Is Short-handed Sailing Leading the Market?

Major builders at the Annapolis sailboat show displayed designs that are reshaping cruising and racing boats
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U.S. clubs and sailing schools have shown interest in the short-handed Figaro Beneteau 3, the first foil-assisted production monohull.

U.S. clubs and sailing schools have shown interest in the short-handed Figaro Beneteau 3, the first foil-assisted production monohull.

As sailboat design progresses, speeds have increased, and many boats are easier to race or cruise with fewer crew. At the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Md., in October, three major builders showed new designs that are reshaping the market, each in a segment that rewards short-handed sailing.

None of the boats represents obvious, evolutionary steps, as each anticipates the development of the segment, but all three are significant. It’s no coincidence that all three have strong connections to the de facto home of short-handed racing: France.

“A few years ago, we noticed that short-handed distance day races like San Francisco’s Three Bridge Fiasco were blossoming,” says Jeff Johnstone, president of Rhode Island-based J/Boats. “At the same time, classic offshore races like the Chicago-Mac, Newport Bermuda and the Fastnet were keeping people in the sport.”

Both types of races point toward a fast boat that can be sailed with fewer crewmembers. At last year’s Annapolis show, J/Boats displayed the J/121 — a loaded 40-footer with easy-handling roller-furling headsails and “water-ballast-assist” tanks carrying 850 pounds per side to take the place of four people riding the rail.

A year later, hull No. 15 was on display, and five more were on order. “Every new owner had a bucket list event or events in mind — the Middle Sea Race, the Caribbean 600, Chicago-Mac, the Transpac,” Johnstone says. “Four boats sailed Newport Bermuda last June, including one of the class winners.”

The Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410’s winches, sheets and other sail controls are accessible to the helm, allowing the skipper to handle everything underway.

The Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410’s winches, sheets and other sail controls are accessible to the helm, allowing the skipper to handle everything underway.

Across the dock, the Beneteau display featured three striking black boats. The largest, at 32 feet, was the Figaro Beneteau 3, which stood in stark contrast to the white-hulled models. It showed off a flashy paint job with orange accents and two orange foils protruding from its sides, curving provocatively outward, downward, then back toward the waterline.

As the first foil-assisted production monohull, the Figaro Beneteau 3 will be marketed to sailors racing in France’s Solitaire du Figaro single-handed race. The fleet of Figaro 2s that Beneteau built for the race series some years ago was up for renewal, and it asked the premier French race-design firm VPLP to go to work.

Nothing generates speed for a sailboat the way a foil can, lifting the boat clear of the water. Competitive sailing has seen rapid foil development for custom short-handed boats, notably the IMOCA 60-footers that VPLP designed for the Vendée Globe race around the world, as well as the catamarans in the recent America’s Cup. But builders have yet to put foils on a production monohull that the average sailor can handle safely. VPLP and Beneteau adopted a simpler approach, using inwardly shaped foils that help balance the boat but not fly it out of the water. The foils retract for entering a slip.

Jean Francois Lair, director of sales at Beneteau America, says the company has orders for 50 boats to sail in the 2019 European season, limiting construction capacity, but he sees potential beyond that for the U.S. market. The first U.S. boat won in the Pacific Cup race to Hawaii last summer; a second boat was sold to a sailor in Annapolis and displayed at the show.

Island, but the J/99 (below) initially is being built in France.

Island, but the J/99 (below) initially is being built in France.

“Beneteau never tried to sell earlier Figaro models in the U.S., but this boat is a total different story,” Lair says. “The owner of the Beneteau 3 in Annapolis previously owned a 40-footer but jumped to the Figaro because of the innovations, plus the fact he doesn’t have to spend time organizing a crew. He can sail the boat with a friend.

“The boat was built for elite Figaro sailors,” Lair continues, “but good amateurs can play with it because it’s easier to handle. It’s quite a surprise — even U.S. clubs and sailing schools are interested in the boat.” The company’s goal for 2020 is to build another 50 of the boats, which start at $225,000.

