Thinking small

To get a leg up in the single-handing game, talented sailors from this side of the Atlantic may need to think small.

It’s hardly a secret that the upper echelons of solo/short-handed ocean racing are dominated by French sailors, and even the exceptions hail mainly from European countries. It’s also no secret that this has come about because by far the largest, most enthusiastic audiences for this sort of adventuring are in France. Likewise, a majority of the major events, as well as the sailors themselves, are sponsored either by French companies or by international firms with major markets in that country.

Unlike the other major single-handed marathons, Around Alone has its roots on our side of the Atlantic. It is also considerably more cosmopolitan than the French-dominated events, having attracted entries from a total of 18 countries since the first BOC Challenge was held in 1982-’83. Until now, Around Alone has been organized and based in the United States, but about a year ago, Clipper Ventures, a British sailing promotional firm headed by Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, took over the reins. The circumnavigation now incorporates a fifth leg for a U.K. stopover at Torbay, but the start and finish remain in the United States. Indeed, eight of the 19 official entries are from the United States or Canada, supplemented by one entry from Bermuda and another from the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the five previous BOC/Around Alone races, nearly a third of all competitors have hailed from the United States alone, making this race the exception to the rule in terms of American content.

Unfortunately, its not realistic to expect the podium prospects of the North American entries to reflect their numerical strength, and the principle reason is obvious. Mounting a truly competitive campaign for a major solo race like Around Alone necessitates securing major funding at least three years before the start. When funds are scarce and late in coming, the sailor and his/her support team find themselves constantly behind the eightball, frantically chasing those critical bucks when precious time should be going to boat prep and on-water training. For North American hopefuls, this predicament has always been par for the course.

So, come Sept. 15, the handful of American die-hards who cross the Around Alone starting line in New York Harbor will have already overcome enormous obstacles. As the race unfolds, the costs of boat maintenance, sail replacements and shore-team expenses at the four far-flung stopovers will put marginally funded competitors at a further disadvantage.

Observing the endless fund-raising frustrations of demonstrably talented U.S. soloists — such as Brad van Liew and Bruce Schwab — I can’t help wondering whether more Americans might achieve their solo racing dreams if they approached the game with a “bottom-up” strategy. Of course, boats of 40 feet or less obviously lack the prestige of Open 50s and 60s. On the other hand, the much lower costs of a “small boat” campaign will, in some cases, make self-financing a realistic scenario (or at any rate, greatly improve the chances of securing adequate sponsorship). Moreover, by going toe-to-toe with high-caliber European sailors on a reasonably level playing field, our local talent might be better able to demonstrate competitive potential and thus impress prospective sponsors.

New Figaro boat for 2003

Many of the French ocean-racing stars launched their single-handing careers on the famous Figaro circuit — currently a demanding 10-event menu of crewed, double-handed and solo events, over distances ranging from round-the-cans to trans-Atlantic. La Solitaire du Figaro, the marquee event, is a single-handed four-leg solo race from France to Ireland to Spain and back.

The Finistere Course au Large is a professional racing school for single-handers, based in Port la Foret on the coast of Brittany. French government and various local authorities chip in to support the school and provide “scholarships” to promising young sailors. All in all, it’s not unlike the high-performance training centers that some countries operate for their Olympic athletes. In this case, however, the training is sometimes offered to qualified foreign sailors, because the Figaro Association is keen to develop an international following. “Figarists” attending the Finistere Course au Large learn everything from weather routing to sleep management and perfect their boat-handling skills through countless hours of short-course racing. According to Canadian Roberta Holden — the only North American sailor since the late Jerry Roufs to have taken the Figaro route into high-level single-handing — it’s this intensive training that makes the experience particularly valuable. Many of the world’s most famous single-handers participate as coaches, and some return year after year to race in the Figaro.

For better or worse, once this current racing season is over, the price of a Figaro campaign will be going up. Next season, the existing 12-year-old Figaro-Beneteau One Design will be replaced by a larger, more sophisticated boat equipped with a carbon rig. As before, the new boat is a factory one-design controlled by the world’s largest sailboat manufacturer. So far, it’s a strictly European project with no plans to build at the U.S. Beneteau plant in South Carolina.

After reviewing proposals from various designers, Beneteau and the officers of the Figaro Association chose Marc Lombard to draft their new raceboat. Lombard has made a thoughtful effort to reconcile some contradictory points of view; and the results fall somewhere between an Open-type offshore boat and a modern short-course racer. In fact, the new Figaro boat is intended to fulfill both roles and will be offered as an all-around one-design after the 50 or so orders for next year’s Figaro have been filled.

