The challenge and excitement of yacht racing can be hugely addictive, whether it’s the excitement of closely matched one design keelboats, or the challenge of offshore racing on a larger racing yacht. Rupert Holmes looks at seven of his favourite racing yacht designs.
Large and expensive yachts are not a pre-requisite for enjoying top-notch racing. Some of the closest and most tactical competition can be found in the smaller one design keelboat classes in which every boat travels at almost the same speed.
The Etchells class is a case in point, with big events around the world drawing up to 100 entries including Olympic gold medallists and former America's Cup winners – not bad for a boat that was designed in 1967. There’s also equally good racing in more modest, affordable classes. The 19ft Squib, which dates from 1969, has numerous fleets around the UK and Ireland, plus regular regional and national championships. It also forms the second largest one design fleet at Cowes Week, behind the XOD class. Yet this is a boat that can be bought in racing trim for as little as £2,000 and can be run on an annual budget of only three figures.
A wide variety of people are attracted to Squibs, ranging from those who are new to sailing and may only stay in the class for a couple seasons, to long-standing stalwarts who are addicted to the considerable challenge of climbing to the very top of this fleet.
2. Hunter Impala
It's perhaps no accident that the Hunter Impala is from the same stable as the Squib, one that was renowned in its day for producing exciting yet well-built performance craft. Although it dates from the late 1970s, the Impala remains the most popular one design class of its size, both in inshore and offshore races. It also attracts 15+ boats (and around 100 crew members) to the annual national championship, and sufficiently comfortable accommodation for cruising as well.
This is another raceboat that you can pick up for well under £10,000 and Impala owners tend to be a lot younger than the median age of race boat owners, which leads to an infectious, fun vibe in the fleet. Of course yacht design has moved on in the past 40 years and recent designs of a similar size have far greater stability and sail carrying ability, but at an order of magnitude difference in cost.
3. Fast 40+
After nearly a decade with no competitive state-of-the-art big boat fleet on the south coast, the new Fast 40+ fleet took the scene by storm in 2016, with 13 boats and some of the biggest names on the yacht racing scene at the class’s big events, including the Round the Island Race, Cowes Week and the newly revived One Ton Cup. In just one season the class became the biggest Grand Prix fleet in Europe.
These are powerful and impressively fast racing yachts, where a great deal of thought has gone into planning deck layouts and gear to make manoeuvres as slick as possible. While a high level of skill is needed to be successful, this is deliberately not a professional only class – there’s a strictly enforced owner-driver rule and more than half the crew must be amateur sailors.
4. Diam 24
There can be few enthusiastic racing sailors who would not love to try sailing a MOD70 trimaran. These giant machines are capable of stunning speeds, whether catapulting the 50 miles around the Isle of Wight in barely more two hours, or completing the 2,200 miles from Los Angeles, California to Hawaii in an eye watering three days, 17 hours – an average speed of 24 knots. Quite apart from the skill involved in sailing a MOD70 – these are boats that can challenge the most experienced of professionals – with a new mainsail alone costing around £130,000, these boats are not for everyone.
However there is a 24ft equivalent that offers high adrenaline day racing at speeds of more than 20 knots and at a far more modest cost. Designed by top French naval architects VPLP, who were responsible for the majority of the top foiling 60ft monohulls in the last Vendee Globe race, the Diam 24 was first propelled into the spotlight when it was chosen as the design for the renowned Tour de France a la Voile series. It has since developed a wider following, with a fleet now formed in Britain and seven boats competing in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s 2017 Vice Admiral’s Cup, for instance.
At one time designs from J Boats dominated the fleets in both regattas and offshore races around the world. This innovative company brought the joys of one design racing to many sailors, first in the form of the J/24, of which an incredible 5,000 boats were built.
The J/105 set a new benchmark in 1992, with light displacement and big asymmetric spinnakers instead of the then ubiquitous symmetric kites. In a good breeze downwind speeds in the mid teens, with good control, suddenly became the norm for many racing sailors – a huge difference to the IOR inspired boats of only a few years earlier. Twenty five years on the J/105 remains a favourite choice and is a cost-effective route to a competitive and exciting racing yacht, whether for inshore events or oceanic races.
6. JPK 10.80
The French built JPK designs have a reputation for being extremely competitive under the popular IRC rating rule and the latest addition to the range is no exception. The 10.80 was launched in 2015 and became an instant success, with Géry Trentesaux’s Courrier Du Leon winning both the Rolex Fastnet Race overall and the entire Royal Ocean Racing Club season’s points that year.
Originally the design was optimised for sailing shorthanded or with a relatively small crew – Courrier Du Leon raced with only five in the RORC series. However it is since proved its success fully crewed in inshore events, particularly with Adam Gosling's modified example, Yes!, which won her class in Cowes week last year, as well as the overall prize for the entire regatta.
7. Jeanneau Sun Fast 3200
These days most of the big volume builders have shied away from building racing yachts, in a stark contrast to previous practice. However Jeanneau still has a small line up of competitive racing yachts, the Sun Fast 3200, originally from 2008, and the 3600 from 2013. Despite its relatively small size the 3200 was designed with crossing oceans at speed in mind - it was conceived for the popular French TransQuadra trans-Atlantic race. Downwind many owners have seen close to 20 knots of boat speed, even with the boat steered by autopilot.
An updated version, with an improved cockpit layout, plus carbon rig and a lead blade keel in place of the original cast iron bulb, was launched in 2016. In the hands of the designer, Daniel Andrieu, she saw considerable success with full crew, including a win in the hotly contested Spi Ouest regatta in France.
See racing yacht listings on boats.com.