Fifteen Years In A Melges 24 - Stuart Simpson Interview


With fifteen consecutive years in the Melges 24 fleet it is no surprise that Stuart Simpson and his UK crew aboard ‘Team Barbarians’ are well known on the international circuit. Starting off as a Corinthian owner-driver for several years before transitioning over to a professional programme, his passion for and commitment to the Melges 24 class remains undiminished.

For the IM24CA, Justin Chisholm sat down with Stuart to find out what drew him into the class all those years ago and to get his views on the state of class today and going forward….

IM24CA: Tell us about your introduction to the Melges 24 class. When, where, why? What first attracted you to the Melges 24 class? What was your background in sailing prior to that?

SS: I moved into yacht racing via Laser sailing and before that about twelve years of shortboard windsurfing. Early highlights included the 1994 Antigua Race Week as part of the bow team on an ex-Whitbread maxi. That’s what did it for me in the end: sun, thrills and Mount Gay rum.

In spring 1995 I was planning to spend £30k as part of a syndicate of three to buy a new IMX 38 to race RORC inshore and offshore circuits. I was doing a RORC race on an Oyster Lightwave 395 in the Solent in February 1995 and saw a small, but perfectly formed, yacht pass downwind at speed. It was the first Melges 24 demo boat. The next weekend I took a test drive on the IMX38 and Melges 24 in a force 5 breeze. It was a ‘no contest’. I decided then and there to go solo and run my own programme, it was easy to crew up, cheap to sail (compared with a 38 foot boat) and the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

IM24CA: In the early days of the Melges 24 class the fleet was relatively strong in the UK with a corporate sponsor and good Melges 24 fleets at the major regattas like Cowes week. At that point did you focus your attention on the UK domestic circuit or were you involved in the International circuit too?

In the beginning, outside of the US, there was really only one major European centre for Melges 24 racing and that was the UK. The French fleet had yet to develop, the Scandinavians were showing some interest and apart from the legendary Giorgio Zuccoli, the development of a fleet in Italy was to be years away. So the UK circuit was largely the European circuit back then. Cowes Week in August was the highlight of the season with a lot of top UK talent competing in a strong Melges 24 fleet bolstered by a top flight Continental European contingent. The first ‘International’ Melges 24 racing we did was Cork week in 1996, the year of the European Championships in Barcelona. We followed this with the first World Championship from my yacht club in Torquay in 1998 and the Europeans in Arendal, Norway in 1999. I didn’t race in the US until the 2001 Worlds held in Key West in January 2002.

IM24CA: In the early days you steered your own boat with a Corinthian crew, before switching to a pro campaign. Tell us about what drove you down that route.

SS: I remember my first Melges 24 race in the Solent in the 1995 Hamble Spring Series. It was dominated by ‘the Smiths’. Lining up against Lawrie Smith, a GBR International legend and Rob Smith (no relation) helming for Henri Lloyd on ‘Rapid Breathing’. 20 knots of breeze, freezing temperatures, big lumpy seas and a DFL at the end of it. Ouch! By the end of that season we were getting to understand how to make the boat go and the following year had a great crew established, led by Irish sailor Daniel Stevenson and some of his mates from the Royal Irish Yacht Club. We stayed together until 1999 and had a lot of fun..... and a lot of Guinness. The catalyst for going for a pro driver was the end of the Henri Lloyd ‘Rapid Breathing’ programme with Rob Smith becoming available. Team Barbarians was born at the end of 2000 in the Hamble Winter Series with Rob driving. The other major part of the Henri Lloyd team was to form Black Seal to become our greatest rivals under Nigel Young of North Sails’ direction with Jamie Lea driving. It took until late 2006 before I got to sail with both Jamie and Nigel as ‘Barbarians’.

IM24CA: What were your most memorable experiences from the early days in the Melges 24 class? You are amongst the few Melges 24 sailors to have experienced a sinking, tell us about that! 

SS: Front page of The Daily Telegraph during Cowes Week 2000 with a picture of Barbarians abandoned and up to its gooseneck in water, the hull totally submerged. There is usually a windy day at Cowes week and this was it, thirty-five to forty knots, we were in third place in the race and third place overall about half way through the regatta. We had just completed the downwind leg from Lepe to Hill Head and clocked boat speeds in the mid to high twenties. Rounded the mark after one gybe and headed for the five mile beat to the finish. I had handed the helm to one of the crew while I unscrambled my head after that wild run and took to the rail. There was a Daring class boat beating parallel to us on starboard and down to leeward. The Daring tacked on to port and saw us too late, the helm couldn’t free the main sheet and the steel bow of the Daring tore into the port side of Barbarians amidships and below the water line. Two of us were thrown into the water by the impact and while I swam back to Barbarians, the other crew was picked up by a passing Hunter 707. By the time I scrambled aboard the Melges 24 was going down and there it stayed up to the gooseneck in water held by residual buoyancy. Three of us stayed with her for twenty minutes in the water until picked up by a lifeboat, the wind and sea state was too extreme for the Daring to pick us up safely.

