Double-handed racing has been the stand-out success story of recent years. James Boyd finds out why it’s so popular
If ever the stars aligned to see a sport’s popularity grow exponentially, they did so for the recent story of double-handed racing offshore.
Societal changes, a brief hint of a future Olympic Games role, and even social distancing all conspired to make double-handed racing a phenomenon. Add in a high level of competition, plus the increasing availability of purpose-designed yachts, and the growth in the double-handed scene has been explosive.
One of the most surprising developments of the last decade is just how competitive double-handed offshore racers have become against fully crewed boats.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race when Cherbourg surgeon Pascal Loison and his pro-sailor Figarist son Alexis, sailing their JPK 10.10 Night And Day, won not only the race’s Two-Handed class and the hotly contested IRC 3 class, but also the race outright on IRC against a giant field of 294 boats. Among their opponents were 249 fully crewed boats featuring several top international campaigns.
Double-handed competition in the Fastnet has now reached the stage where IRC 3 is entirely dominated by double-handers, with nine of the top 10 spots in 2019 occupied by two-man crews in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s biennial offshore.
The class was again topped by Alexis Loison, then sailing with Jean Pierre Kelbert aboard the French boatbuilder’s own JPK 10.30 Léon.
But the most telling statistics from the Rolex Fastnet Race show how massively double-handed offshore racing has grown in popularity. An IRC Two-Handed class was first introduced to the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2005 when it had 20 entries. This grew to 36 in 2011, then to the last race when there were 64.
At the time of writing no fewer than 91 two-man crews were entered in IRC Two-Handed for the 2021 edition of the race, contributing to the event’s record-sized fleet of 450-plus boats.
From small beginnings
So, how has this come about? Double-handed offshore racing has a longer history than its recent boom might suggest. It was created in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s by visionaries such as Cockleshell Heroes leader Blondie Hasler, born out of a pioneering spirit and a demand for adventure following the end of World War II.
Hasler encouraged the Royal Western Yacht Club in Plymouth to run the first Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) in 1960, which by 1976 had become a monster event with 125 boats. But equally stirring the imagination were the RWYC’s double-handed events, and Hasler spurred the club to run the first double-handed Round Britain and Ireland in 1966 with four stops: Crosshaven, Ireland; Castle Bay, Barra in the Outer Hebrides; Lerwick, Shetland; and Harwich (subsequently replaced by Lowestoft).
The inaugural event was won by Derek Kelsall and Martin Minter-Kemp aboard the trimaran Toria, inadvertently also demonstrating the early potential of multihulls for offshore racing.
The TwoSTAR was later created as the double-handed version of the OSTAR, running from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, and first held in 1981.
However, thanks largely to the notoriety of Eric Tabarly, the OSTAR winner in both 1964 and 1976, French race organisers spectacularly – and in the most magnificently successful way – hijacked both the sporting and business elements of short-handed offshore racing.
On the single-handed side this kicked off with the Route du Rhum in 1978 and the Vendée Globe in 1989, but there were also significant double-handed events such as the Transat en Double (first run in 1979) and the Transat Jacques Vabre, held biennially since 1993.
Nowadays, top level double-handed offshore racing takes place in France across all the pro fleets from the IMOCAs, to the Figaro class (notably with their Transat AG2R transatlantic race), to the Class 40 (Normandy Channel Race and Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables) and a multitude of events in the Classe Mini.
Today the Royal Western Yacht Club’s short-handed events still take place on the same great courses, but are purely Corinthian. Meanwhile, over the last 20 years in the UK the amateur side of double-handed offshore racing has been growing steadily and organically.
Whereas once it was broadly acceptable to leave work on a Friday lunchtime and not return until the following Monday afternoon, weather beaten and full of rum and tall tales, this is no longer the case.
Today’s ‘time poor’ society has resulted in owners of race boats finding it ever harder to muster committed, reliable crew. Racing double-handed provides a neat solution: fewer crew to organise and pay for and a smaller, cheaper boat to campaign.
Rob Craigie and Deb Fish, who race the Sun Fast 3600 Bellino, began racing two-up together in 2012 and are among the UK’s best Corinthian double-handers. Both previously raced fully crewed, and have even tried single-handed, but settled on racing as a team of two.
