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he’s flying

Part 2 of our interview with designer Mark Mills

A very good pro sailor and class organizer in the UK named Dave Swete got bored while in COVID lock down and he and Dave Bartholomew singlehandedly got the UK class together and became the dealer for the boats. The plan is to have 8 boats up there for the fleet this summer. It’s been crazy with that and an amazingly fast success story for the UK fleet. There’s also been interest from the US. Another South African ex-pat brought ‘Privateer’ to the US and is based in New Orleans, and has been taking people for rides. So the plan now is to unleash the Cape 31 on the US market in the next month or so. We are planning for a fleet in the US in 2022, it’s awesome to see so much interest in the boat in the US as well. 

We are planning a Caribbean component to the Cape 31 as well. There’s definitely a missing piece to the puzzle with Key West no longer being on the calendar. Dave Swete has some exciting plans to get the UK boats to come out and do a Caribbean event; like  a mini world tour before their summer season gets started. Dave brings the organization and cohesion together to get the class going in both the UK and the US which is very exciting. 

SA: So while the Cape 31 is taking off around the world, another one of your recent one-design boats seems to be stalling out a bit; the C&C 30. Why do you think that is?

MM: The C&C 30 was a super cool project for us at the time, but it was a very US east-coast focused project. When it came to us, the brief was that you can never be slower than a Mumm (Farr) 30, especially in the light to medium conditions of Annapolis and other east coast venues. Yacht design had come a long way in the last twenty years, and so it’s relatively easy to be faster than a Mumm 30 in a breeze, but it changes your design priorities in the light air.

By succeeding in being faster in all conditions it ended up being a bit overpowered above 14-16 knots and I think that limited it’s penetration elsewhere, away from the US east coast. When it came to do an event in Dublin which blew hard all week, the crew had their hands too full for widespread appeal! Also, the class association wasn’t sufficiently authoritarian enough. If you allow the owners with lots of pros to tweak the rigs and add mast jacks and that sort of thing then you just frighten off the less pro half of the market. I think that’s why the Cape 31 is enjoying so much success. The design was unrestrained and we were able to make a boat that does well in all conditions, but equally important the Class is well run by owners who have a strong vision for sustained growth.  

SA: You hail from California, but you are now based in Ireland. How did growing up in California impact you as a designer?

MM: The first thing is the light displacement boats. When you look at the origins of the ULDB’s, for example the Moore 24 in the late ’60’s, they were just radically light displacement boats. So even back then it was clear that boats could weigh much less than what everyone else thought they should. Many years later, when the world was changing from IOR to IMS, the light displacement thing was really pivotal to me. I went to the UK to do naval architecture and they didn’t have the experience of 20 to 30 years of light displacement boats, it was clear to me that that was the future, although it took a while for the rating rules, perhaps especially IRC, to catch up!

The Moore is a super little ocean boat with a really lovely hull shape and a lot of volume up forward near the bow. It really likes to get the bow up and surf down wind. I owned hull #50 for a decade and used to singlehand it a lot inside the Bay. I would get up forward of the mast and gybe the kite from the foredeck, using a line going around the boat to the tiller. I remember groups of people off Point Blunt cheering as I pulled off a gybe. The Moore could have used a bit more rig perhaps, but it was a great all around boat. 

This touches on one of my mantras of design. The first and most important step of any design is the basics. You’re never going to succeed if you don’t start off in the right ball park. You’ve got to get the basics like displacement and sail area and wetted surface in the right proportions.  It never ceases to amaze me to see how many boats get something wrong. If you’ve got a powerful hull shape and a tiny rig, you’re not going to have enough sail area to overcome the drag of the hull, for example. 