Based on information from Marc Lombard’s office, the new boat will be bigger than its predecessor, mainly because class organizers have specified a yacht that meets the European Economic Community’s 3-ton-displacement minimum for a Category A (unlimited offshore use). This means that special navigational dispensations will no longer be needed for the longer ocean races. However, to obtain the desired level of performance, the extra weight requires a longer, wider platform and a substantially bigger rig. The downside, of course, is higher cost: an estimated $100,000 for the basic boat, less sails and electronics. In the past, fully equipped, competitive Figaro boats could be had for about half this amount.

For the sake of simplicity, The new Figaro-Beneteau One Design employs a fixed-bulb keel and 250 liters of water ballast per side, rather than a canting ballast system. Construction is “medium-tech”: vacuum-infused balsa sandwich using vinylester resin and stitched E-glass rovings. The process is similar to the SCRIMP (Seemann Composites resin infusion molding process) technology used by Tillotson-Pearson of Rhode Island to build the well-known J/Boats. By contrast, the original Figaro One Design was a single-skin boat, and some shore crews have expressed concern that the change to cored construction will mean more difficult, time-consuming collision repairs. Naturally, cored construction contributes to the higher cost, but the weight savings were deemed essential to achieve the weight targets and desired level of performance.

The Figaro-Beneteau 2003 is a wide-sterned boat, but with a more rounded bottom and narrower waterline beam than a typical Open Class design. Twin rudders are controlled via a belowdecks linkage, allowing the traveler to be located behind tiller for maximum space in the working cockpit. A large compartment beneath the cockpit houses the 18-hp diesel, batteries, fuel tank, ballast water pump and other auxiliary equipment. The interior is Spartan, but functional, with four pipe berths aft and two bench seats alongside the companionway. The main cabin is dominated by a forward-facing nav module mounted on the main bulkhead. The keel root socket is neatly hidden beneath the navigator’s bench, and all navigational electronics are situated far forward of the companionway hatch, where they stand the best chance of remaining dry.

With the pending change to a more costly (albeit exciting) boat, does a Figaro campaign continue to make sense for the aspiring single-hander from this continent? The same money could, for example, buy one of Beneteau’s newly introduced First 36.7s — a much larger, Farr-designed racer/cruiser with a luxurious interior and excellent prospects for widespread one-design activity. On the other hand, even after the price increase, the Figaro option is clearly still among the more cost-efficient ways to tackle the single-hand game and learn from some of the best in the business along the way. For those with the necessary French language skills and other resources to consider this route, the official Figaro-Beneteau website is

Mini 6.5 Class

The 22-foot Mini Class is another predominantly French phenomenon and the other principle avenue into high-level solo racing. These wild little machines come in two flavors: prototypes, which are highly technical developmental machines with all sorts of go-fast features, such as swing keels and multiple daggerboards; and the Serie Classe for production boats that conform to the Mini Class rules. State-of-the-art protos feature advanced materials, high-tech boatbuilding and many custom features. They are far from cheap. Realistically, it takes over $100,000 and a great deal of time to get a new proto built, sorted out and equipped to race. On the other hand, used Minis are frequently up for sale anywhere between 20 to 80 percent of replacement value. Top finishers in the Mini Transat race frequently sell their meticulously prepared boats when they move on to bigger sailing projects. But even with a used proto, a sailor from North America will likely need at least $200,000 to conduct a comprehensive, season-long Mini program out of France.

Although none of the production-built Minis have so far caught on outside of France, this approach to Mini racing looks like a promising alternative to the delicate, custom-built protos. Several designs qualify for production-class status, but the most modern and popular is a boat called the Pogo — a one-design, derived from the 1993 Transat winner Amnesty International. This is a fixed-keel, water-ballasted boat with twin rudders and a solid fiberglass hull. Off the wind in light or medium conditions, the protos are quicker, but upwind, the Pogos are often right on the pace. Used-boat prices range from $30,000 to $45,000, and new or kit boats are available (manufacturer’s website This class would lend itself nicely to a team approach with two or more friends buying boats abroad, shipping them back and practicing extensively on home waters, heading to Europe for the big show.

Mini racers, like other single-handers, form a closely knit community with the activity centered in western France. Just as for Figaro racing, anyone thinking of getting involved should brush up on their sailing French and prepare to spend significant time abroad. Those interested in learning more should check the official class website, or Leo Voorneveld’s comprehensive English-language Mini site at www.

Seagoing sportboats

For those with a hankering to try some long-distance solo- or double-handed racing, but no serious thoughts of challenging the top pros on their own turf, the list of options becomes considerably longer.

