The RC-44 circuit in Europe has proven appealing to a small group of owners, largely due to interesting venues and seriously upper-crust onshore activities, but as Coutts and his people try to open up a North American market for the Class, we have to ask if there really is a market for yet another dayracing one-design in the US? We doubt it, after all, Grand Prix Farr 40 racing is over and done, and seemingly everyone with the competitiveness and cash to race hard core big boat one-design is already in the Melges 32 fleet. The RC-44 offers less competition, but perhaps a more interesting format, as well as massaging the egos of the guys who are just too rich for the Melges – and that clearly is a niche in itself. SA’er ‘Mr. Ryano’ checks in with his own views after test sailing the first boat in the US.
The boat was hard to miss at the docks of Newport Shipyard, even though the yard was filled with some of the world’s hottest maxis getting ready for the Bermuda race. It’s clear coat carbon gleaming and low freeboard just screamed sex appeal. This was the first Russell Coutts 44 in North America, and I was there to do some sailing and help get the boat up to speed. Anything with the name Russell Coutts attached to it carries high expectations, and this boat, and the reputation of the European RC 44 Championship Tour were creating a buzz on the docks. But is the buzz worth it?
On first glance, the boat looks like the unlikely love child of a Star and an IACC boat. Performance was paramount in the design brief, and no sacrifice was made for the sake of any rating rule. The RC 44, in fact, won’t even rate under IRC. (It did carry a PHRF rating of -45 during our Tuesday night racing) With a displacement of only 7800 lbs (3560kg), a big square top main, trim tab, and a ton of sail area; the boat is fully powered up in about 6 knots of breeze. That’s when the fun really starts. With no lifelines, the crew drops over the side into the classic Star mini hike position. But with no foot straps, you had better find something to hold on to before dropping your butt over the side! The foredeck and jib trimmers have the best spots, the foredeck can grab the shrouds and the trimmer can grab the winch handle. For everyone else, its first come-first served to grab a halyard tail, jib car line, or whatever sheet is handy. It’s easy to fall off, and at the recent RC 44 event in Copenhagen, crews did manage to go over the side. If you want to race on one of these boats, get to the gym and start working on your abs and forearms now.
With only 8 crew onboard, everyone works hard and there is no space for rail whales. Russell wouldn’t have it any other way. If it doesn’t make the boat go faster, it’s not needed. What has been included though is a technical boat lovers dream. Prospective teams will need to spend a lot of time determining optimum rake settings and trim tab angles in order to get up to speed with the top European teams. Both rake and tab angle have beautiful analog indicators built into the sides of the cockpit, along with the standard B&G instrument package. Once dialed in, the boat is a dream to sail, and off the wind, she just flies under a 1722 sq ft (170 sq M) kite.
Great performance doesn’t guarantee a successful, growing class, so how will the RC 44 set itself apart from all of the other choices out there? The answer lies in the successful RC 44 Champions Tour in Europe. Class management, headed up by Bertrand Favre, has set up a series of events that appeal to sailors and shoreside events alike. For 2010, the class mandates a fee of €15,000 from each competing yacht. The management fee includes admission to all 6 events, plus on the water umpiring, turnkey logistics, and shore events. Host cities also provide a hosting fee to the class to support each event. Team owners need to simply write a check and show up with crew. Boat captains don’t need to be full time, they arrive a few days in advance of the event, unpack the boat from its container, bolt on the keel fin, set up the mast, and wait for the class ordered crane to arrive. The class also provides a container with full spares, including crash bows, and stern sections, as well as a refrigerated container for each team to store and ship sales. Shoreside hospitality is top notch, and the class even produces a full color press kit, highlighting each team and venue.
A RC 44 North American Tour may be the closest thing to a real pro-am sailing series to succeed in the US. The first Tour event will be in Miami, December 7-12, 2010. Another Championship Tour event will be hosted in San Diego in early 2011, with a stop at Key West Race Week in between. The full North American schedule for 2011 is up to the committed owners to decide, but locations such as Lake Tahoe, Newport, San Francisco, and Chicago have already been mentioned. The North American class is also free to decide if they would like to adopt the current Tour model of fully professional match racing for two days, followed by three days of fleet racing. For all of this to happen, 6 owners need to step up and place an order for the €395,000 boat. The purchase price includes Maffioli rigging, B&G instruments, and the custom shipping container/cradle. Campaign costs are being estimated at $50,000 (US) per event. While the number may seem large, a total campaign around $400,000 (US) would actually price out at less than a top flight Farr 40 program. Russell has indicated they were close to the critical mass, and after a day of sailing, he was off to put the hard sell on the remaining uncommitted prospects. Teams need to decide fast, if they want to ensure getting their boats in time for the December event. While in Newport, Russell received orders for 2 new boats, both for Russian owners.
Top level sailing in the US needs a format like the RC 44 series. With any luck, 2011 will be the start of something really unique in the racing community. Check out the official press kit here, and here’s a gallery of photos from the test day.