In May, the iShares Cup Extreme 40 Sailing Series announced that sailmaker and multihull guru Randy Smyth, 54, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., would be back on the helm of the Tommy Hilfiger catamaran. It was on this very boat that Smyth, along with his core crew of Jonathan Farrar and Stan Schreyer, pasted four other teams in the Volvo Extreme 40 series, which brought dizzying close-quarters racing to the viewing public at several of the Volvo Ocean Race stopovers. Since then, Smyth has been keeping a low profile, managing his company of one (himself), and dodging gators in the Everglades, but he says he’s ready to jump back into the traveling catamaran circus, which features stops throughout Europe.
First off, what is this stuff about racing around the Everglades?
It’s called the Everglades Challenge. It’s like an adventure race in the spirit of the Worrell 1000. You can bring what you want, but you need something that’s adaptable to sailing in shallow water, mud, or whatever you run into. It’s not nearly as organized as the Worrell 1000 [a now-defunct 1,000-mile offshore stage race from Florida to Virginia]-it’s more like, “We’ll start together and see you at the finish line whereever that might be. It’s fun to step away from the normal world, and it’s a part of Florida that you don’t see going to Key West or Miami regattas.
What was your craft of choice?
I built this thing-it’s a trimaran. The center hull is shaped like an A-Class hull, and it’s got the carbon mast and all that stuff. The Challenge is a solo deal, so I also have an autopilot, GPS, and stuff like that. It has about 300 square feet of downwind sail, and is 168 pounds, so it goes pretty fast. It’s 18-feet wide and you sit out on these little racks. It’s totally dry, but you’re ripping along. I had to figure out what would get me under the bridges and get through some of the narrow inlets, so it’s sort of like a scissor thing in that it can get wide and narrow when you need it to.
Speaking of interesting gigs, you’re on the entry list for this summer’s Chicago Mac Race.
Yeah, I’m going with Stars & Stripes, the old America’s Cup catamaran. I’ve been helping the new owners get up to speed. They’re a bunch of J/105 sailors, and I think the race organizers told them they could do the race so long as they had someone onboard that could keep the whole thing safe. I told them I’m not really the right guy for that [laughs]. If you want safety, that’s not me. If you want fast, then you’ve got the guy. It’s a fun program though. All we’ll need are some Subway sandwiches and off we go.
What about the iShares Cup; will you do every event in the series this time?
I would have liked to do the whole thing last time, but by the time Tommy Hilfiger made a commitment I had too many things on my schedule. But this year we planned further ahead.
That’s interesting, both Puma and Tommy hooking into sailing.
There’s a bit of an issue going on behind the scenes with them both trying to step in with sailing product. Puma, of course, is putting something like 50 million into it, and we’re way under a million, so the competition is there and I’m sure Puma doesn’t want us in there [in the 2008-’09 Volvo Ocean Race stopovers].
Does this make you a spokesperson for the Tommy brand then?
We’ve had the boat in malls throughout Europe. It’s been in weird places like Poland, but it gets a lot of exposure. We don’t do too much parading around ourselves as far as the racing team. Maybe before a regatta we’ll do a photo shoot and funny stuff like that; take out VIPs and press, and be available.
You guys sort of live like rockstars at these events.
Exactly. After the racing, the parties are not America’s Cup talk, like how you did on the racecourse. They’re shooting for a different scene, one that’s way more social. It’s funny to change hats; one weekend I’m chasing around my kids and the next I’m in Europe doing this grand-prix racing sort of racing. You’re really living a couple different lives; it’s sometimes hard to step into one planet from the next.
How will the racing at the Volvo stopovers be different this time around, assuming they’d like to change things up?
Well, they build these boats five at a time. There are 15 boats now built, but the challenge is you’re still sailing in the same swimming pools. Five boats was fine for the first year, but you’re sailing on the same Amsterdam canal with concrete walls. You come off the starting line, and if it’s upwind, you have one boatlength before everybody has to tack in synchronized fashion or else there will be a crash. In NASCAR there are 35 cars on a track built for 10, and that’s what it’s like; there’s a lot of interaction there. It’s not demolition sailing, but it’s unbelievably hectic. It’s very on edge, especially when you get big puffs and there’s nowhere to turn-you can get into very vulnerable situations.
Are these racecourses purely entertainment for the public or actual tests of skill?
It’s total non-Olympic, for sure. This is totally like college sailing on steroids. It’s short action, instant decision making with 14 tacks, 15 jibes, and three sets, all in a 12-minute race. It’s a skill set you learn to get good at. You can go from first to last really easily, but there are so many races, it doesn’t really matter because it’s the law of averages. You’re shooting not to win every race, but to not have bad races. You learn risk management and quick boathandling because you have to be ready for instant things. Everything else I do is easy in comparison because you can really think things through.
You’ve now got high-powered America’s Cup teams playing in the fleet; how will that change the dynamics?
AC guys are jumping in with some pretty big egos, which could really change things, but it will bring some press and some newness to it all. It’s hard to change a guy that comes from the America’s Cup, who is used to looking for one-tenth of a knot, and this is nothing about that. It’s instincts and making the right calls quickly. They’re used to having the navigator/ tactician/skipper decision tree, and there’s no use for the instruments and laptops they’re used to having. Maybe it’ll be refreshing for them to throw that stuff out the window.
Speaking of the Cup, what’s your opinion on it going to a multihull match?
The Deed of Gift is about thinking outside the box and now I’m excited about what they are going to bring to the racecourse. I can see this will be pretty exciting and will get people off the street going, “What in the world is this?” Ninety-foot trimarans with huge wing masts-there’s an opportunity here to go way forward with this.
Any calls from Cup teams coming to you?
Early on there was some interest from the Alinghi program, but there hasn’t been anything. Maybe they were caught up in court, but it seems they went back to their core crew and figured they could figure it out themselves.
In an audio interview, Smyth discusses the catamaran’s dismissal from the Olympic lineup?
In an online sidebar, A Most Unusual Night, Smyth gives his hilarious account of Frontal Lobotomy’s first failed attempt at the Everglades Challenge.