Andrew McIrvine is the driving force behind the success of the International Maxi Association over recent years helping support key, focused events, developing and encouraging a wider range yachts and owners to the fold including developing the Maxi72 fleet and bringing the J Class under the wider IMA umbrella. The Secretary General, also an Admiral of the RORC, is locked down at home in London keeping a very close eye on the COVID-19 developments around the world. A consultant vascular surgeon at three prominent hospitals he is a past president of the Section of Surgery, Royal Society of Medicine and served as a council member of the British Medical Association. As such then very much an informed realist when it comes to looking at the altered horizons for big boat racing… Tip & Shaft caught up with him.
How are things this week with the International Maxi Class members, owners and sailors, these are pretty grim times?
Well initially there was some enthusiasm and promise, people calling to say ‘what’s happening, what’s happening?’ That moved on to boat captains and tacticians calling to say ‘please, please try and run some kind of racing’, some time but now to a gradual silence as each regatta goes over, one after the other, now speaking with some of the yacht clubs saying ‘are you going to make a decision soon because we need to tell people to cancel flights, and hotels and so on’. But the real problem now is the cross border stuff is really difficult. If you tried to run an international regatta you could not get crews there. I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time looking at all the statistics and country worldwide things. The problem is that because I think the Chinese data is not to be believed there was the hope the other countries would follow their trajectory and hit a peak and fall off rapidly. It isn’t. Look at the numbers in Italy, Spain and France and it has peaked but it is not coming down very fast. I don’t see it coming down very fast. We are either waiting for a vaccine or for some cocktail of drugs to work on people who are in hospital. And for me the disturbing feature that has come out this week is that even if you have had it, you are probably not immune.
Could it still work out later this season?
I have a feeling that even if it opens up and everything gets better quickly, a lot of our owners will be in turmoil trying to keep their businesses going. What happened last time there was a financial crisis is that a lot of owners mothballed their boats. They did not want to be seen to be having fun when they laid off half their staff. So the thing took a big dive. I have a nasty feeling we will see the same thing again. They are still talking about running Cowes Week. There are a lot of people not being very realistic, not looking at what is really happening. Even Cowes Week did happen with just the Dayboats, two or three people in the same family or whatever, racing and going home there is not much fun in that. I think a lot of people would say ‘why bother, there is not much fun there if you can’t have a drink with anyone afterwards?’ these are the things that make a regatta like Cowes fun.
So do you think we can rescue some (Maxi) events?
I think if anything is run it will be on a national basis. They could run a small regatta in Porto Cervo with only Italian boats, but at the moment transport to Sardinia is banned even from other parts of Italy. There is no real end in sight on that. And the same with St Tropez in October they would probably be able to use French boats but there would restrictions. A lot of the Maxi fleet of course have guys flown in from America, Australia, New Zealand. At the moment I am a bit gloomy about it all. I would love to be proved wrong. I would. At the moment Copa del Rey is on, Yacht Club Costa Smeralda have cancelled their programme to the end of June but they have said nothing about the Swans and the Maxis. I see RORC saying they will try and run the IRC Nationals in September as nonsense, raising peoples hopes with no factual basis. The best thing is to say what you are cancelling and leave it at that. I really feel for the Pro sailors right now. I don’t know what will happen. Some of them have called me to say, ‘Please, please run something for the Maxi Worlds we need to feed our families’ I think there are very few owners who keep guys on retainers. A lot of crews don’t even have contracts. I think we might be writing off this season and hope to god by April things have settled down or we have a vaccine. Of my hospitals I usually work in one of them the District General Hospital usually has an ITU of eight beds and they have expanded to 30 beds and they still have 20 full right now and they are all COVID patients. Croydon has been the same, everywhere round here is the same. That is why I have got quite cross with some of my sailing mates when they have said ‘it is not killing that many people it is no worse than flu’, it definitely is. Hospitals don’t gear up like that and fill up like that in anybody’s living memory. It is considerably more severe. I think people will work out that getting their boats up and running for one or two events might not be worth it. Most can’t get into yards in the Mediterranean or move ports and can’t easily ship to other countries. And they will be sorting out their businesses. Even if we run something it will be small.
So there is a big challenge ahead for the IMA what do you have to do?
When I took over the IMA the Association was basically one event, just the Maxi Worlds, and we have gradually grown to be able to give help, advice and sometimes some financial support to a load of other regattas. And to my surprise we have also been welcomed by many yacht clubs. We have worked very closely with seven main events. What the balance is, we try and encourage our members to go to these events and the yacht clubs are happy. We will focus down, we will just try and get good racing for them at these focused events. That is all we can do really. We will continue with these main yacht clubs and events. I have just written to the Presidents of these clubs to say ‘terribly sorry about this year but we will continue our support into he future’. Everything is on hold and I don’t hold out much hope of anything much happening this year.
The Association was in good shape was it not?
