Seventeen superyachts are taking part in the Superyacht Cup Palma in a precursor to the 2007 event which will see up to 70 yachts of more than 30m racing in Palma Bay


Superyachts limber up for 2007

(and sheep jump over the moon?)

Anyone in the Bay of Palma this week would have had the chance to see 17 of the finest supersailing yachts afloat battling it out in a fascinating contest of wits and witticism. I put it like that because The Cup is regarded primarily as fun event with plenty of high jinx and partying inextricably linked with a sneaking desire to win. Mixing the two successfully requires vast reserves of stamina, self-control and guile – get it right and this is a stunning event.
At the time of writing yachts looking good included Stuart Townsend’s Swan 100 Virago, Peter Harrison’s Sojana and the new Huisman 32m Gliss, designed by Philippe Briand but almost anything could happen during the final race today.
Apart from great dockside parties hosted by the likes of event main sponsor Ulysse Nardin (watches), bankers Fortis and New Zealand who stage a ‘haka’ (actually guys the dock’s getting a bit narrow for all this partying) there’s plenty of innovation on the water when the going gets a bit slow.
Yesterday during the postponement, race ‘officer’ Patrick Whetter called up from the committee boat which, incidentally, had been kindly provided by Roger Taylor, drummer for the rock band Queen and a dead keen supporter of superyachting. “Could the fleet circle us at five knots and do something appropriate for New Zealand day, please” or words to that effect. Naturally enough crews didn’t have to be asked twice. Wonderful displays of synchronised leg crossing and un-crossing were followed by brightly uniformed crews balanced at attention on very long booms. Then came the inevitable BaaaaBaaaBaaa cacophony to mark New Zealand’s support and a dreadful mooning of the demure looking committee by the largely male contingent aboard Bear Wynne’s Scheherezade. Bear continued to up the ante by ordering (asking actually) nipper James Brill to leap over the side armed with no more than a surf board and ‘ski’ behind Scheherezade at 14 knots. Luckily a sea breeze suddenly perked up and we were able to get down to the business of racing but it got me thinking of ‘other things to do when racing ain’t on the cards’.
The Superyacht Cup Palma is now in its tenth year the brainchild of Spike Thompson and Patrick Whetter who in 1993 established the Vela 2000 sail maintenance and then sail making loft in Alaro in the hills to the north of Palma. Yachts en route to the Caribbean after a long Med season would congregate for a pit-stop and the inevitable party. It became so popular that Spike and Patrick had to put an extra floor in at the loft just to squeeze everyone in for the do. “After a few years we thought we had better have a regatta to go with the party so the event was born,” said Spike Thompson.

How it’s grown
A handful of yachts turned up in the early days, now the entry stands at almost 20 and the event has become an important addendum to the string of regattas and boat shows which crowd this part of the season. The great thing about the Superyacht Cup, apart from owners seeing their ‘investment’ being used in earnest, is that the industry can observe their wares in action (and under considerable stress at times), talk it all through with skippers and owners and judge whether or not what the designer promised all those years ago has actually materialised. Quite a nerve-wracking time for some.
What’s more, racing supersailing yachts is a phenomenon clearly on a roll. Yachts – new and old – are vastly more competitive and are being designed very much with speed in mind. They are no longer regarded simply as floating holiday homes – technology now allows them to do battle even if you do have to cover the works of art, stow the porcelain and prepare a smart lunch for 40 guests and crew. Retro-fitting of new rigs, sails and deck hardware have made a genuine difference to what may have once been regarded as old clunkers.
And next year is the BIG ONE. The Superyacht Cup Palma in 2007 will move from the traditional dates in October to June 16-19 for an event tying in with the America’s Cup. With no room in Valencia to host the number of supersailing yachts homing in on the event, Palma will become hosts for upwards of 60 yachts over 30m. With the New Zealanders ‘exporting’ their Millennium Cup as part of the event and builders and designers like Huisman and Dubois organising their own gatherings of yachts it’s going to be massive. In fact the New Zealand industry has been a canny, generous and popular supporter of the October event for some years.

So how the heck do you rate a superyacht
This year, watching 17 yachts sail round a 25-mile course using a cleverly designed pursuit race system to avoid unimaginably expensive start line carnage was fascinating. Whettter and Thompson use the system to great effect and manage, on the whole, to avoid ‘disputes’ although as this is a yacht race there will, by definition, be disagreements. It seems to work though and a light-hearted and safety first approach to the whole thing sets the tone.
Essentially the yacht deemed to be the slowest starts first followed at two minute intervals by the next slowest and so on. The idea is that by the finish the fleet will be closely grouped and in practice this seems to work extraordinarily well. The following day the fleet is re-organised in order of elapsed time and reversed for starting so the slowest yacht from the previous day starts first. The same applies for day three, based on day two’s elapsed times. Results are calculated by applying a ‘low points win’ system to each race so 1st gets 1pt and 2nd gets 2pts and so on. To discourage sand-baggers on day one – ie those who deliberately go slow to get a better start time the following day – a variable multiplier is applied, low on day one and high on day three. Day three’s final race should therefore see optimum ‘rating’ through the starting time.

Times they are a changing
Some might be surprised to hear that Whetter and Thompson have recently sold their sail making repair and manufacturing business. Quantum have bought what was the Evolution composite membranes sail making element along with the maintenance and repair side although they are leasing the buildings on Majorca from Whetter and Thompson’s Vela 2000 company and Thompson will stay on for a couple of years consulting and managing. For Quantum, now considered number two in the world of sail making after North and being driven hard by the de Voss family who own Amway, the membrane technology plant is something they have been keen to get their hands on. While the yarn laying technology they use for their sails made in their Malaysian plant is sound the membrane technology has had snags and Vela 2000’s Evolution methods are what they have been after.
In turn Whetter and Thompson both feel that the scale and technological advances in sail making, particularly for superyachts, are moving at such a rate and becoming so in need of big capital spend to keep up, it was time to exit. Indeed one can sense more than just the beginnings of arms wars in the superyacht fleet as they flex their gigantic and expensive to maintain ‘muscles’ on the race course.

Developing the Superyacht Cup
Instead the dynamic duo from Mallorca are going to concentrate on the development of the Superyacht Cup.
They already have an event in Antigua following the Charter Week in December and next year the Superyacht Cup in June is already taking up large chunks of time. They are also looking much further afield. An event in China linked to the 2008 Olympics is being mooted possibly in conjunction with Charlie Dwyer’s Pucket superyacht event which is an annual cruise in company for sailing yachts and motor yachts.
Thompson and Whetter are also working with Hank Halstead’s Bucket events on the other side of the Atlantic where numbers at St Barths and Newport have swollen dramatically.
A fascinating result of all this is a database of superyacht performance. By recording performance over given course lengths in given conditions Thompson and Whetter have accumulated valuable comparative data which they feel would be of great interest to designers, builders and, most important of all, owners. So when you are considering a certain builder/designer combination you can take a look at the database and see just how well they may have done against the oppo.
The information is likely to be made freely available on a spreadsheet programme on the web. Watch this space and for more information. And read the next issue (December) of Yachting World for my experience aboard Scheherezade during this year’s Superyacht Cup, Palma. No, I bottled out of the moon?
14 October, 2006