Thursday, March 29, 2012

Like A Virgin...

As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.

HOWEVER it blows me away to be in the British Virgin Islands with the likes of Dee Smith and Eric Arndt, two well known American sailors who have raced all over the world, to find out that neither of them have EVER been here before.

If Smith’s wife Jocelyn has her way, it wont be the last, “I was talking to a bunch of the guys and we’re like, ‘why have we not done this before’?!!”, she said.

A very relaxed-looking Smith concurs, “It’s beautiful here…”

He’s working with a new Farr 400 program - Blade - chartered by Michael and Marlene Schlens (Los Angeles). They’re just off the St Thomas Rolex Regatta where they placed fourth. Smith’s working with Schlen and his mostly local Los Angeles, CA., amateur crew, helping get them up to speed on the 400.

“We were pretty happy with that result and the racing was fantastic,” Smith said. “We had a nice match race with the other 400 - Magnitude (chartered by Doug Baker also from Los Angeles) - they could have won easily except they made a mistake on the last finish line.”

The BVI is proving an ideal environment for Smith and Co., to work Blade through its paces. Nonetheless, I had to ask the question, "Why do you think sailors keep coming back here?”

Simultaneous crack up around the table.

“Well duh! Just look around! What do you think - gee - there’s wind, the water is warm, it’s clear, you don’t have to wear anything…it’s like … beautiful!” Smith laughed.

Racing got underway for the BVI Sailing Festival on Wednesday, with a 26-mile race from the Bitter End Yacht Club, around the island of Virgin Gorda - a perfect combo of downwind and upwind racing, with some challenging tactics involved (reef, rocks…). The Blade team took 3rd overall on Wednesday and look good for the BVI Spring regatta 3-day festival starting Friday.

While it's hard to imagine anyone working up a competitive sweat racing in Paradise, Smith countered,

“It’s always competitive when the competitive people go sailing. Doug Baker and his guys are all very competitive boys - they’re a bit above where we are so they beat us pretty hard. The 52s that sail these (Caribbean) races charge pretty hard - they’re race boats, they don’t know how to stop them. Even some of the charter cruising boats are being sailed by some pretty good people. It’s just the performance. Our boat is really performance oriented and it goes really well in these conditions - it gets up and planes.”

Smith, along with Arndt, has been working for the past eighteen months with Premier Composite Technology (Dubai) building these boats. PCT build a lot of things - their real business is architectural composites - but they’re passionate about boats so they got Smith involved in putting the 400 together to try to develop the class. 10 boats have been built and a bunch more sold. A one-design class came together in Key West earlier this year, with five boats on the start. Smith is expecting at least four on the start at Charleston Race Week. His goal?

“We’re hoping we can get a really nice class going through the States and end this year with Big Boat Series in San Francisco.”

The nice thing about the BVI is the variety that the regatta offers up for teams, “You have wind, islands everywhere, you get to see things, the turtles, flying fish, the beaches - it’s lovely,” Smith says, “To me, sailing to a buoy is interesting as a race but it’s not interesting as a far as sailing goes. Here you get to go somewhere, you get to go around something.”

And it’s more than just about sucking back cocktails. Navigationally, it’s different, Smith said.

“You have to watch out for rocks and you have to be conservative because you don’t know the places. You don’t know how well the charts are marked. I navigate with my phone and follow the boat around and it’s fine. Our boats don't have the full computer set-up aboard so we’re relying on hand held GPS but it’s actually easier to use the phone.”

On the differences between the Farr 40 and the 400, mainly, there’s the weight - almost two tonnes. The 400 is only 38-1/2 feet long and the reason it is because it’s purposely built to the shipping rule - it fits in a flat rack to ship easily.

“We can send it from Dubai anywhere in the world for less than E12,000, which is incredible. I heard one client from Europe went to Sydney and it cost him E70,000 round trip, where it would have cost us about E20,000. The keel had to come off, the mast has to be in two parts, it’s a very high quality Southern Spas rig with EC 6 carbon rigging, and then we made a performance boat out of it,” Smith said.

According to Smith, the 400 weighs 3800 kilos - 2200 kilos in the keel - and it’s deep so there’s a lot of stability and there’s a lot of sail area. It’s got a retractable prod instead of a spinnaker pole and it gets up and planes in 13 knots, so performance-wise it’s completely different to the Farr 40.

“Upwind it’s a little faster than a Farr 40 but downwind it’s a lot faster,” Smith said. “But, I think the thrill is that it’s just more fun to sail. You kick it and it responds. It’s also kind of narrow so it goes through the seaway really well.”

Smith says the 400 also doesn’t seem to need the same intense hiking and weight control.

“We found that crew weight wise it’s almost a deterrent to be heavy - that’s like one of the first boats we’ve ever sailed on that is that way. If that’s the case why would we have a weight limit or crew limit? We’re probably taking those out of the rule. We think the boat will probably settle in around 720 kilos because that’s enough to sail the boat and be light for downwind sailing. The boat really does pop out quick, and if you have too much weight it doesn’t pop out as quick. I think we’re at 3800-3900 kilos and I think the 40 is at about 5800 kilos, so that’s about a 40% weight difference with more sail area, more stability.”

Magnitude and Blade have been sailing right in each other’s face. The boats were built so close that the performance is identical, says Smith. “There’s no difference in it so who sails better gets ahead and the other guy has to do something smart to catch up. The 1-D aspect of it and the way the company builds the boats is so accurate - the hulls come out within three kilos of each other, the keels come out within a couple of kilos of each other. So there’s no excuse. Hopefully the package is there for a really nice one design moving forward and people see the advantages of the boat.”

(Approx price tag of the Farr 400? $395k base, with everything and approx.. $500K landed for race sailing - not bad for a carbon boat).

* Check out the BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival:

Wednesday's results:

Pic 1: Dee Smith in Paradise
Pic 2: Blade racing past Necker Island, BVI (photo credit: Cynthia Ross/rossphotographic)
Pic 2: Farr 400 Blade at Bitter End Yacht Club
Pic 3: Farr 400 Magnitude at BEYC


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