there any realistic opportunities for boat owners with only modest finances? I believe the answer is a qualified "yes," depending upon an individual’s sailing and technical abilities, networking skills, and, ultimately, the level of monetary commitment.

A boat owner or would-be owner who considers getting into ocean racing at any level should begin with some very careful advance planningall the more so when challenged by a limited budget. Three main areas to consider are event selection, securing the necessary personnel, and time/funding requirements. Costs only begin with the boat itself; additional racing gear, sail and line replacements, communications/safety equipment, crew travel, class association and/or handicapping costs, entry fees, and sometimes boat transportation must also be considered. In the higher echelons of offshore racing, crew wages are an additional and often large expense. However, any campaign that hires professional sailors generally falls outside the budget category.

These days, it’s increasingly common for a group of like-minded sailors, usually good friends, to pool resources on a racing campaign. The simplest arrangement is an unequal partnership with a single party owning the "hard assets"yacht and equipmentand other team members sharing the oper-ating costs and hands-on boat work. Taken a step further, a group of friends may help one of their number build a race boat from scratcha practice more common overseas than in North America. This often works surprisingly well because, by and large, people seem more comfortable donating spare time rather than actual cash toward a recreational pursuit, thus avoiding the potential pitfalls of syndicate ownership. It also doesn’t hurt that race boats tend to be considerably easier to build than cruising yachts due to the latter’s elaborate interiors and more complex systems.

Partnerships and syndicates are, of course, an excellent way to share the financial burdens of sailboat racing, and without question there are enough bodies aboard the typical modern race boat so an expensive pie could theoretically be sliced into small, digestible portions.

Most often the partnerships and syndicates that work smoothly consist of a small numberusually two to four accomplished sailorswho form a highly committed core team. The other, less demanding crew positions can be filled by networking among friends and associates in the traditional way, but with an added advantage of a larger-than-average pool of acquaintances from which to draw.

Thirty-foot magic

Although it’s certainly possible to race offshore in smaller boats, 30 feet is probably about the minimum length for a keelboat that can consistently perform at a high level in open-ocean conditions. This was already evident as far back as the ’70s and early ’80s when 30-foot IOR Half-Tonners became extremely popular with amateur sailors and home builders in sailing centers round the world. At the time, the 1/4-Ton class was also quite popular, but the limited seaworthiness of these dinghy-like 25-foot yachts was too often painfully evident and occasionally brought tragic consequences

Small IMS-oriented boats and the modern crop of "offshore one designs" are much more stable than their IOR predecessors thanks to a deep bulb keel in place of an unsavory combination of internal and external ballast. They are considerably quicker all around than comparable IOR boats and infinitely more controllable downwind. And, despite their lighter displacement and narrower beam, these contemporary 30-footers are effectively larger than the old Half-Tonners thanks to greater sailing length (very short overhangs), bigger rigs, and superior sail-carrying power. In addition, they frequently carry racing crews of sevena number typical for 35-footers during the IOR era.

What contemporary boats and classes in this 30-foot size range offer the greatest bang for the buck? One prominent success story is the Mumm 30, an offshore one-design class designed and administered by Farr International; and now built on three continents. Approximately 150 have been launched since 1995, and the class is growing rapidly.

The Mumm 30 is an excellent sportboat-type design with a single non-overlapping jib, but with both masthead and fractional spinnakers carried on a carbon rig. However, this class really got the jump on its commercial rivals thanks to strict class rules that preclude sailing professionals (as defined by US Sailing) from driving the boat or making up a majority of the crew. By creating a red-hot yet "amateur-friendly" class, the folks from Farr International apparently hit the nail on the head and have since successfully applied the formula to a larger format with the Farr 40. True, the Mumm 30 "Pro-Am" mix continues to generate its fair share of controversypart of a larger debate on "professionalism" in sail racing.

Last year’s Mumm 30 North American Championship winner, for example, was steered not by her owner, but by an Olympic sailing medalist who met the US Sailing eligibility requirements as a Group 1 competitor (non-professional). And, make no mistake, most of the top M 30 teams are orchestrated by industry-linked experts who call tactics, handle sail trim, and coach maneuvers.

