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Interview with Julian Bethwaite
by Andy Rice / 49er class

(September 7, 2006) When you consider that he has been responsible for some of the most radical dinghy designs of the past 20 years, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Julian Bethwaite holds radical views on almost any topic you care to mention. The Sydney-based designer has been a thorn in the side of the sailing establishment ever since the 49er won an ISAF trial in Lake Garda to select a high-performance skiff for the Olympic Games.

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to ignore Bethwaite or his boats. The ‘Niner’ family of 49er, 29er, 59er and the recently launched 29erXX are all lean, mean racing machines, and they have redefined the high-performance small-boat racing scene. The 49er was already gathering momentum as a class before it got its big break at Garda. There it was pitched against many contenders for the new Olympic skiff slot, including the Laser 5000 which was already well established in Europe.

But Bethwaite had pulled together a strong team to show the 49er in the best possible light, and it included Flying Dutchman Olympic Champion Jonathan McKee and his wife Libby, an accomplished 470 crew. “We went into the trials extremely confident,” says Bethwaite. “We went there with a marketing strategy, we worked out three months in advance what we were going to do, and we sent every member of the ISAF Council a copy of dad’s book [Frank Bethwaite’s High Performance Sailing] and this little blurb about the boat and the concept of sailing faster than windspeed. So by the time the trials came around they’d already been primed about the 49er and what it was.”

courtesy of 49er class website
The 49er lobby team even included a ‘nocturnal mole’, who would sleep by day and get up at 7pm to hang out the bars and listen to the gossip around Garda. The mole got wind of a whispering campaign that the 49er was ‘unsailable’, with rival groups looking to put out the message that it wasn’t possible to sail the boat in more than a Force 3 (7-10 knots). The team responded by having Jonathan and Libby McKee go out and sail the boat in the full force of the Garda Ora, the legendary thermal breeze that sweeps in across Garda at lunchtime. And Bethwaite took the boat out for a spot of singlehanded sailing. Albeit he set off upwind in just 4 knots of wind, not particularly challenging – until the Ora started rolling down the lake and left Bethwaite with a 15-knot sleigh ride back down to Torbole.

At this point Bethwaite, a former 18-foot skiff world champion, had a decision to make. Do the sensible thing and drop the sails while he waited for a tow back to shore, or charge back downwind in too much wind with too much sail area. In his words it was “No guts, no glory!” and he hoisted the gennaker for a rapid return to the sailing club. He even gybed the boat, survived it and then dropped the gennaker and rounded up immaculately, right in front of a crowd of dignitaries that included the ISAF President of the time, Paul Henderson, and the Kings of Greece and Norway. Bethwaite admits that if he had tried it again it might not have worked out so well, but his singlehanded escapade was yet another piece of the jigsaw that slotted nicely into place and saw the 49er go on to win the Garda trials comfortably.

This was just the first of two major hurdles, however, the second being to get it ratified as a new Olympic class at the ISAF annual conference in November 1996. For this to happen, one of the existing classes would have to go, and the chances of the new kid on the block ousting one of the old guard were slim – until Paul Henderson stepped in and said the 49er was definitely in, and so asked ISAF Council to vote one of the incumbent classes out. Henderson’s refusal to follow the customary democratic processes caused uproar and outrage, but Henderson wasn’t one to care for such things. Getting the 49er into the Games was of greater concern to him and he was prepared to ruffle a few feathers to achieve that goal. And so the Star was the sacrificial lamb to the slaughter - only for the keelboat to get accepted back into the Sydney 2000 line-up a couple of years later. So in the end, no one lost out to the 49er’s inclusion in the Olympic family.

The 49er was one of the great successes of a stunning Olympic Regatta in Sydney Harbour, with its pioneering use of national flags on mainsails and gennakers, and it has since become an established part of the Olympic scene. Bethwaite has never enjoyed the politics that inevitably comes with being the designer of an Olympic class, and yet he has designed another boat that looks set for inclusion in future Olympiads. The 29erXX is a souped-up version of the now well-established 29er skiff. Taking the existing hull and foils of the standard 29er, he has added a trapeze for the helm and drawn a big sail plan around a mast that is a foot and a half taller.

The intention is for the 29erXX to become a high-performance twin-trapeze skiff for the ladies. With ISAF feeling the pressure to stage an Olympic Regatta that is more television-friendly, could the 29erXX be sailing’s answer to beach volleyball, one of the great successes of recent Games? Bethwaite comments: “I think there is a realisation that something needs to happen, although I think the big issue in 2008 [at ISAF’s annual conference where Olympic classes for 2012 will be decided] won’t be the 29erXX issue. I think the biggie is whether sailing can hang on to the 11th medal or not, and my understanding is that we’re going to have to lose 40 sailors and nominally one medal.”

So there are many factors in the equation before the 29erXX can even be considered for Olympic status. Not only will it have to displace one of the existing classes but there is the question of which class would have to fall on its sword if the International Olympic Committee removes one of the sailing medals. As to whether the 29erXX does gain Olympic recognition, Bethwaite is very ambivalent about it. “For the sport I care a lot for the success of the boat, but for myself, not a lot. Getting Olympic status is a double-edged sword. Arguably the 49er could be a much bigger class if it wasn’t Olympic, and I think the 29erXX will be successful in its own right, whatever the outcome. The number of people who are taking it up without any interest in the Olympics – that’s very encouraging. The 29er has been an extremely successful boat, and the XX rig is a really nice addition to it. We have already sold a few rigs and by next year I would expect there to be 50 to 60 rigs in the world, and by 2008 I would expect there to be 150 to 200 rigs out there.”

While Bethwaite was instrumental in driving through the 49er to Olympic status, this time he is taking a back seat, preferring to focus on developing the boat and leaving the politics to others. “I’m not fully au fait with the process this time, there are other people driving this programme. The take-up of conventional 29ers right now is quite significant and one of the reasons believed to be the case for that is that the 29erXX is on its way. Now whether that is for 2012 or 2016 is another matter, but there are some significant countries that are keen to see the 29erXX in the Olympics.”

The first step is for the 29erXX to enter the ISAF trial scheduled to take place in Hyeres next April, with the possibility of a second trial later in the summer. One thing about which Bethwaite is adamant – Olympic status or not – is that the 29erXX must cultivate the same open-doors policy in the 49er, where anyone is encouraged to race the boat regardless of their level of ability or ambition. “The 49er has done a good job of keeping the ‘weekend warriors’ happy, with the concept of Silver and Bronze fleets at major events. The 29er XX needs to go the same route for it to succeed. Also the 49er and 29er XX will complement each other well, because the XX is being pitched very much as a girl’s boat and it would make for a great social scene to have both boats at the same events.”

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