The main attraction, said Fish, is the challenge: “You run out of them fully crewed – I’d done the Fastnet, done transatlantics on the ARC a couple of times fully crewed, and the deliveries back. Double-handed is good, because you have to do everything and you are always busy.”
Craigie agreed: “You are very much more involved with the boat. Fully crewed, you are usually sitting on the rail, you aren’t involved, which is a bit dull.”
Over the last two decades, racing for the likes of the Bellino crew has been supported in the Solent by clubs like the RORC, the Royal Southampton and JOG, which have either laid on specific series for double-handers or allowed them to race alongside their fully crewed fleets.
The pattern is repeating worldwide – Rhode Island, San Francisco and the Great Lakes in the US have thriving double-handed communities, and the cancelled 2020 Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race was set to be the first to include a double-handed division.
The medal draw
More recent developments helped an already growing sector of the sport turn supernova. In 2019 mixed offshore double-handed racing was mooted for inclusion in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, and proposed to the International Olympic Committee by World Sailing.
During the event selection process, which is notorious for its politics and power-mongering, it was rejected earlier this month by the IOC in favour of an additional formula kiteboarding medal. It is a huge shame that France, the world’s top nation for short-handed offshore racing won’t host an Olympic event that could engage a vast number of its sailing fans.
Nonetheless even the possibility of double-handed offshore racing becoming an Olympic sport enticed a whole crop of top flight international sailors to move into the fleet.
Titans of our sport such as Ken Read in the USA, Shirley Robertson and Dee Caffari in the UK, and Nick Moloney and Adrienne Cahalan in Australia have all got involved. It has also caused yacht clubs across the globe to start supporting double-handed racing with class events.
Many clubs were further encouraged to increase their support of short-handed racing due to the pandemic. For example, in the UK, due to social distancing restrictions, double-handed racing was the first non-elite aspect of competitive sailing to recover after last spring’s lock-down. Even without the Olympic factor, double-handed racing looks set to continue expanding.
Dee Caffari says she was initially encouraging members of her Turn the Tide on Plastic Volvo Ocean Race crew to consider the new Olympic discipline before deciding to give it a go herself.
The opportunity was spurred when she was contacted by a young sailor, James Harayda, who was taking delivery of a new Sun Fast 3300 Gentoo. During 2020 this led to the duo representing the UK at the EUROSAF Mixed Offshore European Championship, where they didn’t do well, but followed this up with a 2nd place in the Drheam Cup in France, and winning the RORC-organised IRC Two-Handed Nationals. This year they are entered in the Rolex Fastnet Race.
“The focus was generated by its Olympic potential, but actually I have found it is a really competitive class of racing that has been really good fun to sail, and I have just really enjoyed regular racing,” said Caffari, who raced double-handed in the IMOCA class in two Transat Jacques Vabres and a Barcelona World Race.
The principal differences between the double-handed racing she has done aboard her IMOCA and in Gentoo are scale-related.
Transatlantic on an IMOCA, racing is more about chasing weather systems, whereas on Gentoo the much shorter courses are more about boat-on-boat tactics and tidal decisions. A 32-footer is vastly more manageable than even a purpose-built IMOCA, but the racing in what is effectively a one design fleet, is far more intense, with much less use of the autopilot.
Caffari explained: “Everything is loaded really well, it is manageable and within reach and there’s nothing that’s too difficult to get out of. It’s all just about getting the procedures so that you know what is required – what wind strength you need to dial down in before you can drop the kite, or ‘in this wind strength I know I can gather it in myself’.”
New double-handed racing tools
Part of the beauty of double-handed racing is that many owners compete on the boat they already have. However, as double-handed racing under IRC has risen in popularity, manufacturers – particularly those in France – have responded with new designs specifically optimised for short-handed racing.
They notably include Jeanneau, with its Sun Fast range, and JPK. Both have created boats that IRC smiles upon; such as the Loison’s 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race winning JPK 10.10. In 2015 Géry Trentesaux’s won the Fastnet outright aboard a JPK 10.80, which can be configured for racing fully crewed or short-handed.
Nigel Colley heads the UK Jeanneau dealership Sea Ventures, and is a keen short-handed sailor himself. Few have observed the development of these boats as closely. “It started with the J/105, which is still an excellent short-handed boat, but then the JPK and Sun Fasts came along. They don’t race as one designs but they can race on a level-ish playing field under IRC.”
