Jo Richards talks to madforsailing

Jo Grindley got a fascinating low-down from Jo Richards on the past and the challenge of the America's Cup

Sunday March 18th 2001, Author: Jo Grindley, Location: United Kingdom
Jo Richards disappeared from the sailing spotlight in the UK after winning a bronze medal with Pete Allam in the Flying Dutchman in 1984. In the last year he seems to have been rediscovered, coaching 49er sailor Paul Brotherton, flying out to Sydney two weeks before the Olympics to help Shirley Robertson in her successful bid for Olympic gold, and now part of the Peter Harrison's GBR Challenge design team. Jo Grindley asked what had he been up to in the last 16 years? Quite a lot really. Immediately after 1984 I had to sell all my boats. I had no money and was hopelessly in debt so there was no chance of doing another Olympic campaign. Realistically the only way I could carry on racing seriously was to go and sail other people's boats so I got into big boat sailing. I skippered a boat called Marionette for a year; we were reasonable, not particularly successful because at the time the rule was very biased towards the One -Tonners. So the following year with Ed Dubois we designed and built a One-Tonner. But they biased the rule the other way. We did manage to win the Fastnet Race and be top boat in Sardinia at the One Ton Cup by quite a long way with that boat though. We also won the Southern Cross on another One-Tonner that year.

Then came your multihull years.
We built a Formula 40 trimaran that I designed with Ed Dubois, and we raced that on the Formula 40 circuit for a few years. With numerous modifications and experiments we ended up basically as the quickest boat, had a great time and many adventures. The problem with that boat was it was a complete epic taking it apart and putting it together every time we went to a regatta. They made the mistake of never rationalizing the rules. The first year 55 Formula 40s were built. At the time the minimum weight was 1800 kilos most weighed 2 tons. They were pretty simple boats, glass foam and aluminum beams but none were down to weight, so the next generation wiped out the first generation and the same happened the following year. They went from 55 boats built in the first year to 30 in the second and about 7-8 the following year which is when we got into it. You were lucky to get 1-2 a year after that. The prices had gone rocketing up and the old boats got blown out of the water. So we then made a Formula 30, a class that was generally sailed on the big European lakes. We'd sold the Formula 40 up on Lake Geneva which is how we'd got into it, but that F30 was so quick we effectively wiped out the class in the best part of a year. No-one wanted to come and sail against us anymore, so we ended up racing against the Formula 40s on Lake Geneva. Having destroyed the Formula 30 circuit we cut a of foot off each end of the boat and put a rather ugly coach roof on it which was better suited to a canal boat, and won the Formula 28 circuit and the Worlds a couple of times, which was again good fun.

Then you switched from multihulls and designed and built monohull, a 36ft, water ballasted carbon lightweight flyer. What was the thinking behind that?
After sailing the multihulls we realized we liked sailing fast boats in warm places especially if they were a bit under-crewed. The 36-footer was the biggest boat I felt we could tow around Europe with a normal car. It's designed to fit in with European trailing egulations. At the same time it's quick enough that you stand a reasonable chance of getting within the first few boats on the Round the Island Race which we've done a few times. It looks more similar to an Open 60 than most other things. It's much less wetted surface for it's length so it is actually very quick in light airs as well as when it's breezy. Water ballasted so we don't have to cart a heavy keel around on the trailer. The whole hull and structure is very light for a boat of that size with an all-up weight of 1740 kilos, only a little more than an Etchells at approximately 1570 kilos.

But in the UK you always got completely hammered under CHS in the 36 footer. Was it not frustrating always finishing in the bottom half of the score sheet?
Sailing the 36 under CHS can be a bit frustrating at times. We rebuilt an old Swan 48 as a CHS exercise (formerly Full Pelt and now known as Jacobite). The Swan had the same crew on board as the 36 and often the same sails and we swapped the spinnakers from one to another. It was very rare for us not to win a CHS race in the Swan. If we didn't it was probably because we were over the line at the start.

Then to more conventional racing?
Last year we bought a 1720, simply because we wanted a boat to sail locally that was easy, not too much hassle involved. We'd previously also had an Etchells, but the problem with that is that Stephen Fein is quite small so we were never going to get up to weight and were generally sailing about 70 kilos underweight. It's just too bigger handicap if you're going to do a world championships. You can get away with it in the Solent but not in open water. Those were of course the days before you were allowed more than 3 people on board. The 1720 is easy, none of us are getting any younger and you don't have to sit out and that appeals. All the crew are pointing in the same direction so you can have a sensible conversation while you're doing it.

You've had one of the longest relationships with an owner, sailing with Stephen Fein for the past 16 years, what do you attribute this to?
He's a very good friend and a delightful chap. I'd much rather go sailing with Stephen than without him. There was a period during the late 80's and early 90's when there were a lot of guys skippering boats who were out there, not necessarily to rip off the owner, but out there for their own means. I see the primary job of racing a boat for someone is to make sure they enjoy it, I don't think you can ever say it's "value for money" but you can certainly make it the best value you can. Obviously you're trying to win, but also making sure everyone has a good time.

