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.

Sailing World

Viper 640 Class

With 36 teams in attendance at its 2009 North Americans, the Viper 640 class confirmed it was legit.Allen Clark

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.

Of course, no boat can actually sell itself, though stories abound about people who bought a Viper after a single test sail. This is where the passionate Viper owners became essential.
"The Viper class is similar to the 505 class in that the members are super aggressive about helping new sailors get quicker in the boats," says Austin YC's Jeff Jones, captain of the Texas fleet. VanValkenburgh says that he, Scott, Zimmerman, John McCormack, Dan Tucker, and other core owners have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours traveling the country with their boats to run demo days at yacht clubs and boat shows, offering rides to all takers, bringing new crews to regattas, retrofitting old boats, and assisting newcomers with maintenance and tuning. Fletcher Boland bought a used Viper after graduating college. "I was stunned by the amount of help and guidance I received from other owners," he says. "They were incredibly outgoing in helping me get started and are always there when I have a question."

The Viper has even inspired its own vocabulary. You don’t sail, you go “Vipering.” Your fellow competitors are “Viperers.” And when Scott is giving the hard sell to a prospective owner who wants to know about the boat’s costs, he gives a lecture about “Vipernomics,” citing the class’s annual sail purchase limits, low running costs, simple sail controls, quick rigging time, and all-up tow-weight of approximately 1,000 pounds. While Scott is the primary cheerleader, the boat’s popularity has bred plenty of converts. Drew Harper, of San Francisco, fell so hard for the boat, after an hour’s sail, he pressed Rondar to become the West Coast representative. There are now nearly two-dozen Vipers from Long Beach, Calif., to British Columbia. Other fleets have sprouted in Texas, Pensacola, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Connecticut, Canada, and even Tempe, Ariz.

Scott’s mantra in 2010 is “grassroots enthusiasm and professional execution.” Word-of-mouth may still be a core part of the class’s marketing strategy, but it also takes advantage of every modern marketing tool, maintaining a cutting-edge class website with an active message board and links to dozens of YouTube videos of Vipers blasting around, a Facebook page, and a strong presence on several Internet forums.

Attendance at the class’s North American Championship has steadily grown from 13 boats in 2006, to 26 boats in 2008, to 36 boats from nine states and Ontario at the 2009 event, which was co-hosted by Stamford and Indian Harbor YCs in Western Long Island Sound. The regatta marked a milestone; it was the first time the class held a stand-alone championship, rather than integrating, for example, the North Americans into the Sperry Top-Sider Marblehead NOOD Regatta. With no other classes to compete with, the camaraderie of the assembled Viperers was readily evident. When a boat skied a halyard in the parking lot, Charles Goodrich, of Rowayton, Conn., ran over and shimmied up the spindly carbon mast like it was a coconut tree. Nametags promoted socializing, while daily post-racing chalk talks helped get newcomers up to speed. Tony Chapman from the Arizona YC fleet was hooked on the Viper after crewing for Zimmerman at an event in Fort Worth, Texas, where they hit 23 knots on a windy run. He trucked his Viper nearly 2,500 miles to join in the fun. “I was surprised by how stable the boat was at that speed,” he says. “The Viper combines the best characteristics of a dinghy and a keelboat.”

One downside for class veterans has been watching new sailors take over the podium spots. Sailmaker Brad Boston, of Sarnia, Ontario, with longtime teammates Lee Shuckerow and Eric Vigrass, jumped ship from the Ultimate 20 class, taking delivery of their Viper at the North Americans, after borrowing a boat for their only other class regatta. They assembled the new boat in the parking lot and then won the championship by 2 points over Melges 24 veteran Simon Strauss—with Moth world champion Bora Gulari as tactician—and British Olympic Soling sailor Barry Parkin in third. “It’s a change from being at the top of the fleet to fighting for spots in the middle,” VanValkenburgh says. “But the new guys fit in well and the benefits of having them far outweigh the adjustments.”

Boston’s team brought the new ride to Bacardi Miami Sailing Week in mid-March for the class’s 2010 North Americans, which they also won. “The Viper isn’t a hard boat to tune, but it’s important to understand some basics about the rig,” he says. “We also have great teamwork.”

There have been a few other growing pains. The influx of talent to the class led to a debate over the role of professionals at the 2009 class meeting. This was ultimately resolved by allowing all comers, but stating that no one can be paid to sail a Viper. And some of the new owners have learned the hard way that the backstay-less Viper requires mainsail leech tension on windy runs to keep the 425-square foot asymmetric spinnaker from inverting the mast.

And where once the Viper was the lone 20-foot sportboat, there is now a heap of competition.

Regardless, now that the Viper is back, it appears to be here to stay. Jones sometimes races the boat with his 125-pound wife and 10-year old son, and has been just as quick with a team that weighs 150 pounds more. “I think the Viper is going to save sailing,” says Jones, a veteran of many classes, including J/22s, J/80s, and Lasers. “What was killing our sport is what kept me out of it for several year: Money, time, fun, and hassle. The upkeep, maintenance, and campaign cost of the Viper are less than any other keelboat. I have time to get sailing and take care of my other obligations.”

Hale Holden, of New York City, who is frequently in the back third of the fleet, agrees. “Win, lose, or draw, I leave the water after sailing Vipers with a smile on my face, thinking I’ve had one of the best days of the year.” Zimmerman, who knows full well how much work he, Scott, and others put into rebuilding the class, agrees. “It’s just a boat that makes you happy.”