Peter K Poland extols the sociable, sporting and eminently affordable virtues of cruiser-racing
Swift sailing with a social spin
Sailing has always been a sociable sport. And clubs – be they down-to-earth sailing clubs run ‘by members for members’ or grander royal yacht clubs with salaried staff – have always been at the heart of sailing.
Whether you enjoy a cruise in company, a social get-together, an occasional jovial session at the bar, low-key club racing or higher-octane regatta weeks, sailing clubs come up with the goods. Without them – and the public-spirited people who help administer them on a voluntary basis – our sport would have less to offer and provide fewer opportunities to get together with like-minded sailing folk.
Club racing splits into three categories: dinghies, keelboats and cruiser-racers. The dinghy section is popular with all generations and doubles up as a training ground for youngsters – essential for any club looking to encourage its next generation of members. Keelboat racing in older wooden classes (like X Boats and local One Designs) and GRP racers (like the National Squib, Flying 15 and RS Elite etc) remains popular with sailors who enjoy a short, capsize-free One Design blast followed by a session ashore. And cruiserracing encompasses anything from a modest 18ft Micro Tonner right up to a sumptuous Swan. Splitting the fleet into separate divisions takes care of size variations, and the results are calculated using a variety of handicap systems.
Over a lengthy sailing career I have been lucky enough to enjoy countless happy hours – mainly as a string puller – on all sorts of club races, and in the process I have made many great friends. That’s the joy of cruiser-racing. Whether it’s in something as grand as Cowes Week, as huge as the Round the Island Race, as muddy as Burnham Week, as chilly as winter and spring series or as understated as midweek evening racing, it guarantees good sport. And you needn’t own an expensive modern yacht or be a hotshot to join in the fun.
Cruiser-racer handicapping tends to come in three forms. Firstly, there’s an official RORC-controlled ‘measurement’ rule – previously IOR, then CHS and now the IRC (a widely used international rule). Then there was the RYA’s old PY (Portsmouth Yardstick), now upgraded into the more scientific NHC (National Handicap scheme for Cruisers). And finally there are local systems such as the popular Poole Harbour-developed VPRS (velocity prediction rating system), the ISCRS (Island Sailing Club Rating System used by ‘occasional’ racers in events like the Round the Island Race) and the successful Scottish CYCA (Clyde Yacht Clubs’ Association) system. You can get your yacht’s rating for most of the latter by filling in a form giving the required details and dimensions, etc.
At the risk of causing confusion, the new NHC was described by the RORC’s rating office as follows. ‘All boats taking part in a NHC race need a starting handicap which will be allocated by the RYA [from] the “Base List”... [which is] created from a rating formula using “boat show” data such as sail area, hull length, beam, weight etc.
‘The RYA will publish base numbers for around 1,200 designs for clubs to allocate to their boats. If a design is not on the base list and the RYA does not have data to create a base number, the club will be given a “rating calculator” to calculate a base number. When a boat first takes part in a club race it will start on its base number. After this it will develop its own personal club number which it will use for future races.’ Clear? In essence, your number works a bit like a golf handicap. It can be adjusted up or down by the club in the light of results.
How it all works
To get an initial picture of how this all works – and which boats take part –
I spoke to PBO’s David Harding, who races in Poole Harbour. David told me: ‘The main series comprises midweek evening races run by Parkstone YC on Monday nights, Poole YC on Tuesday nights and the Royal Motor YC on Thursdays. Lilliput SC also arranges some cruiser racing.’
Starting with Parkstone YC (of which he is a member), David explained that ‘on Monday nights, races are sailed under the VPRS handicap, developed by Ruth Kelly as a more open, fair and less expensive alternative to IRC [see VPRS.org]. It’s also used outside Poole and has largely displaced the less popular PHHS, the Poole Harbour Handicap System.
‘A typical Monday night mixed fleet ranges from a speedy, ultra-modern Archambault A31 to a couple of Hunter Sonatas [22ft 6in], various mid-range Beneteaus, Contessa 32, Contention 33, one or two Super Seals/Parker 27s and boats of that general ilk. There are also One Design fleets of J24s and Cornish Shrimpers, so there’s something to appeal to most tastes.’
David also races on a J109 with Poole YC. ‘Class 1 is IRC; other classes are VPRS. There are lots of Elans – typically a 40, several 333s and a 31 or two, plus the J109, Dehler 36, Dehler 29, Sigma 33 etc. Smaller-boat/non-IRC classes include several MG 27s, a First 285, H-Boat, Quarter Tonner, Moody 33, Albin Nova and Dehler 34 right down to the Poole YC tiddlers – Seal 22s, Etap 20, several Splinters, etc.’ So – once again – variety aplenty, and scope for lots of fun.