Class racing emphasizes inshore round-the-buoys eventsthe clear preference of class members. On the other hand, there is no reason why a class-legal Mumm 30 would not be competitive under IMS or PHRF. Most owners just don’t bother because they’re simply having too much fun with the one design game. Interestingly, this fast-growing class is now expected to supplant the quick, but tender 31-foot Beneteau Figaro Solo in the all-professional Tour de France. (This, of course, will require a relaxation of the crewing restrictions, which have been the cornerstone of the class’s popularity). Base price for a Mumm 30 is around $85,000, and at race-ready it prices out in the low $100 K range.

Other state-of-the-art production race boats of similar size include the Melges 30, the Azzura 30, the Henderson 30, and the Quest 30. The Henderson is notable because it performs at least as well as any, but costs around $15 K less than the Mumm (thanks to the lower cost of boatbuilding in Trinidad where thay are made). The Quest is unusual because it resembles an Open 60 in miniature and was, in fact, campaigned by David Scully in a recent transatlantic event.

There is, however, another new racing classsomewhat different in character from the othersthat holds real promise for the budget-minded sailor with offshore aspirations. Originally conceived as an affordable avenue into high-performance ocean racing, the Mount Gay 30 had its genesis amidst the fanfare that accompanied the debut of the Whitbread 60 in the ’93-’94 Whitbread Race. The class was launched with a design competition in the British ocean-racing magazine Seahorse back in 1992, and was initially called the Whitbread 30.

Both the Whitbread 60 and its little sister are controlled by so-called "box rules," and are therefore developmental classes rather than either one-designs or handicap racing classes. Other than a rigid, manufacturer-controlled one design, a box rule is perhaps the least complicated way to define a racing class. The "box" moniker is a reference to specific maximum and/or minimum values for a series of physical dimensions: length, beam, draft, keel weight, rig dimensions, sail areas, weight, ballast weight, ballast CG, and so forth. As long as a boat’s parameters fall within the box she’s automatically in classno need for detailed IMS-style measurements and the associated computer analysis.

In 1995, Mount Gay Rum took over sponsorship of the W30 class from Whitbread, along with plans to launch similar box rule classes at 25, 40, and 45 feet. By then, however, the advent of some well-organized offshore one designsnotably the Mumm 36, Corel 45, 1D48 and the aforementioned Mumm 30took much of the wind out of the sails of the embryonic Mount Gay program, particularly in the U.S. Still, the MG30 class has been growing, albeit more slowly than initially predicted.

The Mount Gay 30 now appears to have a fairly secure future because it fills a unique niche that the factory one designs don’t entirely address. Whereas the other 30-footers appeal primarily to those who want a turnkey race boat primarily for high-level buoys racing, the MG30 can be raced either inshore with a full crew of six to eight aboard or in offshore mode with two to four crew and water ballast. Racing short-handed in distance races will doubtlessly appeal to some skippers who dislike the hassle of orchestrating a large crew. And, because a small boat is disproportionately burdened by the weight of the extra provisions needed to support a large crew for days at a time, the water ballast solution makes excellent sense for long races. Traditional prohibitions against moveable ballast are loosening up, and it’s now possible to race a water-ballasted or canting keel boat under PHRF in many parts of the U.S. or CHS in western Europe.

Versatility a plus

There’s no question the Mount Gay 30 rule produces a good, exciting race boat. I recently raced around-the-cans aboard the first MG-30 in the Pacific Northwest, the creation of a talented, young designer and boatbuilder named Clint Currie. The boat is clearly quickroughly on par with J-35s upwind in light air with considerably more pace downhill thanks to a big masthead spinnaker set on the fractional spar. In a good breeze there’s no question it will go like blazes, but there’s another side to this class that should not be overlooked: versatility. The MG-30 rule specifies considerably more freeboard than in typical sportboats, as well as a functional interior with sufficient volume and headroom to make passages or voyaging quite comfortable. In the interests of economy the class prohibits carbon-fiber masts and, like most offshore one designs, has strict limitations on sails. Of course, inboard diesel power, water ballasting capability, and a four-berth interior do add to the price, but they are in keeping with the multi-purpose character of this boat.

At present, there are around eight Mount Gay 30s in North America, a dozen in Australia, another dozen in South Africa, and a sprinkling across the U.K. and Western Europe. The first European Championship is planned in Holland this autumn, and the first North American class event at Key West in 1999. These are very modest numbers when compared to instant success stories like the Melges 24, J-105, Mumm 30, and Farr 40. However, the U.S. is significantly more one-design oriented than the rest of offshore sailing world, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mount Gay 30 class becoming a fixture in countries that have a strong home boatbuilding tradition.

