Don’t Call It A Comeback
Don’t Call It A Comeback
After being left for dead, the resurgent Viper 640 has surprised many, but not anyone who has sailed the boat.
The Viper 640 was almost a footnote in the annals of sailing. The story is all too familiar: a talented designer draws some sweet lines and produces a boat that develops a small, but devoted, following, only to have the builder close up shop and the class slowly fizzle away.
And after being named Sailing World’s overall Boat of the Year in 1997, that nearly happened to the 21-foot Brian Bennett design. This magazine’s judges praised the Viper for being “really neat,” “sweet,” and a “damn good boat.” Drawn by the high performance—the boat planes in 10 knots of wind—a pioneering group in Marblehead sprung for a fleet purchase. The future was bright, and there were few, if any, competitors in the 20-foot sportboat niche. “The design was way ahead of its time,” notes Viper stalwart Paul Zimmerman, who has been racing Vipers for more than 13 years.
But just before Google became a glint in a web developer’s eye, the Viper nearly went the way of pets.com. Bennett’s company went belly-up at the end of the millennium, and the class was left without a builder. The enthusiasm in Marblehead had attracted pros like Dave Curtis and J.B. Braun to the local fleet, but the majority of the 68 boats built to that point were scattered across the United States and not well organized. As regatta participation dwindled, the story of the Viper seemed to mirror that of many before it: “Great design, but…”
The Marblehead fleet soldiered on, with as few as 6 boats showing up for weeknight one-design racing. But nationally, the Viper was a non-starter. Early in 2004, Zimmerman, Kay VanValkenburgh, and Justin Scott—who sailed their Vipers out of tiny Parker’s Boatyard in downtown Marblehead—spent an evening upstairs at Maddie’s Sail Loft, a night that is now immortalized in class lore. They lamented the decline of the boat they loved and brainstormed ideas to popularize the boat that VanValkenburgh called “too cool to die.”
It was a daunting task. They’d need to find the molds—which had been missing for several years—recruit a new builder, locate and organize the remnants of the class, and propose tweaks to combat its reputation of being hard to sail upwind in breeze and prone to the occasional turtle. VanValkenburgh, as outgoing class president, handed the reins to Scott, a precocious Brit who had mothballed his Viper in a barn. Despite some initial hesitation, Scott jumped into the role with vigor.
Scott and others worked to track down the molds in England, where they convinced Paul Young, of Rondar Sailboats, to begin building the boat again. The class’s technical committee decided to do something about what VanValkenburgh says was “an undeserved reputation as a wet and tippy boat.” The stiff aluminum mast was replaced with a carbon rig, and the weight savings aloft put into the keel. This move added nearly 50 pounds to the bulb and plenty of righting moment. Bulk purchases kept the total conversion cost to less than $4,000, and old boats remained relevant and on par with the new imports. With a mast that was suddenly easier to tune and more forgiving on windy beats, the boat that frequently sold itself suddenly had more buyers. More than 60 boats were built in less than three years.