|IT’S A CHILLY MONDAY ON NEW JERSEY’S BARNEGAT BAY. Chris Ashley, 18, and Carl Horrocks, 16, are snugged into wetsuits to guard against the punchy northwesterly wind that rips whitecaps off the water in 25-knot gusts. It’s crisp. Extremely crisp. The turned-down Elmer Fudd flaps on Ashley’s fleece cap ward off the frigid spray, and Horrocks is cinched into a Funkengrüven flotation vest customized with a Led Zeppelin logo. But these guys know cold. Yesterday, both were out surfing in the booming Atlantic rollers. Today their ride is a bit more novel—a small sailboat from Down Under called a 29er skiff.
Ashley works the tiller, Horrocks rides the trapeze, and both struggle to keep the damn thing upright as it planes across the bay. They tack their way upwind, and then come about and pop the spinnaker. As the 181-square-foot sail bursts open, nearly 200 pounds of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and Mylar accelerate like a Porsche Boxster climbing through the gears. Suddenly, the wind eases for a moment, and the skiff, christened Voodoo Chile, death-rolls to windward and dumps the pair into the black water. No matter. Within minutes they are back up on another screaming reach. “It’s awesome,” Horrocks later declares. “The boat goes soooooo fast.” Indeed. Last August, a New York City-based 29er was clocked making 26 knots, the equivalent of about 30 miles per hour. It may not sound like much on land, but in a shallow boat, mere inches above the waves, it’s a rocket ride.
Sailors from Australia and New Zealand have been hooked for decades on the adrenalized thrills of skiff sailing—a sport in which two- or three-person boats fly ridiculous amounts of sail on shallow, lightning-fast hulls. Yet despite the obvious appeal of blistering speed, it’s been a niche sport accessible only to unusually skilled sailors. High-performance skiffs cost upwards of $20,000 and due to their rigging configuration (skippers often steer while hiked out on trapeze) demand a good deal of technical knowledge to sail. But now, along comes Julian Bethwaite, a 19-year sailboat-design veteran and former professional racer who is on a mission to put extreme velocity in the hands of your average weekend deck-swabber.
The 29er was conceived by Bethwaite, a 41-year-old Australian, as an answer to the problems young sailors were facing in trying to learn how to handle the 49er, a more technically challenging skiff that he had launched in 1994. (The names, chosen arbitrarily, don’t reflect the length of the boats, which run 14 feet and 16 feet, respectively.) Just keeping a 49er upright and moving in one direction demands both nautical smarts and the athleticism of a Ringling Brothers acrobat; high-speed collisions have put at least three sailors in the hospital. “An emergency that starts at the dock,” is how one San Francisco-based 49er sailor defines the larger boat. To tutor sailors in the fine art of controlling a treacherous 49er, the International Sailing Federation asked designers in 1996 to come up with a smaller, more manageable high-performance skiff design. Two years later, Bethwaite’s first 29er prototype shot across Sydney Harbour. Four additional test models and 5,000 man-hours later, the blueprints were finished—the product of a Manhattan Project–style brain trust of international designers assembled by Bethwaite at his Sydney-based sailboat firm, Starboard Products.
When it first hit the water in April 1998, the new skiff became the overnight darling of industry watchers. “The 29er appears very well-sorted and quite clever in its simplicity,” says Russell Bowler, vice-president of Annapolis-based Farr Yacht Design, one of the world’s leading yacht design firms. Come September, it is expected to get an even more synergistic push from the Olympic Games, when an audience of millions will watch 49ers thrash across Sydney Harbour in a series of high-performance dinghy fleet races. Some spectators will likely want a piece of the action, and the 29er is where they’ll find it.
Even parked on a dolly, the craft looks fierce, with a shallow, open hull that flares out into wings. The design includes several features intended to make the boat durable and easy to sail: a self-tacking jib, a single line to hoist and douse the spinnaker, and extruded aluminum foils (centerboard and rudder) that are both finely engineered and nearly indestructible. “We have now reduced hydrodynamic drag to the point where aerodynamic drag has become a significant part of the equation,” Bethwaite says. (Translation: It’s so difficult to improve on the 29er’s hull that he has turned to tweaking the rig and sail.) He’s also reduced drag on your wallet: At $7,750 a pop, the boat costs about $13,000 less than the 49er.
Without any marketing to speak of beyond word of mouth and a few Web sites, a handful of builders have already sold about 500 29ers the world over. This month, approximately 60 of them will head to Italy to compete in the first 29er world championships, at Lake Garda. “The 29er has definitely got momentum,” says Lee Parks, the inshore director for U.S. Sailing. “New designs usually have to go out and hunt for buyers.” That’s because the sailing world is notoriously conservative—witness the America’s Cup yachts which, despite massive investments in R&D, still sail at only 10 to 15 knots. “As a general rule, a lot of sailing clubs are resistant to change and there is a commitment to some of the older classes,” confirms 29er International Class Association director John Reed—a reference to older 14-foot racing dinghies such as the Laser, the Vanguard 15, and the Club 420, which collectively dominate youth sailing clubs. But high-performance skiffs offer a wilder ride, and the affordable 29er appears to have struck a chord in New Zealand and, increasingly, California, where young sailors stand patiently for hours in the surf while waiting for a turn on demo models.
The 29er has hit the scene just in time. According to a 1999 National Sporting Goods Survey, participation in sailing in the U.S. had dropped to a decade low of 2.8 million participants, down 23.4 percent from 1998. And while solid numbers are scarce, almost everyone in the industry will tell you that, worldwide, the vast majority of young sailors inevitably retire their Topsiders as they move from clubs to the real world. Bethwaite and many others believe that absurd speed might just be the thing that keeps them around and, by extension, heads off any chance of the sport’s evolving into the next lawn bowling. “Sailing a skiff is like sailing an untamed beast,” says 23-year-old Camarillo, California, resident Rob Dean. Were he not gearing up for the 29er world championships, he might otherwise be spending his weekends mountain biking.
Then again, it takes a lot to turn the sailing community on to a new thing. Take the case of Vanguard Performance Sailboats, North America’s largest builder of small-scale racing boats. Even though the firm already manufactures the 49er, Vanguard declined to build the 29er for the U.S. market, claiming that, for now, they didn’t see a future in it. “The 29er is not going to replace the 420,” predicts Vanguard marketing director James Appel. “At least not for the next ten years. It’s a little too hard to sail for the younger kids and a little too easy to sail for the older sailor.”
But even Vanguard is hedging its bets. Having passed on the 29er license, the company plans to roll out prototypes for its own new skiff design later this summer. Unlike Bethwaite’s boat, the Vanguard Skiff will put both crew members on trapezes (the 29er flies only one). Vanguard’s Appel claims that his company’s still-secret design will be significantly faster than the 29er, though no harder to sail.
Time will tell: No one has yet seen the Vanguard Skiff in action. Still, whatever emerges from that company’s skunk works, Julian Bethwaite is confident his 29er will provide thrills for anyone who is after them. He has made his point. In fact, it’s stenciled across the stern of Chris Ashley’s and Carl Horrocks’s Voodoo Chile for all their fellow sailors to see. It simply reads, “Your Boat Is Slow.”