The Solent can look relatively small from the deck of a 72ft grand prix racing yacht, as I found at during a practise race at Cowes Week 2015. A sail aboard Bella Mente proved the ideal opportunity to discover why the growing mini maxi fleet is so exciting.
Only yesterday my colleague Matt Sheahan reported on how big the Solent looks when racing at 4.5 knots upwind aboard an XOD (see ‘A Wet Ride’ here). Today, Monday 10 August, I had the complete opposite feeling as I joined the crew of the stripped-out racing machine Bella Mente for their final training session before the big boat series begins tomorrow.
We headed to the eastern Solent to find some clear air to practise sail changes, before simulating a race. As we passed the Solent Sunbeam fleet under spinnakers, sailing at approximately twice their speed with just our white sails (well shiny black sails in Bella Mente’s case) – the Solent shrank before my eyes.
With our Jib Top flown from the bowsprit and inner staysail unfurled we were matching or outpacing true windspeeds of 10–14 knots. Within minutes, it seemed, Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower became the backdrop.
Just two weeks ago I was standing on Portsmouth’s shoreline watching the America’s Cup World Series, where just five crew adjusted hydrofoils to get 45ft cats to fly around a track. So it was refreshing to see how exciting the monohull racing world can still be in the same waters, as Bella Mente’s 18-strong burly crew relied on coffee-grinders and slick sail handling to still ensure thrilling speeds and manoeuvres.
Bella Mente is a Judel Vrolijk design, built by New England Boatworks and launched in 2012. She is one of a growing fleet of mini-maxi grand prix race yachts of between 60–80ft, and one of a new class of 72s. Her owner-driver and Maxi Class 72 President Hap Fauth was aboard today and able to shed light on why this size of yacht is currently holding such appeal.
“They are fun to race – the best racing boats pound for pound, ounce for ounce,” said Fauth, “and you can go offshore with them, that was my big attraction.” The ability to get these lightweight carbon fliers neatly around the cans at Cowes Week, plus be able to compete in ocean races is a versatile draw. As is both the owner-driver element for Fauth, and the draw of evolving technology.
In the Grand Prix monohull world there are two main competitive classes that are pushing the technology envelope since the America’s Cup moved to multihulls – the TP52s and this member-controlled Maxi 72 class that officially formed last year. Momo, the sistership to Ran V, launched this year and is also in Cowes. And fellow names on this circuit include Robertissima (ex Ran 2), Allegre, Shockwave and Jethou.
The sails, rigging and deck gear on these yachts are constantly developing. Yes, they are crewed by some of the world’s elite – Bella Mente’s afterguard alone includes Terry Hutchinson, Mike Sanderson, Ian Moore and Adrian Stead – but the improvements in the systems they use helps shed valuable seconds when racing. The result is phenomenally high loads and complex hardware, and on my part, a renewed respect for the synchronisation of crew work needed.
“We’re pretty much dropping the kite at the leeward mark now,” said two-time Volvo Ocean Race winner Mike ‘Moose’ Sanderson. This is made possible by a high-speed kite take-down system, a drum which pulls the belly of the sail directly down below decks through a large foredeck hatch at high speed. In fact, with the unremarkable conditions and relatively light breeze today, it was the speed of the hoists and drops rather than the boat speed that really impressed.
It was also notable how much Fauth puts down to keeping a reliable regular crew. “The most important part is the crew,” he told me. “If you can’t execute on the course or have the chemistry to do it, you’ll never win. We’ve worked really hard to get the best guys to fit in. We run it like a business but it’s a family.”
The logistics of managing a boat and team like this is another integral factor. The maintenance of Bella Mente alone is the job of boat captain Peter ‘Pirate’ Henderson, plus three others, full time. Henderson explained how they replace two running backstays per event on average for example. Up to 15 tonnes load is wound onto the runners upwind, and they are constantly adjusted in tune with the trimmers, hence the ropes and the winch drums take a beating.
The importance of reliability is a huge factor for a top-end campaign. “A breakage can or will ruin a race,” says Fauth. “It’s critical that everything is maintained full time.”
A video of racing with the mini-maxi fleet will follow.
For the results of today’s racing at Cowes Week click here