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mark mills

One of the most successful design offices in recent years has been that of Mark Mills. Originally from California but educated in Southampton and residing in Ireland, Mills has since gone on to design a diverse array of inshore and offshore keelboats that have   racked up hardware in almost every major sailing market and under every major rating rule.

Line up at many big regattas and you’re likely to be crossing tacks with a Mills design at the pointy end of the fleet. From the venerable DK 46 to the Summit 40 and King 40 and the new Turkish-built MAT boats, Mark’s designs have been cleaning up on IRC all over the world for years. From a 21’ Mini Transat to super yachts and everything in between including Mini-Maxi’s and WallyCento’s, Mills has constantly pushed the design envelope at every size and under every rule, with one general constant among them all; the boats tend to sail well, and rate well, in a wide range of conditions. 

Most recently, Mills Design has been in the headlines on the success of his small and mid-size one design boats that have been achieving success and building fleets around the world, quite notably with the Cape 31 and the Melges IC 37. After seeing an 8-boat fleet of Cape 31’s pop up in England seemingly overnight, we caught up with Mark at his home in Ireland to talk story, pick his brain on yacht design and find out what’s on his drawing board right now. 

Sailing Anarchy: Mark, first off, congratulations on the recent success of the Cape 31 in the southern hemisphere and in the UK. I’ve been keenly following the class for a couple of years in South Africa and have been really impressed that you’ve been able to build. How did the class originally come about?

Mark Mills: It all started with Lord Irvine Laidlaw of ‘Highland Fling’ fame. He first called me one day while I was driving down a winding road in the Italian countryside – which already required all of my concentration – and inquired about building a fleet of boats. We managed to meet up at the airport in London a few weeks later and after showing him some initial sketches, he was satisfied and agreed to proceed right there.

Lord Laidlaw spends part of the year in Cape Town and he is sort of an unstoppable guy. He loves new boats and new projects and wanted to do something to support sailing in South Africa, in particular youth sailing and the marine industry there. The original plan was to build five boats for the Royal Cape Yacht Club, but as it turns out, all that was required was to build a prototype as the others have all been sold privately. I think there’s been 18 or 19 boats built to date and most of those have gone to Cape Town. So Cape Town is really where the fleet got built. 

SA: In watching the Super Series’ broadcast and in watching Round the World races call on Cape Town, it seems like an interesting place to sail with a wide range of conditions. How did you set the boat up to perform well in Cape Town?

MM: The Cape 31 is a great example of a boat that I like to draw because I was completely unrestrained in drawing it. Cape Town is one of the world’s great sailing locations because it offers a wide range of conditions, and so I could optimize the Cape 31 for a combination of both upwind and off-the-wind performance in a breeze while also retaining performance in lighter air. I was freed from the commercial pressures that usually require a project of this nature to be widely advertised and oftentimes compromised before the first boat is ready to launch. We were able to focus purely on the design brief and deliver a fast modern speedster. 

Being Cape Town I knew from the outset that the boat had to be able to perform in a breeze, but Lord Laidlaw pushed for more sail area as there can be quite a bit of 8-10 knot days in Cape Town, and turned out to be absolutely right.  Because of the heavy air, I knew that there was a good opportunity to do a powerful chined hull shape, but it still had to be a good all arounder. Everyone that sails the boat comes back and says, “I can’t believe how well it goes upwind”. It’s a nice pleasant boat to sail upwind which is key. And it’s perfectly happy to sail higher in the wind range as well as lower in the wind range, which was the goal as a good all-arounder. 

I think the chines are an interesting example. When they first arrived on the scene they were cool but I don’t think a lot of people really knew what they were for. For example on a Volvo 70 sailing in a breeze at 130 true, powerful chines are going to make you much faster and more powerful but they’re also going to kill you upwind in light air. I think that’s where the Cape 31 chines came in.

They came out of a boat like ‘SuperNikka’, where they maximize form stability in a breeze but they have low wetted surface when upright. The chine running forward towards the bow helps produce a bow-up moment at high speed and in the waves of a place like Cape Town. The line of the chines lift when you approach the transom so that the boat can heel over a bit and not cause a lot of drag. With a bit more heel, they do dig in and cause drag but they also add stability and power so it becomes a good trade off. 

SA: So we know the boat was very successful in Cape Town and that people loved sailing them, but how did the fleet build in the UK so rapidly? I think you guys are up to eight boats now?

MM: We had an invitational event in Cape Town and several UK owners came down and sailed the boats. They loved sailing them and so some interest came from that. A South African named Mike Bartholomew with his son David brought one to the UK and did very well with it on IRC in the UK. The boat was designed as a one-design boat and so we never even thought that it would do so well on IRC, but with some good sailors onboard it’s very clearly now possible to win on IRC in a sport boat, which is unprecedented. Doing well in IRC certainly helped the boat to generate interest and get some owners to jump onboard.

Part two tomorrow.