Builders Who Can't Stop Racing

For these five boatbuilders - all accomplished racing sailors - competition on the water plays a passionate, prominent role in their nautical lives. A feature from our November 2007 issue

sailing boatbuilders 368

With a predominantly family crew at Antigua Sailing Week, Cuyler Morris (Morris Yachts) steers his Morris 48, Firefly.Bruce Kemp

Cuyler Morris took a long, hard look at the mark ahead, glanced back over his shoulder at the fleet of boats astern, and made the call: "OK, let's get set up for a jibe." It was the fourth day of racing during last May's edition of Antigua Sailing Week, and his crew-the majority of which was made up of fellow Morrises, including his wife, Cindy; sons Sam, 10, and Thomas, 4; and his 8-year-old daughter, Sophia-sprang into action ("sprang," of course, being a relative term).
Cuyler Morris took a long, hard look at the mark ahead, glanced back over his shoulder at the fleet of boats astern, and made the call: "OK, let's get set up for a jibe." It was the fourth day of racing during last May's edition of Antigua Sailing Week, and his crew-the majority of which was made up of fellow Morrises, including his wife, Cindy; sons Sam, 10, and Thomas, 4; and his 8-year-old daughter, Sophia-sprang into action ("sprang," of course, being a relative term).

Joking aside, after several months of cruising the Caribbean aboard their Morris 48, Firefly, the clan very much had their collective sea legs beneath them. When Morris had first come up with the idea of a season-long hiatus from the family boatbuilding business back home in Bass Harbor, Maine, a week of racing in the famous blue waters off Antigua had been a central part of the plan.

A world-class Star sailor who'd once mounted an Olympic campaign in the two-man keelboat, Morris is one of many accomplished builders who love to race-we'll profile four others here, as well, for they're all cut from the same competitive cloth-and he knows the game well. To underscore that point, Firefly had wracked up three consecutive victories in the Cruising Class at Antigua, and on this 21-mile contest from Falmouth to Jolly Harbour, his handsome, green 48-footer was once again vying for the lead. One more jibe and we'd round the final downwind mark, then harden up for the beat to the finish.

The team mustered to their stations. Bowman Sam, a racing helmsman himself when skippering his Optimist pram, pranced forward to help jibe the poled-out jib. At middeck, Cindy literally closed the book on the tale she'd been reading to the crew's younger set and herded the posse below. Once everyone was ready, Morris deftly spun the wheel, and the maneuver went off flawlessly in the staunch easterly trades. When everything was settled on the fresh jibe, Cindy and the kids emerged from the cabin and resumed positions in the shade of the headsail. "OK," she said, cracking open Robert McKloskey's ever-so-appropriate Burt Dow: Deep-Water Man. "Let's finish the story."

Up the Ranks
Surprisingly, in his formative years, Cuyler Morris' sport was tennis, not sailing. Then again, his dad, Tom, was a formidable seaman in his own right, and he certainly wasn't the first son who felt an urge to step off the path his father had blazed. That changed when he was 15 and a neighbor named Elliott Wislar invited him to crew in a Fourth of July regatta in the burgeoning local J/24 fleet-and they promptly won. "Wow," thought Morris, "this is kind of fun." He'd taken the bait, and the hook was set.

He stuck with the J/24 through his teens and early 20s, then stepped onto the career path of many a sailing-crazed lad and started running, and racing, offshore IMS boats. That landed him in the sights of another would-be mentor named David Elliman, for whom Morris ran the racing program aboard his 42-foot IMS boat, Dragonfire. One day after sailing, Morris allowed how, in a perfect world, he'd love to get a hold of a Star boat and really dedicate himself to learn the fine points of close-quarters racing, perhaps even take a shot at an Olympic berth.

"Well, you should do it," said Elliman.

To which Morris replied, "It takes a lot of money."

With that, Elliman pulled out his checkbook. "He wrote me that first check to go out and find a used boat and get going," says Morris. "He was a huge supporter."