The Royal Motor YC races on Thursdays, and David sails on an MG346. He says ‘Class 1 is IRC; Class 2 is VPRS. In class 1 there are several Elan 333s, an Elan 410, X43, Archambault A35, Dehler 33, First 31.7, Figaro II, Bavaria 35 Match and Jeanneau SO 36i. Class 2 – I used to race on an MG 335 – includes Sonatas and Impalas, Dehler 29, First 305, First 260 and even a Crabber 24. As the RMYC is so close to the harbour entrance, we usually race outside, having started from the club line. That’s why most of the bigger boats race on Thursdays, because
there’s better racing out in the bay.’
When I pushed David on which boat types did best in the Thursday series, he said the Elan 31, Dehler 29, MG346 and Dehler 33 were consistently successful, adding that the Sonatas and Impalas were also competitive in light-weather evening races.
On the south side of the Solent, Chris Thomas (Island Sailing Club sailing secretary) told me: ‘Our Evening Race Series runs from April to September and regularly sees 70 boats turn out each Tuesday. We have topped 90 entries, but some can’t race every week.
‘For handicapping we use IRC, ISCRS and NHC. Both IRC and ISCRS are used in the Round the Island Race. NHC is used for our cruisers in the Evening Race Series, with tandem IRC Results. Both IRC and ISCRS are popular throughout the year. The NHC system works well for us in our Evening Race Series.
‘We’ve been running a personal handicap system for years... our club racing scene is healthy because we are open to all and we listen to our competitors and move with the times. Course boards have gone and text messaging has been added to aid the sending of course and fleet messages.’
To get an idea of which boats do well, I looked at recent ISC Class 1 results and found Js (97 and 109), Firsts (35, 40 and 407) and Elan (350) in the top 10. And – just to add antique variety – an old but beautifully maintained and sailed wooden Laurent Giles one-off sat splendidly amongst the newer plastic fantastics. In second place. That’s part of the fun of handicap cruiser racing: a good ‘oldie’ with quality modern sails and an efficient crew can be competitive.
The Royal Southern YC also enjoys a lively cruiser-racing scene. Maggie Widdop (a Contessa 32 owner) told me: ‘We have two sorts of cruiser racing. One is around the cans in monthly regattas or passage racing, and the other is sail and power racing [an unusual wheeze that other clubs might look at?].
‘We have always had a cruising division in our monthly regattas. The boats are a real mixture, from Folkboats to large modern production boats. Mostly they are short-crewed – often with the family on board – so they don’t do as many races in a day as the IRC classes. They also join in our passage races to Poole and Yarmouth.
‘The monthly regattas are part of our Summer Series and the Passage races are a separate series. The handicapping system is done by the club. We tried the RYA system in the past, but it did not suit our members.
‘We have two “sail and power” cruiser races a year. A handicapping system was developed by Angus Primrose to allow for yachts to motor for half the elapsed time of each leg; so it includes details on the engine, including horsepower and the type of propeller. There is a penalty for over-motoring. We also give a prize for the lowest percentage of engine time. These are very popular events, and the one to France has been running for over 40 years.
‘The club racing is proving very popular this year, with over 80 boats entered in our Summer Series. Our near neighbour Hamble River SC does Wednesday evening races.’
To get some Clyde contrast, I contacted Des Balmforth. He wrote: ‘The scene is on the up after a decline since 2008 followed by a plateau over the past three years. The recent formation of the Scottish RC35 (Racer Cruiser) class association is a good example of like-minded owners forming a “box rule” to get consistent class turnout at events and their own start. There are also fairly strong One Design fleets of Sigma 33s and Sonatas. The busiest clubs are the Clyde Cruising Club, Royal Western YC, Mudhook YC, Fairlie YC and Royal Highland YC.’
When it comes to handicap systems, Des said: ‘IRC and CYCA are used. IRC suits those in the faster and racier classes; CYCA the slower and cruisier. The new NHC handicap is not used in the Clyde. There seems to be little appetite for a progressive system.’
And what boat types are taking part? Des said: ‘IRC has Corby 33s, a Mills 30, First 36.7s, Pronavia 38, Swan 40, First 35, J109s, half tonners, sportsboats, Farr 727 etc. Very few of these are cruised. CYCA
has Moodys, Grand Soleils, Fastnet 34, Sigma 38, Dehler 38, Elans, Nic 35, Contessa 32, GK24 etc.’
So the picture becomes clearer... Elans, Js, Dehlers, Firsts, elderly ½ and ¼ tonners etc clearly have a lot of followers around the UK. On the cruisier front, Des added: ‘There is a fairly healthy and enthusiastic white sails class which turns out most weekends. They tend to be boats such as Maxi, Moody, Oceanis, Rival etc.
