Growing a match-racing culture

Oct 24, 2017 General Interest ,Racing

Auckland’s one-design MRX fleet has been given a new lease on life, and is ready to take on the next generation of keen sailors. Sarah Ell has the story. Photos by Lawrence Schaffler and supplied.

Only three years after New Zealand first challenged for the America’s Cup, in Perth in 1987, a far-sighted bunch of marine
industry personalities got together and decided we needed to get on board with this match-racing thing.

A consortium including John Street of Fosters, Kim McDell of McDell Marine, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) and the Farr Design Office worked together to create a one-design fleet which was launched for the 1990 World Match-Racing Championships, hosted by the RNZYS that year.

The boats, given the name MRX (for match-racing 10-metre), were based on the proven Farr 1020 hull but with a smaller cabin, a stripped-out interior and a specially-designed racing deck layout designed with the input of sailors Simon Daubney,
Rod Davis and Joe Allen.

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To put things in perspective, in mid-1990, Peter Blake had just won the Whitbread race on Steinlager 2, foiling was something you did to your hair (to get those awesome frosted tips) and Peter Burling? – well, he wasn’t even born until a few
months after the MRX fleet was launched.

While match-racing was the initial focus, the aim was to create a fleet of 11 equal boats to use in a range of events, where results would be solely dependant on crew performance, rather than who had the faster boat. It was also designed to be a stepping stone for youth talent to move from dinghy classes and programmes like the RNZYS’ youth-training scheme to keelboat racing, offshore events and on to that elusive America’s Cup.

Over the years the boats have seen plenty of action – hard racing, a few dismastings, more than a few collisions, plenty of
protests and lots of competitive fun. Yet today the fleet looks as fresh as ever – fresher, even, after a recent spruce-up.

The fleet has a new manager, Gary Sugden, after long-time fleet manager Tom Macky retired last year. Andrew Barron has become chairman of the board of directors of MRX Yachting, the company which oversees the management of the fleet, of which individual boat owners hold shares.

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These owners get to use the boats for racing and cruising, but the fleet is also used for corporate and other charters, charity events and major regattas which require a one-design fleet such as the match-racing and women’s keelboat nationals.

“The design of these boats was so far ahead of their time then that they’re still quite comfortable next to modern race boats,” says Sugden. “The whole layout was very different then, but is now similar to modern race boats, with a big open cockpit and all controls running aft. Everything was very ergonomic, and it still works efficiently. So we had some great material to work with.

“The board has effectively put in place a new direction, and we want to bring the MRX back to the boat it used to be,” says Sugden. “McDell Marine did a magnificent job of building the boats – there’s not many boats with the usage these boats have had and still be in such great shape.”

Sugden says the boats have been “long overdue for a birthday”, to bring them back up to top racing condition. The fleet has recently had a major overhaul, with new deck gear and signwriting, and a good polish which has them looking almost as good as new.

Long-term supporter Harken is not only sponsoring a boat but also supplying replacement deck hardware for the fleet, including new tracks, blocks and cleats. Through its Spinlock brand, Harken is also supplying the fleet with a full set of automatic-inflation lifejackets, which will be used for charter work, such as sponsor events for Yachting New Zealand and the Marine Industry Association.

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Nine of the 11 boats are now sponsored, with existing sponsors KMPG, Ovlov Marine, Club Marine, North Sails, Hydraulink and Touch of Gloss retained, and the revamped fleet attracting some new sponsors.

Printing and publishing business Benefitz, which produces Channel magazine, has come on board through one of its directors, former international sailor Dallas Bennett. Benefitz has produced the new signage for the boats, which includes a large number in a circle on each bow. This can be customised for special signage during regattas. Each boat now has all of the sponsors’ names in a strip along the topsides, as well as its individual sponsor signage.

“It means all the sponsors get exposure even if we’re not using all the boats, and also gives them a real race-boat look,” says Sugden. “When they first came out they were well ahead of the game – you noticed them because they were so different.

“They had graphics on the side, they had got a bit ‘vanilla’. So now we’ve made them stand out a bit more.” The fleet also has new boom covers, making them more visible when docked at their Westhaven space near the RNZYS.

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As well as being used for racing events, part of the fleet’s original mission was to get more people involved in sailing and out on the water. As part of that mission, the boats are being used for the RNZYS’ learn-to-sail scheme ( which is also sponsoring one of the boats. As well as programmes for absolute beginners, the school also runs race-crew training courses.

“It’s an opportunity not just for new people but just as importantly to upskill people who are already on boats – maybe who are just sitting on the rail and want to do more but might be a bit nervous,” says Sugden.

For people keen to get into sailing, the fleet has an opendoor policy on rum-race days. “It’s an option for people who want to learn to crew – if you come down, we’ll take you out sailing,” says Sugden. “We’ve already had a number of people come through that who are now crewing on Wednesday nights.”

The biggest success, Sugden says, has been in increasing interest and participation in women’s racing. Numbers of crew
competing in summer series and in the women’s nationals had fallen, but a determined group of female sailors have kick-started it back into life.

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“They’ve identified a lot more women out there wanting to sail but for whatever reason have chosen not to. We’ve sat down with them and asked what they need, and decided to put together a package for women’s racing, to give them a fee that included summer series and the women’s nationals, and it seems to have worked.

“We have 12 teams wanting to race a MRX over the summer, which is a bit of a problem when you only have 11 boats, but
we have two series, the RNZYS Dufour ladies’ series and the Ponsonby spring and summer series. We’re going to be actively encouraging the crews to do both.”

Next year’s women’s nationals is shaping up to be a boom year, with more crews than boats (so rotation will be required,
like the good old days), and crews from around the country and overseas keen to compete.

Utilising the MRX fleet to give inexperienced sailors the opportunity to get more time on the water is already producing
results. For example, Annie Clark decided to do the level-one learn-to-sail course last year with a workmate, then went out for a few rum races before being taken on by a women’s crew for the summer series and nationals this year, and receiving offers to sail on a range of different boats.

“The MRX guys were very supportive and put me on a boat and gave me the opportunity to get out there and learn,” says
Clark. “It’s just been so much fun. The people we sail with are such experienced sailors and are really helpful and keen to teach us – if you show enthusiasm they provide 100 per cent support and help.

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“I’m just throwing myself in the deep end, but it’s been such a cool way to get into sailing without having to outlay a lot of money. It’s a really good follow-up to the learn-to-sail course, because as much as you can get the technical information, it’s
not until you get out there that you really understand all the different conditions.”

Sugden says MRX Yachting is working on getting back to having more regattas and getting the boats out on the water more often.

“The squadron has identified that, for them to grow and for yachting to grow in the future, there’s got to be a way of training people and there’s got to be a pathway for people to learn to sail and become crew. The MRX fulfils a great role in that partnership for both us and them.”

With Auckland once again being the home of the America’s Cup, interest in sailing is on the rise, and match-racing is coming back into fashion.

“Whatever the boats, match-racing will be a feature of the next America’s Cup, so training crews and having the ability to train and test crews is important. There is already talk about new regattas in Auckland, and some pretty exciting things coming up,” says Sugden.

And no matter what other racing is on offer, a one-design fleet will always be a true test of sailing skill.

“There are boats like Young 88s and the Stewart 34s which are great boats, but they’re all slightly different, which is where the MRX becomes relevant. The boys all talk a lot in the bar, but there’s only one way to prove it and that’s out on the racetrack. Because the boats are so even, everyone’s got a chance every time.”