The power of the Farr 280 makes her like handling a Great Dane chasing a rabbit. But as part of a diverse class, is rating an issue?

Today I felt like I had been dragged around the race course on the end of a lead, such was the load in the large asymmetric kite sheet aboard ‘Red’, the Farr 280 that I was racing.

Shortly before racing, I had been talking to Nick and Annie Haig, owners of another 280, ‘So Steamy’. Annie, who trims the kite downwind, said that she only used the winch when the breeze got up.

No problem, I thought. And it wasn’t, eventually.

Having been given the job of trimming aboard Red we had a quick practice before the start.

As the kite streamed out of the foredeck hatch on the hoist and set I had not expected such a snatch on the sheet in the 10knots breeze. As if holding onto a Great Dane’s lead just as it spots a rabbit, a split second was all it took to realise the power in this masthead asymmetric as we took off. It was definitely time to grunt up and concentrate.

But there was something else on my mind: ratings.

The Farr 280s are racing in the sports boat class at Cowes Week, a group that includes an eclectic mix of modest sized pocket rockets including J88s, Cork 1720s, some VX Ones, a canting keel SK2 and a Formula One from the eighties. On the face of it, an interesting mix and yet as the race got underway it was clear that the class had split into several sub sections.

Among them, the four Farr 280s provided some superb close racing with lead changing happening every few minutes as we tacked along the mainland shoreline, hugging the coast as closely as we dare, while hoping that 0.5m was a sufficient margin on depth through the tacks.

The J88s were having a private battle too, hunting as a pack just behind us. Further astern were the others, spread out over a large distance.

Aboard Red, our day quickly turned into a match race against Richard Rankin’s ‘Pandemonium’ as we traded positions for over three hours and were rarely separated by more than three boats lengths. What one made up for in boat speed and shifts the other gained through tactics and boat handling. It was racing just as it should be, intense and absorbing for all of the crew.

Having test sailed the first 280 in the UK earlier this year in much stronger conditions I had seen what she is capable of downwind in a breeze. But this race demonstrated what’s she’s like to handle on the race course and I was very impressed.

There have been plenty of hopes raised with this new class since the announcement of the design at last year’s Cowes Week. With four sold and afloat in the UK it has been a slower start for the class than had been hoped for, but the close racing has made up for some of that.

But one of the key topics of conversation among the owners and crews of these boats echoes that of others racing grand prix boats under IRC. Their concerns are that the rating for such boats is punitive when compared to the mainstream and that this is not only limiting the chances of being rewarded for a good performance, but is stifling the development of new racing designs.

And when I looked at the results for the end of the day I could see what they meant.

While full congratulations go to the team in ‘Spider Pig’, a modified Cork 1720 for winning overall, the margin of 10 minutes on corrected time between us, in 4th overall and her seemed a bit harsh. Clearly there is always room for improvement and few of us ever sail a perfect race, but it was difficult to see where 10 minutes could have been picked up in our three and a half hour race.

The debate on handicap in the Farr 280 class is one that appears to be growing elsewhere – Where does handicap racing go in the future and how can new designs can be brought in without ruining racing in the bulk of the established fleet?

The solution is certainly not an easy one, matching performance boats that have a schizophrenic performance profile depending on whether they are planning or not, against those that only ever sail in displacement mode is a tough nut to crack. But the issue is becoming more pressing if new boats, fleets are to be developed and  new sailors are to be encouraged.

When the price tag of a boat starts to rise towards and beyond £100k, the chances of a healthy one design fleet reduces. One design is also not the answer at local sailing venues around the country where handicap racing is the only option.

There are always grizzles and gripes about handicap systems but with the economy on the up and enthusiasm for racing proving equally buoyant, maybe it is time to take a new look at the future of handicap racing.


Day 5 video report