Melges 24 Guru Brian Hutchinson Tells All To Justin Chisholm In A Two Part Interview - Part 1

Brian Hutchinson

Fifty-two year old professional sailor Brian Hutchinson from Salt Lake City in Utah has been involved with the Melges 24 class since it’s very inception. Spend a few minutes chatting with him at a regatta and his enthusiasm for and unique insight into our class quickly shine through. As well as being one of the most sought after pro sailors on the international circuit, he is also has a successful career as an industrial designer and builder, producing a range of composite sports equipment including boats, bikes, battens and masts. Over the years he has been instrumental in numerous title-winning one-design campaigns but counts his 2003 Melges 24 World Championship victory with Shark Kahn as one of his most significant racing achievements. 

In the first of a two part interview for the IM24CA Justin Chisholm caught up with Hutchinson recently to quiz him on his sailing background and hear his recollections on the many great Melges 24 sailors he has raced with.

IM24CA: How did your involvement in sailing come about?

BH: When I was five a family friend visited with a Sailfish on a hot sunny day in front of our cabin on Traverse Bay on Northern Lake Michigan. There was no wind and the boat didn’t move but it certainly was a fun swimming platform. Towards the end of one summer our neighbor from down the beach gave me a ride in his paper-hat shaped sloop. I was about seven. That afternoon I got to take it for a spin “on my own”. I reached back-and-forth between sandbars in front of the cabin while my Dad ran alongside. Then I pulled the sheets in and sailed beyond the drop-off. I was free! I got an earful when I returned for going so far offshore but this experience gave me something to dream about until summer came around again.

IM24CA: How were you introduced to racing?

BH: It may have been aboard Ned Lockwood’s C&C 39’ ‘Scheherazade’, when I was in middle school. I Alpine ski raced with his son, Teddy. That’s when I learned about warning signals, the countdown clock and the Vanderbilt start. We felt we had the best starts because all of the kids onboard sang-out the countdown. Around that time I also learned to pull the jib leach in to the spreader mark on Tom Babel’s Lightning. Soon after I started honing my skills on the bow of Irish & Shaw’s Pearson 30’, ‘Zinger’ and was able to steer on the “long distance” Mackinac Races on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

IM24CA: Which of your many racing achievements stand out in your memory?

BH: Winning the 1980 One Ton Worlds with Kris Hicks, Bruce Nelson and Bruce Merick.

Winning the 1989 J/24 one-hundred plus boat Midwinters in Miami with Larry Klein. We had trained very hard and developed unrivaled upwind speed/height over the course of a couple years. We also won the J24 Midwinters in Miami that year but I missed the Kingston Worlds due to a big project at my bike building company (1st production carbon mountain bike).

Winning the 2003 Melges 24 Worlds with Shark Kahn. We trained with Shark’s father, Philippe for over sixty days in the months leading to the Worlds, much of it in big breeze.

IM24CA: Tell us something about that 2003 Melges 24 Worlds victory?

BH: That win was the most satisfying primarily because of the journey we made together. When Shark Kahn was just thirteen years old, Team Pegasus headed down to Key West with the idea of having Shark drive with a crew comprising Brian Lee on bow, Richard Clarke as tactician, Mark ‘Crusty’ Christiansen doing main and strategy and me in charge of jib, spinnaker and speed. Damned if we didn’t find ourselves in the front pack and on Blue Moon’s tail coming into the lay-line of the first weather mark of our first race! Problem was Shark had never actually driven in a race before and our Finn-sailing tactician had never called tactics for a thirteen-year old rookie driver so the anticipation and reaction times were all off. That rounding is all still a blur even now, but after numerous near T-bones and way too many near head-on collisions, we went from fourth place to 50th before we made it around the weather mark. On the following run however we passed over thirty boats. We all started smiling because we knew right then and there that little Sharky had talent and from then on the whole thing was quite a blast. 

Later that spring Team Pegasus hit the beautiful and challenging waters off Diamond Head and Coco Head for intensive training and sail testing (and some surfing). We also trained a lot in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. By the end of summer we had logged close to sixty days of training and just having fun in big wind and waves in some of the world’s most beautiful and challenging sailing venues.  We became a tight group and had gained a really good feel for the boat by constantly testing its capabilities. At the feeder regatta to the Worlds in San Francisco, Shark and Philippe were placed first and second  with dramatically different techniques from the rest of the fleet. After Shark’s fourteenth birthday we found ourselves heading to the World Championships with great optimism.

