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An interview with Keiran Searle about the state of the Melges 20 class

by David Schmidt 2 Jan 08:00 PST January 2, 2020
Melges 20s mix it up on the waters off of Miami, Florida © Melges 20/ ZeroGrandinord

While 2007 isn’t exactly recent history, I still remember that fall day when I drove down from my then-home in Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Rhode Island, where I got to jump on a brand-new Melges 20 for a test sail. While any chance to escape Boston’s clutches to go sailing off of Newport was cause for serious celebration, this day was particularly exciting, as the boat was Melges’ newest offering and our test chariot was one of the only (possibly the only) boats of its ilk in the USA.

And if you’ve spent time in Newport, you’re well-familiar with how effective new raceboat designs are at spinning heads in this wonderfully sailing-obsessed community, so I was rightly excited as we worked our way to weather and prepared to launch the kite.

All went as expected as the kite’s head found the top of its spar and the little boat quickly accelerated, its hull form slicing an efficient wake in Narragansett Bay.

I’ll admit that I rounded the boat up a few times as I discovered her sweet spots, but after a few more minutes on the helm, the boat revealed itself to be well-mannered and responsive, as well as a hoot to sail. Granted, we got lucky and enjoyed Newport’s typical afternoon sea breeze, but I got the feeling that the little boat would move just fine in stickier airs as well.

Flash forward twelve-plus years, and the Melges 20 has established itself as a highly competitive One Design class with 2019 world league events unfurling in Europe, North America and Asia.

I checked in with Keiran Searle, who serves as the Melges 20 Class Manager, via email, to check in and learn more about the state of affairs in this popular One Design class.

How would you describe the Melges 20 Class’ current culture? Is it a welcoming fairly scene or it is a place where the sharp blades go to play?

The Melges 20 class has had a stigma of large investment required to compete. That is well behind us now.

In the past two years, the class has really returned to its roots- a fast, fun One Design. The class management has put a large priority on the Melges “fun” culture, it shows!

It is nice to see people being able to step into the boat’s and compete at the top within a season.

What have been the biggest evolutions in the Melges 20 class in the last few years?

The Melges 20 class has returned to it roots of high performance fun racing. Previously the Melges 20 class was known as the elitist class.

The class management has worked hard to shake this stigma and show people how simple and fun these boats can be.

Have newer designs like the J/70 impacted Melges 20 participation levels? Or are these different groups of sailors racing in these two classes?

Although the Melges 20 and J70 are similar sized with similar resources required, the Melges 20 is less taxing on the body with no “Legs out” hiking, albeit faster and more sporty than the similar classes.

The crew size on the Melges 20 is smaller with a target weight of 540-600 LBS.

The group of sailors is similar but we do feel we suit someone looking for more performance and FUN!

Do you see the Melges 20 as a gateway drug to bigger Melges designs like the M24 or the M32, or are you seeing sailors stay active in the M20s, year-on-year?

The Melges 20 owners group is an amazing circle. We have a true blend of long-term Melges 20 class members [along] with new owners. We are in our 10th year of Melges 20s [sailing] and have at least three owners who have been with the class since the start.

You do see some transfer but mostly people are specific to the Melges 20. We are like a family!

Have certain geographic areas proved more popular with the Melges 20 than others? And if so, do these hotspots move around, or do they tend to stay concentrated in a few static places (say, Newport, RI)?

The Melges 20 class has very strong groups in Italy, Japan, Monaco and a large owner’s group from Russia.

In America the class has chosen to focus on Miami and Newport as its fixtures. These venues are in-line with the class goals. Quality and fun sailing in easy-to-access places.

We would like to explore more venues as the membership grows, nothing is ever out of the question if it fits our culture.

And how would you describe competition levels over the last few years?

The level of competition is a high as ever while being very inclusive. The other sailors in the class are always happy to help get new people up-to speed.

Most teams practice for one to two days before each event, and that is more than enough commitment to be fighting at the top.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

The barrier to entry in the Melges 20 class is lower than ever.

Used boats are in the $18,000- $30,000 range. The class is highly affordable and the boats hold their performance well. You still see older hulls regularly winning regattas.

With the simplified logistics of only three or four people and fast, fun racing in quality venues—how can you beat it?

We have several high-quality charter boats available for the Melges 20 Miami Winter Series.

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