In this respect the Mount Gay 30 rule shines because it actively encourages self-design, kit boats, and a wide variety of construction methods. The class is shaping up to be a proving ground for young designers and boatbuilders: no fewer than 10 different designers are responsible for the approximately 35 Mount Gay 30s now sailing. In this respect the new class may succeed in turning back the clock to the heyday of the Half-Ton class when hundreds of race boats were built in garages and back yards around the world.

In reality, it’s debatable whether most amateurs could actually save much money building a Mount Gay 30 at home because the majority of the total expenditure typically goes to sails, rigging, deck gear, engine, and electronics. And, once a realistic dollar value is assigned to the labor hours that go into a home building project, another big chunk of the savings invariably goes out the window. On the other hand, a dedicated scrounger can derive enjoyment from tracking down bargain-priced gear, and, of course, there is real satisfaction to be gained from building and racing one’s own boat. A "minimalist" Mount Gay 30 might be brought in at around $80 K, although $100-110 K is probably more realistic. On the other hand, I recently sailed aboard a remarkable 30-foot race boat (not a Mount Gay 30) that demonstrated the sort of savings that a dedicated do-it-yourself builder can achieve under very favorable circumstances.

Racing on a shoestring

Eric Jespersen is a professional wood boatbuilder and world-class sailor whose racing achievements include two America’s Cup campaigns, a Star class World Championship, and an Olympic bronze medal. The 30-footer he recently completed for himself and his family is a hard-chined plywood hull of his own design. The unfinished project resided in Eric’s driveway for five long years, because work was frequently suspended in favor of a customer’s boat or international racing commitments. However, during this protracted period, Eric used his industry connections to track down some spectacular bargains, including a serviceable diesel, a damaged but repairable racing mast, and much of the required hardware, lines, etc. The finished boat is comparable to a Mount Gay 30 in terms of displacement (5,600 lbs) and rig size, although the design is biased more toward light-air performance. Total cost discounting labor? Less than $30,000!

There’s nothing wrong with the way this boat performs, either. Sailing to a challenging PHRF rating of 92, Eric and his crew were the overall winner’s in this year’s Swiftsure/Cape Flattery Race, topping a 100-plus fleet in the Northwest’s premier event. Of course, very few sailors are in a position to home build as economically as Eric did, but it’s nice to know that savings of this magnitude are possible.

However, if a new boathome-built or otherwisesimply isn’t in the cards, it still may be feasible to buy an ocean-capable race boat on the used market. But be forewarned: the concessions involved may end up being much greater than they first appear.

Multihull options

Perhaps a decade ago, choosing a multihull for offshore racing only made sense for pro sailors competing at the highest levels. For lesser mortals, selecting a catamaran or trimaran automatically meant being relegated to the farthest fringes of the racing community. Very few offshore events offered multihull classes, and, given this chilly reception, the depth and quality of the competition left a great deal to be desired. It didn’t help that many of the earlier-generation "cruising/racing" multihulls failed to perform impressively when competing alongside full race monohulls with expert crews.

These days, the opportunities for good offshore multihull racing have improved dramaticallythanks in large part to the spectacular success of the various folding trimarans (24 to 31 ft. LOA) designed by Ian Farrier. None of these boats were designed as true ocean-going yachtsthey are too small and lack adequate carrying capacity. On the other hand, they’re capable, well-mannered sea boats with an exceptional ability to sustain high speeds in rough weather that is disproportionate to their modest sizes. Furthermore, they are comfortable at speed in sizable waves, even when hard on the wind.

Farrier folding tris have crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific (a practice not advocated by their designer). An F-9A (31 feet) with a crew of four aboard raced to Hawaii a few years back, keeping pace with the 50-foot monohulls. As with other multihulls, they are at risk of capsize if pushed "to the limit" in difficult conditions. On the other hand, these little trimarans can routinely keep pace with much larger monohulls without breaking a sweata style of casual, low-key racing that holds a certain appeal. Farrier trimarans are now turning out in sufficient numbers to get their own one design starts at quite a few big-boat regattas, and there are increasing opportunities to race under handicap in open multihull division.

Unfortunately, good multihulls rarely come cheaplya new, well-equipped F-28 including trailer will exceed $100 K, and it’s tough to find a decade-old F-27 for less than $50 K. On the other hand, for a combination of sheer speed, versatility, and seaworthiness, they are well worth a second look.

Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator