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RS Sailing's incredible 2017: We speak to Jon Partridge and Alex Newton-Southon

by Mark Jardine 14 Dec 2017 02:00 PST 14 December 2017
RS Zest © RS Sailing

We spoke to Jon Partridge and Alex Newton-Southon at RS Sailing about their incredibly busy 2017 and some of the highlights of their year, both on the water and in the office.

Mark: The launch of the RS Zest is a milestone, as a modern boat with a centreboard as opposed to a daggerboard. Why did you choose now to bring out a centreboard boat?

Alex: The RS Zest is something which we've been thinking about for a while. Although it's a relatively crowded marketplace for a boat like this, we feel that this boat is massively important. It's for the foundation of our sailing community and for new people coming into the sport. When we designed it we looked at all areas to make it easy to sail and rig, super stable, and not be intimidating in any way - all round the boat are features to help with those aims.

When looking at competitors in the marketplace, the centreboard was the obvious thing to do, and it's only when you're out in the boat you realise just how important that decision was, sailing with someone who is not experienced and seeing just what a huge difference it makes. They can sail right up to the beach - especially with our rudder system on the boat which automatically pops up - getting to shore without any drama. Beforehand, if you told an inexperienced sailor to come into shore then there are potential issues with hitting the beach, capsizing, damaging the boat and so on.

Mark: I know from my own sailing with my kids that, out in an old-fashioned Scow, one of the biggest appeals is the centreboard and the fact you can sail it up to the beach. My belief is that getting people into sailing has to be about the fun first, and the RS Zest seems to be all about fun. Is that the premise that the boat was designed around?

Alex: Absolutely, the whole ethos was fun. Nowadays it is as complicated to design a boat that caters for this sort of market as it is to design an out-an-out racer, as you have to hit it right. The boat has to not look intimidating, it has to look fun, you have to feel comfortable and safe in. If you're having fun in a boat, then you're going to stick with the sport and come back again to it.

Mark: The Zest has built on the success of the RS Quest, which you developed in collaboration with the Sea Cadets, of which you've now sold an astounding 1000 boats in 18 months. Were you expecting this kind of success for the boat?

Jon: In certain regions we were expecting this kind of success. There are parts of the world where its success has changed the game for us and helped us grow significantly. What we learnt with the Quest was that our previous designs were trying to fill too many requirements; being family orientated, cruiser orientated and a little bit racy, whereas with the Quest from day one we said, "It's only a training boat". It was a few weeks after the launch that we sat down and thought, "We're going to have to be brave with the next boat", as the Zest marketplace is crowded, and we realised that the Pico was market-leading and we really wanted to make something that set the new standard. It took significant investment, and developing a boat like this is expensive, but we believe we've produced what is going to be a game-changer.

Mark: Moving on to your racing boats, there's been a bit of a revival in the RS400 and RS800 classes recently. Do you think this is in some part due to the tweaks and changes that have been made to those boats?

Alex: This is certainly the case with the RS800; having the ability for the crew to take the mainsheet from the boom has, in our view, allowed new and young sailors to come into the fleet - sailors who have had experience of 29ers and boats like that. We always thought it would be a positive move, and it has been with sailors coming into the fleet, buying second hand boats and converting them to off-the-boom main sheeting. Sailors can still use the previous system, so we haven't lost the identity of the class, it has just attracted more people in.

With the RS400 the sail change and the detailing changes we've made over the past few years have reinvigorated the fleet in the UK and it now looks great.

Mark: I had good chat with Chris Feibusch just prior to the vote on RS800 off-the-boom sheeting, where the class voted overwhelmingly to adopt the proposal, and he mentioned that 29er sailors really didn't have an obvious boat to transition to unless they were going into an Olympic class, and making this change gave them a natural progression to the RS800. Have you seen an influx of youth sailors since the vote?

Alex: Yes, we have - not just in the UK but also internationally people are beginning to understand where the RS800 sits compared to the 29er and 49er.

Mark: In the youth classes, the RS Feva is very close to your heart Jon. You must love seeing the international growth that has taken place recently.

Jon: The Feva has steadily chipped away internationally, and there have been certain countries we've always been strong in, but over the last 12 months we've gone to the next level. Having the privilege to be involved in the America's Cup Endeavour Programme, and the Regatta that went on alongside the America's Cup itself, was out of this world; being a part of it was great and gave us significant exposure.

