Revolver is a 38ft gentleman’s racer drawn by radical thinking octogenarian Bruce Ritchie for his own racing in Sydney Harbour. Crosbie Lorimer steps on board
“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Michael Ritchie when his 83-year-old father Bruce showed him the lines he had drawn up for his ‘gentleman’s racer’. “It was a nice surprise,” concedes Michael, recalling that he’d expected his father to design a mild-mannered boat with a conventional cockpit, envisioning him ensconced behind a steering wheel.
The epithet ‘gentleman’s racer’ was certainly not what sprang to mind when I first saw the Ritchie 38 Revolver. Indeed, on first pass the boat had more in common with the fleet of grand prix MC38s berthed alongside her at the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club near Sydney than most of the other cruiser-racers on the club’s pontoons.
The low freeboard, wide open stern cockpit with tiller, 2m carbon bowsprit, plumb stem and absence of stanchions all spoke of a boat designed for speed. It was only on closer inspection that the ‘gentlemanly’ features gradually caught my eye: a fixed carbon jib boom, lazyjacks, sail stacker, timber cockpit floor and no running backstays.
Revolver is the most recent in a long line of yachts designed by Bruce Ritchie during his 75-plus years of sailing. Starting out in 12ft, 16ft and 18ft skiffs he moved on to sailing 505s (representing Australia in the 1957 world championships) before building and racing the first Yachting World Diamond Class keelboat outside of the UK in 1961.
Bruce has always taken a very hands-on approach to all parts of his sailing creations: designing and building winch drums, hand splicing wire rigging and even – when threatened with banishment from a yacht club for racing with a daggerboard in a keelboat division – building a fire on the sand beside a Sydney Harbour boatshed so that he could melt lead for a composite keel.
Many years of successfully representing his country in 5.5m and Etchells keelboats were interspersed with his ownership of numerous cruiser-racers, several to his own design and most bearing the name of his wife, Jan. Bruce even ventured into powerboat design, personally selling one of his Med-style 34ft Cabriolet Royals to Kerry Packer, the media tycoon and fellow Australian.
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After several decades of racing and cruising their yachts together – more recently including the Bavaria Match 42 Union – father and son Bruce and Michael drew up their wish list for what was to become Revolver.
“Our requirements were clear,” recalls Bruce, “She had to look great in the modern sense, plane downwind at 20 knots-plus, sail well to windward, be able to be sailed single-handed, and be able to race with a small crew for non-spinnaker events when required by Michael.”
“I want to be able to stand up in a big breeze and go like the clappers,” adds Bruce, who quickly realised that this brief was not going to be readily met by any production boats. “Looking around the world of daysailers nothing grabbed us,” says Bruce, “We wanted something with a little more oomph to it.”
Undeterred, he set about creating his own design, drawing up the lines for the hull, rig and keel, before handing them to Will Hardcastle of Peter Lowe Design who fared the lines and digitised them. A local kitchen cabinetmaker then cut the ten gaboon hardwood hull frames with a CNC machine.
The proposed build method for Revolver was anything but conventional, so the choice of Noakes Boatyard in Sydney was a natural fit for Michael and Bruce’s creation, given the yard’s reputation for combining traditional and contemporary boatbuilding craftsmanship.
With the timber frames for the mould intended to be an integral part of the boat’s structure, Noakes placed the frames in a jig before applying diagonal layers of 3mm, epoxy-saturated gaboon ply: three layers on the topsides, four on the bottom.
This formed the permanent mould, over which the carbon laminate hull form was laid up and vacuum bagged. An all-up, fully rigged displacement of 3,300kg gives some idea of the lightness of gaboon, particularly given the multi-layered construction.
There was an environmental positive here too, as integrating the frames and mould in the final build avoided the waste associated with moulds that are typically discarded to landfill.
The rig and deck layout is simple and efficient for ease of handling; the fixed jib boom and track allows the headsail to be permanently hanked-on and the mainsail is stowed in a stack pack with fixed roller bearing slides on the mast track for ease of hoisting, lowering and reefing.
An Oceanvolt electric engine (which can be charged by a small roll-up mat of solar panels left on the deck overnight) saves weight and adds to the ease of getting underway.
“My boys might jump on and we get her sailing in five minutes,” says Michael, “She is so light that despite all that sail area it’s really easy to manage the sheets and halyards; I can sail her around on my own in anything up to 25 knots of breeze.”
Bruce has long been interested in foil design and started prototyping a small fore and aft canting winged keel for his cruiser racer Jan V as far back as 1979 (before Lexcen’s famous winged keel for Australia II). Although Revolver does not sport a winged keel, the bulb design reflects Bruce’s ongoing quest to minimise drag, having a vortex-reducing tracking foil moulded to its aft end.
The keel can also be lifted by a halyard for shallow water berthing, leaving the option for the boat to be moored off the Ritchies’ waterfront property, a short run across Pittwater from the club.
On the water, father and son have been enjoying success in the local fleet racing, seeing off the Farr 40s in light breezes and mixing it with the MC38s, which, remarkably, are heavier than Revolver. Upwind the boat will readily manage 7.5 knots in 6 knots of breeze, 14-15 knots on a two sail reach and up to 20 knots downwind in as much breeze.
When I asked Bruce if he had another significant yacht design in him, the energetic octogenarian insisted he was a little too busy for that. “Right now I’m designing a renewable energy floating pod for saltwater power generation.” I wasn’t expecting that!
In 1959, Bruce and Jan bought a cedar-planked 18ft racing skiff. They fitted her with 16-footer sails, closed in the foredeck and made her a stem-headed rig with no bowsprit, but with an iron fin centreboard.
Jan and Bruce won every race they entered Kunapipi with the Middle Harbour Yacht Club until it outlawed centreboard yachts from racing and banned the couple. Bruce then began converting Kunapipi into a keelboat to be able to race again.
“I set about designing a new type of low drag, foil shaped, lead weighted fin keel to be built in fibreglass. I hand laid up a foil keel over a male cardboard mould in our flat. I designed an insert of 400lb of lead to be hot-cast directly into the bottom of the FRP fin keel. The lead ingots were melted over an open fire on the sand.
“I then devised a system to pour two-part, structural polyurethane foam into the remaining space right to the top of the hollow keel. The foam had to be delivered to the beach in two chilled ‘eskies’ to be mixed and poured immediately into the space. As far as I am aware, this was the very first composite fin keel built anywhere and it worked a treat!”
LOA: 11.35m (37.24ft)
LWL: 10.25m (33.63ft)
Beam: 3.50m (11.48ft)
Draught: 2.70m (8.85ft)
Displacement: 3,300kg (7,275lb)
Mainsail: 56.54m2 (608.6ft2)
Jib: 39.68m2 (427.11ft2)
Spinnaker: 185.00m2 (1,191.3ft2)