On his way down to cover Charleston Race Week on Saturday, roving editor Mr. Clean stopped by the Lake Norman Yacht Club near Charlotte to sail two of the newest one-designs in the world. Here’s his report.
When I swung by the LNYC the other day to see some old friends, I didn’t expect to get 30 minutes of stick time on two of the hottest new boats on the market -Brian Bennett’s VX-One, and the Johnstone boys’ new J/70 – all within minutes of parking my truck. But the wind was blowing, the sun was shining, and it didn’t take long on either boat to appreciate just how good both designs are at fulfilling their quite different missions. They are undoubtedly both ‘sportboats’ (or ‘sportsboats’ for our down under and UK brethren), the most common definition of ‘em being under 30 feet, easy to tow, easy to launch via ramp or crane, and planing downwind in moderate breeze. These are definitely both in the genre, though they couldn’t possibly be more different if they tried. But first, a word about the testing:
You may have noticed an explosion of ‘demo days’ for new boats over the past few years. There is certainly nothing new about boat demos, but lately, manufacturers have responded to the continually shrinking value of magazines and boat show marketing by going straight to the sailors with their offerings, and it seems to be working. The little test sail I stumbled on in Carolina was, for the VX, part of an ambitious demo weekend with boats in four different states, while the J/70 is on a whirlwind debutante ‘coming out’ party that included Newport just a week ago, North Carolina on Saturday and Sunday, and Charleston this coming weekend. The Rondar guys have done the same with the Viper and K6, it’s the only way to try out most beach cats, and we’re encouraged that this seems to be the wave of the future in small boat marketing. In fact, Charleston Race Week has become the de facto ‘sportboat boat show’ for all of North America; with the VX and J/70 both attending this year’s CRW for more demos, the world’s biggest sportboat regatta is also the only place in the US where you can see and touch the Ultimate 20, Melges 20, Melges 24, J/70, J/80, and VX One.
One of the reasons that demo sails work so well is that they sell boats while simultaneously giving people enough info to do their own reviews. In other words, the random testers become the reviewers, rather than some douchebag magazine editor. As SA has proven so well, crowdsourced product reviews are almost always better than editor reviews – see an SA’ers review of the VX posted yesterday for an example.
I guess that is an interesting segue to a boat review by yet another douchebag editor, but I’m nothing if not contradictory. Deal with it!
VX Vroom Vroom Vroom
Lake Norman can be a very fluky place, and the LNYC harbor was calm as glass (like usual) worrying me that I wouldn’t get enough breeze to sail. I jumped on a bowrider with designer/builder Brian Bennett, and when we got out of the cove, was psyched to see the breeze was fine on the lake – a lovely 10-12 knots with lulls below and puffs slightly above.
Brian and I traded places on one of the three VXs on rotation, displacing a crew full of Highlander sailors (who were shocked at what the VX could do compared to their more expensive ancient design). I jumped on the tiller to see what the newest and lightest of the sportboats could do, and within five minutes, I realized it can do just about anything.
First you have to remember that this is closer to a dinghy or skiff than it is to a keelboat. The bulb is really only down there to keep you from flipping over, and to help you right the boat if you do, and you can sail the VX-One in ‘SuperSport’ mode without it. But even in non-insane mode, the boat is more like a 49er than it is like a Melges 24.
There’s nothing revelatory about the layout, other than the smallness and lightness of everything, and the general quality of the build. The main sheets off the boom in skiff style, a 2:1 purchase providing more than enough power for any skipper to handle it. There’s no floor block or cleat – things happen so fast in this boat that a cleat would be of more comedic value than it would be useful to sailing. There’s no traveler for the same reason, and there’s no backstay because ultralight boats with square mainsails have other, quicker ways to depower. The driver can easily control the main and vang, though sailing three up, you can spread jobs around to keep the crew into it. Bow person can handle the jib and hoist/drop, middle can be a proper mainsheet hand and kite trimmer, and driver can shut up and drive. Good plan!
