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Interview with Julian Bethwaite
(April 25, 2007) On the eve of the ISAF trials to select a potential new Class for the Women’s doublehanded Olympic discipline (April 16-19 in Hyeres, France), the 29er Class sat down with its designer, Julian Bethwaite, arguably the world’s leading skiff guru, the designer of the 49er and the 29er and now the 29er’s big sister the 29er XX.
Class: Over 10 years ago you and your father went through all the motions you are now going through with the 29er XX when you took the 49er to the ISAF trials. How does it compare this time?
Julian: I think it’s a lot different. Although it was not so long ago, skiff sailing was looked at as being definitely over the top and those sailing it to be truly elitist. Today, your kids and mine sail skiffs, the ISAF World Youth doublehanded events are sailed in a skiff, Round the World boats have, essentially, skiff rigs and there will be no surprises at Hyères.
Class: There is no other way of putting this but the 29erXX seems to be a real step sideways for you.
Julian: If you say so! But in what way?
Copyright: Dave Hall
Class: Well, I think we were all expecting something a little more “over the top”, to use your own words, yet here we seem to have a very moderate boat by Bethwaite standards.
Julian: Yeah – I guess you could say that. I guess I have always pushed it to the limit unless there was a very good reason not to and there usually hasn’t been a good reason! But this boat is entirely different. Yes, it is moderate, as you call it, but for very good reasons.
Class: Bearing in mind that this is a potential Olympic Class, one would have thought that “over the top” was de rigueur. What’s behind your thinking because you’ve been at this rig now since the 29er World’s in San Francisco in 2005?
Julian: You know, it would have been much more fun to go balls out, strap on racks to the 29er or even do a brand new boat and try and blow the socks off everyone. Been there - done that – and with reasonable success! But that’s not what I think this trial is all about.
Firstly, we have a platform of nearly 1500 boats out there and, were we able to turn them instantly into an Olympic standard, the combined cost to the manufacturers and the world sailing community would be a fraction of a new development.
Secondly, this is not about power and speed (can’t believe I’m saying that!) but rather about the paramount importance of the largest possible majority of the world’s young women being able to sail this boat, in control, in all conditions. I have heard the comments that such and such a boat is faster than the XX - but so what?!! The 49er is faster than the XX – perhaps we should have put it into the trials along with the International 14. It’s all irrelevant. And most of the comments have come from males sailing the XX looking for more power.
If you know anything about sail design you can’t help but notice that XX mainsail is very moderately powered and thus easily de-powered. Our Japanese partner in the 29er consortia of builders, Takao Otani, has repeatedly said to me “Julian san, two Japanese girls must be able to sail this boat or it will just be another western boat beyond the capabilities of we Asians and surely we have enough of those”.
Class: Are you saying then that the boat has been specifically designed for the Asian population?
Julian: Of course not. But I have designed it for a weight which is closer to the world norm than I would perhaps have done were it not a potential Olympic boat. I am going to digress a bit here if you will excuse me but I should explain.
In the early 90’s, when Ian Bruce, one of our 29er builder partners, was designing the Byte, he showed me a most extraordinary report produced by Jacques Rogge, then a practicing Orthopedic Surgeon, acting in his capacity as a member of the Medical Commission to the (then) IYRU. It was produced to assist the CPOC in its selection of Classes for the 1996 Olympics and examined the normal weight distribution of the world population. It is ISAF’s best kept secret! I have never forgotten one of the conclusions he drew at the end of his report, a copy of which I still hold.
“The actual priority, when considering the weight distribution factor, is to select a boat for 40 – 55 kg women. This would allow an increase in participation of approximately 75% of the women’s world population – approximately 90% of the yellow races, 50% of the black and 50% of the white”. It is a staggering conclusion.
I am aware that average weights have increased in the last 16 years since this was written in 1991 but the concept is still mind blowing. We have recently added a women’s boat to the Olympic ranks and, when I last looked, there were only three Asian countries with competitors ranked in the top 340 world wide. We do not need a repeat with a doublehanded boat.
Guess that was a bit long winded but you did ask the question!!
Class: So, is 110 kgs going to be the optimum, all-up weight of the crew?
Julian: No. I think you are going to find that 110 kgs will be able to handle the boat in almost all conditions but, as I said, world weights have gone up. My guess is that the optimum weight will pan out at somewhere around 120 kgs - that’s two women at about 132 lbs for those of you metrically challenged! The boat, of course, has enough power to carry much more weight but, given the fact that the world does most of its sailing in 10 knots or less, my guess is 120 will be about right.
Class: All that said, what are you hoping for at the trial?
Julian: I would like the women in Hyères to find a boat that is real challenge to their skills and not their weight, a step up from whatever they have been sailing, a boat that is manageable in all conditions and, above all else, a boat that is really fun to sail for the lowest possible investment – even if you don’t have your sights set on the Olympics. And that will make my friend Takao very happy!
For more on the 29er XX: www.29erxx.org