Advertisement

A King and its Court

The IRC-2 division at 2009 Acura Key West Race Week had it all-new boats, old boats, ratings snafus, controversy-and in the end, a very worthy winner. A feature from our April 2009 issue

March 17, 2009
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

AC40 Soozal 368

Peter Mcgowan

Simple. The way Robbie Haines saw it, things weren’t complicated at all. Haines, the tactician on Daniel Woolery’s new King 40, Soozal, gathered the crew around him as the boat made its way out to the racecourse to begin Day 2 at last January’s edition of Acura Key West Race Week. Though it was early in the week, Haines had already seen enough to understand that Soozal was firmly in the hunt in the 13-boat IRC-2 class. So the wisdom Haines wished to impart was elemental.

“We’ve got the speed to win the regatta,” he said. “We’re sailing the boat well. We don’t need to push it on the line. Let’s get a good, clean start, and we should do quite well.”

For Haines and his team, the week ultimately played out exactly as he scripted. Conservative starts, followed by smart tactics and flawless boathandling, led to a 7-point win.

Advertisement

Behind Soozal, however, the story was anything but straightforward, featuring an IRC rating blunder that reshuffled the results mid-regatta, a key redress claim due to spectator boat interference, and a pair of anticipated new designs that fell short of expectations.

But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At the outset, the one thing known about IRC-2 was that it consisted of an interesting and eclectic mix of boats. It had two brand-new Santa Cruz 37s; an Archambault A40 RC, a French import that’s done well overseas and was making its U.S. IRC debut; and a slew of Mark Mills designs, including a trio of King 40s. There was also a veteran warhorse in the 20-year-old J/44 Gold Digger, a consistently well-sailed J/122, Teamwork, a DK 46 called First Light, and the comfy Elan 450 Hurrycane VI. Some flew symmetric spinnakers, while others featured sprit-flown A-sails. But for all their differences, it was a tightly bunched group according to their IRC ratings. Based on a 60-minute course, nine of the 13 boats were within 3.5 minutes of each other on corrected time. The total spread, fastest to slowest, for that amount of elapsed time was just over 9 minutes.

In that pack of nine were three new racer/cruisers. For these designs-the aforementioned King 40, Santa Cruz 37, and A40 RC-the ultimate prize wasn’t the hardware handed out at the end of the week. It was all about first impressions. Call it a debutante ball, call it an open tryout, call it a showcase or proving ground. For these boats, and their respective designers and builders, the results were likely to matter in a place they rarely do in sailing. On the bottom line.

Advertisement

For Philippe Paturel’s A40RC, Ciao, disappointment hit early, in fact before the racing started. Due to weather, the boat was not shipped overseas from France to Miami in early January, as originally planned, but to New York. A collision with a bridge on the journey south left the boat with a gaping hole in its deck.

Paturel and two boatbuilders did the best they could to repair the damage, and the boat went for its first sail an hour before Race 1. But Paturel, the North American distributor for Archambault boats, never felt comfortable cranking on the hydraulic mast jack, jib halyards, or backstay…with the sole exception of the second race on Day 2, when he basically said, “Screw it, let’s see what we’ve got,” and Ciao recorded its best result of the week, a second.

“But at the end of the race we realized there were some cracks in the repair,” says Paturel. “We sailed the boat at about 65 percent of its capacity the rest of the week.” All things considered, the A40RC’s grade for the regatta was “incomplete.”

Advertisement

Matters didn’t work out as hoped for in the Santa Cruz camp, either. Aboard Santa Cruz One, designer Tim Kernan and company owner Tom Slade had assembled a strong crew led by skipper Scott Dickson and sailmaker and tactician Larry Leonard. Like Ciao, the boat arrived in Key West in less than fighting trim after one of its twin steering pedestals was leveled by the mainsheet in a windy jibe on the delivery. And in the early racing, with staunch northerly winds and choppy seas, both 37s, the class’s smallest and lightest boats by a good margin, struggled to keep pace with the fleet’s larger, heavier competition. Santa Cruz One finished the week in tenth, with Tiburon, from Northern California, bringing up the rear.

Still, Kernan, who believed the respective IRC ratings for his boats were “overly punitive, specifically for this type of venue,” considered the week a valuable learning experience. For instance, he remained comfortable, in hindsight, with the decision to race IRC rather than PHRF, and felt his team had developed a much better grasp on tuning, sail trim, and inventories, particularly with regard to wind ranges and the windward/leeward track on which Key West racing is conducted.

If Kernan had one regret, it was the decision to go with smaller kites for a better IRC rating, rather than with the larger spinnakers for which the boat was designed. “It would’ve been worth the (rating) hit,” he said. “What we really wanted to show people is that the boats are fast, and we need those big kites to get the boat to break free sooner.”

Advertisement

Looking forward, Kernan hopes the jury will remain out on the boat’s all-around competitive potential until it’s tested in an off-wind, point-to-point contest, which should better play to its strengths.

