Ready About–the Rush is Back

The 29er gives the flagging sport of sailing a facewash

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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.”

The Path of Greatest Resistance

A band of doggedly self-reliant twentysomethings seeks to put the agony back into alpinism

 For Mike Libecki and four other young Americans bound for northwest China this month, it’s not enough to climb difficult routes in an untouched valley of the Kok Shal Tau range. No, they have to suffer, too. Even before reaching for the first hold, the group will spend three weeks ferrying 1,500 pounds of food and equipment up and down a glaciated valley.

“Climbing is only 51 percent of it,” the 27-year-old Libecki says, explaining why he opted against hiring porters to shoulder 150 pounds of salami, 100 pounds of cheese, and 30 pounds of pitons, among other necessities. “At least 49 percent is all the other stuff.” The Alta, Utah, resident says his love for “the other stuff”—laborious preparation and the monotony of so much gear-humping—places him among a new generation of adventurers who exclusively seek virgin routes and then stick around for months in an effort to spiritually integrate with the local culture and environs.

Suffice to say, China will tax both the group’s idealism and its stamina. After flying into the northwestern town of Kashi, the group plans to skirt the Taklimakan Desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles, mount camels near Akqi, and then ride north into the Tien Shan Mountains until they hit the terminus of an unnamed glacier in the vicinity of Mount Kizil Asker. For roughly eight hours a day over a two- to five-week period, they will ferry their gear, in 50-pound loads, from ten to 14,000 feet. Then, after many weeks, if no one has been injured on the glacier, if snow delays have not depleted their food supply, if nobody’s mutinied—in other words, if a dram of testosterone remains—they will climb. And climb some more. “The longer we’re there, the better,” says 28-year-old Jed Workman, a Yosemite big-wall veteran who will suffer through the trip alongside his brother, Doug.

Hard numbers are sketchy, but the team—which also includes Jerry Dodril and Jimmy Haden—expects granite faces as high as two Half Domes and, if the walls resemble those of the same range in the neighboring Republic of Kyrgyzstan, they’ll have overhanging aid routes, too. The team will spend a month climbing, scouting, and mapping a valley that hasn’t seen foreign visitors since 1962. “There are other people doing sick self-support adventures,” says professional mountaineer Dave Briggs, “but it’s not the next big thing.” Of course, for pure-hearted Libecki, setting trends isn’t the point.

Oh Yeah, You and What Army?

Behind the most beloved wilderness essential lies a century-old rivalry

In backcountry circles, the Swiss Army knife is the ultimate nostalgia hit. “It’s like my old friend,” says Rainier Mountaineering’s Lou Whittaker. “I’d take it anywhere—and I have.” But don’t ask the 71-year-old to name which of the two companies licensed to produce the knives—Victorinox or Wenger—made his. “By God, I wouldn’t know which one I’ve carried,” he says. You can’t blame him—the cutlers themselves have done little to clear up the confusion since the early 1900s when Wenger, in the French-speaking town of Delémont, Switzerland, protested that Victorinox, located in German-speaking Ibach, shouldn’t own exclusive rights to supply the Swiss military. The government, being Swiss, compromised, and split the contract between the two in 1908. Later, both agreed that Wenger would be the “Genuine Swiss Army Knife” and Victorinox would be the “Original Swiss Army Knife.” “When you’ve got the ‘original’ and the ‘genuine’ you’ve got a terrible thing,” laments Peter Gilson, chairman of Swiss Army Brands, the North American distributor of Victorinox. Here’s the English version.


A white cross on a red shield.

Defining “original” versus “genuine”
“The word ‘original’…speaks to the heritage of the company,” says Swiss Army Brands spokesman Jeff Turner. “We are the ones that invented the knife and brought it to market.”

Biggest, baddest knife available
The SwissChamp boasts 22 folding implements.

How to pick a fight with a Swiss cutler
Cite Wenger’s claim to superior innovation: “There’s just no shortage of innovation in our organization,” says Turner. “I’m not concerned about innovation. We are great innovators.”

The Altimeter knife includes a built-in altimeter.

Strategic advantage
Has exclusive right to use “Swiss Army” for non-knife items. Claims to have 75 percent of Swiss Army knife market share.

Total knife inventory

Telltale indicator of Swiss heritage
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Officer’s knife, the company commissioned Swiss composer Peter Lüssi to write the “Swiss-Knife-Rag.”


A white cross on a rounded off square.

