Class 40s and The Atlantic Cup Soar on Grand Prix Dreams

It was the start of Leg 2 of the second annual Atlantic Cup, a mixed-format regatta raced in high-speed water-ballasted Class 40 sloops, and we were bound for Newport, Rhode Island.

My favorite tip for racing in an international fleet is: “You know when a French sailor is about to tack or gybe when he tosses his cigarette in the water.” This past May, though, on an unseasonably hot Saturday, I was much too busy to see if any of the European skippers in the 15-boat fleet around me were chucking their butts into New York Harbor.

It was the start of Leg 2 of the second annual Atlantic Cup, a mixed-format regatta raced in high-speed water-ballasted Class 40 sloops, and we were bound for Newport, Rhode Island. Aboard Dragon, my co-skipper, Michael Hennessy, and I did our best to stay focused on the job at hand: no easy task, given the flashy sponsor logos on the boats around us, the GoPro camera filming us from our own pulpit, and the cameramen shooting us all the way from the starting line off lower Manhattan to the Verrazano Narrows. This was clearly the big time. I could hardly believe we were worthy of so much attention, and it was making me more than a bit nervous.

Whether it’s hull-flying America’s Cup 45 catamarans slicing around San Diego or Volvo 70s trading blows off South Beach, our country’s best amateur sailors typically can only sit back and watch the pinnacle events of our sport. The flashy live tracking and onboard video reports blasted across the Internet usually feature only the professionals. If you want to be a sailing rock star, but either can’t or don’t want to give up your day job, where do you go?

Well, after seeing my face splashed across every online sailing media outlet in the free world after just one race start—and after hearing friends and family chide me on my bleary-eyed interview after our midnight finish in Newport—I think I now have the answer: the Atlantic Cup, an offshore challenge that puts you smack in the sailing spotlight without demanding the commitment of, say, the Vendée Globe.

“This is really less hassle, less money and more challenge,” says Joe Harris, who at 52 is starting to realize his offshore shorthanded sailing dreams with his Class 40 Gryphon Solo 2. “We started in Charleston and raced hard into New York City, then to Newport where we zigzagged all over Narragansett Bay. We’re doing stuff no one else is doing.”

Harris, who hopes to one day race Gryphon Solo 2 solo around the world, and his co-skipper, Tristan Mouligne, were also all over the Internet and ultimately secured third place overall in the multi-leg event, despite the fact they both have day jobs in Boston: Harris in real estate, and Mouligne in financial planning. The box-rule Class 40, says Harris, is the only offshore class that offers true ProAm racing. In combination with the Atlantic Cup, he says, it has a real shot at creating a whole new racing dynamic here in the United States.

The Atlantic Cup was founded in 2011 by pro sailor Hugh Pigginand former CBS Sports executive Julianna Barbieri. It started with just four boats, but skyrocketed into prominence in 2012 with 15 U.S. and international crews on the starting line in Charleston, South Carolina—the result of a combination of good planning and good luck.

“This year’s event fit perfectly into the Class 40 schedule,” says Piggin, noting that about half the Atlantic Cup fleet also raced in the Solitaire du Chocolat, a doublehanded race from France to Mexico in early March. This created a pool of fully sponsored European teams that had just enough time to deliver their boats to Charleston for Leg 1 to New York City. Most of the Europeans then planned to sail home via the Transat Quebec St. Malo race the end of July.

The Atlantic Cup is one of the only prize-money sailing events in North America, with a total purse of $30,000, and it was easy to pick out the foreigners from the Americans, with the brightly colored sails and hulls of their Euro-sponsored boats. The Americans were also much older—the average age of the skippers on the U.S.-flagged boats was easily 10 years older than their European counterparts—but they still excelled, taking three of the top five positions.

This was especially impressive given that Americans traditionally have missed the mark in shorthanded sailing. Memorable U.S. campaigns have included Phil Weld aboard his OSTAR-winning trimaran Moxie, Mike Plant aboard Duracell, Dodge Morgan on American Promise, Bruce Schwab and Rich Wilson in the Vendée Globe, and Brad Van Liew in the Velux 5 Oceans race. But these have been the exceptions.

