Atlantic to Mari-Cha IV - 100 Years of technology

In 1905, the New York Yacht Club’s transatlantic race saw that era’s most advanced yachts competing for the Kaiser’s Cup. From a start line off of the entrance to New York harbour on May 21, 2005, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge will be raced by their 21st Century counterparts, showcasing the massive leap in sailing technology over the last 100 years.

If, in winning the Kaiser’s Cup, Wilson Marshall’s 185ft (56.4m) Atlantic is taken as the benchmark boat from the 1905 race, then her equivalent a century later is Robert Miller’s 140ft (42.6m) Mari-Cha IV(pictured left).

Atlantic was built in 1903 at Townsend and Downsey in New York to a design by William Gardner of Gardner & Cox. In overall concept she had a ‘classic shape’ with long overhangs at the bow and stern — then considered radical for an ocean-going yacht. (“How would they handle slamming into Atlantic waves?” queried the press of the day.) Below the waterline, she had a long keel culminating in her rudder, but unlike similar yachts of her time, her centreplate and internal ballast had been removed and replaced by a lead keel.

In comparison, Mari-Cha IV was built by JMV Industries in Cherbourg, France and launched in September, 2003. Her design team included naval architects Philippe Briand, Greg Elliot and Clay Oliver; project manager Jef d’Etiveaud; and racing helmsman Mike Sanderson. Her deck is much flatter, while her hull has more flair and is generally squarer with a near-vertical bow and a squared-off transom. As a result, Mari-Cha IV’s overall length is some 45ft (13.7m) shorter than Atlantic’s, but only six feet (1.8m) less at the waterline – where it counts.

Below the waterline, design has advanced considerably over the last century with the rudders and keels now separated and becoming ever deeper and more slender. This decreases wetted-surface area for better light-wind speed, and the high-aspect-ratio shape is a boon to upwind performance. Mari-Cha IV has the latest in keel design, with a keel foil and 10-ton bulb that can be canted up to 40 degrees each side, driven by a powerful hydraulic ram. For example, while sailing upwind when the force of the wind makes her heel the most, the keel is canted to windward, counteracting this force and bringing the boat upright. This allows her to carry more sail.

Surprisingly, there are similarities between the two boats above deck, as both are schooner-rigged. Atlantic had three masts of increasing height going aft. Her principal sails – foresail, mainsail, and mizzen sail – were all hung off gaffs similar to a boom, but at the top of the sail, while each mast could be extended with a ‘top mast’, enabling extra sail in the form of a topsail to be flown above the gaff. From her bowsprit, Atlantic’s crew could hoist a wide variety of headsails – including obscure ones like the balloon jib topsail – to suit the conditions, with additional sails flown off the mizzen and main masts.

Among large, modern race boats, Mari-Cha IV is unusual in being a schooner (in her case with two masts of equal height). Compared to Atlantic, her sail plan is much simpler, with no gaffs or topmasts and with fewer, though generally larger-sized, sails. Developments such as roller-furling headsails and powerful winches driven simultaneously by a number of pedestals have resulted in the need for fewer crew to tend the sails. The greatest developments, however, are in the materials used in her rig. All of Mari-Cha IV’s spars are made of carbonfibre rather than wood, as on Atlantic, and her modern moulded North 3DL sails are lighter and hold their shape immeasurably better than the cotton sails used on Atlantic.

The most dramatic difference between the two boats is their weight. Atlantic was built of steel, while Mari-Cha IV was made from carbonfibre with a Nomex honeycomb core. While Atlantic was luxuriously fitted out below decks, Mari-Cha IV’s interior is stripped bare, her accommodation free from any extraneous weight. But the most impressive contribution to Atlantic’s weight was her engine. Aside from being a powerful sailing yacht, Atlantic was fitted with a steam engine capable of delivering 300hp, but weighing over 50 tons–more than the entire weight of Mari-Cha IV.

In essence, Mari-Cha IV is more powerful and lighter than her 100-year-old forebear, and perhaps the best demonstration of this is her performance. While Atlantic’s best 24-hour run in the Kaiser’s Cup was 341 miles (then a new record), Mari-Cha IV has covered more than 500 miles in one day and is thought to be capable of much more.

Comparison specs

AtlanticLOA: 185 ft. (56.4m)

LWL: 138 ft. (42m)

Beam: 29.5 ft. (8.9m)

Draft: 17.5 ft. (5.3m)

Mast height: 125 ft. (38.1m),132 (40.2m), 137 (41.8m)

Weight: 206 tons (186,000kg)

Mari-Cha IVLOA: 140 ft (42.6m)

LWL: 132 ft. (40.24m)

Beam: 31.5 ft. (9.60m)

Draft: 21.3 ft. (6.49m)

Mast height: 140 ft. (42.6m),140 ft. (42.6m)

Weight: 49 tons (49,000kg)