As multihulls get bigger and faster, it’s no surprise owners want to test them on the racecourse, as Andi Robertson reports

The Yacht Club Costa Smeralda is one of the most prestigious yacht clubs in the world, its marble atrium and exclusive pool deck usually welcoming owners and crews of superyachts, Swans, and iconic classes like the Star, J-Class and TP52. But this autumn the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, the club’s season finale, broke new ground with three catamarans given pride of place at the YCCS’s race dock.

The three different, but equally exciting, powerful big cats went on the prowl in a newly introduced multihull division within the 45-strong entry at the showcase Maxi event. Lord Irvine Laidlaw’s brand new Gunboat 80 Highland Fling 18 lined up alongside Adrian Keller’s 84ft Irens-designed Allegra (launched 2014), and the new Gunboat 68 Convexity, campaigned by Don Wilson and Suna Said.

For the record, Allegra won overall by two points from Highland Fling which missed the second, windy race due to a ‘teething gremlin’, but then won races three and four when the breeze had diminished. Convexity finished 3rd, on equal points aggregate to Highland Fling.

Highland Fling 18 is Laidlaw’s first new build multihull, after he had an interim pre-owned ‘starter’ Gunboat 68 (hull No1) in 2021-2022 while the 80 was in build. The red-hulled beast is undoubtedly the benchmark for a growing breed of Maxi Multihulls which are now starting to become more popular in Europe as well as in the Caribbean and the USA.

She’s an out-and-out racer – indeed a day racer at that. Built entirely in pre-preg carbon fibre, using the same construction methods as the VPLP Ultims and IMOCA 60s, a focus has been on keeping weight down to the absolute minimum and, more importantly, carefully distributed.

The 80-footer, which has a 33ft beam, has aircraft-grade furniture inside and further weight savings were also made in the paint and glazing technology. The Gunboat 80 has long, asymmetrical L-shaped daggerboards, the rig set slightly further back for a better overall balance.

Brand new Gunboat 80 Highland Fling 18. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget/Rolex

The boat was only launched in July, and racing in Porto Cervo in September the crew included many longstanding Fling team members, including the likes of Jan Dekker, and Kiwi (now Newport-based) match racer Cameron Appleton. Offshore legend Loïck Peyron has had an ongoing role with the boat and sails on board as the team’s resident multihull expert, working closely alongside the owner who, as usual, steers.

By contrast, Allegra has already earned a long, successful track record offshore, including back to back class wins in the Rolex Fastnet Race. The third entry was another new Gunboat, raced at her first event by Don Wilson, who is better known for his M32 programme of the same name.

There should have been five Maxi Multis forming this inaugural class, but two did not make it for fairly exceptional reasons: CoCo de Mer, the Gunboat 66, capsized in the Round the Island Race; and Flow, a Gunboat 60, was damaged by fire in Barcelona. But the feedback from those in Porto Cervo is that next year should see somewhere between six and maybe eight big Multis racing in this class.

“I think this is only going to grow,” smiles the ever enthusiastic Paul Larsen of Allegra. “We were usually the first boats to start and we would take off and have some fantastic boat-on-boat racing, flying hulls, pushing it to the edge.”

Newly launched Gunboat 68 Convexity. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget/Rolex

Making the transition

As the firepower increases and the multihull fleet grows, so more and more top pro sailors are making the transition to these high speed big cats.

“I was looking across at the start line and on the boat next to us there is Kinley Fowler, Taylor Canfield, Chris Nicholson, Charlie Enright all racing on one boat, that is a punchy line up of guys right there,” recalls Larsen. “And then there is Loïck [Peyron], Cameron Appleton, Jan Dekker and co on the Highland Fling and they are right here racing these multihulls, not over there on the Maxis!

“It’s great fun to be racing in that company. These guys are not paid to come second. Everyone is there with an interest in moving things forwards, and the owners have the budget to drive things forward. But while it is fun, I think Adrian [Keller, Allegra owner] is conscious of the rest of the fleet – for the other good boats we definitely don’t want to go forwards blindly and leave them behind.”

