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Craftinsure 2012

Flying in the J/111 fleet: Interview with McFly owner Tony Mack

by Mark Jardine 23 Oct 12:00 BST
McFly during the 2014 J111 Worlds in Cowes © Rick Tomlinson / www.rick-tomlinson.com

We speak to English sailor Tony Mack, who has owned a succession of yachts bearing the 'McFly' name, currently racing in the J/111 fleet. We talked about his route in to yacht racing, his crew and his views on the J/111 circuit and class ethos.

Mark Jardine: Your 'McFly' series of yachts has been going for 30 years now. There have been your own boats, including an IMX 38, Swan 45 & Beneteau 47.7, predominantly raced in the Solent - and you've even chartered yachts around the world, giving them the McFly name for the event. What is the story behind the 'McFly' name?

Tony Mack: It was my wife Sally's idea, really. Our business has always been in aviation. I was born on an airport and had my first flying lesson before my first driving lesson. So, we thought the combination of our surname, with the word "fly", was good. Plus, our favourite family film has always been Back to the Future, where the central character is Marty McFly.

Mark: What was your sailing background before you started yacht racing?

Tony: We enjoyed cruising, and had owned a Trapper 300, Contessa 33, a couple of Beneteaus, plus a little bit of dinghy sailing in Lasers, Enterprises and Toppers at one time. It was never terribly serious, but I suppose you get bitten by the bug when you go racing.

Mark: Was racing something that just gently crept up on you? Having a yacht that could cruise or race, meant you could do more and more?

Tony: Yes. First it was just with friends, but after a while I wanted to get a bit better, rather than being the most popular member of the fleet because you were always last! So I began get a bit of help from North Sails, or get a coach for a while, and it grew from that.

Mark: You've raced in the BVIs, the Vice Admiral's Cup and the Swan Worlds. What would you rate as your favourite racing?

Tony: That is a difficult one! I think probably the J/111 one-design racing has been the best: very close racing. I did find the Swan Worlds in Sardinia a little overpowering; when you're in a 45ft boat and you're on the start line with 80 footers and things like that. It has changed since, but I think a J/111 class start is the best.

Mark: What is different about the J/111 racing, compared to what you had with the Swan 45?

Tony: The big difference is they are quite simple boats: a battery for the electrics and one for the engine, a nice big steering wheel - it looks the part. No furling headsails any more - that is all stopped now - and everybody seems to have a TuffLuff. It is an owner/driver class with one professional and a weight limit and ou're only allowed to buy three news sails a year - it makes it all quite reasonable and often the boats with older sails seem to do just as well. It gets it back to the sailing, rather than who's paying the most to get the best tactician. It is still serious, but in a more Corinthian way.

Mark: So you think that the class having simple set-ups, one pro, limits on sails, means you can sail hard, but in the right spirit?

Tony: Very much so. I think the pro helps everybody. They can do any role, not just tactician, but helping people get better at trimming, and they can help us improve manoeuvres - tacks, gybes etc. We've occasionally had a coach come out with us, so everyone is either pretty good, or they will be soon. We've all got exactly the same boat, and we all get on and do the best we can.

Mark: It was 2012 when you first got into the J/111 class; how did you get drawn in, and what was your first event?

Tony: I had a J/97 and decided that I would prefer to go back to a wheel rather than a tiller, and Paul Heys at Key Yachting was very good and took the J/97 in part-exchange. I got the new boat on a Thursday and went straight into Cowes Week. I think we did quite well, maybe third in class.

Mark: It is clear the reason you go sailing is for the enjoyment of it. Do you have a core crew that have stuck with you through the years?

Tony: Yes, certainly for all the J sailing, they are pretty much all the same people. A few have got married or had children, but there are enough that I joke I have to "share the love" a bit, because everybody can't do every event - then we keep everybody in the circuit. They are as much friends as people you go sailing with; they all came to my big birthday party.

Mark: The J/111 has big fleets in the US, a few in Australia, and also in Europe there is a strong fleet. Do you find a true international class is of benefit to you and your racing?

