So you want to race? All you need to know to get into the game

1 August 2019• Written by Marilyn Mower

"Start small,” says naval architect Malcolm McKeon. “Superyacht racing is not like anything most owners have experienced before.”

McKeon speaks from recent experience. “When we were designing and building the performance cruiser Missy, I asked the owner several times if he was sure he didn’t want me to arrange the deck for racing. His answer was always ‘I’m not going to race Missy,’” he recalls. “Then he saw a Bucket-type regatta and decided ‘That looks like fun.’ He followed my advice: start small and get a taste for it. We raced Missy in the 2018 St Barths Bucket in the non-spinnaker division and he won. For 2019 he’s added a bolt-on bowsprit, a few spinnakers to improve downwind performance and hired more pros.”

Bella Mente in action Image credit: Bella Mente Racing/Amory Ross 2018

Dutch naval architect Andre Hoek has worked with very similar owners. “Many of our superyacht owners actually said they would never race but end up doing it anyway,” he says. “My advice would be to have some sailing miles on the boat before you start racing and begin with the second year of ownership, not the first.”

For owners contemplating building a new yacht, Hoek advises designing the boat with an option to race from day one simply because he’s had a number of projects where owners changed their minds after the boat was built and decided to race full-on. “We advise clients to at least lay out the sail and deck plan for racing.”

Several experts pointed to a significant recent change for superyacht regattas: the handicapping system has been altered to even up the playing field, add safety factors and reduce the number of crew and sails needed by including a non-spinnaker class. As McKeon says: “It used to be that a 500-tonne yacht like Twizzle could do no better than middle of the fleet – even if she was sailed perfectly – racing against boats with deep keels and retractable sail drives. The new handicapping system puts a fair penalty on those features so that almost everyone has a chance.”

Pier Luigi Loro Piana at the helm of Windfall Image credit: Francesco Ferri

Hap Fauth, who owns racing and cruising boats, took part in the Newport and St Barths Bucket regattas with his 35.3-metre Whisper from 2003 to 2010. He stopped because he thought the handicapping system didn’t seem to understand luxury yachts. “These big displacement boats will have the same top speed if the wind is blowing 12 or 20. I realised I could spend $100,000 [£77,000] to campaign the boat with the best crew and still end up 23rd out of 35 boats. They fixed the handicap and we went back to St Barths for the Bucket in 2018.”

Recruiting rock stars

Drop in on any superyacht regatta and you’ll note some high-profile professional sailors with well-earned star status based on their expertise as a designer, rigger, sailmaker or veteran of many racing events. They often have key positions as navigators, tacticians, crew bosses or helmsmen. These men and women made and maintain their reputations, and their pay scales, by doing their part to make the programme successful, whether that is learning the race course and studying charts or learning the boat and its gear and the abilities of the rest of the crew. Far from being someone who is just here for the beer, a professional sailor works between 200 and 250 days a year. But is hiring a couple of rock stars and building a regatta team around them the way to go? “Before spending an owner’s money on a pro race crew, you have to get to the details,” says Ken Read, president of North Sails. “You really have to listen carefully when you ask an owner what he wants to get out of the event.

“I have a database of sailors for all the positions, including assistants to all those positions, and I classify them as amateurs or pros. But before I start picking, I go old-school; I draw the boat’s deck layout, including all winches, and I put circles where you need people to work. I look at the skill levels needed in each of those circles. Then, what members of the crew can I draw on? Some captains don’t want a specific position because they want to be able to move around putting out fires. Some captains came out of powerboats and don’t know how to race. My job is to get them to be honest about their abilities and comfort level and those of their crew.”

The next part is chemistry, Read says. “You want them to have a blast. You want the entire group to feel it’s the best day or set of days they have had because the group is just right. You don’t want to put a tough, hard-ass pro with an owner who would rather just have fun. Some pros see winning a regatta as a notch on their belt. There’s a place for that guy, but it might not be with an owner just starting out.”

