Nearly a decade since its launch, the RC44 class is still going strong. What's the appeal?

The RC44 class is in the UK for the first time this weekend. Helen Fretter sailed onboard Artemis to discover what sets this owner-driven class apart

Setting out from the Land Rover BAR base in Portsmouth to meet the RC44 class requires a slight recalibration. Compared to the AC’s futuristic flying catamarans, the RC44s, with their slim hulls and sloped transoms, are decidedly modern classic. The design, so reminiscent of the IACC lines, turns 10 next season.

There are other reminders that not only are we monohull racing, but we’re doing things a little differently here. We take a RIB ride out to the sailing area, east of the Forts. Despite plenty of public interest in the boats moored in Gunwharf Quays marina, this is not a venue chosen for its spectator venue. When the wind shifts – and shift it does on the first day of fleet racing, by over 60 degrees at times – the course setters re-lay, and re-lay, and re-lay in pursuit of a true windward-leeward course. No television schedules to adhere to here, and the guests are watching from RIBs, not a grandstand. Such things do not concern the RC44 fleet, which is all about a purer racing experience.

Instead the appeal of the class is one based on participation, not spectacle. As with any multinational sailing series – which the RC44 class is, with events in Bermuda, Spain, Portugal and Malta this season – a serious level of funding is required to take part. Some owners use their boat to promote a corporation – Bronenosec’s Gazprom branding, for example – others teams are privately funded, but the RC44 class is designed to appeal to owners because of what it offers them, rather than their company’s marketing departments.

This weekend’s visit to Portsmouth is a first for the fleet, and another indicator that the appeal of the RC44 is not always about the obvious Mediterranean sunshine or predictably glamorous locations. Nor is it about going the fastest or putting on the biggest show. Instead the RC44 class is all about the challenge.

For the first day of fleet racing in Portsmouth, the challenge was real. Some of the best tacticians in the world were scratching their heads as the Solent dealt an uncharacteristic day in which the conventional south-westerly sea breeze failed to dominate, and instead huge shifts, gunmetal grey clouds bringing divergent breezes, and patches of fading pressure streaked across the course to keep both race committee and competitors on their toes.

RC44 Portsmouth Cup ©Pedro Martinez / RC44 Class RC44 Portsmouth Cup
©Pedro Martinez / RC44 Class

I joined Artemis Racing, skippered by Iain Percy, who unusually was competing at Portsmouth both this week and next, in for the America’s Cup World Series. As on the AC45, Percy calls tactics, although the wheel was taken by Sara Gunderson, who works for the Swedish America’s Cup team on logistics and will take the helm when owner Torben Tornqvist can’t attend, thereby maintaining the amateur driver rule, an arrangement she admits is a nice perk of the job.

The ninth man position on board the RC44 offers a great view of the afterguard dynamic as guests sit inboard, aft of the tactician and helmsman on the transom. The transom of the RC44s can be detached in order to allow the boats to fit inside a 40ft container, and the join between the two hull sections flexes slightly disconcertingly during racing.

The aft position also gives a very up close and personal view of just how nip and tuck the competition is – especially during crosses and ducks. Bows loom up at alarming speed, only to whirl away again. The RC44 is definitely one of the more balletic classes when it comes to prestart positioning, which reflects the match racing component of each event on the Championship tour.

Once underway heel angle becomes critical – the crew drop-hiking over the side to press the RC44 level upwind. Former Star world champion Iain Percy makes the position look natural, even comfortable, although it is clearly anything but. It is not all about grunt, however. The RC44s are tweaky and responsive, with keel trim tabs, adjustable headstay ram and backstays. Keel trim tab and rudder angle read outs show on the mainsheet winch base, while Percy jumps on the main pedestal to add a second pair of hands during the hoists, drops and gybes of the 170sqm gennaker.

“We wanted to include a degree of complexity so an owner can experience what a top-end race boat is like to sail, and it delivers on that,” designer Russell Coutts states on the class website.

There’s an extra frisson to mark roundings as the RC44s seem particularly susceptible to hooking marks, with a 2.9m fin and bulb keel. So much so in fact that extra penalties had been introduced for this series for boats which hook marks or slash mark anchoring lines to keep racing.

RC44 Portsmouth Cup ©Pedro Martinez / RC44 Class RC44 Portsmouth Cup
©Pedro Martinez / RC44 Class

For most teams however it’s the Solent, which is providing the main challenge. On board Artemis Percy’s calls echo the changing conditions, wondering aloud if an early gybe on the first downwind was the wrong decision, but despite some fluctuations in fortunes we finish third.

Ed Baird, who is tactician on Team Nika, guided his team to the best results of the day described the day as, “Scary – a lot of big decisions to make out there and a lot of potential to make everything go bad!”

However, he adds.“There is a lot of value to going to a new place and learning something new. You always remember those days when it was hard, but you figured it out.

The former America’s Cup winner and his crew were buzzing on the dock, having clearly relished getting stuck into some high-level, truly tricksy sailing. The appeal for RC44 owners is similar, a chance for driven and competitive individuals to really pit themselves against the best in the world, backed up by a squad of elite level, uber-experienced crew.

Briton John Bassadone, who owns Peninsular Petroleum Sailing Team, echoed the sentiments of the day. “It was frustrating and pretty tough. One minute you’re smart and the next you’re a complete idiot. But I loved it.”

He explained the appeal of the RC44s. “These boats are, I think, among the top classes in the world in terms of fleet racing. It’s such a fun boat to sail.

“It’s fun, it’s fast. Downwind when you have 15-20 knots it’s fast, but it’s easy to control as well. It’s quite radical. It’s hard in terms of stiff competition, but in terms of the actual steering of the boat for somebody who maybe isn’t very experienced like myself, you can get away with it!

“The other thing is budget, compared to other classes it’s very, very reasonable. Much, much less than a TP52, and probably more fun to sail. It’s because the boat itself isn’t very expensive to buy new, we restrict the number of new sails you can have, everybody’s very conscious of it.”