Peter McGowan| |Driving his 20-year-old J/44 from the leeward rail, Jim Bishop (above, white hat) led the Gold Digger team to third place in IRC-2.|

While the Santa Cruz 37s struggled to find the necessary pace upwind and the A40 sailed at less than 100 percent, it became obvious that IRC-2, with the exception of Gold Digger, was going “all Mills, all the time.” Behind Soozal sat a pair of custom designs from Mark Mills’s design office, the 40-footer, Ngoni, and the 43-foot Cool Breeze. The latter was winning the regatta after four races, and third after eight. But then something happened that no one expected: Cool Breeze was deemed to have been racing under an incorrect IRC certificate. The boat’s time correction coefficient was re-crunched, and with regard to scoring, the race committee pushed the reset button for the entire class, revising the results for all previous races.

In a letter to the event’s race committee and international jury, IRC guru and RORC rating office technical director Mike Urwin said that the IRC Hull Factor for Cool Breeze, a confidential element of the rule, had been “incompletely assessed before issue of the certificate” and that an internal review during the regatta had revealed the error. The Cool Breeze crew was exonerated of any blame; there was no possible way of knowing their HF tag was wrong. But their revised TCC-which added approximately 85 seconds of corrected time, per hour of racing-dropped them into the mid-fleet rankings, where they finished the week.

With a revamped score sheet, and Cool Breeze suddenly out of the picture, the duel for IRC-2 honors became a head-to-head battle between Tony Buckingham, of England, and his crew on the Mills 40, Ngoni, launched in 2006, and Daniel Woolery’s California-based crew aboard Soozal.

Ngoni, says Mills, was conceived as “a nice, all-around sailboat that’s significantly lighter than the King 40, probably about a ton. There’s more sail area proportionate to the boat’s displacement and it’s about a foot longer. So you’re looking at a boat that wasn’t IRC-targeted in its makeup, though it has been successful in IRC. It’s one of our stand-out designs.” Ngoni’s skipper, Buckingham, had an even more unusual background: Before establishing himself as an oil tycoon, he ran a business dispensing mercenaries to war-torn, Third World disaster zones.

Woolery’s past is far less colorful. Some two decades ago, he successfully campaigned a 27-foot, cold-molded, Chuck Burns-designed ULDB called Bella Donna. But then, with a growing family and business commitments, he basically took a nearly 20-year hiatus from sailboat racing, his free time consumed by raising his three kids and coaching youth sports. He decided to get back into sailing a couple of years ago, at first purchasing a Sydney 36CR, and then moving up to his current King 40, with the stated goal of winning the Rolex IRC Nationals this September on his home waters of San Francisco Bay.

To that end, he recruited an all-star crew led by Scott Easom, who was largely responsible for Soozal’s immaculate preparation but also “quarterbacked” a week of flawless maneuvers while working the cockpit; tactician Haines, who has signed on with the program through the Nationals, and who seemed to nail every significant shift throughout the regatta; and main trimmer Pete McCormick, of North Sails, with whom Woolery has forged a strong bond as he re-discovers his touch on the helm in grand-prix competition.

With a Hall Spars carbon rig and a Harken electric winch package, Soozal employed a couple of key components above and beyond your standard King 40. Unlike its sisterships, and for that matter, the majority of boats in IRC-2, Soozal also flew symmetric kites off a conventional pole, which Woolery says is crucial for success racing windward/leewards in San Francisco but which also proved to be a good call in Key West.

“The guys who sailed the A-kites couldn’t sail quite as deep as us, they had to sail higher,” he says. “We could go a little more rhumb line on them, and of course when you jibe a symmetric kite you don’t slow down, so we had an advantage there.”

Even before the scoring was readjusted after the Cool Breeze affair, Soozal was in the driver’s seat. When all was said and done, they’d sailed a sensationally consistent regatta, with a fifth in Race 4 their only blip on a line of five second-place finishes and four bullets. Ngoni was second.

As far as the podium was concerned, Jim Bishop’s Gold Digger, which rolled uphill like a freight train when the breeze was on, proved to be the sole obstacle in keeping IRC-2 from winding up the equivalent of the Mark Mills Invitational Regatta. Gold Digger displaced the King 40, Act One, from third overall after filing for redress in the penultimate contest of the 10-race series. Gold Digger was squeezed off the starting line at the committee boat and sailed into the spectator fleet, and what happened after that depends on who you ask except for one undeniable fact: the race committee awarded Gold Digger a whopping 2 minutes, they won the race, and ended the week in third. That, reckoned some of the more philosophical observers, is sailboat racing. Some found the ruling inconsistent or unfair. That’s also sailboat racing.

But when all the smoke and thunder dissipated, and the sound and fury finally stilled, thankfully, Soozal had painted the bigger picture in the purest, most inarguable way possible.

For it finished as simply as it began: The best boat won.

Advertisement

More Racing

Advertisement
Advertisement