It’s all go on the 52 Super Series with new boats, new teams and new technology. We spoke to Paul ‘Flipper’ Westlake of North Sails as the 2018 season gets underway in Sibenik, Croatia to get his take on the development, the fleet and who his favourites are.
Mark Jardine, Sail-World.com: 2018 has seen a flurry of new boats and designs on the water in the 52 Super Series. What’s caught your eye so far?
Flipper Westlake, North Sails: There are nine new boats on the circuit which is truly impressive. The organisation and commitment by the owners and the industry partners is second to none in a global sense. Seven of the new designs are Botin and two are Vrolijk; having been out here in Sibenik for the last three days ahead of the season opener, looking at a range of conditions, honestly each of the new boats seem to have their moments of shining in the sun.
The practice race saw a range of conditions, up to 18 knots and quite a bit of chop, and we ended up with a Botin design first and a Vrolijk second. It’s a long series and the attention to build and engineering that each of the teams has is superb, looking at the systems which are on the boat, how easily the sailors are handling these boats in tricky conditions. There wasn’t a single breakdown or failure or anything that affected the race. Yes, there were a few teething problems with little odds and ends, but it was an impressive start for the fleet.
Mark: Development in the class seems to be moving forwards at a high pace. What challenges does that present to you as a sailmaker?
Flipper: From a North Sails standpoint we’re very proud of our association with this class and the fantastic relationship with our clients. At this level of sailing you have the owners of each of the teams who are absolutely the most critical part as they’re the ones who are giving their teams the support and equipment that they need and are really pushing the limit. Then we have the end-users; the professional sailors, who are the best monohull sailors in the world in this discipline, and every single one of them is looking for that millimetre of gain around the course.
We talk about this style of racing being a game of inches, and if coming into the top mark you can cross by six inches then every single one of the 200 people who are at this event is looking for the slightest gain to make those crosses possible. It pushes a company like North Sails forwards and means we leave no stone unturned. We do a huge amount of work over the winter using our design services and resources, but the proof is when the racing starts in earnest, the first of 50 races which will decide the 2018 52 Super Series Champion, where everybody will be pushing the limit.
Mark: So, from the word go the teams have to be on it, otherwise too much ground can be lost. Who, in your opinion, are the early-season favourites?
Flipper: You can never ignore experience in this class. While you can’t ignore the new teams of Luna Rossa, Phoenix and Onda, the established teams are always going to have that fine ability to be that little bit smoother around the course. A lot of this finesse of sailing – especially since it looks like the Sibenik regatta will be light airs and flat water – will see the experienced teams like Azzurra draw on their experience. You can’t write anybody off though as the gaps we’re seeing around the course are a couple of meters.
Mark: As we saw at PalmaVela, racing was really tight with different boats winning races and I’m sure we’re in for a really tight season. You mentioned Luna Rossa as a new team coming in – what is it about the 52 Super Series which is bringing the America’s Cup sailors back, now that the Cup has switched to monohulls of sorts?
Flipper: While I can’t speak for Luna Rossa directly, looking from the outside I’d say one of the key reasons is that they are looking at the technology as the America’s Cup has been off in a multihull paradigm since we arrived in San Francisco, so America’s Cup teams have lost that connection to traditional monohull technology.
Yes, the next America’s Cup is going to be up foiling, but a lot of the systems will be winch and control systems for soft sails, so I believe they’re trying to do two things – they’re trying to build the connections in their afterguard including Francesco Bruni, Vasco Vascotto and Jimmy Spithill and their tactical navigator Francesco Mongelli, and they’re also trying to go through the steps of a project; the designing, building and working with partners like North Sails and Southern Spars, putting the whole aero package together and then developing that through the course of a season.
I believe they’re realistic and know that the first couple of events are going to be a steep learning-curve, but I think they’ll be the team to watch in the second half of the season and they’ll really light up.
Mark: What is it that makes the difference on a winning campaign throughout a season?
Flipper: At the end of the day it’s attention to detail. Of course there are outside influences, and people talk about luck or elements that are outside of a team’s control, but the attention to detail starts from the moment you wake up, getting the first download of the weather, the coach’s notes, the performance debrief from the night before, talking with the speed team about the setup, looking at sail photos, looking at the analysis of the previous day’s performance, and then if the conditions are different from day to day, then each of these teams are able to quickly go back into their performance database to set the boat up. Much is based on playbooks, which is attention to detail and you can never underestimate the experience of a team like Azzurra, who I believe are on their fourth new boat over eight years, and have only had three or four crew changes during that time.
Mark: A combination of experience and going back to your earlier comment of leaving no stone unturned?
Flipper: Yes, that’s a good summary.
Mark: We’ve seen a few new circuits, such as the Fast 40+, and over the years we’ve seen boats around the 50 foot size come and go, but the 52 Super Series has proved to have longevity. What do you believe has led to it standing the test of time?
Flipper: We’ve seen incredible commitment by a number of owners, who are dedicated to this style of racing. There’s a fantastic balance of technology, the class is very well managed and controlled, the rules and measurement are all rigorous.
One of the keys is that this is not a one-design class. We’ve seen one-designs come and go, and they continue to do so, and boats such as the ClubSwan50 are proving to have strong fleets, but the TP52 and the 52 Super Series is relatively unique because of the box rule and it allows development. Each of these owners love that ability to tweak and do something a little bit different. When looking at these twelve boats lined up on the dock, a layman will say they look like the same boat, but a professional eye will see individual nuances on every single one of them, and that flows through to everything we do at North Sails.
We have a 2018 baseline sail package which we release to all the teams, and it’s what we believe is the ultimate starting point for the season. Each team, within their own performance group, then analyse that, discuss it with their North Sails design and Southern Spars rig designers and they either choose to accept or do their own finessing. At the end of the day, each of the teams have slight changes to all the equipment and I think that drives the class forwards – that ability to feel that you’re making a difference when you’re winning races. The motivation is to exceed your goals as a team and that’s driven by the owners.
Mark: It’s going to be fascinating to watch the 2018 52 Super Series unfold. All the best out there in Croatia for the season opener.
Flipper: Great to speak to you Mark.
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by Mark Jardine, Sail-World.com