Whether you liked the America's Cup catamarans or thought it should be hosted in Bermuda, it was a fabulous event and is helping the Feva continue to move up to the next level of international participation. The 2018 RS Feva Worlds are in Florida, the Europeans will be in the UK Summer, and the 2019 Worlds will then be Italy, followed by China, and we have fleets growing around the world and new fleets popping up everywhere.

In my opinion this is great for sailing as the Feva has an almost 50/50 split of male and female competitors and also because the way Feva events are run and managed is with the ethos of credible racing with a fun factor. We always try to keep the atmosphere around the events real, and are not afraid to suggest to sailors who are too intense that maybe the class is not for them.

Mark: It is at times far too easy to make the sport of sailing far too expensive too early, and people can get put off by far too intense racing. We need to promote participation in all ways we can, and the Feva seems to have the balance right between fun and competitive racing.

Jon: I think that's right: we have club-owned boats, we have privately owned boats, and a new suit of sails is enough to get you to the front of the fleet if you have talent. There's training available everywhere and it's all about reducing the barriers to entry; cost, time and enjoyment. The Feva class, with the help of some fantastic people over the last 15 years, has maintained an atmosphere where the kids just love it and have fun. We have fun at the events and organise different activities; we're not afraid to think outside the box. It's a challenge to organise credible racing which will prepare the top sailors for their next steps in sailing and equally making sure they have good fun while they are racing, to encourage them to become life-long sailors.

Mark: Also in the youth classes, the RS Tera seems to be making inroads internationally.

Jon: The Tera has grown steadily. It's now a significant class in the UK, run with the same ethos as the Feva class, and it's now growing internationally with good fleets in France, Sweden, The Netherlands, the USA, South Africa, Czech Republic and other countries are in the wings. As a boat, for that age group of people, the Tera is widely accepted as the best boat for market: it's attractive, you don't need to bail it upwind, it sails like a proper boat and looks like a proper boat. Ultimately the Optimist is the strongest youth class in the world and it's going to be hard to topple it. We've had significant resistance in some parts of the world, but what fascinates me is that every time we get a knock-back, there's someone else in that region who decides the Tera is good for our sport and pushes the class forwards. We're passionate about the boat because we want to see the sport flourish. To do that it has to stay modern and up-to-date, and that's so important to attract young sailors into our sport.

Mark: Continuing the theme of fun and participation, the RS200 class seems to have got the balance right between serious racing and fun in a week-long event. They had a superb Nationals at Tenby where they had just as much fun off the water as on it. What is the secret to the RS200's success?

Alex: The RS200 has been around for the best part of 20 years, so the second-hand boat market is great and people can pick up good value boats and take part easily. The class has an atmosphere of good racing, and that certainly brings people together, but that atmosphere continues ashore, from the moment they hit the slipway to launching in the morning. Everyone wants to have a good time.

The top end of the fleet is super-competitive, with Olympians, World Champions and National Champions all battling it out, but behind that you have battles going on and sailors having fun. That's why the RS200 is getting more and more successful. Unfortunately at Tenby there was a 100 boat limit, but I know that if the event was held at a bigger venue then many more would have come.

It's great one-design racing in a good class, which means that it's not a money game. Obviously there are things you need to do to the boat, but it's not about the boat, it's about the sailors.

Mark: I thought it was a great match having the RS200s at Tenby Sailing Club, as I've always loved the sign outside the club saying, 'Tenby Sailing Club – All Welcome' and it seem the RS200 class lives up to that ethos as well.

Alex: Absolutely. They've always had a really good system for bringing new people into the fleet, with Gold, Silver and Bronze fleets which help everyone feel really included.

Mark: Lastly, 2018 sees the massive RS Anniversary Games. How are plans developing for the event?

Jon: We are trying to create the biggest festival of amateur dinghy sailing in the world. We have all of our classes at the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy, starting with the Aero Worlds, Tera Worlds, Feva Europeans and then the RS200 Nationals, RS400 Nationals, RS500 Worlds, the 7's and 8's – everyone will be there. We'll be at the venue for three and a half weeks and we're going to deck the place out to make it look really special. We have some great sponsors in the wings to support us and we just want it to be a celebration of RS and what RS means to so many people. We want everyone to be a part of it!

Interestingly, while the RS700s are sailing, the Musto Skiffs are out at Castle Cove, so we're making sure they're invited to a couple of our socials. It's often too easy for sailing to become tribal, and we want to celebrate the whole UK dinghy market scene.

Mark: It's been a pleasure to talk to you both and I'm very much looking forward to the RS Anniversary Games next year. Many thanks indeed for your time and it's great to see the fun and inclusive approach that RS Sailing are taking.

Jon & Alex: Thank you.

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