New Swiss phenomenon

We look at the M2 catamaran class and speak to president Rodolphe Gautier

Tuesday June 28th 2005, Author: James Boyd, Location: France
Last year we reported on the new phenomenon on Lake Geneva - the all-carbon Decision 35 catamaran, as Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli has as his local play thing when he's at home in Switzerland. This year the new phenomenon in Swiss lake racing is the class of 28ft M2 multihulls.

Back in the 1980s two multihull classes of this size developed side by side in Europe - the 26ft micro-multihulls in the UK as typified by the Firebird catamaran and the smaller Dragonfly and Farrier tris, and the Formula 28 - slightly larger and more extreme with no pretentions towards accommodation, and largely preferred on the continent. In the intervening years, about the only place Formula 28 sailing has survived with any fleet numbers has been Switzerland. With a rule that is now 17-18 years old and boat building technology having moved on apace in the intervening years, factions in Switzerland deemed it time to upgrade to a new rule. As a result last October a group of Swiss owners got together to create the new Association des Proprietaires M2 (AM2) class.

"Our idea was to get all M2 owners together to increase our skills and to put our efforts together to have better access to regattas," says class President, Rodolphe Gautier. The two principle M2 fleets in Switzerland are on Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) and the fully Swiss Lake Neuchatel to the north. The new class attempts to combine these fleets and this they have successfully done with, at the last count, 17 boats in the association including some old Formula 30s being grandfathered in. The class was also set up to offer a lower cost alternative to the Decision 35. Significiantly it also aims to encourage design development.

Unlike the one design Decision 35, the M2 is an extremely loose box rule. Compared to the F28, it has less constraints and creates a lighter, fully uncompromised racing machine. The only constraints essentially are hull length 7.01-8.53m (23-28ft) and 11.2m (36.7ft) overall. Beam is unregulated as is sail area, but mast height is kept within a whopping 16.6m (54.4ft) - remember this is a lake boat. In fact the mast limit has only been introduced to grandfather some existing boats into the class and most M2s are expected to have a 14.2m tall mast in order to be road-legal in Switzerland, yet the class have found a novel way around this...

In Switzerland one problem is moving boats of this type around between lakes. While M2 multihulls can be demountable for road trailing (the M2 rules don't stipulate whether boats have to demount or not) this is now no longer an issue in the Swiss fleet as their class have negotiated a deal with a helicopter transportation company to fly their boats between lakes. Aside from being substantially quicker than road trailing, this process can also be carried out with the boats fully rigged and has also worked locally as a publicity stunt for the class.

Back to the rules and effectively there is no limit to the sail plan and there is also no minimum weight, the latest M2s weighing in at a mere 400kg. Interested yet? "If you want to make one in your garage with very light wood, you can try. We wanted to have a fun class," says Gautier, the master of understatement.

And that is where the rules end. M2s can be catamaran or trimaran. On the lakes where there is usually precious little breeze (hence the impressive 2:1 mast height to hull length ratio) the trend recently has been to go for catamarans. Oddly this contradicts French wisdom from the Formula 40 and ORMA classes where past experience with length limited classes has shown tris to be faster particularly in light conditions due to their reduced wetted surface area. During the recent Bol d'Or Rolex we had an opportunity (for about 16 hours in fact) to study light wind catamaran trim technique and most crews on the Decision 35s and the M2s had the helm up to weather and the remainder of the crew piled up on the leeward bow to encourage both transoms and weather hull to lift out of the water.

The first boat to be purpose built to the M2 rule is the new Ventilo 28 M2 (above), designed and built by Christian Favre's small volume Swiss yard which has already had success with their F18 HT and Formula 20 catamarans as well the predecessor to the M2, the Ventilo 27.

Like their other catamarans, the Ventilo 28 M2 has Dreadnought 'wave piercing' bows like the Hobie FX. Those we have spoken to in the past about this arrangement say it works on catamarans in flat water, but not in waves. Remember, once again, that these are lake racers.

The boat has a 15m tall mast and is designed to be sailed by three or four people. Sail areas are of course impressive too: main - 50sqm, jib 20sqm and genniker 76sqm.

Aside from its reverse bows, lightweight and extravagant sail area, the Ventilo M2 is otherwise a relatively conventional albeit state of the art, all-carbon fibre catamaran. She has a daggerboard in each hull and transom hung rudders which drop down into a cassette. The rig is a carbon fibre rotating wingmast, while a lengthy bowsprit extends forward from the mast step providing the anchor point for the jib and genniker tacks.

At the Bol d'Or some boats had racks, others no racks. According to Gautier the Lac Neuchatel boats prefer to have the crews trapezing, while those that regularly sail on Lake Geneva have opted for the racks. Apparently this is due to there being less waves on Lac Neuchatel.

To date Ventilo have delivered six M2s and are in the process of building several more.

Compared to the Decision 35, the smaller M2 handles more like a dinghy, says Gautier. "It is very different. It is much lighter and it is much easier to sail. You can sail it with two or three people, it is easier to prepare, to sail and to manage. They are very safe and the wave piercing hulls gives them a lot of volume forward."

Interestingly the M2 has been performing extremely well against the substantially larger, but admittedly one design Decision 35s. In the Geneve-Rolle-Geneve race two weeks before the Bol d'Or Rolex, one M2 finished half way up the Decision 35 fleet. That boat had only been delivered that morning, says Gautier, but is sailed by a competent crew who have been campaigning an RC27 (another extreme lake racer and M2 compliant catamaran) for the last four years. "They went downwind very well and they made a good first part of the race and were fifth at the downwind mark. The boat is very fast downwind when there is strong wind and then when you are upwind, the size of the hull becomes important." That race also saw the capsize of an M2.

The M2 seem to be highly effective in light conditions as in the mostly 5 knot winds they saw during the Bol d'Or Rolex, the Ventilo M2s can also fly their gennikers upwind. "Then we are rigged with 126sqm [sail area] upwind on 400kg..." says Gautier. "It works - but now we have to see if the heading is good."

In the Bol d'Or Rolex, the M2 Team Seven, finished fourth on the water ahead of all but three of the Decision 35s, with GLG Finance SA in sixth, Flam Gestion eighth, Banque Raiffeisen 9th and Gautier's Star Logistique 11th.

Performance-wise Gautier says they expect the Ventilo M2 to sail at 11-12 knots upwind and reaching to hit 24 knots maximum, but almost always 15-22. "In between 6 and 12 knots of wind it is beautiful. It is a typical lake boat."

The price tag of a new Ventilo M2 is 120,000 SwFr (£51,000) - around one third that of a Decision 35. "Everyone is sharing the boats. On our boat we have three co-owners. Your share is the price of a car," says Gautier.

The M2s have their own annual championship, the Championnat Romand - Trophée Losinger - and with the Bol d'Or on Lake Geneva done and dusted, so the fleet headed for Morges for two races last week where their first seven event championship concluded, although there are several other events for the boats on Lake Geneva for the class following this. The overall 2005 series was won by Rodolphe Gautier and his co-owners of Star Logistique.

More photos on the following pages...

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