Owned and helmed by individuals used to success outside of sport, sailed by excellent professional talent and penned by architectural visionaries, the world’s most spectacular monohull yachts, known in the sailing community as Maxis, are admired for their speed, elegance, as well as power.
The ultimate testing ground and showcase for Maxis, their owners, sailors and designers is the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, held annually in Porto Cervo, Sardinia and open only to yachts over 18.29m (60-ft) in length. With a fierce level of competition, challenging and complex racecourses, the event provides a stern examination of a Maxi yacht’s capabilities.
This year’s event has once again proved an unmissable rendezvous for those captivated by the latest and most thought-provoking thinking in yacht design.
Jim Pugh of San Diego-based Reichel/Pugh, Rolf Vrolijk from German studio Judel/Vrolijk and Mark Mills of Ireland-based Mills Design Ltd are three of the most active, and successful, in the rarefied world of Maxi yacht design. All three are present at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup observing firsthand a number of their latest creations in action.
Judel/Vrolijk designs include two previous winners of the Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship – Hap Fauth’s defending champion sailing yacht Bella Mente and Niklas Zennström’s two-time winner Rán 2 yacht. Judel/Vrolijk also worked on the concept and launch of the first Wally Cento – Sir Charles Dunstone’s 100-ft superyacht Hamilton.
Reichel/Pugh have provided the vision behind several renowned Maxis including the 100-ft superyacht Esimit Europa 2, a recent line honours winner at the Rolex Fastnet. Two other Reichel/Pugh Maxi designs boast current Rolex offshore race records – George David’s 90-ft luxury yacht Rambler at the 2007 Rolex Middle Sea Race, and the 100-ft superyacht Wild Oats XI at the 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart. Among their designs in attendance in 2013 is Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones’s brand-new Wally Cento superyacht Magic Carpet 3.
In turn, Mark Mills drew the lines for the very latest Mini Maxi launch, Andres Soriano’s 72-ft sailing yacht Alegre, completed earlier this year. A testament to the quality of his studio’s work lies in the continued success of the former Alegre, now sailing as Caol Ila R yacht.
From aluminium to carbon
Established in 1980, the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup was born of a desire to provide the large, powerful yachts with an opportunity to engage in a direct competition, in a suitably challenging environment. Organized by Yacht Club Costa Smeralda and the International Maxi Association, the event has been the jewel of Rolex’s international yachting portfolio since 1985.
In the 1980s hulls were made of glass fibre, aluminium, sometimes even wood. Masts and rigging were constructed using metal. Heavy and not particularly fast, loads were high, manoeuvres ponderous and safety margins slim. A far cry from the sleek, carbon fibre-built designs of today that benefit from aerospace technology and are fast, and agile. In the right hands some appear to be sailed like dinghies.
“Initially, Maxis were heavy displacement, fixed keel boats with a fairly shallow draft,” starts Pugh. Those racing in Porto Cervo this week are unrecognisable from their predecessors – rules, materials and knowledge have all changed over the intervening years expanding the opportunities considerably. “Some of the Maxi boats now weigh 26 metric tonnes whereas 30 years ago they weighed 75 tonnes – a huge difference. The rigs are probably twice the size and due to a much longer waterline, they are more powerful, probably going three times the speed they did thirty years ago.”
Vrolijk points to a number of factors affecting why and how design has evolved: “A lot of the changes have been influenced by rating rules which have determined how boats are built.” Other developments have occurred following improvements in a different area, for example “sail development in terms of cloth and design has occurred parallel to improvements in mast design.”
Continued research into the possibilities offered by the latest construction materials, has enabled different sizes and types of boat to emerge. The landscape has broadened immensely: from all-out racing Mini Maxis between 60 and 72 feet to imperious Supermaxis measuring in excess of 165 ft (50m); from boats designed to both race and cruise to those with speed as their single purpose. All reflect a continuing desire to break boundaries in terms of power and elegance. The differences between an all out racing Mini Maxi (Bella Mente) and a Supermaxi (defending Class champion superyacht Nilaya), designed primarily to cruise, are outlined in an accompanying infographic.
A collaborative process
With the range of concepts and solutions on display, it is little surprise that many projects are born at or inspired by the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. “Coming to an event like this you see so many different styles of boat,” explains Pugh. “It is definitely very stimulating in terms of creativity.”
