A Sporty Little Sportboat

One brief afternoon outing confirms the new RS21 is well worth the wait.

The phone ringing breaks my trance as I’m staring out the window, pining to go sailing. The afternoon sun is brilliant, the sky deep blue, and the crisp summer northerly gradient is winning the sea breeze battle. Days like these are rare in Newport, Rhode Island, and it’s far too nice to be chained to a desk.

“Hey, Dave, we’re out sailing the RS21,” says a voice on the other end of the line. “Any chance you can get out with us today while we have breeze?”

Does a bear sh*t in the woods?

“Yep, I’ll be there in 15,” I respond, and in minutes, I’m peeling out of my parking space and taking every local back road I can to avoid the summer traffic. It’s a frenetic dash to get to Fort Adams. A race against the dying northerly.

At the dock, I’m picked up in a RIB by Ed Furry, the owner of Sail22, a raceboat concierge service based in Culver, Indiana, who will be helping the English boatbuilder with establishing the new keelboat class in the States. Furry manages many of the J/70s being towed about the country these days, but I can tell he’s genuinely excited about the RS21.

He knows there are plenty of sailors who will pan the 21-foot keelboat as another pretty boat that will contribute to the struggles of one-design classes everywhere. But he also knows there are sailors out there looking for something different than the pro-laden, high-budget classes garnering all the attention. There are clubs and club sailors looking for a lower-cost option.

That’s where the RS21 comes in, says RS Sailing's Alex Newton-Southon, in from England to oversee the first U.S. demos. “We were asked in Scandinavia to come up with a new boat to do some league sailing and racing. They felt at the time that the right boat wasn’t out there; others were too expensive and not stable enough, so we felt there was an opportunity for a new low-cost super stable boat for sailing clubs and institutions, a boat for learn to sailing all the way to the more competitive types. There’s no question that people are trying to look for a low-cost way of going team sailing.”

The boat, estimated at $40,000, including “trailer and absolutely everything to go racing,” is a “one-design boat ready to go,” says Newton-Southon. “What you get is what you get.”

And what you get is a lightweight and nimble boat that’s best sailed with a crew of three or four. The sail controls and the layout of the boat, says Newton-Southon, is such that everyone has an active hand in getting it around the racecourse. With the three of us, all full-sized males, the boat felt about right (the ideal crew weight, says Newton-Southon is somewhere around 800 pounds combined). Elbows would be bumping with anything more than four bodies.

Fair comparisons will be drawn between the RS21 and the J/70 and Melges 20, but these two are slightly more substantial boats in a few different ways. The RS21 weighs a stated 1,433 pounds, roughly 300 pounds lighter than the J/70 and 200 heavier than the Melges 20, which is obvious given there's no cabin top or interior whatsoever. As an open-deck boat that's lower to the water, the RS21 will feel more like a dinghy, especially when waves and chop breaking over the bow come sluicing through the cockpit. The RS21's sailplan (265 sq. ft. upwind/606 sq. ft. downwind) doesn't have as much horsepower as the Melges 20, but it's pretty darn close to the J/70. When you start talking about the cost to get to the racecourse, however, that's where the divide grows, and that's where sailing clubs looking to replace aging fleets will be most hawkish.

The hull shape is straight-up modern and has all the go-fast looks with the chines and reverse bow. The cockpit ergonomics are comfortable with beveled edges for pain-free sitting and hiking. Speaking of which—one-design class racing will have a no-hiking rule, so it’s legs in, folks. In the normal sailing positions, the helmsman has plenty of lines to fuss with, including the fine and gross-tune mainsheet and backstay easily at hand. The jib sheet lead is good, as are the spinnaker sheet leads. The halyard has a hoist line and a retrieval line, which pulls the kite into a foredeck sock. Adjustable turnbuckles on the two-part carbon rig will be easy to step and adjust between races.

No rig adjustments were required on the day I joined Newton-Southon and Steve Perry, Zim Sailing's presidente. In the fading 10-knot northerly, the helm was beautifully balanced and subtle tugs and pushes on the tiller extension brought immediate movement to the bow. Light and lively are the words that came immediately to mind. The boat begs to be roll-tacked and jibed; lean inboard until the chine bites, roll hard to weather and the main comes across clean overhead because of the high boom. On the flatten, the boat accelerates quickly.

There will be critics of the “granny bar” to which the mainsheet is attached, but it serves a double purpose in protecting the lifting Torqeedo electric outboard shaft and providing a balance point for less nimble skippers when crossing the boat.

RS21s are built on Isle of Wight off the south coast of England where they keep close tabs on the quality and finish as well as delivering on their mission to promote sustainability in boatbuilding by integrating eco-friendly “bio derived resins and recycled core materials” in the hull. Whatever the blend, the hull and deck felt plenty stiff from where I sat, tiller in hand, as we tacked and jibed our way around Narragansett Bay.

When it was near time to head back to the dock, I suggested we go for a good ol’ fashioned Newport “harbor burn.” Tacking up the narrow east channel, dodging tour boats and launches, brought back doing memories of doing the same in 420s as a kid and nowadays with my buddies on the J/24. It also reinforced the notion that, yeah sure, it’s another new boat to convolute the market, one that could possibly kill off a classic plastic one-design class of the 70s, but a boat that’s as exciting to sail as the RS21 was on this fine summer day is fine by me. Anything that gets more people out sailing is good for sailing.