History of the 29er
by Julian Bethwaite
The 29er came about due to the increasingly apparent need for a high performance youth boat following the success of the skiff type boats spearheaded by the 49er. There is little doubt that the need was growing well before the 49er existed but the chronic lack of a suitable 49er training boat focused our attention and the project went from conception to reality over a period of two years.
Initially, due to 49er growing pains, most of this development was undertaken in Australia by myself and my family, in Sydney, with help from our Japanese connection, Takao Otani, of Performance Sailcraft, Japan. The first boat was built by my father out of strip-planked cedar and had a 49er type scalloped deck. The boat first sailed on the 19th of June in Manly, Sydney Harbour, in winds of 22-28 knots. It had been rigged with a B14 small rig and was sailed by my sister Nicky and John Wearn. It was not, in fact, the best day to take a new boat for a sail as the conditions were horrific but, with hindsight, it brought home some stark realities about the conversion from 49er downwards to a youth boat - "it ain't that easy"!. The boat, however, performed far better that we should have expected.
Photos of that session went with me to Kiel and an IRS meeting (IRS is the 49er operating group) held in Eckernforde. There was suitable enthusiasm from the sailing photos for the meeting to decide to go forward with stage 2.
We built a second boat, 002, in Sydney but this time in FRP/foam and with the floor of the cockpit set as low as we thought it would ever be. The boat sported an alloy space frame and far greater attention was paid to the rig, together with a specially made set of sails. Many of the 49er features were added and, sailing in October 1997 out of Balmoral on Sydney Harbour, the boat showed "what it was made of".
002 was the genesis of the boat we now have - a very lively and responsive boat. Takao came down from Japan and we spent a couple of weeks detailing the boat, moving bulkheads, changing arrangements, moving centreboards etc., and doing plenty of sailing.
On one memorable day, my 7 year old son was adamant that he wanted to have some fun too (school holidays!). Bob Ross, publisher of Australian Sailing, happened to be on the water and did an article, with photographs, and the secret was out!
The boat had one annoying tendency; we had, in fact, taken the floor too far down and after a capsize it took some skill to get it going. In light air also, water would enter the cockpit through the transom scuppers. The reason we had taken the floor down was so that, after a capsize, the boat would float low in the water, staying docile long enough for a small crew to easily get back in and get going. We just overdid it a little.
This second boat, 002, was flown to England in October of 1997 and, on a bleak northern English day, it was sailed by Dave Ovington (builder of the 49er in the UK) and Chip Johns (Vanguard Boats USA) and then, suddenly, it all ground to a halt!
The Australian season hit full speed with the 49er Worlds in Perth, lots of people wanting boats (it was an exciting place to be) and the 29er took a back seat in our list of priorities. The American partner (Vanguard) was not that impressed with the boat, decided against being involved and, subsequently, pulled out.
In January 1998, Takao came back to Sydney after the Perth World's, where he had served as an International Judge, and basically kicked the project back into gear. We built 003 in the shortest imaginable time, did some breath taking sculpture with bulkheads, lifted the floor 30mm retaining the benefits and eliminating the problems (notably that sinking feeling!), and launched boat 003 - the 29er. It was a far superior boat.
Also, about this time, Ian Bruce from Canada, best known as the father of the Laser, who had always been a very good friend (I met Ian 21 years ago and it was he who introduced me to Takao the same year), was being closely considered as a North America partner.
Late in February 1998, Takao was on the phone again. I got him, Dave Ovington and Ian Bruce on a plane and out to Sydney. We had a 5 day intensive sailing, critiquing, brainstorming, building and just generally fooling around session with some legendary sails in what could only be called fresh conditions. By this time 004 had appeared, (003 after a very brief life became a plug) and we were sailing from 7 in the morning till 7 at night. Even Harry wanted in on the heavy air sailing and Photo 8 is a shot of us doing over 21 knots! Most of the details that you now see existed on this boat and it was very good. But not quite perfect.
David wanted the hull extended a little and the chine widened to provide more stability and also more flotation in light air. These changes were accomplished with foam cut to shape and attached to the boat with good old fashioned duct tape! The changes were very effective and it was decided to make them permanent and then to go directly into the master plug from the hull of 004.
The mast partner on 004 had been moulded integrally with the deck dividing the boat into two halves and making the transfer of the compression load from the mast down into the hull structure difficult in production. It was decided to mould the mast support structure into the deck in the form of a raised hump, and then to fit a separate mast partner over it afterwards to take care of the compression loads between the chainplates and the mast base. We all decided to make these changes, together with a slight adjustment in the sheer, and to build one more and, hopefully, final prototype.
It should be mentioned here that, from the start, the boat had a big rig - a double spreader, twin trapeze, mast head spinnaker rig. What we found was that the small rig was, more often than not, faster than the big one, including in light airs, so we concentrated on the small rig and continuously improving its mid-range performance. We found that the 29er with single trapeze, in a breeze, required more weight than the 110kgs (240 lbs) we had originally thought necessary and found it was more like 140kgs (310 lbs). We certainly did not need more sail area! That then let us dispose of the big rig which we referred to as the Sport rig or, you might have guessed, the 39er! One day I'll get back to it.
Ian, Takao and David all made the pilgrimage, one more time, back to Australia in April when 005 was sailed to our great satisfaction and everybody signed off on the boat. It was a far cry from the boat that had originally gone to England. We were now ready for production.
006 was built and flown to France and was sailed during the Bandol 49er Worldxs and then demonstrated all over Europe. 007 and 008 went to Canada in time to be shown at the Canadian National Youth Championships and have since been in action all over the US and Canada. We estimate that, including the five prototypes and the pre-production demonstration boats sailing in Australia, North America and Europe, the 29er has now had over 5000 hours of testing - a figure that probably has never been approached by any other boat going into production.