Over the next several years, Morris threw himself into Star racing at its highest levels, sailing more than 150 days annually and competing in the class's biggest events against its very best sailors, guys like Vince Brun and Mark Reynolds. Though he never did land a spot on the Olympic team, he made a name for himself with his consistently high finishes, and he never took for granted the opportunity he'd been given. "It was a dream, a gift," he says. "Being in the Star class was kind of like going to graduate school in performance sailing. It was a great bunch of people, a great boat, and I learned a ton."

Today, with a young family and a successful business, Morris doesn't have the time to devote to sailing that he once did, which is probably why he seemed to be enjoying himself so much in Antigua. But he still is a full-on ambassador for sailboat racing. "There are so many tiers to the sport, there are so many levels to choose from," he says. "It sharpens every sailor's focus and makes you better."

Firefly won the fourth race, and then the fifth the next day, to emerge victorious in the Cruising Class with nothing but bullets. "Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the week we had," he says. "And with just a pole and a jib. It was the first time in my entire life that I raced a big boat without a quiver of sails. And it was the most fun."

Actually, the best part came at the awards ceremony at the end of Sailing Week. "We were sitting between all these professional crews, all in their uniforms, and I looked over and there were my kids, who'd been growing up on the boat right before my eyes," says Morris. "What a great time we had."

Catching Oysters
Richard Matthews, skippering another entry in the Cruising Class at Antigua, an Oyster 70 called Ravenous, was impressed with Firefly's strong results for the week. "It's a cracking good boat, and they obviously sailed it well," he says.

The founder and driving force behind Oyster Yachts, Matthews knows a thing or two about winning at Antigua and, for that matter, in countless other venues the world over. Last spring, aboard Ravenous, the series was a bit of a lark, as he'd recently taken the boat in trade and was there just for the fun of it. But on his own series of tricked-out, competitive Oysters-all called Oystercatcher, and ranging in size from 52 to 72 feet-Matthews has won his division in Antigua at least a half dozen times. "It's one of those regattas where cruising boats have a chance to do some real racing," he says.

Matthews understands the "real racing" scene. He's been at it for decades, and in that time he's raced across the Atlantic seven times and competed in 20 Fastnet Races, including the deadly edition in 1979, when he retired after enduring a knockdown some 20 miles from Fastnet Rock, a decision he wrestles with to this day. His favorite Fastnet memory is more upbeat, and it came the year he sailed the custom-built 35-foot Oystercatcher IV and learned, upon reporting his position at that rock via radio, that he held a 22-minute lead over the entire field. "First in class, first in fleet," announced the radioman. "Good luck."

"Then," recalls Matthews, "off Plymouth Harbour, the wind died, and we kedged for three hours within sight of the finish line. So I probably had my best and worst Fastnet moment in the same race." And while Oystercatcher IV was nipped for the overall prize, she still won her class, giving the tale at least a partially happy ending.

Over the years, Matthews says he's seen big changes in yacht racing, particularly with the sport's offshore discipline. "When I started offshore racing, the boats were more seaworthy in the sense that they provided creature comforts for the crew," he says. "There were proper watches, and people would go below to eat and put their pajamas on. It was a whole different deal."

The game changed, he says, in the mid-1980s, when boats got much lighter and crew weight became a major issue. It just wasn't much fun to sit on the rail for days on end, and the onslaught of professional crews added another new dimension. More sailors opted for round-the-buoy sailing: They'd race for a few hours, then sleep between fresh sheets afterward.

"I don't think it's an age thing," says Matthews. "I think I'm as keen as ever. It's the core activity that's changed. More boats have pro crews now, and I'm a dinosaur in that I still like to sail my own boats."

Of that, there's no doubt. Matthews is one of the few sailors alive who's owned a 12-Meter and an International America's Cup Class yacht, spanning the modern era of Cup campaigners. These days, the primary boats in his racing life are extreme opposites: On one hand, he's restoring a 110-year-old, gaff-rigged 50-footer designed by William Fife, which he plans on entering in a classic Fife regatta in Scotland next year. "Hopefully, she'll be the belle of the ball," he says wistfully.