You helped Shirley Robertson in her bid to win a gold medal in Sydney last year, coaching her before the Pre-Olympics in 1999, then making a last minute dash out to Sydney two weeks before the Games, after receiving a tearful call for help. Shirley was being beaten on the water by her training partner Sarah Ayton who was using her old wing mast.
It was a rather high-pressure, almost intellectual exercise from my point of view, and there was a very limited time to sort a problem out. Shirley had spent 10 years working away at the whole thing and was really only missing the last piece of the jigsaw. I went down there and sorted the last pieces out. I took the precaution of taking a grinder to Sydney with me and made sure I'd looked at the picture on the box, so to speak. She had another mast and all I did was copy the characteristics of it. They hadn't got to the point where they'd tried to match it for a whole variety of reasons. It was just doing the obvious things really and having the knowledge and confidence to take a grinder to someone's mast with a week to go until the Games.

What do you think of the whole world class performance scheme now and the finance current Olympic sailors get?
I think it's brilliant, I wish we'd had it in my day. I don't remotely begrudge them for a minute; I think it's fabulous the opportunity and the assistance are there.

You're known as a bit of a God in Switzerland for your multihull sailing and lake boat designs.
I guess I'm only well known because I've come up with one or two crazy multihulls. Originally we sold the old Formula 40 there and did a few mods to it, then raced the 30ft cat pretty successfully. As a result I ended up designing a 40 footer for somebody else. The Swiss lake catamarans have 3 or 4 times as much sail area as the old Formula 40s had and are 40 percent lighter. Nowadays unless you have a boat that can do two-and-a-half times the wind speed you're off the pace. I've been involved in designing a few boats up there now, last year Alinghi, a boat built for Ernesto Berterelli who's now backing the Swiss America's Cup campaign. That boat was just a development of some of my earlier ideas for a previous boat. Between them they have won four out of the last 5 Bol D'Or races. Alinghi has managed to get through the first year of racing without losing a race, which is rather nice.

Did you feel you were being offered a lot of interesting projects abroad, but none in the UK?
It's never really bothered me. Firstly there are very few interesting projects in the UK when all is said and done, because people don't build interesting boats over here. They tend to be rather staid, some CHS clunker. Also, I don't particularly perceive myself as a designer. I play with boats at all different levels, design them, build them and race them. It's nice to be involved with a few things now, particularly Peter Harrison’s GBR Challenge.

You never trained to be a designer, in fact you took Botany at university. It doesn't appear the have hampered your design ability. Do you have more of an artist's way of looking at design and what do you think you can bring to the design table of Peter Harrison's GBR Challenge boat?
I think I've been dragged in for a whole variety of reasons, hopefully to keep a bit of objectivity and a practical approach to the whole problem. Everyone has a different methodology. I tend to draw things, put them on the kitchen table, walk round them and look at them and hum and har about it and worry about the problem until I'm happy with the outcome. I don't resort to doing it mathematically although obviously I've got a reasonable grasp of the hydrostatics and all that side of it. I tend to wake up at 4am and keep thinking about it. I don't think I'm as constrained as a lot of people by having to be conventional. I'm quite happy to stand up and say, ‘I know this sounds ridiculous but why don't we try this?’

Does Peter Harrison’s GBR Challenge have a design philosophy?
We can come up with a sensible middle of the road boat, nudged in the way we think the game is moving. You have to look at the extremes to get an idea what the middle ground is. It would be irresponsible to come out with something too outlandish unless we were all completely convinced.

Can you tell us a bit about how the whole design group will work with the two Japanese designers, yourself and Derek Clark?
We have a design group working on this syndicate essentially with a core group of four of us, the two Japanese, Aki Kanai and Taro Takahashi, who were involved last time around and were responsible for the Japanese boats, which are actually pretty reasonable boats. They have 8-10 years of experience in designing America's Cup boats. Derek Clark and myself are both also on what's called the technical resource group. Between us our job is to organise the design of the boat and obviously be involved in quite a lot of it. At this stage we've also got Rob Humphreys and Hugh Welbourn involved and Stephen Jones has also been making contributions. There are various other people we're talking to. Essentially we're open to ideas. In a funny sort of a way, because neither Derek or myself are qualified naval architects, there's no professional problem with getting other people involved, going into people's offices and all that side of it. So it seems to be panning out fairly well.

Let's just talk about the next America’s Cup to finish with. What direction do you think the whole game is going to take, especially with the vast amount of money some syndicates have at their disposal? Is there going to be a big leap in technology?
I think last time a number of the boats probably didn't balance very well and as a result they ended up with the sail programme being driven by the necessity to cope with something that was wrong in the hull. There were quite a lot of gear failures when you look at the event, etc etc etc. I think, with the money and time that's going into it this time, most of the syndicates will be a lot better organized. The fundamental understanding of the whole thing is going up the whole time. I also suspect, if anything, the boats will be more similar the next time round. So it's less likely that anyone's going to get a big jump. But you never know - it's a funny game.

Thank you Jo and good luck with it all.

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