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Super 12's - Bruce Farr on the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge

by Richard Gladwell, on 16 Dec 2015
12 Metres sailing in the Fremantle ahead of the 1986/87 America's Cup regatta Nick Rains/PPL
Crews will compete in late July 2017 for one of the biggest cash prizes in sailing when a $500,000 purse gets split among the top three crews, in the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge.

Conceived in early 2015, largely out of frustration over the direction of the 35th America's Cup, the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge will feature a new class of yacht, the Super 12.

The new class and event are an attempt to recapture one of the great eras of America's Cup racing. The new event will feature an updated 12 Metre, an eclectic crew, and a mix of fleet and match racing, plus an undertaking that all crews will continues racing at some level in the regatta right through to the final day. There will be no early showers for the Super 12 crews participating in the San Francisco regatta.

Designed to appeal to owners still keen to have a competitive crack on the water and who enjoy the bonhomie and good life ashore, the Super 12 is a return to the Camelot era of yacht racing.

The yachts will be a strict one design, composite construction by a single US builder.

Leading the design brief development is Bruce Farr. Now retired, Farr is acting as a consultant and emissary on the project, listening, and talking with various owners and parties interested in being involved in the Super12's. His former company Farr Yacht Design handles the detailed design development and structural engineering of the new yacht.

Farr is a logical choice, having been one of the Kiwi design trio who came up with the first fibreglass 12 Metres, back in the mid-1980's. The then New Zealand Challenge built three fibreglass 12 Metres. Today, all three are still in good condition and 30 years later are still being actively raced.

The Kiwi challenger KZ-7 was the last of the three built, and after a winning streak of 37 races, she was defeated by Dennis Conner in Stars and Stripes in the 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup Final. Conner went on the reclaim the America's Cup in that regatta in Fremantle.

'Tom Ehman called me about 5-6 months ago to float the idea past me', Farr recalls.

'My reaction was that the whole thing sounded sensible, and the more he told me, the more I came on board with the concept that a traditional looking boat might attract a group of people who might not otherwise play.

'He was bouncing ideas off me for about a month. Farr Yacht Design were probably high on his list, for a bunch of logical reasons. We were tossing ideas around for about three months before the project announcement.'

Longevity and cost are keys to new class
One of the options for the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge was to adopt an existing class or rejuvenate an existing type.

Farr says they explored that option thoroughly before settling on the Super 12.

'The J-class would fit into that mould. There is also a group of real 12 metres that have been upgraded and had their own pockets of racing.

'But the answer is probably “no” - even though there are a lot of 30-year-old classes still going strong.'

'You could argue that the Star class re-invents itself every now and again. But it hasn’t done that for about 40 years', he says with a chuckle.

Farr says the-the design concept with the ‘Super 12” is to give the appearance of a 12 Metre above the waterline, and to a large degree in the rig - with some obvious improvements. 'Below the water it is, modern as you can within the constraints,' he adds.

'That would make it a similar boat to a 12 metre – being fairly powerful, heavy and concentrating on making the boat really robust. The idea is to have a boat that will last for 15-20 years without having too much work done on her', Farr explains.

'The Plastic Fantastic 12 metres (KZ-3, KZ-5 and KZ-7) were a wonderful example of the longevity of a fibreglass 12metre. They were bullet proof because they were built to scantlings designed for an aluminium boat. They have lasted for almost 30 years.'

Consistency another key
Consistent event organisation is another cornerstone of the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge.

The idea with the event originally was to make the event at a fixed place every year – San Francisco - so that people could rely on the dates and location. That makes for an easy and repeatable event for volunteers, owners, crew and supporters.

'Because the Super 12 is a one design single builder class, owners know the rule won’t change, and San Francisco will be in an easy place for logistics,' says Farr. 'It should be relatively straight forward for those who only want to do the one event. But in the future, it now looks likely there will be Super 12 events at other venues.'

Since the 12 Metres departed the America’s Cup scene, budgets have increased five-fold, maybe more.

For the Super 12 to succeed everyone is very aware that the cost of the boats and competing will have to be carefully contained.

“I think that the cost will be relatively low. I see that as being one of the challenges,” says Farr. “We need to make sure that the technology doesn’t get so high that it starts to increase the costs. We are looking the $2-3million mark to get on the startline.”

“We’re looking at a boat that is 64ft overall – maybe a little more than that depending on costs, but it will be in that order. We’re aiming for the lower overall length of 12 Metre overall. However the design will be quite a lot longer on the waterline than a 12 metre, so it will be potentially a lot faster., on the order of a minute a mile faster upwind and down.”

“The Super 12s will be lighter, by about 20%, than a regular 12 metre but with the same stability and sail area, but more effective length.”

“The effect of contemporary technology - lighter rig, and lighter hull, means the centre of gravity of the boat is letting lower. We are thinking that the keel can actually be a little lighter for the same stability as a regular 12 metre. “

Displacement of the Super 12 is expected to be about 21 tons – “originally that is a figure plucked straight out of the sky”, Farr told Sail-World. “But with the completion of more detailed work, that figure is looking close. (A traditional 12 metre is about 25.5 tons.)

“All I remember of the traditional 12 Metres is that they were heavy and the keels were about 19 tons!”

Projected draft is about of the Super 12 is around 9ft 6” – slightly more than a traditional 12 Metre. The draft will be determined by what is comfortable to get in and out of marinas. “We need to be practical,” Farr explains.

Fast but no surfing
Given the contemporary underbody, will fans be treated to the sight of a 12 Metre lifting her skirts and plane downwind?

“Not a chance”, Farr responds - “except in extreme conditions”.

In design and performance terms the Super 12 seems to sit between the powerful performance of the traditional 12 Metre, at her best sailing upwind, and the contemporary speedster that lights up downwind.