On the other, he's now taking possession of a brand-new, contemporary, 42-foot racer designed by Tom Humphries, whose father, Rob, has drawn the lines of many an oceangoing Oyster. "It's his first commission," says Matthews. "She'll be a fun boat, light, with a tiller. It's going to be fun going back to a tiller on a 42-footer."

Naming her, of course, was the simplest part of the project.

"Oystercatcher XXVI," says her skipper, probably with thoughts of Oystercatcher XXVII already dancing in his mind.

Swan Song
Continuing with the Antigua Sailing Week theme, another leading builder was also on the racecourse, though this sailor was mixing it up with the Grand Prix set in the flat-out Racing I division.

"Yes, I sailed in Antigua," says Leonardo Ferragamo of Nautor's Swan, who was racing his Swan 601, Cuordileone, in a star-studded class that included another pair of 601s, Moneypenny and Spirit of Jethou, as well as the regatta's overall winner, the Volvo 70 ABN AMRO ONE, fresh off its overall victory in the recent round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.

"But please," he chuckles, "don't ask me how I did."

Fair enough; nobody wins them all. Besides, Ferragamo has a much better racing story, one that hearkens back to 1990, just two years after he bought his first Swan, a 51-footer, and eight years prior to buying the company. Yes, Ferragamo was a big fan of the boats before he took the command of the brand. (See "If the Shoe Fits," June 2007.)

Young and on a budget, he'd actually been looking at other boats before his brother, Ferrucio, sold him on the idea of a Swan. "You can enjoy the Swan Cup," Ferrucio had said. "It's one of the great sailing events in the world."

So Ferragamo recruited a crew that included Olympic medalists Torben Grael, from Brazil, and Rodney Pattison, from the United Kingdom, and together they sailed a terrific series, with overall victory in their grasp late in the regatta. Then, in a critical moment, with everything on the line, the 51-footer's headstay collapsed, and defeat, as they say, was wrenched from the jaws of victory.

"I was so angry with Nautor," says Ferragamo. He was, that is, until his captain admitted that he'd replaced a headstay fitting just before the event-with the only spare part aboard not supplied by the builder. "So even then, they weren't to blame," he laughs.

Today, of course, all is forgiven. And those Swan Cups, which have been a highlight on racing calendars for some three decades, remain a vital, ongoing event for Swan owners the world over. There are three editions of the event that rotate through odd and even years in Porto Cervo, Sardinia; Cowes, England; and Newport, Rhode Island.

"They're an extension of the experience of owning a Swan," says Ferragamo, who estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Swan owners actively race their boats.

"We try to make them exciting and glamorous, in significant sailing places, in cooperation with the great yacht clubs of the world," he continues. "Most important, they're run with a spirit of sportsmanship and fair competition. They're a very important part of our company."

Ferragamo has owned several Swans since his first, the 51-footer, and he's about to take delivery of a new Club Swan 42, a boat that he proudly describes as "fast, easy to sail, with a very fresh, modern approach." He's looking forward to racing the boat, as he firmly believes that competitive sailing, and business, are two highly complementary activities.

"I'm convinced there's no sport that trains you for business as much as sailing does," he says. "You have to have a long-term strategy but be ready to make rapid, sudden decisions. You must concentrate on building your team, and your team's spirit. You need to keep thinking and concentrating on what you're doing. In heavy seas, you have to learn how to fear but never be afraid. You have to be aware of what you might face and be prepared to face it."

Green Gators
Luca Bassani of Wally Yachts wasn't at Antigua, but one of his boats was, and it represented his company very well. His Wally 80, Indio, owned by Andrea Recordati, won the Performance Cruising I class in style. "We delivered it in 2003 to a young owner who'd never had a sailboat before," says Bassani. "Now we're building him a 100-footer."

Unlike Recordati, boats have been a big part of Bassani's life since his childhood, when he raced a pram on summer afternoons off Portofino, Italy. His family owned and raced numerous boats, from a Swan 43 to an Ericson 46 to a C&C 66. Bassani has excelled in several one-design classes, too; he helped launch the J/24 class in Europe, has been a stalwart in the 6-Meter class, and is a former Mumm 30 world champion, a title he earned in the waters off Hilton Head, South Carolina, in 1998.