I think I got this from working with Tom Wylie. Tom is an interesting guy and he is willing to be almost a loner in a design sense. He was successful in IOR but without ever doing it the way that other people did. He had this great place up on the hill in Canyon and just did these great boats that were clean and with minimal rules imposed on him. His boats still look good and clean and modern 30 or 40 years later. That sort of laid the ground work for me, in getting the basics right. If the boat is a good clean boat of inherently good performance, then I think that any rule is going to respect that and the boat will do well, it’s got to be fair to the middle ground.

SA: You’re working on a pretty exciting and ground breaking full-foiling monohull right now, what can you tell us about that?

MM: So this is a fully foiling 60-foot AC75 style boat called Flying Nikka for an Italian client who built our IRC 62’ SuperNikka. He did incredibly well with SuperNikka and won the Maxi Worlds 4 times out of 5. He then started sailing with a foiling dinghy on the Italian lakes and fell in love with foiling and said “I want to do this offshore and I want to build a boat”, so he came to me. We are just now finalizing that design. It is an AC 75 style design but it’s intended for coastal racing and short offshore races. He is an amazing client named Roberto Lacorte, his other main hobby is driving Le Mans cars so I think he has the reflexes and endurance for something as extreme as this!

The boat will happily fly just on the two foils, but one of the client’s requirements was that he could be a bonafide entrant under offshore Category 3 rules. He wanted to enter some of the medium distance 150 and 200 mile races in Italy like the ‘Giraglia’ and the ‘151 Miglia’ that he founded, and those races fall under OSR Category 3 rules with stability requirements that required a keel and a bulb. The boat doesn’t require the keel and bulb to function but it does require it to be legal. So you get side force from the keel, whereas the AC 75 isn’t generating any side force unless it is done so deliberately with the foils. In a way, it alters the nature of the boat by having the keel, but when it’s getting dark and blowing 22 knots offshore, having some stability from a keel bulb is a relatively practical feature. But we will be able to sail the boat in testing or in record breaking mode without a keel. 

The big challenge is ‘how do we deliver the foiling experience that the client wants?’ His experience with the foiling 69F’s have been with an ‘L’ foil more like an IMOCA. It’s hard to sail upwind with those. They’re not really responsive foils, you set the angle of attack and go sailing. What we needed was real time control of the angle of attack. The perils of these challenges are that once you get into AC world, every solution is incredibly complicated, expensive and potentially problematic.

This isn’t an unlimited budget project and it doesn’t have unlimited time. The similarities between Flying Nikka and the AC boats end with geometry. The big picture is similar but the practical implementation is more robust. I’m very careful not to say “it’s an AC 75 for the common man”. We are merely taking the best bits of the AC 75 and making it more practical. 

The flying boat project is awesome because it’s so unlike anything that we’ve ever done before. I’m a huge believer in a team ethos in delivering these design projects. We have a very good relationship with an R&D team in Spain called KND, who end up playing a really significant role in delivering this. They provided their R&D to Sam Manuard on the L’Occitane project for Armel Tripon in the Vendée Globe, and have worked with us since the Maxi 72 Alegre 3 in 2012.

No one person is doing this, it’s a huge group effort. North Sails designers have been key to the sail plan development, Nat Shaver brings his foil expertise, the Pure engineering guys are incredible, as is the very experienced project manager Micky Costa looking after the build and deck and systems, Cariboni for hydraulics, Southern Spars, etc. Our weekly design calls have 14 smart people on them and I really think that’s the way to do these things. So that’s why this flying boat project is so interesting, because I didn’t start with a lot of the answers for a lot of this. When someone asks about an IRC 40 footer, I’ve got a lot of those answers, but on this flying boat it’s a whole different scenario. 

But even as i’m doing the Flying Nikka project, we have an American client who just signed up for a retro styled performance 41-footer. And so it’s very different in a new way but I’m excited to infuse a retro vibe into a performance boat that just feels natural. I’m really hoping that we can do something that has more of an east coast daysailer vibe to it. There’s always something completely different to work on that’s very interesting and very cool and that’s what I love about this type of work. 

SA: Mark, thank you for the lovely chat, it’s been fascinating!