Going in we knew that our bow-down, speed-first style was going to be an issue with the rest of the fleet. So on most of the starts we basically raged into the line, looking for holes with lots of room to leeward. When we found one, we hauled the mail from there and after a couple minutes we were usually launched enough to tack and cross the boats just on our hip. Before nearing the starboard-tack boats coming from the right we usually tacked to leeward and put the bow down and rocketed toward the weather mark. 

By the last race we were separated by a point from former World Champion Harry Melges on ‘Star’ for first and comfortably ahead of Brian Porter’s ‘Full Throttle’, Dave Ullman and several boats ahead of some Australian named James Spithill. A David & Goliath style match race ensued. After splitting the starts on the first two general recalls we scraped Harry off by ducking a pile of boats at the mid-line. A big westerly breeze was coming in (from the left), so with Harry held up to weather, we high-tailed it for the pin. Two minutes after the start the big lefty hit us and we flopped over on to port. Right at that moment the boat went silent (Shark never talked anyway, but chatter-box Richard also clammed-up). We shared some quiet glances on the next few legs and then at the finish line we all burst into laughter, back-slapping and high-fives. Fourteen year-old Shark Kahn and his motley crew had won the Melges 24 World Championships!

IM24CA: You have a strong pedigree in one-design racing. Which are your favorite classes and why?

BH: I really enjoy sailboarding for what its responsiveness, quick acceleration and high speed and for what it teaches one about balancing forces, timing, power and fitness. I think sailboarding should be part of every junior program. Although I’ve never raced sailboards, I do love to rip around on them.

I also like the 505 (almost a one-design) for its wonderful balance, great feel and performance through the water in even the most challenging conditions along with its raw speed.   Richard Pryor said it right ‘Pure _____’.

My favorite boat though is the Melges 24. Simply the best one-design keel boat in the world. It is the confluence of the 505 and a small keelboat. It is very fast in light air and is a screamer in a thirty-five knot breeze. It loves the big waves and is a boat that rewards the crew for all they put into it.

IM24CA: How did you get involved with the Melges 24 Class?

BH: Just after he won the America’s Cup, Buddy Melges told me that he and his sons, Hans and Harry, were working on a new one-design boat that employed much of the principles and technology developed with the AC boats and scows. Obviously, they wanted John Reichel and Jim Pugh to design it and since I had built several successful R/P’s boats and done some work with them on America 3, they asked me to build the plug and moulds. To nobody’s surprise, John and Jim produced a revolutionary rocket.

I launched hull number three in San Diego on an uncharacteristically windy twenty-five to thirty knot February day. Mark Reynolds and Vince Brun (Star rivals) helped me rig and drop it in the water at SDYC. There were a few others hoping for a ride who also pitched in. I can’t remember who steered it first, but no one cared, for it was just about having a blast while ripping up and down San Diego Bay. It was BIG WIND and we were the only boat out that day. We stayed out there for hours and made sure that everyone had a chance to drive the new rocket. The boat became an overnight sensation.

IM24CA: You have sailed with some wonderful helmsmen in your time. What common traits do you see in them? What do you believe makes a fast Melges 24 helm?

BH: The common theme is that the top sailors love to give it the gas, meaning they know that the Melges 24 sails best when going fast and flat. From there I can divide the group of drivers I sailed with into a few classes:

Tight Rope Artists:

As it is in the Star, double Olympic Gold and single Silver medalist, Mark Reynolds is somehow able to sail closer to the wind than the rest while going the same speed, so he is in a class of his own world upwind.<smile> In certain conditions Bruce Ayres might be the only one who can sail upwind as high and fast as Mark.

Light/Medium Wind with Chop Experts:

Vince Brun, Bill Hardesty and Larry Klein (if Larry were alive, today) would be the best in the light and choppy conditions because they just have the ‘Mojo’ in the difficult stuff upwind. By ‘Mojo’ I mean an instinctive combination of feel, rhythm and speed.  It is a bit like powering though a mogul field on skis, only not as spastic. Vince would likely leave the others behind on the downwind legs too, for he has a surfer’s feel for terrain and raw speed.