Some interesting side notes and things that just have to be said!
1. The 49er worked because the 4 partners had a long term working/friendship relationship. Like a marriage, there are arguments and, given different cultures, ideals and goals, there are going to be plenty. With the 29er, the relationships go even further back. The Ovington/Bethwaite connection is 12 plus years and the Bruce/Otani/Bethwaite connection is 23 plus years. Dave and I have closely collaborated, not only on the 49er project, but also with Eighteen footers and I14s. Takao and I co-operated on the B14 project and 49ers; Ian, Frank and Takao on the Laser, Laser 2 and Tasar. Each have lived in each otherxs pockets for over 20 years and will continue to work as a group towards our common goal, which is the continued development of sailing.
2. As a pseudo industrial designer, it always amazes (and annoys the hell out of me) that one can do so much work on a boat and someone like Ian comes along, suggests two to three changes, gets out the modeling clay, does his thing and, with a touch of spray paint, you can see exactly what he is getting at and wonder why you had not seen it before. The boat is so much better for the involvement of a fresh face and especially one of Ian's talent.
3. The same has to be said of David whose continual pursuit of detail and weight tolerance has led to a boat that now carries weight well, and can be handled by people not fully skilled in all conditions.
4. Takao for his enthusiasm, perseverance and modeling skills.
5. My parents for there perseverance, persistence and continual support. Dad for his unbounded inquiring mind, his ability to change tacks (at 78 that is really saying something) and as the engine that made this all happen. Mum for her support, keeping the $$$ up to the task and her faith in the project!
Thanks must also go to the string of international and, in particular, Australian youth sailors who have tested the boat from Airlie beach to Hobart (1200 km north and south of Sydney) and who have said their two cents worth and made it a much better boat.
Where we are today.
Because of the strict one-design nature of the 29er, all tooling is generated from a single source here in Australia. There are plugs and moulds in England, Australia and Canada and there are moulds in South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand.
Boats are now sailing in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, South Africa, Canada, USA, New Zealand as well as in 5 states of Australia. England is presently building approximately 5 boats per week and it is expected to be building on the continent in the near future. Australia is building 2-3 per week and Canada is now at 4 per week. South Africa has just started building and both New Zealand and Argentina will be supplying boats by the end of September.
Orders to hand are always "rubbery" but, suffice to say, we will have delivered over 250 boats by the end of September, principally into Australia, North America and Europe.
I often get asked what I would do to improve the 49er, and my answer is always to look at the 29er.
Whereas the 49er is performance based, the 29er is value based. Both are quality products. We have chosen to use a polyester resin system for a number of reasons, including cost, repeatability in isolated regions where we are expecting the boat to be built and also, being a small boat, the loads are exponentially smaller, the skins heavier and therefore well within polyesterxs ability to handle the loads.
The boat is fully cored and the construction procedures are novel enough so as to dramatically reduce the overall cost and also to ensure that each boat is as similar to another as is practically possible.
2. Alloy foils.
One of the biggest "pains" in the boat industry is building foils. They are difficult to build, they are a poor value in relation to their size, they are difficult to repeat, easily damaged and yet they are critical to performance. Alloy foils overcome just about every one of these issues and, add to this the alloy rudder stock, and you end up with foils that are virtually unbreakable, very tough and, if you have a major problem, you can fix it with a hammer. And everyone has a thin, straight, trailing edge! Heaven!
This is a youth training boat which will be used for teaching. Kids love to grab things and their confidence grows far more quickly if they feel secure. Added to that we had to give people something with which to pull themselves back into the boat after a capsize. The grabrails are an elegant solution.
The mast breaks down into 3 pieces. After a season of transporting a 49er topmast on aircraft and then trying to get someone (like a taxi) to pick you up at the other end, we thought we would arrange it that the mast break down into sections to make going overseas and sailing in all those exotic places a joy rather than a chore. It has the added benefit of making freight cheaper and breakages cheaper as you only have to replace a small section. It also gives the mast the right bend to boot!
The ram vang is a very effective and robust improvement on the 49er; easy to rig, easy to adjust and virtually unbreakable!
We hit some major goals with the sails. Firstly, we accept that there is concern over single source supply of sails due to the perceived monopoly that this can generate. But, given the passion of a class that has an effective single source manufacture and the support that the sailors in those classes have for that concept (and here they are speaking with their cheque books), we have attempted to find a resolution.
First we made it public that we were seeking an expression of interest from any sailmaker in the production of 29er sails. We received 9 quotations from 4 continents and 4 of those supplied sails. Of those 9 quotes, 7 were for local production and supplying a region, one was for both regional and world wide supply and one was for world wide supply. Without exception, regional supply was between 40 to 50% more expensive than a single source world wide supply even after taking into account duty barriers such as the 13.2% into the EEC and 18% into Canada.
That world wide supplier was North Sails, Sri Lanka. So we now had a dilemma. The sailors want a single source supply so that there is no armaments race and here was a very real cost benefit for those sailors. But this policy flies in the face of those who administer our sport and are against a single source so we have done the following.
We have licensed North Sri Lanka to produce sails and, to overcome the perception that there is a lack of competition, we are also licensing Hyde Sails UK to produce sails.
I personally worked with North to generate the digitized patterns for building an approved set of 29er sails. Those patterns have now been made available to Hyde Sails to build approved 29er sails. Both North Sri Lanka and Hyde have been required to supply a set of sails which will be held in Australia as samples, unused, and both will be required to:
a. ensure that both these sails are the same and
b. to maintain that symmetry.
Yes - it has taken some work but it means that the 29er sailor will end up with the best of both worlds - the confidence that it is not cheque book sailing and good value for money.