According to Bruce Brakenhoff, president of Perini Navi USA, a regular full-time crew is key. “They know their boat, they maintain it and tune it,” he says. “They communicate to the race guys what can or cannot be done, how far their boat can or should be pushed.

“The idea of a rock star aboard is fun, but in my experience the most successful boats seem to have permanent crews who sail their boat often and know its sailing systems really well. These are the guys who really gel with a race crew that joins them for a week or two.” Fauth calls his boat’s five permanent crew “the backbone of the team. We aren’t a push-button boat with captive winches so it takes 15 to race,” he says. He plans his regatta crew around his selection for navigator, tactician and a crew boss who manages assignments and gets the boat set up for each race. Fauth takes the helm and Whisper’s captain floats to give an assist where needed.

After racing is done the real work begins to prep for the next day Image credit: Francesco Ferri

The Js are unique

The J Class is a different animal altogether. Dan Jackson, who ran Ranger’s programme for the late John Williams, says: “Ranger had eight permanent crew and raced with a full complement of around 35, including guests. Generally, we had 15 to 17 professionals. Js tend to try and keep the same crew at least for the season and, where possible, year on year. Ranger had a core race crew that rarely changed – we just added to it from available sailors as necessary. Keeping the team together reduces the amount of practice time needed before a regatta and therefore an owner’s expenses.”

Depending on the boat, the owner’s goals for the regatta and whether the boat is sailing in a spinnaker or non-spinnaker class, expect racing crew to double or triple the yacht’s regular crew complement, says Peter Wilson of management firm MCM. “When an owner says he wants to race, we want to make sure it’s a really good experience and picking the extra crew is critical. Most expert racers aren’t superyacht crew and most superyacht crew aren’t racers, but we find they really like learning from the pros.” Wilson often puts pros on the bow “because dropping a spinnaker while a jib is being raised or unfurled and the helmsman is rounding a mark isn’t something superyacht crew tend to experience”.

Wilson says he builds a spreadsheet of positions that need to be filled with the associated costs to build a budget for his clients and then adds in the non-personnel items such as transportation of the boat, dockage, spare parts, food and entertainment budgets and extra insurance riders. While Fauth says he often turns to his vendors for race crew, Wally founder Luca Bassani and Wally Class secretary Paolo Massarini both say they feel that the pro sailors who work for vendors should have their fees paid by their employers. “Their fees should be covered by the brand they are representing, but it is different from time to time. There is no fixed rule,” said Massarini.

Organising a regatta programme

“On the boats we manage,” says Wilson, “we try to lock in our team six months in advance for summer regattas. For something like the Antigua Superyacht Challenge [in January], there is not so much competition for crew so we can start later. Accommodation, on the other hand, you want to book as early as possible.”

While most superyachts take part in just one or two regattas a year, and hire race crew by the event, the more performance-oriented yachts, and tight-knit Wally classes may do four. Bassani says it is his preference, and his advice to owners, to book the pros for the season. “I hire people for the whole season of races and sea trials. In this way [they] have the chance to get to know your boat better, to prepare the boat better and to achieve better results.” Massarini says another reason for contracting with the racing crew for the entire season is to make crew members loyal to the project.

Choosing a Wally’s race crew begins with the two or three most experienced permanent crew deciding what positions can be filled internally and then hiring a crew boss, Bassani calls it a head hunter, to recruit the other spots. The need for shore support and logistics obviously increases with the number of races the owner wants to do and perhaps with the distance from his home port, but Bassani cautions that regular crew shouldn’t be saddled with that responsibility.

For owners contemplating building a new yacht, Hoek advises designing the boat with an option to race from day one (Pictured: WinWin during the 2019 Superyacht Cup Palma)

Get a Den Mother

The bigger the boat, the more complicated the job. If they don’t have full-time professional management, most regatta entrants will liaise with a “Den Mother”. Brakenhoff suggested two such women who manage logistics for racing yachts, Polly Baptist and Nikki Smith. Both are former superyacht crew well versed in regattas. Baptist is now a sports nutritionist and Smith’s firm, Sailutions, provides shore support for yachts.