The Irens-designed Allegra has the most experience on the racecourse, here at last year’s Multihull Cup in Palma. Photo: Sailing Energy

Highland Fling tactician Cameron Appleton races everything from TP52s to RC44s and superyachts – so is not someone who is easily impressed. He has found himself doing more and more Maxi Multi racing and enthuses: “The new boat is a great evolution, it is a big step on. I did some sailing on the last boat, the Gunboat 68, and on the HH66 and other big multis. The fleet has some serious promise, without a doubt.

“For some older owners like Irvine it just has an extra comfort element. If he needs to take a break, or when we are waiting before or between racing, there is a lot of real comfort. When he is sitting inside he can see everything that is going on on the race course, nothing is obscured by any big amounts of heel. His rest is true rest for him then and that is important for him.”

Despite bringing a highly experienced crew on to the new boat, Appleton acknowledges: “We had a lot to learn. We have a lot of the original guys from the Highland Flings, we had Loïck Peyron to help in terms of set-up and speed and just the way we approached sailing, the sail configurations. He was amazing, so alive, so electric and passionate. His biggest thing was all about when you had to choose your combinations, the whole ‘low load, low drag is fast’. It’s about not trying to overpower the boat, so that if you get caught out, this is step one, this is step two, you can ride this out this way… you can get yourself in trouble with this combination but not that one…

“The importance, [Peyron] was pressing on us, is in thinking ahead. These multis load up very fast. We have the ‘UpSideUp’ system which has the Vs, the cap shrouds set with an alarm at a certain load, we have a heel angle alarm that triggers the mainsheet, and we have a mainsheet load that triggers too. So there are three safety features. We are making sure we are sailing the boat within these limits.”

Gunboat 80 Highland Fling 18. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget/Rolex

Costa Smeralda and the confines of ‘Bomb Alley’ – as the passage through La Maddalena archipelago is known – is a very different race track to the tradewind, open, choppy waters of the Caribbean where the biggest growth in these big multihulls is.

Racing in Sardinia brings particular challenges, as Larsen notes: “Porto Cervo is typically relatively flat and so you can push the boats to 100%. You have lots of corners and roundings and odd angles that you are sailing relative to the wind so you need to have very good crossover charts for all your sails. Because you have to push the boat all of the time, you also need to have the equipment and the people to get sails up and down very quickly – that’s where you can draw big tactical advantages from having a faster winch package for faster hoists, halyard locks and so on. If you can get inside someone at a mark and come out firing you gain.”

Appleton concurs: “These boats seem to love everything. We love reaching legs. Porto Cervo was great because the setting is so dramatic. You have all these different angles, you have acceleration through Bomb Alley, all the navigational aspects and the geographical bends, but at the end of the day long windward-leewards and triangle [courses] are good too.”

Alex Thomson has been racing the Gunboat 68 Tosca. Photo: PKC Media Tosca

Fresh playing field

At the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup the honours were shared across the different wind strengths, Allegra better in the breeze and Highland Fling better in the lighter winds. Going forward, the challenge is to fine tune the ORC Multihull rating system to ensure each has an equal chance in their less favoured conditions. Most of those asked seem to favour a multiple number system related to wind strength.

As ever, racing under different rating rules favours different styles of multihulls. On the offshore calendar one of the key, pinnacle events for this new breed of fast multihull is the RORC Caribbean 600, “There we clash with the MOD 70s under the MOCRA rule. It seems they struggle under MOCRA against our ‘style’ of boat,” suggests Paul Larsen. This year’s Caribbean 600 saw the Gunboat 68 Tosca, skippered by former IMOCA racer Alex Thomson for American owner Ken Howery, win the MOCRA division overall.

“On the other hand the CSA rating system seemed to favour the MODs hugely at Les Voiles de St Barth,” adds Larsen. “We feel it’s in everyone’s interest to help work to a common goal of creating a system more dedicated to our niche. That is the ORC Multihull rule. We’ve seen it work pretty well, albeit with a few bugs. Despite borrowing heavily from the ORC rule it still needs more data points to help refine it, as well as subjective input from the fleet to shape the direction the majority want it to go in.