Surprisingly, he says, he never really liked sailing much as a youth, though that changed one day when, at the age of 13, he went out with a family friend on an S&S 37. "The conditions were very strong," he recalls. "The captain let me steer when he went below to make sure everything was OK. Three hours later, he came back and asked if I enjoyed myself, and I said yes. He said he had, too. He'd had a long nap and never woke up because he said I was steering properly. That was the day I thought, 'This is for me.' That's when I became passionate about sailing."

Bassani launched Wally Yachts in the early 1990s, after becoming frustrated trying to find a yacht that simply did not yet exist. He and his wife came up with the name "Wally" after the green cartoon alligator bearing the same name. "We'd just had our first child, and we didn't want him to be afraid on the boat," says Bassani. "We thought if we had a cartoon name and a cartoon face, he could laugh easier when he was on board. And it worked out!"

The Wally brand is clearly recognizable by its sleek lines, bold style, powerful rigs, and clear, uncluttered, expansive decks, all of which are accomplished through clever engineering and design. Bassani usually takes delivery of the prototype for a new model and has owned several Wallys-including the original, the 83-footer called Wally Gator, and the 118-foot powerboat named Wally Power, which he owns to this day. Interestingly, he credits a lot of the original thinking in the boats, particularly the rig, to his 15 years of racing in the 6-Meter class.

"First of all, after that experience, I never wanted another boat with a running backstay," he says. "So I said, 'That's it, no more runners!' And on a 6-Meter, the boom is very low, so you can't see anything when you're steering. So we took that into account. But I also cruised many other boats, on oceans all over the world, so I had that experience, too. If you don't really use your boat it's difficult to satisfy the needs an owner really has. So my racing and my cruising were very important in building up the Wally concept."

Real World
Unlike the other builders in this story, Frenchman Eric Bruneel of Fountaine Pajot had no connection whatsoever to Antigua Sailing Week in 2007. But perhaps that's appropriate, for Bruneel's favorite racing is also different. He prefers going it alone, in solo offshore marathons on light, flat-out racing multihulls.
"It's very simple," he says. "One man, one boat, one ocean."

His first forays into sailboat racing were somewhat more traditional: He began competing aboard Moth dinghies, then graduated to the 470 class. But from then on, it was almost all about multihulls, from sport cats to Formula 40 catamarans to fully-crewed 60-foot multihulls. Then he made the leap into the big time of singlehanded offshore racing after purchasing his 50-foot trimaran, Trilogic, aboard which he won his class in the storm-wracked 2004 Transat and finished second in class in the 2006 Route du Rhum, both with transatlantic passages of just over 13 days.

Bruneel says his "toughest race" ever was the 2004 Transat. "That one was very windy, and Trilogic is very simple and very light, only four and a half tons, so it's like a sport cat," he says. "It's a small boat for the North Atlantic when it's windy."

The 2006 Route du Rhum, on the other hand, "was a cool race," he says. "We had very nice wind, never more than 30 knots, and finished very quickly."

At Fountaine Pajot, the manufacturer of a wide range of cruising catamarans, Bruneel says there's "a racing spirit in our factory" because so many of the company's principals are accomplished racing sailors.

"It helps to change and establish the relationship with our clients," says Bruneel. "They come to us to buy their boats, but they also come to learn as much as they can from us. They understand we have a certain spirit, that we've been racing and cruising our whole lives, and we'll continue to do so. We're different from people who haven't done that much racing or sailing."

But if you ask Bruneel which he prefers, the inshore racing of his youth or the long-distance competition of recent years, he doesn't hesitate in answering.

"Offshore is my favorite," he says. "You have to make the proper decisions to come back with your boat and yourself. You're in the real world. You are on your own, and you have no excuse. You just have to do the right thing at the right time.

"It's real life, my friend. Real life."

Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.