Builder's own

We talk to Kiwi boatbuilder Mick Cookson about his new 50ft canting keeler

Thursday April 21st 2005, Author: James Boyd, Location: Australasia
Mick Cookson's Auckland-based company is one of the most familiar names in keelboat building world. Since starting out in 1979 their work has included Chris Dickson's TAG Heuer America's Cup challenger as well as Team New Zealand's successful NZL57 and 60 and less successful 81 and 82, Steve Fossett's PlayStation, Larry Ellison's maxi Sayonara and Volvo Ocean 60s New Corp and djuice as well as succesful IMS racers too numerous to list.

Currently Cooksons have an incredible five Farr-designed TP52s in build, including the new boat for the King of Spain. However the company has recently diversified going into semi-production with a new 50ft canting keel racer/cruiser.

Mick Cookson says the concept of the new boat has been bubbling around in his mind since the end of the 1990s. "At the time we did this we were looking at the market and going ‘where is it going, what’s happening?”’ he told thedailysail. "IMS was dying. The Transpac 52 thing at that stage wasn’t really going anywhere and we still believe there is a market for a really good racer cruiser."

Cookson describes his new 50 footer as a true multi-purpose boat. At a pinch it can be used for cruising and is fitted out down below (ie it has bunks not pipecots), but racing is its forte and in this respect, he says, it is versatile, conceived to be suitable for racing fully crewed or short handed, offshore, coastal or round the cans.

The 50 was not designed with any rule in mind. "The rules are all over the map at the moment and the rules have done nothing but stifle performance boats. Even the Open 60 and 50 classes are not truly open. They are a really bad box rule. No one in their right mind would design a boat that was wide for its length if they didn’t have to." (Cooksons built Jean-Pierre Dick's Open 60 Virbac).

However the rules being in a shambles has had unexpected benefits. "It is probably the most progressive and developmental time in keelboat yachting ever really," he continues. "Where it all ends up and what comes out of it…There is the 100ft, 30m class - there’s lots going on in that. We did Pyewacket and we’ve just done Maximus." Then of course there is the unprecidented surge of interest in the TP52 class. Recently thedailysail counted 14 new examples either under construction or soon to be. "There were never 14 IOR 50s under construction at any one time," recalls Cookson.

But we digress...

Having a good idea of what he wanted, Cookson penned the lines for the 50 and then got his long term associates at Farr Yacht Design to tweak them. "We basically sent them a bunch of drawings of the boat with the interior, deck layout, the hull shape, rig and we said ‘here you are - stick a hull form on this and move the rig, rudder and keel around to suit the hull form. Which they did." The hull form of the 50 is based upon Farr's TP52 designs.

However Cookson's initial request to the design wizards of Annapolis was for a boat with a fixed keel. "I got back to them [Farr] about two months later and said 'I want to put a canting keel on the boat with a trim tab on it'. And there was a stunned silence at the end of the phone!"

Ignoring the fact that canting keels of all types have been used extensively in the Mini class since they were introduced by Michel Desjoyeaux in 1991, and have subsequently sailed 10s of thousands of miles around with world on Open 60s ever since Isabelle Autissier was brave enough to become the first to fit one to her boat Ecureuil Poitou Charentes in 1993, Cookson believes that the canting keel phenomenon took off in the Anglo-Saxon racing world when it was adopted by Hasso Plattner and Roy Disney on their maxZ86s. "Those two boats basically endorsed canting keels in the keelboat world. Wild Oats had encouraged these two to go canting keel with their boats, but that was just one voice in the wilderness. But that those two guys made that decision gave it credibility."

While the Cookson 50 has a carbon fibre mast and boom, two swept-back spreaders and no runners, an asymmetric kite and retractible bowsprit and is generally a good looking fast modern racer cruiser but in this respect nothing you wouldn't expect, below the water line her canting keel represents a new step on with this technology. While the Reichel-Pugh designed maxZ86s and both of Bob Oatley's Wild Oats use the CBTF system with a steerable forward canard, and Open 60s and Volvo Open 70s (or all the ones we have seen at least) have twin asymmetric daggerboards positioned either side or just forward of the mast, so the Cookson 50 has none of these extra appendages to prevent leeway. Instead she relies on a trim tab on the trailing edge of her keel foil. While trim tabs are now almost standard fit on America's Cup boats Cookson says that apart from some trials on Ludde Ingvall's Nicorette, they have not been used in anger on a canting keel boat before. Cookson's experience of trim tabs obviously extends from his work with Team New Zealand.

