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Double trouble?

by Mark Jardine 3 Aug 03:00 PDT
Start 2018 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race © Rolex / Studio Borlenghi

In yachting, 2020 is the year of shorthanded sailing. Yes, in many cases it has been forced on us due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the trend was already set and with a mixed double-handed yacht being added to the slate for the Paris 2024 Olympics, some serious names had already entered the fray. It's an exciting sector of yachting, with some brilliant new designs out on the water and interest around the globe.

Yacht racing is restarting gradually. In the UK, the first day of August saw Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) racing resume with 'Race the Wight', in which a superb entry of 133 yachts took to the water for a lap of the Isle of Wight. Over 40 of these boats were sailed double handed with the JPK 10.10 and Sun Fast 3300 taking the top two spots in this division respectively.

In a superb gesture by RORC, the full entry fees, amounting to over £5,000, were donated to the NHS and Scaramouche Sailing Trust.

We're living under the shadow of the pandemic in everything we do, and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia has had to shut its doors until 10th August, with many of the committee, staff and members in self-isolation after one positive test for Covid-19. The club have reacted swiftly, applying their COVIDSafe plan alongside Commodore Paul Billingham communicating and liaising effectively with NSW Health, members, and the press. No club should assume they're not going to have an outbreak, and the CYCA have demonstrated good planning and a fast response in an exceedingly difficult situation.

Moving ahead, Boxing Day will see the iconic start of CYCA's flagship event, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. One of the world's most sought-after trophies is the Tattersall's Cup, awarded to the handicap winner of the race. Word has it that double-handers, while being allowed to race in the event, will be ineligible for the main trophy. Apparently, the concern is around autohelms, and how advancing technologies can lead to a marked improvement in performance which rating systems are unable to factor in at this time.

Yes, autohelm technology is improving continuously, but is excluding a rapidly-growing sector of our sport the right decision? It would seem to put the CYCA at odds with the trends in our sport.

The arguments for exclusion include the cost of high-end autohelms and the perceived advantages that these systems have over a human helm, but this must be weighed against the increased difficulty in sail handling and lack of weight on the rail. The Rolex Sydney Hobart is far more than a helming contest, with seamanship, navigation and regular sail changes playing a massive part.

Further to that, if a double hander were to win on handicap, but not be awarded the Tattersall's Cup, then the team who were to lift the trophy would undoubtedly feel their victory was a little hollow...

Like so many areas of our sport, autohelms are constantly improving and this development should be encouraged rather than suppressed. We know full well that new technology initially costs serious money as it's developed, but as it becomes mainstream it benefits all. One only has to look at motor racing for this trickle-down effect, where innovations such as Direct-Shift Gearboxes (DSG) and disc brakes are now mainstream and, on the cheaper end of the scale, rear-view mirrors were seen for the first time in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 race!

At the MAA's Media Dinner ahead of METS 2019 in Amsterdam, leading yachting journalist and producer of the Youtube channel PlanetSail Matt Sheahan spoke eloquently about the development of autohelms in the IMOCA monohulls. In the new foiling era these are more important than ever for the singlehanded sailors taking part in the Vendée Globe.

Matt gave us his view on developments: "Fundamentally I think the sport is approaching a watershed moment, and it's a big one - autopilots have the ability to move us on to the next stage. The technology and algorithms in new autopilots mean that they can, in certain conditions such as night-time, out-perform human helms. This does though rely on training the system over a period of months. I think it's very exciting and I'm very much in the 'let's allow it' camp and believe that autopilots will have massive benefits throughout sailing, particularly in cruising, providing extra comfort and safety."

The explosion of interest in shorthanded sailing has been obvious to us at Sail-World, with Australian editor John Curnow's recent articles on the X2 and Sun Fast 3300 being amongst the top-read articles worldwide in 2020, including massive readership in North America. Rohan Veal of the Australian Jeanneau dealer, 38 South Boat Sales is rightly concerned:

"Although I am not an entrant in the 2020 Rolex Sydney Hobart, any decision to not allow double-handed entries to win the Tattersall's Cup will no doubt deter my customers and many others (particularly overseas entries and Olympic campaigners) from entering this race in the future or even withdrawing their entry this year, as there will be little incentive to compete anymore.