The two smaller Beneteaus on the dock, the First 18 and First 24, aim at a younger demographic that wants modern, fun and fast boats that are less technical and more affordable. The 18 and 24 are two of four models that Beneteau acquired in August when it purchased Seascape. A Slovenian builder, Seascape had gained a strong reputation in Europe for its affordable, lightweight boats designed by Frenchman Sam Manuard.

Rebranded for the Beneteau First line, the boats have the same large sail plans, carbon fiber masts and planing hull shapes as the Beneteau 3, but without foils. They can be raced but are more likely to be used for fast family-and-friends sailing. They have modest accommodations, are simple to sail and have a swing keel so they can be trailer-launched from a ramp or sailed onto the beach.

Not far down the dock, Jeanneau displayed several cruising models. None had foils or water ballast to add stability, but the newest Jeanneau, the Sun Odyssey 410, had a unique look. As part of the eighth generation of the Sun Odyssey line, the 410 has the same “walkaround” cockpit that Jeanneau introduced a year ago on the Sun Odyssey 440 and 490, and to some sailors, being able to access the side decks without climbing over the coamings justifiably remains the highlight of the model.

But there’s more than first meets the eye in this cruising boat’s capability. The hull’s low, hard chines, the bowsprit and “negative” (reverse-raked) bow, and the double rudders mark it as the work of another French short-handed sailboat designer, Marc Lombard. Details of the hardware underscore the point, with no jib tracks or traveler bars to clutter the deck. Simple yet effective blocks and ring-shaped jib leads are in their place.

“The boat is significantly faster due to the stability of the hull form and its lighter-weight keel,” says Nick Harvey, president of Jeanneau America, adding that the galley was moved forward and that cabinetry was intentionally kept low, also for improved stability.

The J/99 will carry 450 pounds of water ballast assist for short-handed sailing.

The J/99 will carry 450 pounds of water ballast assist for short-handed sailing.

Short-handed sailing is as important to cruising sailors as it is to those who race. On the Sun Odyssey 410, everything is simple, so the helmsman can handle everything once underway. The winches, sheets and other sail controls are accessible to the helm.

Major builders will continue to launch short-handed designs, along with boats that the segment heavily influences, such as Jeanneau’s Sun Fast line of production racers. The company announced a Sun Fast shortly before the Annapolis show. The release was short on details, but the drawing suggests that the boat may be a smaller sister to the Sun Fast 3600 and 3200. Beneteau also recently launched a marketing campaign to promote a new, sportier line of cruising catamarans branded Excess, but few substantive details have been revealed.

J/Boats, on the other hand, is promoting its new J/99, and during the boat show it described plans for the boat. The planing-hull design fits between the J/88 and J/111, and the first hull is expected to splash in November. “In some ways, this 32-footer may have an even stronger niche than the J/121,” Johnstone says. “It may seem like a small boat for short-handed racing, but it fits right into the 31- to 34-foot range that’s the most popular size for double-handed racing in the U.K. and France.”

Unlike the J/121, which is built in Rhode Island, the J/99 is being produced initially at J Composites in Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Johnstone expects it to be a popular double-hander in the United States, as well, for day racing and point-to-point races, such as the Annapolis to Newport Race. The boat will be outfitted to sail with 450 pounds of water ballast assist in lieu of a typical crew of six people.

Through innovation, the sailboat market has the opportunity to grow, and no one is pushing the innovation envelope harder than short-handed design teams. Asked if cruising boats would sprout foils anytime soon, Beneteau’s Lair wouldn’t commit. “It will be interesting to have feedback after a couple years of sailing,” he says.

But sailboat builders are clearly taking cues from the short-handed scene. “That’s our job,” says Harvey. “It’s not about giving the public what they are expecting but giving them what they need.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.

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