Defining “original” versus “genuine”

“‘Genuine’ instantly connotes authentic, but if you think about it for a minute, it also connotes original,” says Wenger’s Dennis Piretra. “But ‘original’ alone tells me there is another one.”

Biggest, baddest knife available
The Tool Chest Plus packs in 18 gadgets and 33 functions.

How to pick a fight with a Swiss cutler

Suggest that Victorinox is in effect footing the bill for marketing both brands: “I think there’s drafting on both parts,” says Piretra.

The Laser features a tiny laser pointer.

Strategic advantage
The more money Victorinox pumps into “Swiss Army” products, the better the buzz for Wegner’s knives of the same name

Total knife inventory

Telltale indicator of Swiss heritage
Wenger’s Bavarian-kitsch Web site invites browsers to enter the “Club Haus.”

Total Swiss Army knives sold to the Swiss Army this year: None (Downsizing created a knife surplus in 1997 that’s expected to last until 2002.)

Species for Sale

Happy birthday, honey—I named a frog after you

 It was inevitable that the Wild Kingdom would discover e-commerce. Less obvious, though, was that a bunch of German taxonomists would pave the way. Last winter, with the knowledge that newly discovered species are vanishing faster than they can be catalogued, five research institutes formed the nonprofit Biopat—loosely, “Patrons for Biodiversity”—and launched to sell the rights to name newly discovered flora and fauna for as little as $2,500 a pop. Within four months, the group had successfully e-tailed bug, flower, and critter monikers to a Wall Street broker, a solarium company, a Dutch university looking for a mascot, and some 15 other individuals and groups.

But unlike many dotcoms, Biopat isn’t motivated by overnight riches. About 15,000 organisms die out or are lost each year, in part because they are unnamed, unclassified, and thus unprotected. Anyone with a mouse and a checkbook is welcome—especially celebrities, who need not look far for precedent. Some years back, University of Michigan professor Moises Kaplan called a tree frog Hyla stingiafter the pop icon Sting. And four years ago, German biologist and tennis fan Manfred Parth christened a snail Bufornia borisbeckeri.

Biopat hopes ordinary people and high-rollers alike will catch the naming bug, and that the cash will follow. It’s badly needed: As funding and young talent flow increasingly toward the newer, sexier fields of biotech and genetics, it seems taxonomists themselves are an endangered species. “A lot of people think we’re a bunch of moles in dusty basements looking at snakes,” says Biopat copresident Claus Baetke. “But we can’t continue working in anonymity.”

Size Matters

Big-wheel bikes gain momentum

What if everything we knew about mountain-bike geometry was wrong? For years, a small cadre of boutique builders has argued just that: Off-road wheels should be 29 inches—the size used on cyclocross bikes—rather than the ubiquitous 26. While the number of so-called big-wheel rigs sold annually by smaller, high-end outfits such as Willits, Moots, and Vicious ranks only in the double digits, a certain off-road industry potentate with pull at one of the nation’s largest bike companies is set to change all that.

In recent months, Gary Fisher, the president of Trek’s Gary Fisher Bikes division, has been testing a big-wheel prototype near his Marin County, California, home. “If it is faster in some [types of terrain], then we’ll just make a few models,” Fisher says. “If it is faster in enough places, we will plan the demise of the 26-inch wheel.”

That’s sweet music to the big-wheel crowd. For years they’ve argued that their bikes ride smoother, climb over roots easier, and—because more rubber meets the road—grip like barnacles. And, gushes Mountain Bike Hall of Fame codirector Don Cooke,”as soon as you start riding downhill, these wheels instantly go to speed—they wanna roll, fast and true.”

Of course, not everyone is sold. “It is a last gasp of some out-of-touch people who are trying to move the market in a direction that it has no intention of going,” says GT Bicycles marketing manager and 25-year industry veteran Bob Hadley. Hadley says he has seen the future of off-road biking, and it lies in the aerial acrobatics of European dirt jumping. “If you run a big wheel and try to do that, the wheel collapses,” he notes. Other knocks against big-wheel rigs are that short riders find the frames ungainly and that large-circumference wheels perform poorly on hairpin singletrack because they require more work to get up to speed.

Big-wheelers clearly have their work cut out for them. It’s going to take a full-fledged grassroots movement to break the hegemony of the 26-inch wheel—a vestige of Schwinn kiddie bikes, they sniff. But with Fisher contemplating a few models for 2002, the paradigm may be on the verge of a sizable shift. “The big wheel is something we all know about. It is legendary,” says Wes Williams, owner of Willits Brand Bicycles. “But elsewhere it is a brand-new concept. And it is hard to change things.”

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