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An interview with James Clarkson on the 2024 International 14 U.S. Nationals

by David Schmidt 14 May 08:00 PDT May 16-19, 2024
International 14 sailors enjoy ideal flat-water racing conditions on San Diego's South Bay racecourse during the 2021 edition of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series © Mark Albertazzi

When it comes to high-level innovation and go-fast ideas that are contained within a 14-foot box rule, the International 14 is a world-class contender. The two-person development-class boats carry a silly amount of off-the-breeze sail area and require track-sharp sailing skills at all points of sail, while their double-trapeze rigs demand a high level of physical fitness from both crewmembers.

Add a good amount of breeze and seas, and things are bound to get lively, fast.

Take, for example, this year's International 14 U.S. Nationals (May 16-19), which are being hosted by the Richmond Yacht Club, in Richmond, California, and which will be contested on the usually breeze-on waters of San Francisco Bay.

I checked in with James Clarkson, president of the International 14 class, via email, to learn more about this high-level skiff regatta.

Can you please tell us a bit about the International 14 class, its history, and its culture? Also, what kinds of sailors does a high-level I-14 regatta tend to attract?

The International 14 is one of the first and oldest international classes, with a rich history of racing and development inside of a box rule.

The I-14 class was introduced to the US in 1927 at Larchmont Yacht Club in New York and the boats nearly a hundred years ago are a far cry from modern 14s. Imagine a 14-foot Thistle, which was actually based on an International 14 design by Uffa Fox. The boats are now an all-carbon fiber, double-trapeze rocketships with massive asymmetric kites.

Many of the fleet members are amateur (or professional) engineers with innovation often at the top of the mind. The excitement of the boat keeps people involved for a lifetime. Some boats are younger with both [the] driver and crew in their 20s, [while] others are mixed ages, or with both driver and crew in their 50s, or older.

It's definitely a physically demanding boat, but you get out what you put in. This excitement for the class remains partially because our class rules allow for boats to have different shaped hulls, rigs, sails, and foils as well as a high level of camaraderie.

Despite a constant debate as to which kit is the fastest or easiest to sail efficiently, it is remarkable how the top boats really go the same speeds, they may all be very different, just sailed very well.

Currently in the U.S., there are two top designs (Bieker 6 and Hollom Departure), two different mast configurations (single spreader and double spreader), multiple sailmakers (Ullman, Glaser, and Alexander), and various daggerboard and rudder options. It's sometimes mind boggling to consider all the options.

While customization is always possible, standard and fast options can be ordered from a single source such as Henderson Boats in Seattle. More recently, Ovington boats in the UK is producing a Bieker 6 with a standard rig, sail, and foil kit that are incredibly fast and have won the last three world championships. Even with a stock boat, there's always a bit of personal flare in one's boat. One fleet member has had at least four cherry red boats of three different designs over a few decades.

Even with all the ingenuity and evolution, our boats remain competitive at the national and international level for more than ten years.

What kind of entry numbers are you seeing ahead of this year's event? How does this number stack up against previous recent editions, and are there any notable geographical concentrations to this entry list?

We're expecting 13-15 boats, which is at or above our recent average, even pre-Covid [levels]. Over the past several years, our Southern California fleet (SD and LA) has strengthened while our Seattle fleet has waned a bit.

The local (NorCal/SF) fleet attendance has wavered from event to event but seems to be on an upward trend. Outside of the West Coast, we have a strong and stable fleeting sailing in Hawaii (Kaneohe), as well as a number of boats in the Midwest, who often don't make it out to West Coast regattas, and there's a strong Canadian fleet in Toronto.

We have plenty of opportunities to sail I-14's either through educational opportunities like the Skiff Clinic, on local fleet boats or skippers who are looking for crew. If you are interested in learning more about any of these opportunities contact the fleet via social media (I14USA on FB or I14.USA on IG) or drop us a note on our website! (https://i14usa.com/join-the-class/)

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter on San Francisco Bay in mid-May? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

The SF Bay will likely deliver some solid breeze into the high teens, and probably gusts into the low 20s, depending on the location of the racecourse. The I-14 becomes lively in about 15 knots when you can put the bow down and really get the boats ripping upwind. Some of the boats are pushing 11 knots upwind.

The race committee will have some choice in breeze selection by setting the course more or less in the shadow of Angel Island, with the weather mark near Southampton Shoal. This will impact how one sided our racecourse is... should you always go left? The race committee will also have the option to set us up in the Olympic circle in the full breeze, where the racecourse will be more balanced.

Several of the boats will be looking for the higher wind racing as this is our last race prior to packing up for our World Championships in Lake Garda, Italy.

Do you expect that most of the racing will unfurl on the Berkley Circle, or will the racing stretch onto other areas of the Bay?

During the three-day event, the first day is slated to start in the Olympic Circle with a buoy race followed by our distance race, which is historically required for all North American Championships and is greater than 15 nautical miles.

The target course option starts at the north end of the Olympic Circle, heading to the Blackaller [mark] near the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, and returning to the Potrero Reach outside of Richmond Yacht Club.

If the conditions are too gnarly, the race committee will have some alternate courses including racing from x-buoy in the Olympic Circle to near Alcatraz around a series of government marks.

Do you see local knowledge playing a big or small role in the regatta's outcome? Can you please explain?

Most of the top boats have sailed a fair bit in the Bay, including at our World Championship in 2018, so I don't think there are too many secret moves that will pay dividends. I suspect that the biggest tricks will be knowing where the deep-water channels are and the impact on the lay lines. Those changes in current can shift the lay line by 50-100 yds, and the current changes as you get closer to the mark.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) sailors, what would it be?

If you think you can keep the boat upright with the maneuvers in the waves, then go south into the breeze.

Do you have any entries that you're eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

We have some fast crews that haven't lined up in these conditions before, so we'll have to see how the cards fall.

Kate Shaner (a former 49erFX sailor) and Garrett Brown have a few championships under their bow. Mike Pacholski and Patrick Wilkinson have recently purchased a boat of their own at Richmond YC and they are sure to be fast. They developed their teamwork sailing I-14s in Kaneohe Bay, so they thrive in breeze.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

Richmond YC has always been very conscientious of their environmental impact and the I-14 Fleet has been as well, pushing to reduce single-use plastics and have promoted certain eco causes at big regattas.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about the 2024 International 14 U.S. Nationals, for the record?

The International 14 is an amazing boat that always challenges you to be faster. Even 10 years after starting to sail the boat, I continue to enjoy sailing it on the weekend with a friend, as well as pushing it hard while racing against other friends the next weekend.

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