Pugh confirms that the design process is categorized by several key steps starting with the owner’s brief: “You will discuss what the owner wants to do, how he wants the boat to perform, gaining an idea about where the boat has to sail, where it has to have its strong points to meet his vision.”
Some briefs can be truly specific, as Mills reveals for the new Alegre: “More than a perfect testing ground, the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup is the boat’s raison d’être. The boat’s design, everything about it, is about coming here and doing our best. It is the template around which Alegre was designed.”
Once commissioned, an exhaustive research and development (R&D) process begins. “So much of this sort of boat design is driven by R&D,” explains Mills. “The first thing you do is set up a weather model, agree on the right conditions and let 80 or 90 hull shapes run through that model. The hull shape and parameters of the boat come out of R&D work. To that end it is the child of the research process.”
“Sometimes we will tank test, other times we will test through computational testing,” explains Pugh. “Then we will develop a number of other designs that are slightly different, varying parameters of the baseline such as beam and displacement and different styles of hull shapes so we can run those computationally. It is a fairly long process, taking somewhere between four to seven months.”
Once the design concept and testing is finalised, the complex build process is set in motion, a collaboration involving composite structural engineers, together with sail and mast makers, and specialists in almost every conceivable aspect of a sailing boat.
Once constructed the crew begin a further testing process through extensive sea trials and then sailing the boat at competitive events. It can take a while for a new launch to reach her full potential. “Everyone hopes to be right on target out of the blocks,” explains Mills, “but the size of these boats and level of complexity involved, including a crew of around 22, means it usually takes a year to get a boat fully working.”
Technology enables crews to crunch an amazing amount of data from cameras recording sail shape to sensors noting backstay and forestay tension. Of course, the data is nothing without skilled human interpretation. The sailors at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup are a who’s who in this regard, nearly all with a skill beyond simply knowing how to sail.
Larger and lighter
Development is not confined to pure race boats. The Wally Cento is one of the latest concepts in dual purpose yachts required to both cruise and perform on the racecourse. Hamilton was the first iteration, launched last year, and Reichel/Pugh has recently delivered the second in Magic Carpet 3. The response to another owner taking advantage of evolution in stronger, lighter materials to improve speed. “It is a very exciting project,” continues Pugh, “It is not an absolute race design and has to reach the class rules of considerable accommodation. This is an even bigger challenge than doing a stripped out racing boat.”
Magic Carpet 3’s owner, Sir Lindsay Owen Jones, explains his concern throughout the process was whether his new yacht would be fast. The answer he says emphatically is yes: “It’s much faster. It is much more fun, much more exciting. Paradoxically, it is a much better cruising boat because of its extra width, which gives people air and space and makes it a very stable cruising platform. When you feel it accelerating it really is an exciting feeling. It feels like a racing boat and that’s what we wanted.”
Improving on perfection
This year’s competition is adorned by the presence of four graceful J-Class yachts. Of the four-strong fleet charter yacht Shamrock and superyacht Velsheda are restorations of original yachts, both in excess of 80 years old, while Rainbow yacht and charter yacht Ranger are authentic replicas of original designs.
The challenge in restoring, replicating and sailing these boats is involved. Needs and solutions have changed considerably since the J-Class heyday in the 1930s. John Williams, owner of the 136-ft Ranger, a three-time winner at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, was a forerunner in helping the Class return to splendour a little over ten years ago. “The original Ranger was built in 1936 and won the America’s Cup in 1937,” he explains. The boat was then scrapped for steel in early 1940s. “I took the plans of the original Ranger and replicated it.”
The process was not simple, as Williams testifies: “The original J’s had no engine, generators, air conditioning, hot water, so to take the original hull and put all modern elements in was incredibly difficult. It took twice as long to design than to build. Even now we continually tweak it.” For designers and owners it is a delicate balance between replicating the beauty of the original boat and making something that performs in the modern age.
Evolution not revolution
What can we expect to see over the coming years in terms of Maxi yacht design? “There are parameters that limit you so you are not going to see an revolution in design,” warns Pugh. “But you may see a continuing evolution in hull design in terms of performance, and in sail plans and in rigs.”
“The possibilities are always there,” adds Vrolijk “and a desire to push the boundaries of speed will always be prevalent. For every generation of boats, the new ones have to be faster.”
As certain as Maxis will continue to break boundaries, the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup will forever be the proving ground for the world’s greatest and fastest yachts.