Both say arranging nearby accommodation for 20 to 30 crew, owners and guests, and then organising who goes where, is the most time-consuming task. Booking accommodation and shipping containers to move a yacht’s racing sails and spares needs to start well in advance – as much as a season ahead is typical. “Three months’ notice is doable,” Smith says, “but it will cost more. Once I had to rent a trimaran to sleep the crew because it was the only thing with enough berths close to the race venue.”

Finding someone to repair a torn spinnaker sock overnight, replacing lost contact lenses and booking restaurants and catering are typical assignments. “Depending on what service is needed I work with different crew within the team,” says Smith. “I mainly work with captains and race team managers on the more costly aspects of the planning; the stewardess and chief stewardess on more everyday items.” Smith charges either an hourly rate or a flat fee for the regatta, depending on services booked. A percentage charged on accommodation – like a travel agency – is often offset by the discounts she is able to arrange for her frequent bookings.

Baptist, a sail trimmer in Saudade’s crew when it races in the Med, also cooks for her charges to make sure they have nourishing food as well as juices and smoothies. Her perfect timeframe is to start eight months in advance of a regatta as she helps with crew selection as well on some of the yachts she works for. “Owners new to the race scene need to be made aware that a lot goes on behind the scenes to make sure not only is their yacht in top shape, but also they have a great team on board who are ready to race each day. The permanent crew do a great job prepping the boat and some of the race crew fly in earlier than the rest [to set it up] and we stay later to help change the boat back to cruising/guest mode when it’s over. We are all there to make sure the owners have a fantastic time racing. It is a very prestigious thing for owners to be sailing their stunning yachts against others in beautiful parts of the world,” Baptist said.

Owners new to the race scene need to be made aware that a lot goes on behind the scenes Pictured: The 2019 Superyacht Cup Palma

It’s not just about race days Brakenhoff has been racing for about 30 years and advises: “Bucket planning for a 50-metre Perini with a total race-day crew of 22-plus should include at least one day of set-up, three days of practice, and one last day of final tweaks and prep at the dock for the three-day regatta.” That’s the same schedule used by Fauth, who also owns a series of racing yachts named Bella Mente that he campaigns on the grand prix circuit, the latest being a Maxi 72 designed by Botin Partners. He’s brought Whisper to quite a few Buckets, and says he runs its regatta programme much like that of his serious race boat – with one exception: “Instead of watching a video of our performance after each race the way we do with Bella Mente we might have a crew party. Superyacht regattas tend to start at noon. With the race boat programme, the guys are up running or at the gym at 7am.

“One of the reasons amateurs have such a hard time is because they can’t take the time out to practise,” continues Fauth. Most superyachts take part in just one or two regattas a year, while a racing boat will compete in six or more regattas, often moving the boat significant distances between each venue. “That is easily a 12-week commitment,” says Fauth, who is one of the backers of American Magic, a US challenger for the 2021 America’s Cup in New Zealand. Bassani likes to schedule two or three “long weekend” practices before regatta season begins and two days of practice before each event. And because he’s the boat builder, he’s privy to some rather important information.

“We have all the detailed reports of the performances of the boat after each sea trial and each race. It’s good to share all this information with the crew each day to make everybody more involved in the results of the boat. And this report can be very detailed and must be discussed on each of those details, like for each tack, each jibe, each hoist and so on.”

“Here’s what I think keeps some owners from trying racing,” says Read. “Superyacht owners are uber-successful people, they are confident and tend to have a take-no-prisoners ego about business. Someone like that might shy away from a situation where they might not win… and some superyacht events are becoming too competitive. Creating cruising or non-spinnaker divisions and pursuit starts are the way to go. Let’s ease people into it. If they want to get super competitive at a later date, they can, but at least they can say they’ve had fun along the way, made friends and sailed their boats in beautiful places.”

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