For Jeanneau the breakthrough boat was the Sun Fast 3200 launched in 2008. This was purpose-designed for the French Transquadra race, a transatlantic race for amateur over 40-year-olds.
“They didn’t make it extreme – it could have been lighter with a taller mast but they ended up with a boat that was perfect for double-handed and short-handed racing, which was manageable with a competitive IRC rating,” says Colley.
The genre has evolved further with the more recent Sun Fast 3300 and JPK 1030, as well as the J/99 and Dehler 30. A key factor in their being tailored to short-handing is their inherent stability, gained from hull form and water ballast, allowing them to carry sail without having to reef too often.
According to Colley they have high ballast ratios of 40%, while water ballast is modest, 200 litres on the Sun Fast 3300 for example, or “the same as having three people sitting on the side of the boat.”
That French IRC designs are leading the way in this offshore sector should come as no surprise given the huge amount of development that takes place in offshore classes across the Proto Minis and Class 40s up to the IMOCAs.
Over past decades this has prompted the development of everything from roller furling systems, self-tailing winches and autopilots to twin rudders, and even the evolution of cockpit layouts with all lines from the foredeck and mast led aft to the cockpit.
Another visible influence is the highly effective (but to some eyes rather ugly) scow bows we are more used to seeing on modern grand prix race boats are now adopted by IRC 30-footers.
Sails for short-handed racing have been refined so, instead of having a giant wardrobe spanning the entire range of wind speeds and points of sail, fewer sails can be carried to cover a wider range, including jibs and even spinnakers that can be reefed, to minimise time consuming and potentially risky sail changes.
As boats and their gear are getting lighter they are in turn less loaded. A Sun Fast 3300 weighs 3,500kg compared to the volumetrically smaller Sigma 33 at 4,100kg. The new designs are also much more inclined to plane, rather than ‘dig themselves a hole in the water’, helping to keep loads light.
Upping the level
While the hardware is improving so are the sailors. When it comes to training for offshore racing the Pôle Finistere Course au Large in Port la Forêt has been considered the best in the world for decades, initially for Figaro sailors but now across all the major offshore fleets. Similar centres have started up across France, with training now extending even into the IRC classes.
With the prospect of double-handing going Olympic training for the discipline greatly improved in the UK too, supported by both the RYA and the RORC. Tornado Olympic sailor turned coach Hugh Styles has been brought in to help. He provides weather information and analysis pre-race and post-race debriefs.
While in Port la Forêt this might take the form of classroom sessions, in the modern locked-down era Zoom debriefing and training sessions have proved just as effective, and in fact work especially well with the double-handed fleet spread across the Solent. It is not only the aspirant Olympians who’ve been keying into this, but all levels.
Double-handed offshore racing in the UK has also benefitted from getting ‘organised’. Leading this is former Artemis Offshore Academy star turned Volvo Ocean Race sailor Henry Bomby, who has been racing with double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson.
He has led the formation of the UK Double-handed Offshore Series, which comprises the leading RORC races and Round the Island Race in the build-up to this year’s Rolex Fastnet. The Series is for boats with an IRC TCC of between 0.990 and 1.055, which covers most of the double-handed fleet.
The group behind it includes Bomby; Stuart Childerley, a former Olympian, Etchells World Champion and world class race officer; plus 19-year-old Ellie Driver and Corinthian sailor Kate Cope; thus a broad range of double-handed offshore racers are represented. Expecting to get a handful of boats signing up to their Series, much to their surprise 29 boats pitched up to their first event in early May.
While the 2021 UK season is fully domestic due to the pandemic and Brexit, Bomby hopes to include French events in the future such as Spi Ouest-France or the Drheam Cup, thereby in turn encouraging more French boats to participate in the UK. Colley also believes that in future there will be more short-handed racing internationally under ORC.
Bomby is particularly keen to push the encouragement of youth sailing. Great existing initiatives include Gavin Howe, owner of the J/88 Tigris, lending his boat to an under-25 year old crew to use. “The best model is an owner who pays for the boat and a young guy or girl who puts the boat in the water, trains with them on Friday, races at the weekend and does it again the next week,” says Bomby.
The double-handed fleet now offers the closest offshore racing in the UK. Bomby points out: “This is not the Figaro, but it is close enough that when you’re sailing away from a boat which is the same as yours you know you are going pretty well.” Especially if it has the likes of Shirley Robertson or Stuart Childerley on the helm.
Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.