Right runway - wrong year for The Cone

The Cone in Hawaii
Walt Niemczura
Story copyright James Neill who has reconfirmed his permission for this story to be published by Sail-World.com

'It was seven in the morning and the four of us had just stepped ashore in Honolulu. The Cone had been abandoned in hurry - haphazardly tied, sails and gear strewn about the cockpit and we were headed to the bar. As many will know there is weird, stunned atmosphere that comes with ending a long ocean race.

You shake hands and stand around not quite knowing what to do next.

An attractive girl approaches and says something like 'here is a bottle of rum as a gift from some guys on the mainland. You have never met them but they would like to buy you a drink.'

That was our first inkling that The Cone had won a few hearts. Similar gestures followed over the next few days and frankly we were a bit overwhelmed by the attention. The Cone seems to have touched a nerve with people who like to stick it to the big guys.

For the record, The Cone was first under 50 ft, first to finish off the July 15 start, first to finish in Division 3 (race boats up to 65 feet) and second on handicap in Division 3. Like all boats that started on July 15 we did crap overall on handicap – stuck in no wind while the groups who started 4 days earlier and 2 days earlier feasted (relatively).

Some people are interested in the detail so here goes.

We shipped The Cone from Sydney to LA and home again using CP Ships. It travelled on its road trailer, strapped to an open 'flat rack' container.

International shipping is very price competitive so it is remarkably inexpensive and simple to do this. It helps if you can find a company like CP

Ships who takes an interest in the project, as the handling is a bit more fiddly than a standard container. In LA The James Brooks Company stored it in their yard and trucked it to the shipyard. In Hawaii DHX, stored it and then trucked it to the wharf. All couldn’t have been more helpful or flexible.

This year’s Transpac was unusually light - 80% of it under 13 knots and mostly VMG running.

Under 12 knot VMG running is hell for all sports boats. To hang in with the big boys we need to plane - otherwise we are just displacement sailing a short boat. To plane in light winds sports boats need to sail hot angles - the net result therefore is that you sail hot angles all over the ocean doing lots or miles with pretty poor VMG while the big boys simply pole back and sail hull speed at the mark with better VMG. That was what happened for most of this Transpac – we must have sailed 400 more miles than 50’s we were racing with.

The only good thing was because we had to sail hot angles, we could go to where the wind was a little stronger and chase wind shifts. In the middle of the track for example we were almost 200 miles wider than the bulk of Division 3 – that’s a lot in a 2200-mile race.


The Cone’s big advantage downhill is the combination of low drag and plenty of power. In 15 knots plus it planes at a few knots less than the true wind speed rather than surges up to speed on surfing like heavier boats. It therefore tends toward holding a consistent high speed rather than having big changes of speed surfing like a heavier more ‘draggy’ boat.

This makes it relatively easy to sail, as there are not those big changes in apparent wind that you get when surfing waves. In 25 knots it will sit on 18 knots in flat water and seems happy do a couple of knots less than the true wind speed up to about 20 knots true.

Obviously a normal Transpac with days of 16 to 22 and relatively flat water is made to order - which is why we entered.

Sadly we never really got our conditions - except for the last 12 hours.

The boat is as light as a 30 footer can be - the ‘full Monty’ SP Systems pre-preg carbon and nomex everything with a ‘cored out’ porta potty, a useless never used stove and nothing much else.

The engine is a modified Tohatsu and weighs just 20 kgs and we have 8 kg Honda Generator to generate electricity.

For this race we went super light on gear, which meant we were about 200 kg lighter than when we race as a stripped out shell but with a full crew in Sydney Harbour.

We did that by going with just four guys and being ultra-harsh about weight - no fresh food, minimum water, almost no spare clothes, no cooking gear except for an electric kettle, the bare minimum of paperwork, no stereo – not even any porn. Being super light paid off – we were on the plane in 10 knots.

We used a laptop running Max Sea with an Iridium satellite connection to download the digital weather files known as GRIBs. In a boat like The Cone, where boat speed and therefore distance covered varies so much according to wind strength and direction, software like Max Sea is almost a necessity to be able to position the boat at the right time and in the right place to take advantage of shifts and/or pressure differences.

You need to take what the computer tells you as a guide rather than gospel but I think we managed the shifts relatively well. I think we picked up a bit more breeze than the boats that took a straighter course – but saying that, the shifts were mostly well forecast and because we were sailing such hot angles we were obviously going to hit them a lot harder and be more able to go to the better pressure than the bigger boats who were better off sailing a straighter track.

The crew was myself, Mark Matthews who built the boat, Andy Turton who is part of the Australian Volvo team and Eric Boothe, a full time sailor from Florida.

None of the crew was paid and they paid their own expenses.

We all drove. I navigated. Andy and Eric did most of the physical labour. They all were great but Andy in particular was a phenomenon – the antithesis of ‘rock star’ - doing the blue collar stuff like cooking and sail handling with endless energy.

The Cone is the right tool for the big downwind classics such as Transpac, Pac-Cup and Cape Town to Rio.

This was just the wrong year to do a Transpac. In the ‘normal’ 16 to 20 knot winds the Cone should reel off 360-mile days and be a contender on handicap.

The upside of this year being such a light year is the potential of doing better in the future. Sadly, it won’t be me.

I have non-sailing commitments for the next couple of years so the Cone is probably going to be sold.

I had wanted to do so much more with it such as Cape Town to Rio and an attempt on the under 24-hour record for small boats.

Whilst I can see the boat probably being sold for harbour and coastal racing, I hope whoever buys it takes on some of the big races so we can see what The Cone is really capable of. Of course, you never say never and maybe it won’t sell and I’ll be back in 2 years time.

Story copyright James Neill who has kindly given his permission for this story to be published by Sail-World.com
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