‘The Scottish Series and West Highland Week regattas flourish. SS is the more performance-oriented event, but it has been widened out to allow cruisier boats to enter per race for inshore races. WHW is a classic point-to-point – Oban to Tobermory – with local races at either end. I’d say WHW attracts more older yachts. The area of growth in racing is 33 to 38ft, where costs are not as significant as 40ft plus.’
Peter Booth – 25 years a Sonata sailor at Helensburgh SC – said Wednesday evening racing on the ‘East Patch’ includes a wide cross-section of boats including Sigmas, Sonatas and 707s.
Join in the fun
Moving down to the East Coast, cruiser racing seems to be patchy. Claire Scott of the Haven Ports Yacht Club (on the Orwell) said that a healthy mixed fleet including Bavarias, Moodys, Oyster 26, Dehler 34, Finngulf 33 and sundry older ¼ and ½ tonners and ‘classics’ came out to play, while agreeing with Ant Law of the RBYC that longer races such as EAORA and extended regattas like Burnham Week had fewer entries than in the past. Both said that encouraging boat owners to enter was a time-consuming task.
So how does a club get its members to join in the fun and go racing? One of my most active ex-customers – Mike Webster (who owned a Hunter Sonata, Impala, HB 31 and 707) – recently moved to the West Country and joined the Royal Dart Yacht Club. And – being an enthusiastic sort of chap – he was soon sucked into the club’s racing administration. He told me: ‘The problem with club racing is that you can get stuck in a rut, and everyone gets bored with doing the same old thing week in week out.’
So – Mike being Mike – he got ‘involved’; starting with the new Commodore’s Challenge Cup event to celebrate the RDYC’s 150th anniversary. To encourage entries, he ‘did a deal’ with the RORC whereby owners got a 50% price discount on an IRC rating certificate in year one and 25% in year two. And the result? Mike said: ‘Within three months we had 30 yachts rated. In year two, our numbers have grown to 43! Whilst no rating or handicap system can be all things to all people, it has proved that racing under IRC is the fairest available as far as we are concerned. If one’s club is lucky enough to qualify for this IRC Start-Up scheme, it would cost a Sonata owner £39.90 in the first year. My SJ320 cost me £81 in our club’s second year in the scheme.’
And what about the new NHC? Mike says: ‘The joint RYA/RORC project of introducing NHC was for races to be dual scored. Under the NHC, all yachts are given a base handicap number. The results system (we use HALsail) automatically adjusts a yacht’s handicap after each race, so in time those at the back of the fleet will progressively get a more advantageous handicap; theoretically until they win! We score all our races under IRC, but the yacht that wins the NHC gets a special prize; currently a pot of jam from one of our local race sponsors! The evening racing series becomes a great event, with the results being read out before supper.’
The RDYC season comprises ‘Wednesday evenings, typically with 25 yachts out. This year, due to increased enthusiasm, we have introduced spring, summer and autumn Saturday racing. The fleet includes a hot Archambault 35, Corby 29, SJ320, J24s, Moody 31s, Elans and four Tofinou 7s. One Tofinou 7 is currently vying for first place in IRC Class 2 against an Elan 295.’
Mike admits that it’s hard graft for those running the racing – but it shows what can be done when the right people apply themselves.
Many assume you have to own a fin-keeler to take part in club racing, but RORC’s Jenny Howells told me IRC ratings have already been issued to the twin-keel Westerly Centaur, Konsort and Fulmar; Hunter Horizon 26 and Duette 23; Sadler➜
25, 29 and 290; Seawolf 26, Snapdragon 24, Achilles 24 (triple keel) and French Django 770 and Surprise. Under CHS, a twin-keel Hunter Horizon 21 and 30 once both finished ‘in the money’ in the Round the Island Race – proving that twin-keelers with good sails can do well.
So which fin-keelers make good cruiser-racer buys? I was prompted to investigate this by PBO reader Robert Veale, who wrote saying: ‘I’ve been a wooden-boat owner for 20 years and, as I’ve aged, I’ve tended to cut down on voyaging and go for a quick squirt round the cans instead. But up against sporty lightweights, I get stuffed at the start and spend the time playing catch-up. Also, I want something simpler to maintain.
‘With a 36ft limit on my berth, £50k-ish budget, maybe double-handed capability such as an asymmetric kite (but not an absolute requirement), reasonable accommodation for a week in France pre-Brexit, what would you go for? ’ Good question.
The Elan ‘brand’ frequently does well. Designer Rob Humphreys has a real skill for finding a good balance between space and pace; and Elans also offer good value.
The 1999 Elan 333 is a good example. A highish SA/disp (sail area/displacement) ratio of 20.72 and lowish DLR (displacement/WL length) ratio of 166.35 add up to speed, while a ballast ratio of 38% (with a CG-lowering bulbed keel) promises stability. A generous draught of 6ft 3in will also give good windward performance. As an added bonus, the accommodation is well thought-out and she’s a pretty boat. If her size does not suit, Rob’s Elan 31 (2002) and 40 (2001) are just as good. To get a bowsprit, you need to go newer and look at the Elan 350 or 320.
