The Melges 40 is the only canting-keel production one-design yacht in the world. Andi Robertson explains what makes it extraordinary
Each year the curtain rises on the Mediterranean grand prix regatta season at the PalmaVela. The increasingly popular event is not just a chance to shake the rust off race boats after the winter, but more often than not there are a couple of eye-catching new designs to be spotted.
The 2018 PalmaVela saw the Melges 40 make its public debut as a class at the popular multi-class regatta. Interest spread like wildfire.
Despite a small entry of five boats, competition levels were high. Four of the five international teams won races during their nine race series, the regatta title went to the wire, and there were just five points between 1st and 4th.
The mainly pro and semi-pro class is stacked with talent: Cameron Appleton was calling tactics for winners Inga from Sweden, Francesco Bruni sails on Stig. Teams so far hail from Sweden, Italy, Japan and Monaco/Russia.
The Melges 40 is something of a slow-burn success story. As the only canting keel, all carbon, strict one-design grand prix racer it remains unique. It is very much an elite, niche class. It was never targeted at the wider horizons of the one-design production racing class, such as is the new Melges 37.
So far it appeals only to a small cross-section of experienced, competitive owners who want electric downwind speed, and quick and efficient upwind sailing. The canting keel adds a whole new dimension to windward-leeward racing.
Melges 40 owners want to go quicker than anything else of a similar size, and to travel and race internationally with their team. They are owners who might otherwise be in the TP52 fleet, but perhaps don’t want to employ full-time shore crew or to be running a development programme.
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The Melges 40 is the confluence of two sets of ideas. Botin Partners were already convinced that canting keel technology was the way forward and had done their own preliminary designs, while Melges had a small number of successful top-level Melges 32 owners who wanted to move up to something bigger. And the new design simply had to be faster; which is a big ask considering the downwind and reaching speeds of the 32.
Adolfo Carrau of the Botin design office is a huge fan of the end result. “The concept and the way the boat behaves are unique,” he explains. “It is really easy and safe to race hard but it goes very fast. It is very overpowered but it is easy to control.
“It has a huge sailplan and a very tall rig. It accelerates really quickly and the owner-drivers can push the boat very hard downwind because the bow is usually up, and it has the twin rudders.”
The Melges 40 is hugely powerful, with a 72m2 square top main and 49m2 jib – that’s 20 per cent more sail area than a Fast 40+. The keel sets a 1.1 tonne bulb on a 3.4m carbon fin.
“In essence you get 10 per cent more righting moment than the Fast 40+ with a bulb approximately half its weight.
The keel technology is super-simple and well proven. Manufactured by Cariboni it is a direct development of the IMOCA and Volvo 65 systems using a single ram with a double-acting cylinder (which both pushes and pulls).
It’s driven by a 24V 4,500W power pack that is controlled by Cariboni’s four-point system. A simple keypad on the turn of the cockpit, at the helmsman’s back leg, is for the tactician/runner trimmer at the back of the boat to operate.
Simplicity is paramount in every area. Hence there is a single centreline canard rather than twin daggerboards cluttering up deck space and complicating matters. The canard is controlled on a simple purchase system by the pit crew.
The purchase system sits inside and is controlled from two lines, up and down on the winch. Needless to say this is one of the busiest and skilled crew jobs on the boat.
The class sails with nine (or ten) people, up to a maximum crew weight of 750kg. There are no limitations on professional sailors unless specified by a national class association. Most teams are currently sailing with nine, some with a dedicated grinder. Fundamental to the operation of the boat is the aft pedestal, a six-speed Harken MX Air.
The two-part twin spreader high modulus Southern Spars rig is deck stepped and set with EC3 composite rigging. The rig uses TP52-style deflectors, which are controlled by a PCT-developed magic wheel, one of four such systems on board.
They are also used to control the traveller, drop line system and vang. There are masthead and jib halyard locks. Sailmaker choice is open and at the moment the fleet is split between North and Quantum.
The canting keel adds a set of new challenges to moding and trimming the boat downwind. Michele Ivaldi, tactician on the Dynamiq Synergy Sailing Team who joined the class from the TP52s, explains what he sees as some of the attractions of the Melges 40: “It is super fun because it is a new generation one-design, there are so many things to learn.
“The keel position upwind is usually fully canted to 45°. Downwind it is very challenging to understand so if you want to you can have the crew maybe not full hiking but with the keel up, or you can do the opposite – there so many different modes.
“For example, we saw that when we are sailing in 11-13 knots we use 20° keel and the boat is sailing 143°-145° TWA. When it is lighter you are sailing with the keel in the middle and more like normal. It is very unique.”
Even the most experienced teams like Stig and Inga have still only sailed between 30 and 40 days on the water so far and so there is still a lot to learn. The finer points of the tactical choices are all part of the learning curve.
Among the fleet there seemed to be a real camaraderie, all of the teams debriefing together on the Real Club Náutico de Palma’s pontoon.
Inga’s owner, Richard Goransson, came from the Farr 30 into the Melges 32 having won the US Nationals and the European Series: “You have to plan your tactics just a little bit further ahead. A lee-bow is not so easy to pull off because if you come in too close you won’t make your tack.
“It is all about tacking and the keel dictates the speed of your tack. You turn the boat at the same speed as the keel and come out high, then bring the bow down. If you lean over then it is really hard to get back up.
“To maintain speed out of the tack you need to be quite careful. We are all learning that. It is super close racing, one boat length of a gain is like: ‘We crushed them!’”
Melges was adamant that a 40-footer that makes 22-23 knots downwind should not have a prop dragging in the water, so the prop is lifted before racing. The inner power pack, PLC brain and remote control are all controlled by the engine.
The hydraulics run off two batteries for the canting keel. After three races there is usually still 60 per cent of battery capacity left so the boats should be capable of two days racing autonomously.
Botin’s Carrau confirms: “You always return to the boat with a smile on your face. That is not marketing speak. I have always returned to the dock with a smile on my face. Everyone always looks forwards to going sailing in 20 knots and big waves because it is so easy to sail. It will go 23 to 24 knots.”
He smiles, “Who needs foils? It is very simple. Keeping it simple was our priority. It is very easy to get very complicated very quickly. Complex boats are appealing but at 40ft they quickly need a shore team to maintain and you need an engineering team.
“We wanted to avoid experiments. After all, in the round the world races the canting keel system here is well proven. So we are not inventing anything, we are putting pre-existing technology in a production boat.”
Melges 40 Specification
LOA: 11.99m (39ft 4in)
LWL: 11.10m (36ft 5in)
Beam: 3.53m (11ft 7in)
Displacement (lightship): 3,250kg (7,165lb)
Draught: 3.20m (10ft 6in)
Crew weight (max): 750kg (1,653lb)
Fin weight: 100kg (220lb)
Bulb weight: 1,100 kg (2,425lb)
Canting keel angle: 45°
Mainsail area: 72m2 (775ft2)
Jib area: 49m2 (527ft2)
Gennaker area: 200m2 (2,152ft2)