"Based on the results and IRC ratings of all the leading double-handed boats around the world over the last few years, I think it will be unlikely that the best double-handed boat with the best crew, best auto pilot and the best conditions would be able to beat the best 50+ foot boats in this year's race. As everyone who has raced doubled-handed knows, there is a lot more to winning than letting the autopilot steer the best course; plus this will be first year that anyone has ever done this race double handed!

"However, this is exactly what motivates World Champions like myself, along with everyone that has entered the S2H this year, to push the envelope, and why Australia is such a successful International and Olympic sailing country. Therefore, it is possible that this decision will have a direct impact on Australia winning a Gold medal or not at the 2024 Olympics.

"Furthermore, I am sure the people who work on the IRC rule know what they are doing, including the way a boat is setup / sailed is reflected in the boats handicap already. If IRC felt as though the double-handers have an unfair advantage because they were consistently beating the fully-crewed boats in offshore races, then they would come up with a different rating for double-handers. Currently this is not the case, so why fix something if it ain't broke?"

The argument on the cost of high-end autohelms can be offset by lower crew numbers, and the 100 footers which have dominated the battle for line-honours since the LOA was increased in 2009 aren't exactly cheap...

Hugh Ellis, who bought the RP63 'Voodoo' ahead of the 2018 Rolex Sydney Hobart, is a recent convert to double-handed racing: "It was a dream to win Division One in 2018 in what is such a competitive division. There were so many aspects of the campaign that all had to be right to get this result. It was a privilege to be surrounded by such talented amateur sportsman who lived and breathed the race. It is without question that you cannot win this division unless you have the right boat that is well resourced with the right team culture.

"I then sat out until late in 2019 whilst circumnavigating the world on my sailing Catamaran 'Muttley'. Following an announcement by the CYCA that the two-handed division was being introduced in 2020, it became obvious what the next challenge had to be. Finally, after many years of the double handed class competing in the other great races around the world, this was being introduced in the Sydney Hobart.

"After a lot of research around the world, back orders for the Sunfast and JPK boats were pushing back later into the year. It seems that as the Sunfast was the front runner for inclusion in the Olympics, and word was out about the eligibility for entry into the Sydney Hobart, that many people were well ahead of me in ordering boats. I was then fortunate enough to come across a newly-built Lombard 34 which had just completed the 2019 Sydney Hobart and come second in its division.

"Although the boat had raced fully crewed its designer had intended her to be a double handed racer. Like Voodoo, she was slightly different in design to her competitors and if she got her conditions she could do well. As with Voodoo when we were trying to stay out of the TP52 'Arms Race' we thought Mistral could find a niche between the other twin rudder purpose built double-handed racers.

"The next step was in depth consultation with the CYCA sailing office in going through the certificates on file as I needed to make sure that she met all the requirements of the new class. 'Mistral' was then purchased and delivered to Coffs Harbour by her builder Pierre Gal who has been a wealth of knowledge on the intricacies of the boat.

"Whilst compared to running a mini-maxi yacht, the logistics and management require a lot less time, the challenge I would argue is in some ways greater. Many aspects of sailing the boat have to be learned all over again (it's been many years since I've been on a foredeck). Sleep management, the boat being more tender without crew weight and multi-tasking to name a few. I've been privileged to win a division in the fully crewed division and to have the opportunity to compete in this class has renewed my passion for sailing. I also believe that the introduction of this sport will see many people come back into the sport and introduce new people looking to test themselves.

"The list of sailors in this division is growing and at the time of writing I see it to be around one third of the Sydney to Hobart fleet. Bring on Boxing Day!"

I'm hoping that the final decision hasn't yet been made at the CYCA. This year the discussions will no doubt be held on Zoom rather than in the clubhouse, and I would urge those involved to allow double-handed teams to be eligible for the Tattersall's Cup. The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is one of sailing's greatest spectacles and puts the sport in the public eye around the world, so let's highlight the areas of growth, rather than supress them. As mentioned by Rohan above, it's unlikely that a double-hander will win the trophy, but they should all be at least in with a shout. What a showcase the next four Hobarts would be as we lead up to 24/7 coverage of yachting at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com & YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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