The Js also crop up a lot. For budget ‘round the cans’ racing, the old J24 has many fans, while the cruiser-racer J109 (2004) has been a runaway success. An SA/disp ratio of 21.3, DLR of 171.51 and bulbed lead keel (ballast ratio 35.78%) explain why this thing really shifts. And note that – unlike almost all production builders – J/Boats go for lead. It costs more than iron, but is so much better.
The J109’s sprit + asymmetric downwind rig is suited to cruising and is potent around the racecourse. And the interior – while simply built – has everything you need. If you want a cheaper, more spartan option, the 1995 J105 is a great boat. If your budget is bigger, the 2008 J97 and 2012 J108 are also race-winners with good sea-going accommodation.
The X-332 (1994) is another competitive yacht that has sold well. Its SA/disp ratio of 21.01, DLR of 166.81, ballast ratio of 34.15% and 7ft 1in draught bulbed keel are on a par with other successful cruiser-racers, while the classy interior finish is superior to most of its type. And, of course, there are many other X yachts of varying ages to choose from.
You can’t ignore the First range. There are many to choose from; although recently Beneteau has stopped building larger Firsts and now only offers the 20 and 25. There’s obviously more profit in an Oceanis.
The 1998 Finot-designed First 31.7 that evolved from the 310 is a contender. A highish SA/disp ratio of 17.55 and a low DLR of 153.38 indicate slippery performance, and the heavily-bulbed 6ft 3in draught keel (27.33%) gives it upwind bite. I enjoyed racing on a 31.7 along Dinard’s rocky shore and was impressed by its comfortable interior. The bigger and good-looking Farr-designed First 40, 36.7 and 35-2 regularly do well on the club cruiser-racer circuit.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you club-racing a more cruisey Oceanis. Many share the same slippery hulls as the Firsts, and your handicap should compensate for extra weight and a smaller rig. For example, the Oceanis 300 and Clipper 311 share the First 31.7’s Finot hull. Give the boat a silky bottom, fit a folding prop and invest in some quality sails and you could be in business.
Jeanneau and Dufour also offer good modern cruiser-racers. The Sun Fasts and quicker Sun Odysseys (such as the 36i) do well, and the recent Dufour 34 wins races.
The Dehler range also features prominently. Cees van Tongeren (van de Stadt design office) came up trumps with the lovely Dehler 34 (developed from his winning ¾ ton DB1 hull) and Dehler 28 (1987). These are IOR-generation boats so do not have the modern slim fin and bulb keel: but if you opt for the deeper-draught version you’ll have a yacht that sails beautifully, looks good and has a tidy sea-going accommodation plan. The 34 and 28 have both proved to be competitive. If you have a bigger budget, the newer Judel/Vrolijk Dehlers also do well.
Then you have the elderly but still successful One Design classes designed by David Thomas. The Sonata (22ft 6in) might be small, but it’s a bundle of fun to sail. Its windward performance is legendary and it wins races. The Hunter Impala 28 is equally successful. Indeed, it’s currently undergoing a revival. Sailors have realised how competitive it is in IRC racing. Then you have the Sigmas. The 33, 36, 362 ‘cruiser’, 38 and 41 are great all-purpose boats. I once came second overall crewing in a 362 in the huge Round the Island ISCRS fleet. We missed the top spot by seconds.
If you have the funds, some newer yachts seem to have an edge as designers suss out the IRC system. The French JPK range (960, 110, 998 and newer 1010 and 1080) has an uncanny knack of winning races. You can hardly call them ‘sedate’, but they have practical accommodation and offer great sport to a keen crew.
Of course, the aim of handicapping systems is that any old well-sailed yacht can win on its day. But a large part of the fun is the sensation of sailing a yacht that offers ‘feel’ and speed. Provided you get racing covered by your insurers, fit a folding prop and decent sails and attract a few keen crew members, you’ll discover that club cruiserracing brings a whole new dimension to sailing.
Sigma 33: available second-hand from £13,500
Elan 333: second-hand from £30,000
This SJ320 belongs to Mike Webster of the Royal Dart Yacht Club
Elan 350 (with bowsprit): available second-hand from £84,000
J109: available second-hand from £75,000
Moody 31: second-hand from £22,000
Dufour 34: available second-hand from £63,000
X-332: available second-hand from £54,000
Dehler 34: available second-hand from £26,500
Beneteau First 40: available second-hand from £75,000
Polly, the Hunter Impala 28 co-owned by PBO deputy editor Ben Meakins
JPK 960: second-hand from £90,300