Rugged veteran lightweights, such as the Olson 30 and Hobie 33, are often available for under $20,000. These early ULDBs make good choices for some of the longer races, such as the Bermuda 1-2 and the single-handed TransPac, because they offer outstanding offwind speed and can often hang in with much bigger boats.

Naturally, as the budget grows, the range of boat options expands almost exponentially. All sorts of racer/cruisers and even traditional heavy-displacement voyaging yachts have competed successfully in single/short-handed events. Bruce Schwab, for example — now skipper of Ocean Planet, the only U.S. Open 60 registered for Around Alone — launched his solo racing career by winning the 1996 Single-handed TransPac aboard a skinny wooden classic built in 1930.

As a general rule, lightweight boats with excellent tracking characteristics are preferred for single/short-handing because their smaller, lighter gear is easier to manage, and controllability is the key to pretty much everything else. First-rate reefing systems, furling, electrics and autopilots (when permitted) can make a big difference — on the positive side, in terms of average speed, but also, unfortunately, in terms of project cost.

Open 40 opportunities

In the 1998-’89 Around Alone, Russian sailor Viktor Yazykov turned in a brilliant performance aboard the self-built 40-footer, Winds of Change. Conceived to be the smallest and least expensive boat that would qualify for Around Alone Class II (40 to 50 feet length overall), Yazykov proved spectacularly quick, frequently nipping at the heels of the Open 50s. Under International Monohull Class Association (IMOCA) regulations, an Open 40 is, in fact, an Open 50, because both fall within the 40- to 50-foot length bracket. Along with the 50-footers, they are permitted an extremely generous maximum draft of 13 feet 5 inches and fore-and-aft rig overhang up to 6 feet. In a long solo race, an Open 40 will, of course, be disadvantaged relative to the larger boats, not only due to shorter sailing length, but because it needs to carry essentially the same weight in nav gear, stores, spares and so forth. On the other hand, the 40 will be considerably less laborious to handle, and in theory at least, can be sailed somewhat closer to its maximum potential. The smaller boat should also be much easier to maintain and, when necessary, repair.

There are four new Open 40s entered in this year’s Around Alone, including Bob Adams’ Perseverance, a sistership of Winds of Change. Yazykov supposedly spent only $250,000 to race Around Alone — probably a low-end estimate for a competitive Class II campaign. But by the same token, when compared to the half-million plus that’s needed for a 50-foot program, the Open 40 sounds like a pretty good bargain.

Are the Open 30s coming?

About 18 months ago, the Open 30 Class Association debuted a website to promote this new offshore monohull class. Several of the proponents had previously worked hard to launch the Mount Gay 30 — an earlier box-rule class that gave rise to some attractive, offshore-capable boats suitable for either short-handed with water ballast or fully crewed under the International Measurement System, Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, etc.

It now appears that the Mount Gay 30 failed to catch on because the mid-1990s saw a burst of activity in sportboats and offshore one-designs. Boats like the Mumm 30, although not nearly as well-suited to short-handing or extended ocean sailing, did offer highly competitive day racing and the promise of better-than-average returns upon resale. As a new developmental class, the Mount Gay was probably perceived as too much of a gamble. Does the Open 30 have better prospects?

The proposed Open 30 rule draws upon Mini 6.5 thinking, as well as Open 50/60 practice. It places some sensible limits on key parameters, including draft (8.3 feet), maximum beam (11.5 feet), rig height, freeboard and stability. Unfortunately, without a lower limit on displacement, it’s difficult to see how this new class can remain affordable and therefore ever become truly popular.

The larger Open Class boats are incredibly fast, thanks to extremely light weight, coupled with enormous sail area and great stability. The smaller the boat, the more difficult it becomes to achieve the stratospheric power-to-weight ratios required. To illustrate the fatal problem that the embryonic Open 30 class will likely confront if displacement remains unrestricted, just consider the recently introduced Sierra 27 sportboat. This nifty Bruce Nelson design, beautifully built by Californian James Betts, weighs only 1,100 lbs fully rigged. Construction is aerospace all the way: pre-preg carbon skins over aluminum honeycomb core with carbon foils, rig and so forth. By all reports, the Sierra goes like stink, both upwind and down, but sells for around $70,000. An equally high-tech Open 30 might weigh 3,000 lbs and would probably cost more than $200,000. There’s little doubt it would utterly destroy competitors built to lesser standards. On the other hand, given a more conservative minimum sailing weight of perhaps 4,500 lbs, there could well be a niche for this intriguing new class. The Open 30 proposal can be reviewed at the class site n

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator