Sport Boat Debate: Let’s just go have some fun

Published on February 4th, 2014

by Travis B. Weisleder
Shortly after Key West Race Week this year, a Facebook thread discussed the perceived differences between the Melges 20 (20 ft long) and J/70 (22.5 ft long).

With the J/70 class growing to 60 teams this year in Key West, there was concern about the health of the Melges 20 class. Observations also wondered if the Melges 20 was more elitist, more expensive etc. There were some really good comments from a number of people about the differences, and then a number of comments where people were just off base.

So being a passionate Melges 20 owner for a number of years, and having sailed mainly small sport boats and dinghies my entire life, I have gathered the key comments, did a little research, and will share my opinions on this topic.

The biggest misconception is that the Melges 20 is more expensive than the J/70 to race due to the pros, sails and associated costs. Let’s compare their most recent large events: KWRW (Jan. 19-24) for the J/70 and the 2013 Melges 20 Worlds in Key Largo, FL (Dec. 11-14).

The Melges 20 Worlds had 52 boats competing with 6 full Corinthian teams at which the top Corinthian got second. KWRW had 60 J/70s with 13 full Corinthian teams with the top boat getting seventh. The Melges had ~12% and the J/70 ~22% of their respective fleets all Group 1 (amateur classification). I am not sure that is an overwhelming cry of difference, especially when you remember that the J/70 is sailed with 4 people and the Melges 20 with 3. So it’s conceivable that there could be 4 pros on the J/70, but the most a Melges 20 can have is 2 as the driver must be Group 1.

The other misperception is that the J/70 is cheaper with sails because they are Dacron, but a full set of Quantum for each boat is the same price while North has the Melges 20 at about 5% more expensive than the J/70. However, it is notable that the Melges 20 has annual sail buttons to limit the number of sails that can be purchased, while the J/70 is unlimited. So for a serious campaign, a J/70 team might possibly buy 6 sails a year (if not more), while in the Melges 20 they can get about 4 sails a year.

Then there is the cost of the boats. Once you get covers, trailer boxes, enhancements, etc, they are, again, virtually the same price.

So at the end of the day you have two boats that are basically the same price; the large majority of the boats have at least one paid professional on board, sail costs are roughly the same retail prices, and the J/70 has one more crew person. So if anything, the likely cost of the J/70 is more.

But are these two boats really the same?

Having been an owner of both as well as a past Melges 24 owner, I can say that the J/70 is a small keelboat with legs out “hiking” that I would compare more to the Melges 24, sans hiking. On the other hand, the Melges 20 is a small keelboat that really wants to be a dinghy and sails like one, where we sit legs in with no hiking. When you throw the Viper 640 into the fray as another option, you have three very different boats for three very different sets of owner’s desires. Neither one is better than the other, they are all just different.

The great thing about this entire discussion is that we are getting people back out on the water and sailing. Whether it is a Melges 20, J/70, Melges 24, Viper 640, or whatever …people are out. That is a good thing and something that we should not lose sight of.

I know people are going to read this and say, “yes ,that is good and all,” but I still think that to compete at the top level in the Melges 20 you need one or two pros. I am not going to agree or disagree; I think that to be at the top of any competitive class you need to have a boat of really good sailors.

To look at the top teams for both fleets’ events, every one of those drivers is an EXCELLENT sailor regardless of their crew. They each have years and years of racing experience, which for people getting into the sport late, or not actively campaigning, might make it seem like the pros are required. As a driver, no doubt the pros raise our game, but we still have the stick in our hands.

I do believe that all of us who have been fortunate enough to race sailboats at a high level for a long time have a duty to help and pass on our knowledge to the new people getting into our classes, and to those who have not been exposed to the same levels of sailing that we have. That is not a Melges 20 thing or a J/70 thing; it’s just a sailing thing.

No matter what boat people go out and race in, everyone needs to be fun. No one likes going out and getting beaten up either physically or result wise. We need to take that knowledge and pass it along. I am sure the back to middle parts of any fleet would welcome it.

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