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Corinthian Dreams

In forming the Club Swan 42 class, its founders took an old-school stand on one of sailing's most enduring dilemmas; they made it illegal to pay anyone to race. A feature from our March 2008 issue

March 25, 2008

CorinthianClub42Swan

Rolex/dan Nerney

If the Club Swan 42 proves to be something of a revolution in the world of grand-prix sailing, there won’t be any question when the first shot was fired.

During the third race, on the third day of the 2007 Swan American Regatta, Alex Jackson’s Amelia tacked onto the starboard layline with about five lengths or so to the first windward mark.

Charging in along the port layline was Mark Watson’s Tiburon. Hoping to tack right around Amelia’s transom and in front of the rest of the starboard-tack parade, Tiburon held the duck slightly.

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But when the helm went down, the boat didn’t respond.

Amelia’s jib trimmer, Steve Kirkpatrick, took one look to his left and had just enough time to scramble to windward before Tiburon’s bow cleaved 18 inches into the sidedeck just forward of the cockpit before bouncing clear.

Amelia rounded the mark and set its spinnaker. But the hole was too big; after sailing through the gate, the boat made tracks for New England Boatworks for an overnight repair. With daylight peaking through its stem, Tiburon soon followed suit, heading for slings at Newport Shipyard.

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Aside from providing fodder for the evening’s cocktail hour, that collision strongly affirmed two qualities of the class. First, the competition was going to be aggressive and tight. Second, that this moderate-displacement German Frers design, with a high-aspect T-keel, and a similarly narrow rudder, wasn’t the forgiving crossover it was purported to be.

After disappointing experiences with previous big-boat one-designs, New York YC’s rear commodore David Elwell had a good idea what he wanted in his next boat. Nothing on the market came close, so he decided to create a boat, and a class, from scratch. Mining the ranks of the New York YC, which agreed to sponsor the design, Elwell formed a group of potential owners, including boat partner George Hinman, and fellow Farr 40 owner Paul Zabetakis, and set about outlining the parameters for the boat.

They wanted a boat that performed well under IRC and was large enough to go offshore. Yet it also needed to be small enough and appropriately equipped down below to be cruised by a couple.

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Finally, they wanted a class largely free of professional sailors. “I firmly believe there’s a large untapped audience of people who have an interest in sailing bigger high-performance boats,” said Elwell in the fall of 2006, “but have no desire to have a professional crew to be competitive.”

For many sailors, the chance to compete with or against professionals who sail for a living remains one of sailing’s greatest attributes. It sets it apart from sports with firmly segregated professional and amateur play. At the same time, the fuzzy line separating wage earner from weekend warrior, and the overlap between the two spheres, is also one of sailing’s thorniest and most enduring issues.

As far back as 1980, it was a problem that warranted serious attention from the U.S. Yacht Racing Union, the predecessor to US SAILING. Spurred by the formation of the Professional Yacht Racing Association and the rise of races offering prize money, the USYRU formed a Committee On Professionalism to “fairly review all aspects and hues of professional yachting and its impact on amateur sailing and the Union.”

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At the time, according to ISAF vice president David Irish, the IOR rule contained provisions against paying anyone to steer. However, they were largely ignored.

The resulting report, called the Michaels’ Report after committee chairman James Michaels, was excerpted in the February 1981 issue of Yacht Racing/Cruising, the predecessor to this magazine.

It outlined a code to differentiate between professional and amateur sailors and proposed five levels of events from completely amateur to open. In that same issue, the Michaels’ Report was followed by a less restrictive proposal from the One-Design Class Council, which feared the absence of industry professionals-as opposed to sailors who raced for salary or prize money-would be detrimental to the U.S. Olympic effort and one-design sailing in general. A third option, provided by the Racing Rules Committee, was significantly simpler, and more Draconian, than the other two, suggesting a rule that “established that anyone racing must be doing so ‘as a pastime’ rather than as ‘a means of obtaining a livelihood.'”

According to a survey done by YR/C in conjunction with that summary, there was plenty of support for some sort of regulation. Forty-three percent of sailors surveyed felt professionalism was a problem in the sport and just less than half felt professional sailors should race only in professional events.

Despite the opinions of the masses, the issue was effectively tabled for much of the ’80s. In the early ’90s, when a few classes requested some sort of classification system, US SAILING convened a group to create what would become the organization’s Eligibility Code. [For more on the code, see the “Jobson Report” March 2008]

The first class to use this code was the Mumm 30. While the spunky 30-footer is still going strong, with much of the credit going to the limitations on pro sailors, the failure of its big sister, the Mumm 36, played an equally important, and more immediate, role in validating the need for a classification system.

Like the Club Swan 42 years later, the Mumm 36 was selected by a yacht club from a series of entries. The Royal Ocean Racing Club needed a one-design for the small boat of the three-boat Admiral’s Cup teams for 1995 and 1997. Buoyed by the selection, and a string of handicap wins under IMS, the Farr-designed 36-footer quickly became the hottest big-boat class in the world.

Professional sailors loved it because the class didn’t restrict their participation, and the level of sailing reflected this. Amateurs loved the opportunity to compete against the best in the world. However, as the class became increasingly competitive, amateur participation dropped. “It was difficult sometimes to bring the owner along if we wanted to compete at the top level,” says Jim Brady, an Olympic silver medalist who campaigned a successful Mumm 36 called No Problem. “You wanted to fill every position you could with the best possible person for that role. That’s not a very fun situation from an owner’s perspective.”

So, with owners facing the choice of sailing or winning, the class cratered almost as quickly as it arrived. Among those left wondering what happened were Elwell and his consortium of co-owners and Zabetakis.