“Think of the Super 12 as a modern 12 metre that will go significantly faster than a traditional 12 metre”, explains Farr. “But it won’t be a fast 65fter. It is more about tradition and people sailing around in boats that they consider to be nice boats. You can agree with the concept of the Super 12, or not. But the reality is that it has generated a lot of interest, from people who want to step back into the racing side of the sport, and have a bit of fun.”

“People loved the 12 Metre era and want to go sailing in them, again”.

Two keys to containing costs and maintaining strict one design essential for this type of competition lie in the choice of material and using a very efficient construction process – probably with just a single licenced builder.

Bruce Farr says the choices and decisions are being firmed up. “The things we are sure about on the construction side are that the boats will be built from female moulds, and it will be probably be infused, as that makes the construction a little quicker,” he explains.

“The Jury is still out on how much carbon we will use. At one extreme, we might use carbon in the high-stress areas only, and it is possible that the boat could be all carbon. I doubt that in terms of economy. But we shall see. We still have more to do the work on that.

“The option for the build is really for a primary builder with some support from a consortium. With proper design and planning, we only need to produce one boat per month, which is a low number for serious production builders.

“The concern is that we might not get enough built for 2017, but I am fairly relaxed about that. Once the boat gets into production in the Summer of 2016, I think a four-week build should be a fairly comfortable rate”, he adds.

Sails probably not single supplier
There are two schools of thought on whether to opt for one-designs sails or allow owners freedom of choice with normal one-design measurement rules applying.

“Another option that Tom Ehman floated to lower the costs is to have one-design sails – with a limited number of replacements allowed.

“I don’t think that is a bad idea because it tends to favour the people who don’t use their boat as much.

“ But it looks now like prospective owners prefer not to sole-source the sails, so sails are now the only aspect of the Super that will not be strictly one-design. There will be strict controls on numbers of sails and measurement for cost control. “

“The feedback so far is that we have a lot of Europeans interested. So the building and shipping has to be viable for them”, he adds.

“One of the good things about the 12 Metres is that they are narrow and not very deep, so for shipping, they take up a lot less room or volume. It might be possible to take the keels off for shipping. However, I am not too sure about managing an 18 or 19-ton keel. That is quite a project.

“Tom’s initial idea was that these boats would be sailed and stored in San Francisco on hard stand when they weren’t being raced. The interest has been such that people from other areas are saying they might like to have a fleet of these Super 12’s as well. Whether it is realistic to ship the boats will be played out over the next year or so, I think.

“But it would make sense to make the keel as easily removable as possible,” Farr adds.

Known in his early days as the “infant terrible” of the various rating offices around the world as he challenged the nuances of various rating rules, and changed the face of sailing - developing fast offshore keelboats that rewarded hard-driving crews, Farr seemed to be an odd choice to help with the design of New Zealand’s first 12 metres in the mid-1980’s along with Ron Holland and Laurie Davidson.

Now out of the business he founded and which still carries his name, Farr is an emissary for the Super 12 Metres – pulling together his design experience with the type, and talking with owners and others to configure a concept that will satisfy the wish-lists of the owners, and which will also produce a boat which works for the class visionaries.

His old firm, Farr Yacht Design are the lead designers and will do all the detail work and structural engineering, following their success with the one design 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race fleet. The same broad concepts will be followed for the Super 12 Metres – fast, but a little over engineered structurally to provide extended longevity.

“My role is with my 12 Metre experience and lending a hand with encouraging all the parties to become involved,” Farr explains. “One of my biggest jobs is digging out the records of the old 12 metres so we could start from a position of knowledge and facts.”

Harking back to his involvement in 1985 and onwards with the Plastic Fantastics, Farr says his biggest take-out from that era is with the structure of the fiberglass 12 metres, and ensuring the boats were fair and bulletproof.

“If the Super 12’s are going to be true to the 12 Metre style, then carving 500kg out of the hull gives very little performance improvement,” he says. “There is just not the incentive to build them close to the limit, so you may as well over-build, and be bulletproof and reliable.”

Rigs to be updated
Rigs will also get a look-over, keeping the 12 Metre look and feel, but updating for the latest cost-effective technology, and removing some of the quirky requirements of the 12 Metre Rule.

“The other thing that comes to mind is the style of the rig and maybe tone that back a little bit,” Farr muses. “The traditional 12 metres had very long top masts, which were structurally quite difficult to manage. We would go for more sensible proportions in the rig, but still fractional, that would make the mast much easier to manage structurally. To the inexperienced observer or someone who hadn’t seen a 12 Metre in a long time, the rig would appear very similar to a traditional 12 metre.

“The spinnaker would also be changed so it had better proportions rather than the current 12M sail that is almost as wide as it is tall.”

The signature of the Super 12 class and regattas is to preserve the classic looks of a class with a place in sailing history while providing a design that embraces the contemporary racing technology.

On the water racing will be very competitive requiring the best qualities of yacht racing – good seamanship, sound tactics and the challenge of competition with the elements.

Crews will be egalitarian with some age and gender requirements (at least two women, two under age 22 and one over age 62), but with a 100% nationality requirement. No dual passports here, thank you.

Computers and even speedometers are prohibited. Numbers of sails are limited. In short, the arms race that could be the ruin of the class will not be allowed to start.

“Tom Ehman convinced me that this style and approach might have much wider appeal than something more modern,” says Farr reflecting on his initial discussions with the Super 12 founder.

“There are a lot of mature sailors around who still have a yearning for the 12 Metre period. When the announcement of the Super 12 was made, Tom got a huge response.

“I’m sure the knockers are lining up, but so far the feedback has been very positive.”

The first Super 12 Cup regatta has been scheduled for July 2017 in San Francisco, and already there is talk of taking the Super 12s to other venues.

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