A man for all seasons


America's Cup designer Bruce Nelson’s distinguished career has encompassed many of the key designs in modern racing, including dashing Australian hopes in defending the auld mug, reports Kevin Green.

New York-born designer Bruce Nelson's long and distinguished career has spanned a wide swath of race designs, from early IOR 25 footers, successful maxis and more recently various one-designs, including the prolific 1D35. His San Diego company still trades under the partnership name of Nelson/Marek, which he and Bruce Marek formed in the late ‘70s, despite Marek leaving the practice in 1990.

In his college years, the young Nelson was a national-championship-winning dinghy sailor while studying for his degree in naval architecture at the University of Michigan. A successful sailing career followed with accolades that included being nominated as Offshore Sailor of the Year in 1980. Very much a hands-on sailor, he regularly skippered, helmed or called tactics on his designs.

His involvement in the America's Cup was to cost Australia dearly after our 1983 win. Nelson joined Dennis Connor's Stars & Stripes team in 1984 and successfully wrestled back the auld mug in 1987 off Fremantle. He went on to work on the Cup-winning catamaran design team in 1988 before a final fling with the Stars & Stripes team in 1992. He then moved on to the Young America team in 1995, and AmericaOne in 2000 when they lost 5-4 in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals.

After designing the OneWorld Challenge yachts for 2003, the 54-year-old Nelson has been involved with Louis Vuitton Cup finalists Luna Rossa, which we've all enjoyed watching because of our Australian steerer, James Spithill, the youngest helmsman in AC history.

Nelson's experience in the Cup has been long and involved, as he also served on the committee which produced the America’s Cup Class rule for 1992.

The attraction to the Cup for Nelson has obviously not diminished, despite being a family man with two children. His teenage son had joined him for his recent visit to Australia and was a keen sailor like his dad. Having just finished the 32nd America's Cup, his thoughts about it were very interesting, as he explained during our chat.

Kevin Green (KG): You've had an interesting career in the Cup, so what are your most recent thoughts about the Italian Luna Rossa team’

Bruce Nelson (BN):
For the past three years I’ve been involved with the Luna Rossa Challenge which was very interesting. The team performed great against Oracle in the LVC semi-finals, but the Kiwis sailed flawlessly in the finals and won 5-0. We were quite stunned.

A lot of controversy is raging over possible design changes, including law suits being filed, so how do you feel about a new AC design rule’

(BN): I’m happy to see some changes in the design ‘ 24 ton boats were heavier than the rule-makers intended, and with 80% of the weight in the bulb they are difficult to sail and handle in a seaworthy manner in rough conditions.

(KG): There’s talk of a skiff-like design approach to the Cup with longer hulls and bigger crews, maybe to increase the level of speed and excitement’

(BN): Changes which improve tacking and gybing performance and acceleration may improve the quality of the racing. But bigger and faster boats may result in more separation during the racing and make umpiring more difficult while ramping the costs up, so the changes need to be very carefully considered.

(KG): One thing that won’t change for the Cup is the venue of Valencia, so how did you rate it’

(BN): Valencia conditions were adequate, but not spectacular ‘ there are better places in the Med to race, and others such as San Francisco Bay and Hawaii. But Valencia has supported the event well financially and created a great venue for the teams.

Another of Nelson's successful designs has been building to box rules, most famously in the TP52 class. Back in the late ‘90s, his response to the trend of an open-ended approach to design was to embrace the trend towards light boats with generous stability and easily handled rigs. One result was the first Transpac 52. Sitting on the rail of the first ever TP52 built, the 2001 Wot Yot, was a good chance to ask Nelson about the class. He’d flown over with his teenage son Bobby to steer Wot Yot at Hamilton Island Race Week. The design continues to flourish with reportedly about nine new boats being built, according to the TP52 association. With three now in Australia, with the addition of Syd Fischer’s recent purchase, the class has plenty of local interest. Internationally, in late September the fleet held its prestigious Rolex TP 52 Global Championship in Porto Cervo, Italy.

Tell me a little about how the class has grown’

There are probably about 40 boats in the world, starting from the original small fleet of seven boats on the US west coast, but now the class racing is exclusively in the Med.

Wot Yot was the first TP52 to come to Australia and earlier this year it was joined by Bob Steel’s Quest and both boats have been doing well, so do you think this class of boat suits the conditions’

(BN): Yes, but they are good boats and can really suit anywhere. We had a good close race to Hobart on Wot Yot this year and the year before in tough conditions in the TP Global Race which crossed the Gulf Stream, a rough bit of water that did buckle the deck of one TP52.

It’s been said that setup as a box-rule class they don’t get a favourable rating under IRC’

Well, class limits are set but the IRC ratings vary a bit as the TP52s weren’t designed for IRC in particular. And within the class, beam can vary which is an IRC sensitive parameter. For example, Wot Yot is a narrower boat than [the Bruce Farr designed] Quest. But fortunately IRC encourages certain characteristics of TP52s, such as low centre of gravity, and simple rigs with non-overlapping jibs, so their IRC ratings are fairly good.

How is IRC doing in the US’

Many major races in the US use VPP-based ORR handicaps, but IRC is growing.

Looking forward, you've been working on what some say is a super TP52’

We (NMYD) were involved with the preliminary design and drafting of the STP65 Class rule, along with the Farr, Tripp and Reichel/Pugh design offices. The Storm Trysail Club hired us to perform this work to foster the development of fast, modern, offshore race boats along the lines of the TP52 box rule class ‘ the Transpacific Yacht Club (TPYC) joined in the venture later. Note that these boats are not one design (nor are the TP52s) ‘ they are box-rule boats, which means that certain dimensions are limited or restricted (such as overall length, beam, draft, displacement and rig dimensions) but the shape of the hulls and appendages may vary. It appears that this class will gradually grow and produce a fleet of cutting-edge race boats capable of winning line and corrected honours in many of the US coastal races, and hopefully spread overseas as well.

(KG): With Luna Rossa not challenging again, what are your plans’

We’re awaiting the final rules for the next AC event, but meanwhile developing a new ORC GP33 design for a client in Japan, where boats of this size are well-suited to the local requirements.

What will the build materials be’

(BN): Well, the class rule stipulates E-glass FRP with no carbon, but otherwise I’d build it in carbon to be much lighter and stronger at similar cost.

Finally, since we're sitting in the beautiful surrounds of the Whitsundays, how does Audi Hamilton Island Race Week compare with Antigua Race Week’

It does remind me a lot of the Caribbean racing, but Hamilton has a lot more race boats, with more cruise boats at Antigua.

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