One of the classes to which the pros migrated was the Farr 40. To address the problems that doomed the Mumm 36, the Farr 40 limited teams to four pro sailors per boat, and required that the owner drive.

To say the formula has worked is a gross understatement. More than 10 years after its debut, the Farr 40 class attracts 30 to 40 boats to its annual world championship. And the list of pro sailors involved includes the best in the business.

But, say Elwell and Zabetakis, it’s not for everyone. As with the Mumm 36, success in the Farr 40 requires following the traveling circuit around the world and hiring the best talent available.

“I enjoyed the racing,” says Zabetakis, “but the Farr 40 fleet got to be too much a pro program. If you wanted to be on top of the fleet you had to have four pros on the boat. Our feeling was we were at a point where we’d learned a lot from that, we wanted to be able to sail with our friends, put a class together where you could have very competitive racing, and try to keep it as Corinthian as possible.”

So the no-pay-to-play rule became a lynchpin in the formation of the class rule. Before they even had a boat-three designs were considered before the organizing committee picked a German Frers design built by Nautor’s Swan-they had an ethic. To make sure people embraced it, or at least followed along, involved no small amount of effort.

“The rules are in their 15th iteration and they’re 50 to 60 pages long,” said Elwell in October 2006, “and there are very serious discussions in there about what the spirit of the class is about.

“Do I have a perfect answer, no I don’t. But because we have the verbiage in the rule and it talks about the spirit of the rules, we think we’re in a position to enforce it.”

The question of whether anyone else shared this affection for Corinthian sailing was quickly answered. By the time Elwell and Hinman’s Conspiracy hit the water in the fall of 2006, Swan had received 23 commitments from New York YC members and another 10 from people outside the club. “My threshold of success was somewhere around 12 and over,” said Elwell. “I’ve been blown away by the success of the class.”

Now the only thing left to do was race the boat.

At the New York YC’s 153rd Annual Regatta in June, eight Swan 42s were enough to give the class its first one-design start. The same number sailed at Block Island Race Week; 11 competed in the Swan American Regatta in July.

The crunching collision during that regatta may have officially blooded the Swan 42 as a competitive one-design, but the lopsided results also created an undercurrent of concern.

With a boatspeed advantage that allowed them to recover from a poor start or a bad tactical call, three boats had dominated the scoresheet, picking up 22 of 30 top-three finishes. Fifth place scored twice as many points as third-50 to 25-and more than three times as many as first.

For anyone who’s been involved with big-boat racing, the questions had a familiar ring: Was the boat too difficult to tune for most amateur sailors? Were the top boats stretching the rules a bit in filling out their crew lists? How would the teams that struggled improve their lot, especially if they couldn’t pay for professional assistance?

Those concerns were bubbling toward the surface as the class prepared for its first championship in September.

Averaging a sixth place, Amelia won the regatta. Eight boats finished within 10 points of the lead, including three tied on points for sixth. Andrew Fisher’s Bandit, which won the Swan American Regatta, struggled to 13th. Conspiracy, which had finished a disappointing 10th in July, won one race, finished third in another and took sixth overall.

Every boat had at least one double-digit finish in the 18-boat fleet, five different boats won races, and 12 took home at least a podium finish in an individual race.

“We had a class in evolution and people were experimenting,” said Zabetakis after the class championship. “A lot of information that’s been gathered over those first several regattas is getting filtered to all the boats, so you don’t have that kind of disparity.”

Brady, who retired from professional sailing in 1997 and now squeezes 5 to 10 days around family commitments and his job in commercial real estate, sailed on Glenn Darden and Phil Williamson’s Hoss. Though they first sailed the boat only days before the regatta, the team walked away with fifth place, just 6 points out of first.

“We were able to get up to speed very quickly,” he said, “but the gap between the fastest and the slowest boat was really narrow, which means you’re out there trying to sail your boat well, put it in the right place tactically. I think that’s one of the real benefits of the class.”

Having a natural talent like Brady on board is a big help in that regard. If the championships were any indication, recruiting good Category 1 amateur sailors will be a key component of any good program. In addition to Brady, former Olympic Finn sailor Russ Silvestri sailed on Phil Lotz’s Arethusa, and a number of current or former collegiate All-America selections were sprinkled through the fleet. But, says Lotz, who finished fourth, there’s more to winning than just one or two Cat 1 sailors with professional-level skills.

“You can’t go out there with just Jim Brady or Russ,” he says. “They augment the crew pretty well if you can get them, but I think the key to any of these programs is consistency.”

That could also prove to be the key for the success of the class. If the owners can collectively settle into a consistent approach to developing their programs, the class stands a good chance of building on a remarkable start-it was named the Best Offshore One-Design of 2008 by this magazine and hull No. 40 sailed at Acura Key West Race Week in January.

“So far it’s worked,” says Brady. “I believe it will continue to be challenged with how you effectively control who’s pro and who’s not pro.

But as you limit it to only two people on a boat like that, it tends not to make a big difference because it’s not such a high percentage of the crew.”
Silvestri, who’s sailed in a number of one-design keelboat classes, added his own spin to this. “It was a little bit more social, more friendly,” he says. “In the Farr 40, it was more the tacticians pushing the owners, in this thing it was the owners pushing the other owners. They’ve taken charge. I think they’re sensitive to each other. It’s more of a cooperative thing than a competitive thing, where the owners are working together to make it a good experience for all owners.”

Of course, it’s easy to be cooperative when the class is just getting rolling and everyone’s interest are best served with more boats on the line. The Farr 40 class was less cutthroat 10 years ago when it was getting off the ground. After a few years, and another few dozen Swan 42s from the factory in Finland, the owners there may start to think a little more selfishly.

At least, in this case, this group owners has a lot of recent history to guide them to longevity.

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