Complex Made Simple

Ken Read on the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race

After waiting 53 years to take part in his first Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, Ken Read has had to scramble to get ready. The veteran American yachtsman – one of the most experienced at the elite end of the sport – is the skipper of the new 100-foot supermaxi Comanche, which was launched in late September. Backed by billionaire owner, Jim Clark, Comanche was designed and built not only to win ocean races but to break records. Read and his high-profile crew, which includes the America’s Cup winner Jimmy Spithill, have had to race the clock to prepare the cutting-edge yacht for its first big test. Read, 53, a former America’s Cup helmsman and Volvo Ocean race skipper who is also president of North Sails, spoke with Christopher Clarey of The International New York Times from Sydney last week.


So how did this project come together?

Jim Clark is a special guy. He doesn’t do things halfway. Jim and his wife, Kristy – everything they touch is for real. They don’t mess around. He’s had sailboats forever, but he decided they wanted a real race boat. Kristy is Australian, so they come down here to Sydney every Christmas to be with her family. Jim’s a sailor and he got invited to some sailing events, and before you know it, other 100-foot owners are egging him on, saying, ‘When are you going to come play with the big boys?’ And well, guess what? Don’t egg on Jim Clark, because he decided to come play with the big boys in a big way and this boat is quite a special project.


It definitely looks different. What’s the thinking behind it?

It’s big, wide, powerful, lightweight. The construction techniques now are just space age. The guys that put these carbon fibre boats together are the best of the best and every single bit of this boat is really custom-made. It’s all for one purpose, and I kept asking Jim and Kristy, ‘Are you sure you don’t want any amenities down below?’ And they just kept saying, ‘If it makes it heavier, don’t do it.’ So it looks like the inside of a carbon fibre bass drum down below. It’s just a shell with framing to try to keep the carbon fibre in one piece. The width adds stability to the boat, but it’s probably the lightest boat ever built for its type, for its sheer volume.


You chose a French design team, VPLP-Verdier.

I’ve never done a project with them before, which was slightly risky, I guess, but they came highly recommended by several colleagues. So once I met them and we discussed the project, it became clear that they were our guys. It’s a young group. They think outside the box. They’ve done a lot of multihulls. This actually has a lot of a multihull feel to it rather than a monohull, and they didn’t rest on what’s been done in the past.


How does it feel like a multihull?

It’s so wide. With a multihull you have two hulls in the water and you sail it until one hull comes out of the water and you’re flying a hull. This boat you sail the same way. You heel it over quite a bit but it feels like you pop most of the boat out of the water and you’re just on a tiny little piece of hull that’s in the water. So it really feels like you’re flying a hull like a multihull.


You’re used to tight deadlines. How does this rank as a challenge?

Far and away the craziest timeline we’ve ever tried to deal with, mainly because a month of its preparation was taken up by having to be on a ship to get here. Realistically we had about seven days of sailing up in the northeast. As carefully as you put a boat like this together, there are always issues. It’s similar to Formula One, where someone spends millions and millions to build a new race car and it blows the engine out on its first lap. This is all new. This is all custom, and you’re only as good as your weakest link. So you go out sailing for a couple days. You come in and have a work list a mile long. We’re still building it, really. We still have four builders here who are working on parts and pieces and putting it all together.


You’ve been through some hairy stuff, including a dismasting in the Volvo Race. How confident are you in the safety here? The Hobart might be relatively short, but it has a history.

I’m confident in the safety, and I’m really confident of the crew. We’ve put together a team with an exceptional amount of experience on boats similar to this. So the crew was built to cope with an unproven monster like Comanche. But we will get conditions where the boat will be trying to break itself. That’s really kind of what the Hobart race is historically about: going fast through the periods where you can go fast and then put the hand brake on when you’ve got to slow it down because the wave conditions out here are pretty nasty. It’s easy to get these boats at these speeds semi-airborne and that’s when they break.


You have a late arrival named Spithill on board – the helmsman who has twice won the America’s Cup.

Actually Jimmy came to me, he reached out and said: ‘I do this other stuff all the time, and this boat looks fantastic. And I want to learn more about offshore stuff and you guys have been doing it pretty well.’ I’ve sailed against Jimmy for what seems like 100 years, and it’s nice to be sailing with him for a change.


How has the recent terrorist attack in Sydney affected the country’s mood?

Australia is known as a kind of fun, happy, safe place in the world, and I guess we’re a little warped as Americans. We’re probably a little more attuned to this than Australians are. They’ve had a bit of a dose of reality and a very sad one at that.

© The New York Times 2014