The next memorable experience is a happier one! Last day 2007 Worlds in Santa Cruz. Big seas and over 30 knots of breeze we did a committee boat ‘swimstep’ start, tacked right, hit the layline, tacked again and rounded first. I wasn’t sure we would fly the kite but Nigel Young called it, so up it went. That run downwind was the most radical sleigh ride of my Melges career. At one point we slammed into the wave in front, which had me in the hatch bag head first, upside down and totally submerged. We had just gone ‘down the mine’. Luckily the rig stayed up. We finished in one piece with the kite intact, more than some unfortunates experienced that day.

IM24CA: How many Melges 24 World Championships have you attended? Which one really stands out in your mind as the most memorable? Tell us why.

SS: Easier to say how many I have missed! Just California in 1999. 2007 Santa Cruz has to be our best performance and the most memorable, particularly the last day. But for gear failure while leading a race.....? Well, that’s yacht racing.

IM24CA: Looking back over your time in the Melges 24 class, how have you seen it evolve? What mistakes do you think have been made? How do you see the future of the class over the next 5 years?  What factors do you see as being key to the medium/long term future of the class?

SS: The Melges 24 started as a builder’s class before becoming an owner’s class and, ultimately, an ISAF class. For a boat like the 24, or indeed the 32, there is a lot to be said for the development, organisation and marketing a builder brings to the class, if we let them........... That avoids a lot of the politics, wasted energy and red tape of the alternatives. Clear enough?!

The 24 lends itself to high profile, pro circuit, International racing. It really is that good. But it is not cheap. You get what you pay for with carbon components and the performance the package brings. That’s not to say it isn’t a great boat for the dedicated Corinthian team either. It is. But pro or not you need to work at it to make progress in this fleet. I think with the number of boats out there now the future looks rosy but it is easy to become complacent. Just look at what has happened to the UK and French fleets, so large for so long, but now.......? Strong headline international sponsors help maintain vibrant circuits, so long may that continue. The boat continues to attract sailors because it is exciting and easy to sail. Just frustratingly difficult to sail that last five percent. 

IM24CA: What is it about the Melges 24 as a boat and as a class that keeps you coming back for more every year?

SS: Masochism and adrenaline. Chess on the water and chess off the water too. The sheer quality of the helms, tacticians and crew.

IM24CA: What advice do you have for a potential Melges 24 owner looking to join the class?

SS: Patience. If you are pro: get somebody else to pay. If you are Corinthian: get good and get lucky.

IM24CA: You and your Melges 24 crew now also campaign a Melges 32 as well as the Melges 24. What attracted you to the Melges 32? In terms of the boats themselves, what similarities and differences do you perceive? Where do you see the future of the Melges 32? Do you think it has impacted the Melges 24 class in any way?

SS: At first glance the 32 looks like a 24, just closer to. The Melges 32 shares the excitement of Melges 24 performance downwind. Upwind there are more choices to make with the 32 as it performs more like a big boat than a big dinghy. There is a pretty obvious ‘groove’ to sail the 24 in upwind. The 32 allows more latitude depending on the tactical calls. Off the line lower and faster? Close quarters higher and slower? Where is the optimum point of sail upwind? Depends on the circumstances. The 32 is attracting owners from other classes such as Swan 42, Mumm 30 and Farr 40. You get big boat racing at a fraction of big boat costs. The 32 has created a new place in the market which, as the class hits overdrive, is attracting new owners. The 24 and 32 are, I believe, totally complementary. If you run a pro 24 campaign you can participate as an owner-driver in the 32 as well. The 32 is a great vehicle for dissipating an excess of testosterone. It is a blast and great value for money. I think the 32 is sufficiently different from the 24 that they should be capable of thriving alongside each other without the threat of cannibalisation of either class. The 32 has a very exciting future ahead as it expands in Australia, Asia and possibly elsewhere in Europe.

IM24CA: Do you feel that your Melges 32 campaign has enhanced your Melges 24 programme or your own sailing ability? 

SS: The answer is ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

IM24CA: Is there anything else you would like to comment on? 

With the close familial relationship between the Melges 24, 32 and now the 20 there is a good opportunity, particularly with the number of owners owning at least two of the three, to make regattas in the US and Italy more efficient by holding 24, 32, 20 regattas sequentially from each chosen yacht club and location. Better for the organising yacht club. Better in terms of time and logistics for the owners. So come on Melges class associations, how about it? More coordination, cooperation and at least iron out regatta schedule conflicts if nothing else.........