The Story of the Melges 24 Class
The Melges 24 is arguably the class which introduced the world to the concept of sportsboat yacht racing. Since its inception in 1993 on a snowy lake in Wisconsin the Melges 24 has become a worldwide phenomenon. Whilst other one design sportsboat classes have emerged over the years none comes close to the Melges 24 in terms of performance, value for money or build quality. When it comes to the actual experience of sailing the boat itself then the Melges 24 is off the scale.
The Melges 24 takes its name from the legendary US sailor Buddy Melges. Perhaps Buddy is most famous for his part in winning the 1992 America’s Cup aboard America3. That boat was designed by Reichel Pugh and it was to them that Buddy and his sons Harry and Hans turned to bring to life their ideas for a small, fast, lightweight, one design keelboat.
When Reichel Pugh produced the drawings for the Melges 24 they took their inspiration from the high tech and high performance America’s Cup yachts. The resulting the hull shape is surely one of the fairest ever created. Extensive use of carbon fibre in the keel fin, mast and bowsprit ensured that the new design weighed in a only 1783 lbs. To round off the design there was an innovative 1050 square foot sail plan including a huge 670 square foot asymmetric gennaker. When the prototype was first sailed it quickly became apparent that the Melges 24 had squarely hit the design briefs. Upwind the boat was stiff and responsive and downwind the big asymmetric lifted the boat on to the plane at the slightest provocation.
The class was officially launched in 1993 and it took the market by storm. Within four years the Melges 24 was a worldwide class and the inaugural world championships was held in Torquay in 1997. Remarkably the class continues to maintain its momentum and today is still regarded a the premier marque in the worldwide sportsboat arena. In the US and in Europe Melges 24 regattas regularly attract fleets of sixty boats or more. Recent world championships in Key Largo and Hyeres had 100+ entries and the 2008 Worlds in Italy is expected to break the class record of 127 set in La Rochelle.
At the end of 2007 there had been 738 Melges 24’s built worldwide. They are raced extensively in the US and in eighteen countries across Europe and Asia. In 2007 the Melges 24 was introduced to Australia where it is already showing all the signs of becoming a major class. In fact Australia has been pencilled in as the venue for the 2012 Melges 24 World Championships.
For the full Melges 24 specifications go here.
Racing the Melges 24
The Melges 24 attracts sailors of all abilities because it is that rarest of breeds - a boat which is easy to sail but hard to sail well. As a result the class has proved to be enduringly popular with club sailors and international rock stars alike. Melges 24’s can be seen hurtling around local yacht club courses throughout the world. Equally national and world championships in the class attract helmsmen and crew from Olympic and America’s Cup backgrounds.
The first thing you notice when you step aboard a Melges 24 is how unlike a keelboat it feels. The significance of the position of crew weight is more akin to a dinghy class and it is easy to forget that the boat has a lead bulbed keel. Whilst this makes the boat light and responsive to sail it also means that considerable hiking effort is required to keep the boat flat going upwind. The Melges 24 is fully powered up with the crew hiking in around 7 knots of breeze. You quickly appreciate that there is no room for passengers. With a typical 4 or 5 person crew there are more than enough jobs to keep everyone occupied.
Possibly the most impressive thing about the Melges 24 is how well everything works. The systems for hoisting and trimming sails have clearly been well thought through, thoroughly tested and now appear fully refined. The open cockpit has a simple layout and things seem to fall readily to hand. Sheet loads are typically quite low meaning that there is no requirement for a tame gorilla amongst the crew. As a result when you are racing you rarely feel like you are fighting the boat and are able to concentrate fully on performance and tactics. That said racing a Melges 24 around a windward/leeward course in 20 knots and above is a full work out for the crew. However unlike many classes the more you put in the more you get out. Full hiking for the whole of the beat really does translate into a better windward mark rounding position.
Those who might think that steering the boat seems like the easy option avoiding all that strenuous hiking and rope pulling should think again. Helming a Melges 24 is not for the faint hearted. In addition to steering the boat you are also required to trim the mainsheet, play the traveller and work the backstay. No surprise then that tactical responsibility is given to another member of the crew. The helm’s reward for all that hard work is that the Melges 24 is the sweetest and most responsive boat to steer. Upwind the helm is lighter than many dinghies. Downwind in a blow the lightness of the Melges 24 helm can be a challenge as to get the most out of the boat requires you to sail on the edge of spinning out. Loss of concentration for a few seconds almost certainly results the rudder stalling out and the boat capsizing. The trick as ever of course is good coordination between the gennaker trimmer, helmsman and whoever has hold of the kicker.
Melges 24 crew job roles
The Melges 24 crew weight limit of 360Kg means that most teams comprise a maximum of five persons. It is important that everybody knows what there job on the boat is and how to do it but this is no place for demarcation. Racing a Melges 24 is all about teamwork and as in all good teams each individual must be working hard for their team mates. If someone makes a mistake the rest of the team should be there to help sort it out rather than point it out.
The jobs on the boat are typically broken down like this:
Controls: Tiller, mainsheet, traveller, backstay.
Responsibility: Starting maneuvers, straight line speed and close quarter boat on boat tactics.
Controls: Jib trim upwind, gennaker downwind.
Responsibility Boat speed, strategy and tactics, rig setup, boat trim.
Controls: Gennaker hoist and drop.
Responsibility: Downwind commentary, upwind hiking, boat trim.
Controls: Bowsprit in/out, preparation for hoist, gennaker halyard and pack on drop.
Responsibility Calling breeze, time at start, rig adjustment, boat trim.
Success in the Melges 24
As might be expected success in the Melges 24 class is dependent upon optimising a number of factors:
Accept that success is going to take time – The Melges 24 fleet is no respecter of egos. Some of the best sailors in the world have finished mid fleet in this class at some time or other.
Build a strong team – the most successful Melges 24 campaigns are from teams which have changed little over time. Teams don’t just happen – they tend to evolve. You don’t need to be rockstars – you just need to want to win and be committed to improving. Most importantly you need to be able to get on with each other in the boat and in the bar.
Boat preparation – This is the factor you have most control over. Spend enough time and effort to make sure that your equipment is not the limiting factor in your team’s performance.
Fitness – Raw strength is not a requirement to success in the Melges 24 class but fitness is a factor nevertheless. Being able to hike harder and longer than other teams does translate directly into better results.
Be willing to learn and take advice – The Melges 24 fleet is very receptive to new teams and many of the top helms and crew are willing to help out with tips and advice. Choose a sailmaker who is active in the class and get him to give you the latest setup.
Enjoy the experience – The Melges 24 is by far the most enjoyable sportsboat on the market. Whether you are winning races or following the fleet home you cannot fail to enjoy the experience of actually sailing the boat. Melges sailors are a friendly lot both ashore and afloat so even if you don’t win on the water can still join in the party afterwards.
The Melges 24 is a small boat and as such represents a very inclusive environment where everyone can make their opinions heard. A word of caution though it is important to think about what you are saying and the effect it might have on your team mates. The real key to success in the Melges 24 is to always have a positive attitude and to keep fighting no matter how difficult the situation might look.
If you would like to find out more about the Melges 24 class click here to contact a member of the UK Class Association.