It was fantastic. We have never been stronger. Ever since I started five or six years ago we had a stable membership, we had an elderly membership of people who had joined in the heyday when it was more of a social thing and they had sold their boats or passed. So the numbers were trickling down but we would get two or three new members. But then last year we have ten new members. It was booming. We were turning up to every regatta and adding positive value. And the new President Benoit (Benoît de Froidmont) is very, very forward looking and enthusiastic. We were expanding. We had a new app and tracking for events and so on. But that is not going to go away. I hope we can light that up again so we can just turn the switch back on. That is what we aim to do.
Do you consider that the same growth areas will emerge again. After all these guys will still want to go racing, come what may?
I think so. Yes. We have had a bit of a change of focus. The Superyachts have gone to do their thing. There is a crossover size where they could come and race with us or do ‘kangaroo procession racing’ with the SYRA. I have tried to persuade these owners to come and do some fleet racing with us. I think the Superyacht Cup are now going to do some fleet racing. I think the future is we should cooperate. They have done good things with their rule. They have a reasonable amount of support. But I think the big superyachts are less keen on racing. Our numbers have switched. Of course if you go back to the start of the IMA it was when Maxis were 80 foot long and had wire sheets and were the biggest boats in the world. But the best racing for our guys is the 60 to 80 foot range now. People are talking about building slightly bigger than 80 feet, right now there is only Wendy Schmidt’s new boat. Having been to some lengths to split our fleet into different divisions, it is difficult because of the definitions or racer cruisers, and cruisers and so on, so the three events we had good, significant numbers at last year, Capri, St Tropez and the Maxi Worlds, we just split them into three performance bands and that made for better, more exciting racing. I think we would focus on that.
What is there to be learned from the Maxi72 rise and fall and looking to new size bands or box rules?
The Maxi72s have almost sort of self destructed. What few rules they had they kind of revolted against. Jethou grew out of the size range [Editor’s note: Jethou was a Maxi72 but was extended and became out of class]. The ClubSwan 80s is a lovely concept but it is clear to me that owners in that bracket are not interested in One Design, they are interested in having their tweaks to make them quicker and they don’t want to be bound by rules. The Maxi72 became a class when I first started. Now it is disappointing. It had all the glamour and the publicity but you have to remember these owners are in their 70s and they are pretty brutal to sail. And they started out as multi purpose offshore boats and then evolved to boats which basically broke if they went offshore. There are very few people want to spend that money to be that uncomfortable. They have evolved themselves into oblivion I am afraid.
Can we see this 80 footer class still evolve?
There is a dilemma there because the limit between Mini Maxi and Maxi is actually at 79 feet and so people have been talking about building, or even building without even really considering who they are going to race against and how that would work. And I am a bit worried because it really takes three years from inception to delivering a boat of that size. There are a bunch of five or six owners who have been talking about it for at least two years but no one really has laid anything down. I know even build slots have been booked and gone. It is not going to happen in a hurry, not now with another financial crash.
So amidst the black clouds, where are the bright spots?
I think there will be a tendency to drift to smaller boats, expenses go up exponentially with boat size, and we have more of a hope with boats which can be cruised by families as well as being raced. In fact the Wally concept was good with accommodation and you could live on them, but over time they have added bowsprits and split backstays, flat top mains and nobody lives on them. But you can never stop people spending a lot of money on boats to get another 0.01 of a knot. That is the way the world has always been. We have always done it and that won’t go away.
Rising budgets in the pursuit of small gains has always been part and parcel of Maxi racing, and budgets spiral?
You can’t point the finger at project managers and boat captains, it is in the nature of their job to be making incremental gains and optimising these boats, taking the next step to beat the opposition. That is part of their jobs, of course. And it is like football managers, if they miss something they get sacked. “We are not winning any more, you are off.” You can certainly point the finger at what has happened with the J/70 fleet now with old men and expensive professionals. That is not where the sport needs to be going. And what I am pleased to see with Ian Walker in charge at the RYA is to have gone from going crazily focused on Olympic medals but burning out lots of kids who have given up sailing because they don’t make the top 10. And you have to have parents who will travel Europe in a motor home and spend huge amounts. Ian is in a good position to foster this change. He has credibility with all that he has done. The TP52s and the Maxi72s need good pros and the pros there are in a different league and deserve what they get but that is a very small group. There are many pros who expect a daily rate and don’t deserve it. But then also I have seen Maxi owners wandering around after one beer with the crew who have then all gone off.
So this period will have a very significant on our sailing lives far less just big boat racing, do you think?
We won’t go back to where we were. This will be a big, big reset for everyone. I think the whole pace of life will change. It will slow down. People will realise they can just enjoy their sailing for what it gives them, they don’t have to go for the very last percent just to win.
People will want to sail with their family more?
Well our President sails with a very crack French crew and win but he takes his family, and others take family. Family and friends are so important. You can’t really go down that route with the Maxi72 or TP52 but I think we will see more of this, sailing with family and friends and putting enjoyment ahead of winning for the sake of it.
Photo: IMA / Studio Borlenghi