Maxi Racing to the Max

Maxi yacht racing has long been the realm of big hardware and big action, and over the past several years, the turnout has been getting bigger too.
Maxi fleet race in St. Tropez
The Wally 100 Tango works its way through the maxi fleet in St. Tropez. Dario Ferrari’s Maxi 72 Cannonball won the series. Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez/Gilles Martin-Raget

Maxi racing in the Med is hot. Call it a lesson in the value of getting your act together. The game has grown and changed dramatically—and deliberately—with fleets of 50 as the new normal. Ten years ago, none of this was ensured. The secretary general of the International Maxi Association, Andrew McIrvine, tells us, “Rapid change was needed, or it was going to just die.”

How it didn’t “just die” is a story worth telling, and we lean on McIrvine for that. “The International Maxi Association was originally a social club for the owners of 80-footers. That generation was going out as I was invited in,” he says. “The racing had categories that were impossible to define, so people were always gaming it. What’s a racer-cruiser versus a cruiser-racer? And could we ever have effective class splits based on hull length?”

The answer to that, as proven, is no he says. “The categories are now performance-defined, using a single-number IRC rule that includes an accurate weight measurement, not a calculated weight. We photograph the interiors so we know who’s stripping them out. The database includes 155 boats, and it has checks on people who fly too close to the rules. That gives other people the confidence to come out and race.”

The 2023 Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge offers a series of six events, wrapping up in August with the Palermo-Montecarlo Race. That’s 500 miles from Sicily to the Champagne at Yacht Club de Monaco—not to forget the fly-through gate at Porto Cervo along the way and the option of leaving Corsica to port or to starboard. It’s a sporty race in a sporty calendar.

“I truly believe the IMA has made a difference. We’ve attracted a new, younger membership. We’ve added events, and the compass has expanded from the Med to the Caribbean. Whereas we used to have a big mini-maxi contingent and not many boats 80 to 100 feet, in 2022 we suddenly had 12 of the 80- to 100-foot maxis racing, and racing on proper terms. At least two of the current owners are building new boats, which I believe is the sign of a healthy class.

“Then there are the Maxi 72s that have all been modified outside the box they were designed for, but they still race together. They’re more optimized than the other boats, so no one outside their group wants to race against them—they’re a threat—but we can usually give them their own sandbox to play in.”’

And what of the Wallys that seems to have disappeared?

“We gave that up. Wallys come in different sizes, different speeds. I can’t think of a single case of twin Wallys. Now they’ve rejoined according to their ratings, and I think, frankly, the Wally era is over. Luca Bassani’s success with Wallys is such that all designers have copied his concept. When he started, big race boats were neither ergonomic nor pretty, and the decks were bristling with winches. If you go aboard any boat now, it looks like a Wally.

“You could also go the way of Rambler and Comanche, where you pay more and more money to be more and more uncomfortable. Down below, you’re sitting in a carbon-black hole (black because paint adds weight) beside an engine that runs to power the canting keel and the winches. On deck—and it’s true with the Maxi 72s—you find they are exhausting boats to sail because they’re fast upwind at steep angles only. They’re on the edges of the hull to keep the wetted surface to a minimum. The hulls are so wide at the stern, all the crew is hiked hard at the aft end of the boat. And then, in a tack, you’re going from 45 degrees to 45 degrees, and if you don’t get it right running across the deck, you’re in trouble. On a clean deck, there’s nothing to grab on to.”

Placing itself somewhere in between the extremes of the grand-prix set and the ­leaning cruisers, Nautor has a new ClubSwan 80 it’s touting as a one-design class. Loro Piana brought Hull No. 1 to the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup last year at Porto Cervo, and the boat performed well. Weighing the odds of developing a successful one-design, it’s worth remembering that the ClubSwan 50 had its skeptics, who were proven wrong. But the 80 is a take-no-prisoners statement. It’s a major turn for a company whose classic racing events feature boats with furniture. Now we’re talking all carbon with a canting keel, a tacking daggerboard, push-button controls, twin rudders, design by Juan K, and construction in Italy by Persico—very fashion-forward. I’m sure you had a look at that boat.

“It’s a fascinating project, and it looks extreme, but it has, theoretically, cruising potential,” McIrvine says. “Inside, it’s all black carbon—artfully crafted—accented with strips of mahogany veneer. No furniture, but you have the option of adding interior modules for cruising. And we shouldn’t overlook the carbon-fiber bidet in the owner’s head.”

Clearly, Nautor thinks the IMA has a good thing going, and it wants a bigger piece of it. Beyond rational class definitions, one very important thing is resonating, McIrvine says. The owners are driving.

“Our rule is critical, and we are strict about imposing it, with rest breaks allowed,” he says. “Generally, it takes a lifetime to amass the wealth to race a big boat. By the end of a day race, most owners are exhausted. Which is not to say that amateur drivers are on their own. An astonishing number of names you know show up to whisper, ‘A little higher, sir, a little lower.’ That keeps the standards high, and it’s a reminder that being a pro sailor is a dodgy profession. There are only 10 TP52s in the Med, for example, only nine SailGP teams in the world and five America’s Cup teams. However, we don’t restrict driving in the superyacht group at all.”

The other boat debuting at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup was FlyingNikka, which raised the concern of foiling monohulls threatening the order. “Nikka showed that she can sail in the fleet safely, so at St. Tropez we put her in a class where her rating was absurd. The boat would do 35 knots in the right conditions, but they couldn’t keep her on foils going upwind. Tacks were agonizingly slow. What Roberto Lacorte is looking for is line honors in longer races.”

The venues where maxis can and now gather are also a draw. The Caribbean was the inevitable expansion opportunity beyond the Med, where it’s obvious that people like to go to St. Tropez, Capri, Sorrento, Giraglia and so on. Neither coast of the United States can accommodate such a fleet.

“Water depth is a huge challenge for race committees,” McIrvine says. “A lot of the Bay of Naples is 1,200 to 1,500 feet deep. Off St. Tropez it’s much, much deeper. We’re using MarkSetBot, which is promising. It’s not 100 percent reliable, but an upside beyond remote control is that you can’t wrap your keel around an anchor line because there is no anchor line [on a GPS‑directed robot mark].

“Our people are selective about where they choose to race. One owner told me it costs him $750,000 to take his boat, team and containers to Porto Cervo for five days. No one wants to spend that kind of money on a badly run regatta, so it’s a conservative bunch.

“The IMA has a small board of directors backed up by a dynamic, insightful team. IMA costs are supported by membership subscription except for Rolex, which has been fantastic. When I started with the IMA, the Rolex people told me, ‘We’ve been giving you money, but your people just put it in the bank.’ I said, ‘I’m sure I can fix that,’ and I have. There is a lot of travel now, a much more glam yearbook, a lot of publicity. About half the boats racing last year were flying the IMA flag.”

So, everything is coming up roses? “There are still supply-chain issues around securing building materials. Outside of maxi racing, the 30- to 40-foot range is falling off a cliff, except for shorthanded distance racing. Looking ahead, we still don’t know if we are in a recession or a hiccup, but in previous recessions, maxi racing has gone on, looking good for two or three years longer than you might expect. Then the boats stay on the dock.”