"When you put a third foil on the boat, the cost of the configuration and the complexity just goes through the roof," he explains. "The beauty of the canting keel with the trim tab on it and by not canting the keel to 50°, instead keeping it to 35°, it is conservative, safety, cost effectiveness and easy to sail."

Upwind the difference between having the tab on and off is remarkable says Cookson. Without the tab the boat simply slips sideways as you would imagine. With the tab deployed it stops leeway upwind even when the keel is fully canted. "I was convinced we wouldn’t be able to do that," admits Cookson. "I thought we wouldn’t be able to go past 40 degrees of keel angle upwind - 20° of heel and 20° of cant - and the Farr office were adamant that would be the case."

Building a trim tab into the trailing edge of a keel foil doesn't sound easy, but Cookson has obviously had previous experience of this with the Cup boats and emphasises that it is simpler to do this than add an extra appendage. "The whole principle of the thing is to keep it simple. We can put the entire canting keel, trim tab, pump, controller - the whole keel in the 50 footer - for less money than a Transpac 52 fin and bulb costs to me."

The trim tab is canted using a single hydraulic ram while the trim tab has an electronic attenuator. Controls for both are duplicated on top of each of the two steering pedestals.

In terms of whether the canting keel and trim tab represents the best performance option Cookson feels it is, although he says the next development he is considering is for a canting-lifting keel with a trim tab. "Making it canting retracting is still simpler than putting a third foil on the boat," he maintains. The Farr office have a different view and tell us that for an ultimate canting keel race boat they would now look at having a single symmetric board with a trim tab (as used on most of the 60ft trimarans) and this would be a great solution for the Volvo Open 70 except that for some reason it is banned (a lifting appendage with a trim tab is considered as having two planes of movement and is thus illegal).

With Cookson building five TP52s at present there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the two types of boat. The hull forms are similar his boat is 0.5 tonnes lighter in displacement and has more freeboard making for a dramatically larger boat down below.

Performance-wise he predicts they be similar overall with the Mediterranean TP52s he is building outgunning him in the light while his 50 would have the edge in stronger breeze particularly reaching when the canting keel comes into its own. While the boats are unlikely to get to go head to head in New Zealand his first demo boat is currently en route to Italy and may be ready in time to make the first regatta in the TP52 calendar in Punta Ala at the end of May. It will be particularly interesting to compare their upwind performances.

Since his demo boat was launched at the end of last year Cookson has already recorded some exceptional speeds in his new boat. "Jib top reaching the thing will sit on 19-20 knots in about 25 knots of breeze. Downwind in about 25 knots gusting 30 we’ve got up to 21-22 knots." Downwind he says they are having to sail big angles (going deeper in gusts) like windsurfers and skiffs.

At present they are trying to find the best way of getting the boat to rate under IRC, but this now appears to be penalising trim tabs. Fortunately the 50 is designed so that it can still race competitively without the use of the trim tab or the keel canting.

But normally when they are allowed to use the canting keel they are able to sail with less crew. While the TP52s will regularly race with 14 or 15 on board, the 50, Cookson reckons, can be sailed competitively with nine to 11.

In terms of price of course the 50 is less because it is a production boat made with female tooling and construction is in carbon/foam sandwich using a resin infusion system rather than the state of the art carbon/Nomex the TP52s are built using (their hull weights are very similar). Thus the basic Cookson 50 costs around 900,000 NZ$ (approx £341,000) plus sails, electronics and safety gear bringing up to around 1.2 million NZ$ (approx £455,000) compared to 1.6-2 million NZ$ (£600-750,000) for a TP52 on the water.

To date eight Cookson 50s have been sold, three going to Italy, three to New Zealand and one to an Irishman.

Going on from this Cookson is mulling over the possibility of offering faster and slower versions of the 50. It would be easy to imagine a fully arced up 'turbo' version of the 50 for example. He says he has also had interest for larger and smaller version of the boat.

More photos on page 2...

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