Allegra defended her Fastnet class win. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/RORC

“There’s often a clash of interests when the European fleet heads over to do the Caribbean circuit as some of the more US-centred boats are optimised for the rules they know. That’s to be appreciated but you can’t help feel there should be an amalgamation. These are big, comfortable, fast ocean crossing boats and it’s got to be in every owner’s interests to be able to do as many events as possible.”

Long-time MOD70 skipper Brian Thompson, who’ll be racing the Gunboat 66 Mana next season, suggests: “Hopefully the ORC Multi rule is headed in the right direction because it is certainly a hard ask to rate the MOD70 against the Gunboats. But the way things are going hopefully the class will split to have a Gunboat/HH type class and then a trimaran class which would race separately. So I see it maybe reaching a point where we’ll have different classes similar to the Maxi monohulls, racers, performance cruisers and so on.”

Future proofing

Predicting the direction of growth is part of the rating rule challenge, trying to future proof it for diverse fleets including multis of very different configurations. Naval architect Quentin Lucet of VPLP summarises: “I’m sure there is room for improvement. I believe for these cats the configuration, the length and displacement appendage configuration is quite similar, so for now I suspect in terms of performance and handicap we should be able to put in place a proper system for everyone.

“What is different here [compared with rating monohulls] is when you get more weight in a multihull that is more righting moment and as soon as it is blowing more than 15 knots it is really such a benefit, much more than in a monohull fleet. I think the ORC are working on this.

The distinctive Bieker-designed Fujin is a Caribbean race regular. Photo: Christophe Jouany

“From our side it is not so complicated when the boats have the same configurations. But what will be tricky is if we have foils or ‘T’-rudders or things like this. At the moment we have the Gunboat-type boats and, say, the MOD70s coming together more.

“We see it in the Caribbean already with the different MOD70s with different appendage configurations. Some have big foils, T-rudders, some have conventional configuration, so this all might become a little tricky.”
In terms of where he sees the growth in new boats in the near future Lucet concludes, “It is so much driven by the owner. Owners who want to do some cruising will not go so long [LOA]. If that is not the case what we will see will be more daysailers – like a TP52. What I suspect is that the cats will not go bigger than 80ft, and the development will be between 65ft and 80ft.”

Fujin chasing the new HH66 Nemo at Les Voiles de St Barths. Photo: Christophe Jouany

Regattas worldwide

For the International Maxi Association, this new class debut at the 2023 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup is very much a case of dipping a toe into the waters for a European Maxi Multihull event. But there are other significant regattas around the world with performance multihull racing.

Les Voiles de Saint Barths attracts one of the biggest fleets on the burgeoning Caribbean multihull circuit. In 2023 there were no fewer than 14 big multihulls racing in a diverse class, won by Eric Maris’s MOD70 Zoulou. The French, typically, garner a particularly strong entry here, and in 2nd was Loïc Escoffier with the ORC50 Lodi Group, on which he also won the solo transatlantic Route du Rhum (just weeks after capsizing off Ireland in the Drheam Cup).

Marsaudon’s ORC catamarans (formerly TS) are regular performers offshore, Lodi Group winning class in the Route du Rhum. Photo: Marin Le Roux/PolaRYSE

Behind these two Todd Slyngstad’s HH66 Nemo finished one point up on brother Greg’s innovative Bieker 53 Fujin, with the fleet including a clutch of Gunboats and one-offs. Tech entrepreneur Greg Slyngstad has been a frequent attendee on the Caribbean multihull circuit with Fujin since its launch in 2015, racing hard and with much success. Nemo was launched in 2020 with the particular intention of competing against – and ideally beating – Fujin.

Meanwhile the Route du Rhum – always the soulful home of offshore multihull racing – last year attracted a clutch of performance-oriented Marsaudon ORC catamarans, Marc Guillemot’s custom 52ft Metarom MG5, and Roland Jourdain on his eco-friendly Outremer, alongside vintage Walter Greene and Dick Newick designs. This summer’s Rolex Fastnet Race saw many of the same catamarans line up against one another, with victory going to Allegra ahead of the Gunboat 68 Tosca.

It’ll be interesting to see how the different core fleets converge – or maybe they won’t. But for sure in the likes of Highland Fling 18 a new breed of cat has already been unleashed.

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