Superyacht racing: a brief guide

Yacht racing

When commissioning a modern sailing super yacht, most owners, even if they have по immediate plans to compete, will have at least one eye on the regatta circuit. You never know when the bug will strike, something Marco Vogele, owner of the 33 metre Vitters Inoui, understands well: “I didn’t start out with an ambition to do regattas, but you do one and you get hooked. You go faster, and then you start thinking about buying a faster boat!”

The fleet during the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta, 2013

The fleet during the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta, 2013

He’s not alone: the number of entries to the big regattas is growing year on year. The 2014- Loro Piana, Superyacht Regatta in Porto Cervo saw 19 superyachts competing, with a similar number entering the event’s sister regatta at Virgin Gorda in the Caribbean. The undisputed king of the calendar, though, remains the St Barths Bucket.

Superyacht designer Ed Dubois has noted the rise in the quality and quantity of competitors: “At the first St Barths Bucket (in 1995), there were only four boats and just one race,” he says, “In 2014, there were almost 40 boats competing in three classes. It’s clear that racing is becoming an increasingly important part of the superyacht scene.”

But despite the rapid growth of the sport, it can still sometimes be perceived as a closed club, with many of the same yachts competing year after year. To help get new boats in the races, here is Boat International’s guide to every thing you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about superyacht racing.


Who runs regatta racing?

The governing body is the SuperYacht Racing Association (SYRA), which was set up in 2011. The mission of the SYRA is to promote safe and fair racing, since the boats competing in these events are not nimble, stripped-out racers.

“One of the Association’s first tasks was to work with the International Sailing Federation to get a set of rules in place that would create a safe racing environment for these large disparate yachts”, says Peter Craig, executive director of SYRA. “The Racing Rules of Sailing did not address the inherent performance of superyachts – the lack of manoeuvrability and slow acceleration of these extraordinarily large cruising yachts.”

The new rules for superyachts, as set down in the SYRA’s short and simple Appendix SY, really boil down to this: at all times stay 40 metres away from other competitors. “It’s like putting a 40 metre bubble around the boat,” says Craig.

This has helped cut injuries and incidents, but so has a breed of savvier owners and designers. “Even if an owner has no inclination to race his yacht as he’s building it, it’s quite common to want to have a go at racing a few years down the line, so it’s good if the boat has been designed with that change or purpose in mind,” adds Craig.

What’s the first step to competing?

According to the SYRA’s executive director, you must first ask for an invitation to a regatta. Entrу соsts range from € 3,000 to € 10,000. Then you employ a tactician, who should be intimately familiar with the Racing Rules оf Sailing. These are established by the International Sailing Federation and mainly govern who has right of way in the various situations that arise during a race. Your tactician should also know all the necessary racing flags and their meanings.

The tactician will also help the captain ensure the boat is race-ready and adequately crewed. This extends to sail wardrobe, crew selection and training. It’s not a choice – the SYRA insists that someone be on board who knows all the rules. “A good professional will help keep the yacht, crew and guests safe. It is not going to be fun for any owner if it is not safe,” says Craig.

How the rules work in practice?

The start, you might think, would be a pressure point – but all the major supery adit regattas send boats off the line on staggered starts, or in a pursuit-race format, usually with the slower boats in front of the faster designs. Where the 40 metre bubble (plus other tweaks to the standard Racing Rules of Sailing) makes a difference is at the mark round ings, obvious congestions points on a racecourse.

In light of this, the exclusion zone was met with some scepticism, especially from professional sailors, who said it would be too difficult to determine 40 metres at sea. But Robbie Doyle, the professional racer and sailmaker, has the best answer: “Isn’t it better to have a discussion on the dock about whether it was 30 or 40 metres, rather than looking at a hole in the side of your boat and having a discussion with your insurance company?”

Moreover, at the most recent superyacht regattas, each yacht has been given a laser rangefmder that the designated onboard safety officer can use to determine the distance to another vacht.This, in combination with a safety channel for inter-yacht communication on the VHFradio, means incidents are increasingly rare.


Where do you find crew?

The best bet is for your captain to tap into his or her network of peers and pro sailors and get word of mouth, recommendations: who are good people to work with, will they get along with the owner, wives and guests and so forth? It’s quite common for designers and builders to help with the recruitment work too, as it’s in their interests to see that their boats are well handled and raced competently and safely.

An owner is typically expected to pick up the crew’s expenses, including flights and accommodation. Daily rates vary from about $500 for a grinder and other positions in the centre of the cockpit, up to $2,500 or more for a top-level tactician or helmsman.


Are you as obsessive as these owners?

Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones offered a bonus to the workers building his boat for every pound of weight they could save in its construction, and the whole thing is held together by super-light titanium screws. It paid off: Owen-Jones is seeing considerable success with his latest yacht, the 30.48 metre WallyCentо Magic Carpet.

Owen-Jones still wanted a yacht he could spend time on, and thinks he’s achieved that: “It feels like a racing boat and that’s what we wanted. Paradoxically, it is also a much better cruising boat because of its extra width, which gives people air and space and makes it a very stable cruising platform”. Still, for extended cruising, an extra generator is craned aboard. German software billionaire Hasso Planner, meanwhile, loves racing his €20,000, 4,9 metre 505 dinghy in the 505 World Championships as much as racing his Baltic 147, Visione.

As for who drives the yacht – it’s about 50/50 between the owner and a pro-sailor. Sometimes it’s a bit of both on the same boat. For example, the pro will steer the boat off the start line and at critical moments, and the owner will take over at other parts of the race. There’s also a group of owners who enter the regattas for the camaraderie and social calendar rather than an obsession with coming first most regattas offer plenty оf apres-sail activities on land.


What is handicapping?

With the drive for greater performance and closer competition, the handicapping process for rating yachts of such different proportions, speeds and capabilities is under pressure. It is a hot potato, especially as a yacht’s rating can vary depending on what rule is applied – but all ultimately give a number used to correct the actual time taken to complete the race.

Jim Teeter’s International Super Yacht Rule (formerly the Bucket Rule) has been the handicap rule of choice for nearly all event organisers in recent years. It has come under fire from some owners and afterguards because of the subjective component of the rule and a lack of transparency.

The Royal Ocean Racing Clubs IRC rule has been adopted as the rule for some regattas, although this single-number rule has struggled to produce close racing across such a broad spectrum of boats. The Offshore Racing Congress, an international body that sets ratings, is developing a superyacht rule it hopes organisers consider for future events.

Whichever system a regatta chooses, everyone agrees that handicapping such a wide range of large cruising yachts is a daunting task. There is always a level of compromise something the more competitive owners and professional sailors can find hard to accept.

Ed Dubois is optimistic: “It’s good to see that changes to the system are rewarding boats that are sailed the best and with the least gear failure. There’s still improvement to be made, but its heading in the right direction.”

(A.Rice, T.Thomas;


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