Tony: I do think so. We've had World Championships we have done in Cowes, the Netherlands, and Newport (Rhode Island). Having identical boats - they measure the sails - crew weight of 650kg - you feel you are racing it at a pretty high level. There's also a superb Corinthian Cup for boats with no professional (Cat 3) sailors on board. I suppose the next step up for a J/111 owner might be a FAST 40+ but that is such a big change in cost and people. The J/109 is good boat, but it doesn't plane, which adds a new dimension to your sailing. If you feel you've done pretty well in sailing, you like to feel there is an extra thing you ought to learn; it challenges you.

Mark: What sort of wind strength do you need before you can arc it up downwind on a J/111 and get the benefit of being on the plane?

Tony: We reckon about 18 knots if you have some waves to surf. Definitely at 20 knots we'd be bow-up and going. The fastest we've ever gone is 23 knots. One Cowes Week when the racing was abandoned (45 knots) we were doing 19 knots under mainsail alone. We are working the waves a bit, but it makes it more exciting.

Mark: You've been in the fleet for six years now; how does the class embrace newcomers?

Tony: I think they have been very good. We've had people you can see were struggling to start with. We are quite willing to share all the rig settings that would enable them to beat us. We recommend people if they are from Holland, France or Belgium: someone working for North Sails or another sailmaker who could help them go a bit better. Certainly this year, where we didn't go particularly well in the J-Cup, boats that hadn't been good were now winning races. To give you an example: usually we sail with Jeremy Smart as our pro if he's available, but if it is someone else and we get asked, "who are the boats to watch?"; now we can honestly say "all of them!" On their day all can be good, and that makes it much more exciting.

Mark: Talking of people coming in from other one-design fleets, or IRC racing. Say there was a FAST 40+ owner who thought it was far too serious for them, and wanted to find another class, admittedly not always-planing, but wanting something that has the "get up and go". Would you recommend the J/111 as an ideal boat to get back into close racing without having to throw the cheque book at it?

Tony: Yes, very much so. Also, you can if you want just charter a boat, as we did in Newport. There's no worry over different keels and masts. It is just very good racing, and the boats are very good in the light. Often you are embarrassed sitting alongside a 55-footer for too long going upwind, when they have spent more on sails than our entire boat! It still goes in 6 to 7 knots, and is a lovely boat because it is responsive to steer and gets going quickly. When it is windy you get the added dimension of planing. I do know a couple of FAST 40+ owners who say it is expensive, and that there is always someone a bit richer than them! I think the one-design is a great thing to do.

Mark: What do you have lined up for the 2019 season?

Tony: It is very much down to our class captain and the others who run things, but it is a really exciting year: we've got the J-Cup where all the Belgian, German, French, Dutch and Swiss boats come over. They are coming to join us for the Vice Admiral's Cup, the J-Cup, and some of the Royal Southern YC events. We all decided that having 13 to 14 boats in each event makes it all the more exciting. The gaps are often tiny, and you cannot tell who will win until the finish line comes up. Then we have the World Championship in Chicago; some boats will be shipped out there, but we are looking to charter. OK, you won't turn up with a 'rental' and win (maybe someone will one day) but you go for the experience. We enjoyed chartering in Newport, came ninth overall and even won one of the races. You can tick "did a World Championship in America" in the log book of your sailing career.

Mark: How many boats do you expect for Chicago?

Tony: There are currently 14 in Chicago alone, so I think maybe 27 will contest the Worlds. They truck them around a lot in America; drag them all over the place.

Mark: Where else could you get racing on a reasonable budget, 40 footer one-designs in those numbers on the same race track?

Tony: Perhaps the Farr 40s? I don't know. But the J/111 is relatively not that an expensive boat to run, has that exciting dimension, and the next step up is such a quantum leap. We did do the Vice Admiral's Cup alongside the FAST 40+ fleet a few years ago: it was windward-leeward courses and they started five minutes behind us and could only catch us if we did three laps.

Mark: Well that says it all really! Thank you for your time, Tony, and all the best for the 2019 season.

Tony: Thank you!

Find out more about the J/111 class on the Key Yachting website here or contact the Key Yachting team on 023 8045 5669.

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