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An interview with Laura Grondin on the state of the Melges 24 class

by David Schmidt 14 Jul 2021 16:00 BST July 14, 2021
Roger Counihan, Jaws - 2019 U.S. Melges 24 National Ranking Series Titles © U.S. Melges 24 Class Associatio

The year was 1993 and Reichel/Pugh had recently drawn plans for a 24-foot high-performance keelboat for Melges Performance Sailboats, which had recently entered production. It didn't take long for the principals to realize they had created a seriously quick, seriously fun-to-sail speedster with a whole lot of curb appeal. Likewise, it didn't take the sailing world long to figure out that the Melges 24 was en route to becoming the hottest One Design keelboat class since the venerable J/24 hit the scene in 1977. And while the two designs are worlds apart in terms of their performance attributes and how they are sailed, plenty of former J/24 sailors could be seen sporting Melges 24 team livery by the mid-90s.

Flash forward almost 30 years, and the Melges 24 remains a popular One Design boat for serious racers thanks to its planing-friendly hull form, its powerful asymmetric spinnaker, and its strong class association.

And that's to say nothing of the top-shelf sailors that the class regularly attracts, and-vis-à-vis-the always-hot racecourse competition that the class is known for serving up.

Despite its popularity and its dedicated hordes of owners, crew, and class volunteers (many of whom are also active racecourse participants), 2020 and (to a lesser extent) 2021 have not been kind years for organized events of any kind thanks to the pandemic, and the Melges 24 class has taken its share of drubbings, just as every One Design class under the sun has experienced.

For example, the 2020 and 2021 Melges 24 World Championship regattas were cancelled, as were plenty of local events. But, now that vaccines have hit a fair number of arms in the USA, and as Europe continues to ramp up their vaccination program, the sun is starting to peek out from behind the clouds for the Melges 24 class (and other One Design classes).

I checked in with Laura Grondin, who serves as chair and treasurer of the International Melges 24 Class' executive committee, via email, to learn more about the current state of the Melges 24 class.

Can you please give us an update on the Melges 24 class as we near the end of the pandemic in the USA? Has racing returned to normal?

The Melges 24 class is alive and well as we near the end of the pandemic. For racing that requires boats and people to cross country lines, whether it be in North America or Europe, there are still challenges making that happen due to the governmental restrictions; as such, we had to cancel our World Championship this year.

Regardless, the sailors are ready and eager. In the U.S., we were able to host our normal schedule of winter and spring events beginning last December; unfortunately, it is still a challenge for our Canadian neighbors to come to the U.S. to participate and, even, to host their own events.

As for Europe, the European series of racing has begun and we are hopeful that more and more boats will be able to participate and cross-country lines as the season unfolds; and certain countries, such as Italy, have been able to commence hosting local events.

To sum it up, while it really depends on where you are on the globe, racing is happening!

Boating exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Has this uptick translated to more people buying Melges 24s and becoming active racers and class members?

New boats and used boats are selling when they come on the market. Participation in events is strong even despite the comments above; as an example, we had 33 boats at Charleston Race Week compared to 37 boats in 2019.

How would you describe the Melges 24 class' culture to someone who has not participated in any class regattas?

Melges 24 sailors love to go fast—planing on a Melges 24 is a unique, fun and challenging experience. The culture is fun loving, athletic, competitive, and energetic.

While the competition is strong, there is a generous spirit, with teams willing to donate sails and information to the up-and-coming younger sailors and newer teams in our class.

The Melges 24 design isn't new anymore. Are we at the point where people can buy older boats and get into the class at an affordable level, or do the boats still represent more of a financial commitment than, say a J/24 or a J/70?

You can buy a used Melges 24 at a reasonable price point and these boats have proven that they can be very competitive. New sails are important and do cost a little more than a set of J/70 sails.

Have you seen more participation/ownership and class involvement by female sailors/owners/skippers in recent years?

Yes, in fact, I am proud to serve as the first female Chair of the International Melges 24 Class alongside Megan Ratliffe, who is the chair of the U.S. class!

We are definitely seeing more women owners and skippers every year. What is also very exciting for the class is that we have several youth teams and programs around the U.S.

In my local waters of Fishers Island Sound, we have the Mudratz, which has a boat specifically designated for young female drivers. I tell every young woman to always take the opportunity to be at the helm. And, these young sailors bode well for the future of the class and will hopefully become future owners.

Where is the class at in terms of professional sailors? Is a professional or semi-pro crew a prerequisite for winning events? Or, can a dialed-in Corinthian crew compete head-to-head with professionally crewed boats at regional events? What about at Nationals and World Championship-level regattas?

I have done both—sailed Corinthian and sailed with a pro team. So, I understand the difference it can make onboard, and how much can be learned from the pros.

Having said that, while the Melges 24 class is not an owner-driven class, it is quite prevalent in the class to see owners, who are Corinthians and have a pro crew, drive. As well, there are some very strong Corinthian teams that have had top-level results at events including the Worlds.

One of the highly valued experiences available to our Corinthians, who are the lifeblood of the class, is to compete against the pro teams.

Can you tell us about any efforts that the class has taken to lower its environmental footprint or otherwise green-up its events?

An interesting outcome of the pandemic has been the use of mark bots, a mark that is powered by a battery and operated via remote control with a global positioning system on board the mark. The mark bots require fewer chase boats and people to manage a successful regatta. I do see the use of this type of mark growing, and they are more environmentally friendly.

I would also say that, for many years, at many events, the class has eliminated single-use plastics from our events.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

The Melges 24, my personal favorite, is a super fun boat to sail. And, I have really enjoyed getting to know all of the sailors that I have the privilege to meet and sail with and against in this fleet.

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