Heavy Air Experts:

For me the best heavy-air sailors would be Buddy Melges and Dave Ullman. Ullman and Buddy have laid down some memorable upwind performances in championship events, destroying fields of heavyweights by over a leg on a few occasions. Ullman just blazes along upwind with great anticipation and control. He often leaves the mainsheet cleated and that should give you some insight into his level of concentration and anticipation.   That said, some of Dave’s habits can cause problems. Like facing backwards when he tacks for example. I saw Dave lose a US National Championship because he left the mainsheet cleated on a very puffy day on San Francisco Bay. While approaching the finish line in first place he actually broached and let a boat pass him. Ha-ha!

Buddy is ‘ugly fast’ in big weather, but in addition to his innate ability to keep the boat rolling along, he is keen to the opportunities to either lunge forward or sneak to weather in the puffs and flat spots. In the big waves and big breeze, Buddy really keeps the boat moving (and at a constant heel-angle) so that he can immediately climb in the puffs (or ‘present the boat to the wind’, as he would say). This boat speed and readiness to head up keeps the boat from getting hit sideways by the puffs, thus avoiding a stall and power-slide to leeward. If someone tried to tack on us in big waves and breeze, Buddy would smile and say ‘Just hike, boys and we’ll take care of this guy in no time’. We would usually climb up through their dirt to their transom, then up onto their hip and then forward, ultimately taking their breeze. 

Buddy is also just plain tough and strong. Here is an example - not long before the windy 1996 Long Beach North Americans, Buddy cut-off three of his fingers while “helping out” on the table-saw at the Melges factory. The injury was still raw when he showed-up at the regatta, but not to worry, when the big air came in each day he just wrapped the mainsheet around his hand with the bloody stumps and trimmed in as needed. Experiences like that where the skipper makes a personal sacrifice for performance are so exhilarating that the crew seems to hike harder and magically ‘gain weight’ to maximize their contributions.

Other Upwind Styles:

Brian Porter’s upwind technique is also unique and vey difficult to emulate. Like the others Brian keeps the boat moving through the water and never slows in the waves.  But unlike the others, Brian somehow allows his crew to ‘comfortably’ sit without hiking hard, maybe allowing the boat to heel a little more, with slightly less righting-moment, thus going a bit higher through the water, while somehow sacrificing very little in speed. Brian’s six foot eight inch frame may get his weight out a touch further than the other skippers, but the entire crew is still likely to be delivering less righting-moment. Nevertheless Brian can always be expected to round the weather mark in the top group. Larry Klein used to say, ‘Brian can walk the narrowest of fences’. Downwind, he has a different character and is usually the first boat to “send it”. Maybe, it’s from their decades of scow sailing, but I would have to say that Brian Porter and Buddy reach the highest speeds of anyone on the runs.

I should also mention Shark Kahn’s technique. Shark’s great feel for speed, both upwind and downwind is as good as any. Upwind in the breeze, Shark was always able to sail much flatter than the rest with the sails more open. The sails were set up to provide a wider groove with maximizing speed as the main objective. Since Shark was always the fastest through the water on the heavy air beats, we would usually position the boat to allow us to take the low/fast road. Downwind he would sail along as fast as anyone but occasionally found a way to slip to leeward. Much like his technique upwind, he would sail slightly flatter than the rest of the fleet, which required a very keen sense of the edge of pressure.  He is a real talent, just ask Ullman which boat won most of the line-ups during our training sessions. <smile>. Recently I have seen the Norwegian Champion, Peder Jahre who drives Storm, demonstrate a very similar ability.

Heavy Air Runs

In heavy air downwind the big race would be between Buddy, Porter, Vince and Shark. Buddy would probably win for he pushes the boat the hardest and anticipates every influence offered by Mother Nature. In fact you would say he and Mother Nature have a great relationship if she could ignore Buddy’s penchant for bird-hunting. <frown>

Part 2 - http://www.melges24.com/news/brian-hutchinson-interview-part-2