In its ability to go where you want, the boat reminds me of a Formula Ford or similar small, open-wheel racecar. The boat’s perfect balance and fantastically light weight seem to translate your every thought into action. Gliding up through a lift, bearing off on a header, easing the main for a puff and then sailing to it, bearing away for a hoist – I literally don’t recall having to push or pull the tiller until the kite went up. Thinking about it seemed to provide enough movement to make it happen. Upwind, the boat is loaded with power. With two very big guys aboard (for a total weight of around 465), in an average wind speed of probably 9-10, we needed every pound to hike the boat down with some depowering tools already engaged. Those tools are simple and quick – the carbon Gnav setup and Cunningham are plenty effective, though once they are more or less set up, you’ll be playing the sheet rather than the other controls for 90% of the time. This is all skiff style stuff, and the endless trimming and helming is engaging in a way that cleated off sails never can be.
The jib sheet and self-tacking setup is right off a 49er as well, though Bennett has included a furler to make life easier in head-to-wind starts and in between races. The unit works smoothly and well, and the loads on the little jib are light enough for a kindergartner to pull on ‘em.
Downwind, as you’d expect, this little boat lights up like no other keelboat I’ve ever sailed, and like a real skiff or cat, there is no “soak” mode for the VX-One. In a boat like the Melges 20/24, Rocket, SB3, or J/80, moderate air means you need to ease the sails out and soak down like a symmetric boat, with the crossover to planing conditions standing around 13 knots for a windward/leeward course for the M24 up to the high teens for a J/80. Like the Viper and Shaw – only more so – there is no crossover in the VX.
As soon as you bear away and pull on the single-line spinnaker halyard/tack line/pole out line, the boat glides into a planing run. There is no transition, no hump of water, and almost no noise. Gybing angles will be similar to a catamaran’s, and boatspeed downwind during VMG sailing will easily exceed wind speed in light to moderate conditions. I’m not going to give you some bullshit numbers based on reaching around the lake – I sailed hard on the wind upwind and VMG downwind, and the boat is damned quick. How quick?
Already testers have been sailing 18 knots in 15-20 knots of breeze, and in 10-12 knots, the lack of drag and the generally good habits of the boat made it obvious she was ready to run. Upwind it’s hard to tell what the right angles are without any real boat-on-boat action just yet. Given her pedigree, my guess is the VX will enjoy sailing bow down with speed in the low sixes in most conditions. Despite her 19-foot length, the boat’s clean underbelly and efficient waterline doesn’t hold her back much, and with trapezes, there is no doubt she will plane upwind like any fast dinghy. I’m not sure she won’t do it now with the right crew and breeze, but I’ll be happy to test the concept!
I did test the boat’s stability, and for her size, I was amazed at how solid the VX is at the dock and upwind and downwind. I came up hard from a 12-knot reach with all three sails up, strapped everything in, and had Brian jump to the leeward side of the boat, all to make the boat flip. She wouldn’t have it, and instead, laid over at about 70 degrees with the tip of the rudder still keeping the boat tracking. I tried to flip her over upwind as well and didn’t have any more luck there. After talking with a few early owners, capsizing is possible on blown gybes in big air, but otherwise, hasn’t been an issue, and the boat comes right back up. Recovering from a turtle, though likely to be very rare, is something every crew of an ultralight sporty should practice before ever racing in big breeze.
Logistically, the VX-One is the ultimate keelboat. Legendary race car designer Chapman famously said the key to successful designing was to “Simplify and add lightness”, and the VX-One takes this philiosophy to its ultimate conclusion in the world of sportboats. Lifting and dropping a keel that weighs a hundred pounds is child’s play, and Bennett is proud that he’s got perhaps the only keelboat built that will allow 20 MPG while towing it. The loads on everything – even the kite in breeze – are suitable for anyone from age 10 to 100. The spinnaker launching and retrieval system is unbelievably slick and should allow for some scary late drops. Overall, the package is really the final piece of the never ending march to lighter, easier and faster that all started with the Melges 24.
The VX-One is around 26 grand, with a ‘fleet building special’ kicking in soon that includes everything you need to race plus a lot of sweet extras at $29,950. Be sure to check ‘em out.
Tune in tomorrow for Clean’s report on the J/70 and an overall look at the fleet building prospects for these new sporties.