One of the reasons for this lackluster record has been the cost of the Open 50s and Open 60s that have dominated shorthanded offshore racing for the past 20 years. With the advent of the Class 40 rule in 2004, though, barriers to entry were substantially lowered, allowing Americans a foothold in a sport otherwise dominated by Europeans in general, and the French in particular. Indeed, according to British sailor Miranda Merron who teamed up with French veteran Halvard Mabire aboard Campagne de France to take fourth overall at this year’s Atlantic Cup, that was the express intent of the rule—to accommodate “sailors who wanted an economical and durable boat that could be raced or cruised shorthanded” and to create an exciting ride in the process.

Having now sailed more than 1,000 doublehanded miles aboard Dragon, I would compare the experience of sailing a Class 40 at full tilt to racing a 505 performance trapeze dinghy in the ocean off Santa Cruz. The boat is powered up with ballast to weather, gliding up and over waves, and the steering is light. But one missed cue and you’re into a power wipeout at 20 knots. And they do wipe out: rig in the water, gear scattered like a yard sale.

Another advantage of the boats is their flexibility. As Hennessy, who works as a finance executive, puts it, the boats are “easily managed” by one or two, but still fun for a group in fleet racing. “It’s rewarding,” he says, “to round a weather mark with a Club Swan 42 that has eight people and fly right by them with just two of us and the boat on a full plane.”

“Owner-drivers in America are pampered,” says Harris. “All they do is drive, while the tactician tells them to go up or down. I hope the Atlantic Cup shows even the older guys that this shorthanded stuff is something they can do.”

Looking ahead, Piggin says he does not foresee another scheduling match like the one that bolstered this year’s fleet until 2014, which means the short-term state of the class will depend largely on U.S. sailors. But with the Class 40 fleet continuing to gain momentum on this side of the Atlantic, 2013 will hopefully still see a strong field.

For one thing, the self-funded group, which also includes Newbury Comics founder Mike Dreese, will be introducing two new boats to the fleet in 2013, which will leave the current generation of boats available for either charter or sale at between $200,000 and $300,000—less than half the sticker price of a new build. There is also a whole class of younger sailors that took part in this year’s regatta and would love to come back for more, including Jesse Naimark-Rowse, the youngest American to finish the grueling Mini Transat; doublehanded racing veteran Ryan Breymaier; Tufts University sailor Emma Creighton; veteran boat captain and rigger Rob Windsor; Oakcliff Sailing Center graduate Jeffrey MacFarlane; and Ben Poucher and Tim Fetsch, who have now raced two Atlantic Cups aboard Icarus with the help of the Kings Point Sailing Foundation and North Sails.

“My big goal is to find a sponsor for the Class 40 and eventually do the Barcelona World Race,” says Creighton, who finished fourth overall in this year’s regatta, sailing aboard Initiatives with Windsor. Creighton is currently looking for funding in Europe, because, as she puts it, “More people are aware that sailing makes sense for sponsorship there.” However, she says she could easily see those same younger sailors who gain a foothold in Europe bringing their teams back home to compete in Class 40 regattas like the Atlantic Cup.

Two Americans who have already implemented a variation of this strategy are Breymaier and Naimark-Rowse. Breymaier, who was co-skipper of the winning German-flagged Mare in the first leg of this year’s Atlantic Cup, also sailed in the 2010-11 Barcelona World Race aboard Neutrogena with German sailor Boris Herrmann. Naimark-Rowse, who sailed this year’s Atlantic Cup aboard Talan-Bureau Veritas with French sailor Stephane Le Diraison, works as a member of the shore team for Alex Thomson’s Open 60 Hugo Boss.

Then there are guys like me. Although a Class 40 is not in my budget, I got a chance to see how the class works when I called Hennessy this winter because he seemed like a normal guy who might want another normal guy like me as crew. It worked, and though we ended up sixth overall, I felt like a rock star—which I’m here to tell you ain’t half bad. 

In the words of Dave Rearick, an Indiana building contractor who along with co-skipper Matt Scharl took second overall in this year’s Atlantic Cup aboard Bodacious Dream: “I used to love following the Whitbread, but now there’s not much human interest…I couldn’t be like Ken Read, ever, even if I started over at 23 and worked my butt off. But you see Dave Rearick, who has been swinging a hammer for years and is a lifelong sailor, win a leg of the Atlantic Cup and it allows people to see themselves in your shoes and say, ‘I’m like them.'"

Photos by Billy Black


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