Grand Prix According To: Bob Wylie

Builder of more than 20 grand prix boats since 1983, Bob Wylie speaks his mind on his job, his boats, and the grand-prix boat industry. From our June 2006 issue.

Bob Wylie, 43, a native Australian who now calls Yorkshire, England, home, has supervised the build of at least 20 grand-prix boats since 1983. Wylie doesn't kiss the boat good-bye when it leaves the yard, either. He's an America's Cup-caliber headsail trimmer whose expertise at designing efficient, crew-friendly deck layouts has made him as popular with fellow racers as he is with owners. We caught up with Wiley as he was in the final stages of building Blue Yankee, a Reichel/Pugh 66, at the Compania de Barcos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What was your first boat as a project manager? My first project was an IOR racer, Indulgence, which we sank in the 1983 Admiral's Cup. We were short tacking up the back side of the Isle of Wight and hit the Empress Queen wreck. We continued racing because we thought we'd hit the ground, and then, as we were going around Nab tower, we discovered the boat was full of water, and it consequently sunk on us. What was it like watching your first project sink? It was a funny experience because it was the middle of the night and we weren't quite sure what was going on. We managed to get the boat afloat pretty quick, but then the salvage company ripped off the flotation buoys and it sank again. It took them another four days to get it afloat. It was beyond repair for that event, but we fixed it up and the boat became Phoenix, which was the top boat in the Admiral's Cup in 1985. Describe what today's grand-prix project manager does. I help owners run their raceboat projects. I work with the designer to get the performance we need out of the boat at each particular venue. I also go through all aspects of the yacht to make sure it's what we're looking for, to make it a grand-prix raceboat, and to meet the owner's wishes. In most of the latest projects, I've been involved from the design stage all the way through, including the first regatta. How did you learn to deal with the mix of owners, builders, and designers? It's all just general knowledge I've gathered over the years. One of my first approaches to doing new boats is to simplify them, to get rid of any excess systems or crap that I feel we don't need. I try to make the boat less complicated. One of the big things we did in the TP 52 Esmeralda was to really optimize the winch package to make sailing the boat easier. How does being the owner's on-site representative affect your relationship with the builder and designers? You're always on the owner's side, and have his interests at the front, but then you've got to work with the design office to get what you want for the owner, and then you've got to coordinate with the builder to make his job easier as well. Sometimes there's some give and take with any and all of the parties to find the best solution to any problems. And what of this current yard? I hadn't had any dealings with them. We're [Blue Yankee's skipper, Bill Newkirk, is working with Wiley] bringing a lot of our experience into this yard to ensure we get a boat we're happy with. We're under a tight time frame, so we're trying to simplify things and make life easier for the yard. How is it having the skipper around? It's extremely important, especially with this boat, there are some things that both of us will come up with and bounce off each other. He's got special requirements he'd like to see, and we're trying to incorporate it all. It's still a boat, and once it hits the water, Bill's in charge. Has a designer ever drawn something that simply doesn't work? Yes, but all the boatyards these days have in-house designers and engineers, so when you find something wrong you can have them redraw it, send it off to the original designer to OK, and we can keep moving forward. Do you always sail on a boat as crew once it's finished? I like to stick around and see it through. On the TP 52 Esmeralda I went into a trimming role on the boat after sailing it for a week and making sure all the systems were working and that everybody understood the boat, which is especially necessary with the modern winch packages where there's a lot of tap dancing required. Have you ever been particularly attached to any of your projects? I'm always quite disappointed to see boats move on, because I always want to spend more time with them. The IMS 50 Esmeralda was probably one of the most enjoyable boats I've ever done. We had a lot of new ideas put in that boat, and we finally understood the [IMS] rule well enough to take the boat to a new level. What steps would you take to reinvigorate the grand-prix handicap racing circuit? Can we ever get the Admiral's Cup back to the level it was when you were young? What you'll probably see is box-rule classes like the TP 52 and hopefully the ORC 42 succeeding. The industry's changed. The Med circuit is driven by sponsorship dollars, so most of those boats stick only to regattas that the sponsors want them to attend. I don't think the Admiral's Cup will ever get back to the level it was in the '80s. It's a shame, but I think it's going to be tough to attract boats to the event, because it's in England, and there have been many negative comments made about sailing there. It's too bad, the Solent has some of the best, most challenging yachting in the world. Any advice for young sailors who might want a job like yours? Just be keen and ready to work for your goal.