One design keelboats come in all shapes and sizes. Classics often remain as they have always been with few if any upgrades, while for more modern, high performance yachts it is important to stay ‘current’, fitting the latest gear without letting budgets run away.

Over the RC44’s successful career the strict one design has continually been upgraded as technology has evolved. Annually teams are permitted to replace a limited number of sails, but changes to any other parts of the boat must be first agreed by the Class before they are changed simultaneously across all boats. Past developments to the RC44 have included the mainsail, deck gear and electronics. This spring it was the turn of the Harken winch package: The primary and mainsheet winches, all original-fit from when the boats were launched, were replaced with the latest tech from Wisconsin – a brand new winch, designed specifically for the RC44 – while the mechanics and gearing inside the winch pedestal was upgraded too.

“The reason for the upgrade was that the class was conceived in 2005 and the winches are 17 years old now,” explains Chris Hosking, mainsheet trimmer on Nico Poons’ Charisma, who spearheaded this project on behalf of the RC44 class. “Harken no longer produces that line of winches and we were running out of spares parts, etc. Plus there was the opportunity to conceive a winch that was specific for this size of boat: Harken’s grand prix winch range was missing a winch of this size because before this the smallest they did was the Air 250 which they use on the TP52s, which is a bit too big for a 40 footer.”

Mark Wiss, Director of Global Grand-Prix and Custom Yacht Sales at Harken gives his take on this: “We are excited – for several years we have been talking to the Class about upgrading their winch and pedestal system, mainly because the equipment they had was the original equipment and most of it we don’t support or produce any more. We were getting worried that the spare parts they needed to keep sailing, we didn’t have. Finally we sat down with some of the key members of the class and developed a proposal.”

The new Harken Air Winch 180 is the smallest in Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based manufacturer’s Air Winch range. The first Air Winches were introduced for the AC50 catamarans used for the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda. Their previous smallest, the Air Winch 250 was subsequently conceived for the TP52s, while their Air Winch 600s are aimed at the AC75s and top of the range Air 900s are used on Ultim maxi trimarans. “We always had a plan for a small one, but we never had the opportunity to invest in the design because there weren’t enough 40 footers in that size range to justify the expense of designing and building it,” continues Wiss.

Compared to the RC44’s original main sheet and primary winches, the new Air Winch 180 has a bigger footprint and larger diameter. To improve aerodynamics, it is shorter in height, but this has required it to be choked up slightly in order to keep the same sheet angles on to the drum as before. Structurally the 180 is more robust, with a larger diameter centre but, despite this, it weighs significantly less. The 180s fitted to the RC44s are all-aluminium save for some carbon components such as the top cover while the gears are stainless steel. The new winches also have a plain top while the previous ones had a rarely used top cleat.

In addition to this the pedestals has been brought up to present day tech. While the original carbon casing has been retained, their innards have been replaced with MX mechanics. “It is a chain system with a clutch in the top,” explains Wise. “They can now put the winch in first speed and select ‘overdrive’ so that one turn of the pedestal handle equals almost three turns of the drum. The previous overdrive equipment was from a time when asymmetric sails were brand new to the market. Now they can gybe and hoist and drop at speeds they have long wanted, but haven’t been able to.” So while one turn on the pumps would previously turn a winch 1.8 times, the upgrade has nearly doubled this. Hoskings notes: “A push button enables you to get into overdrive gear, which we use for hoisting, gybing and dropping the spinnaker. You can really notice a difference – all the manoeuvres are now much smoother and more efficient. We can outside gybe nicely now because we have the line speed to enable us to do it. Then we go out of overdrive to trim the jib sheet.” The two lower gears have also been modified with feedback from the RC44 crews.

Being able to carry out faster manoeuvres due to the new winches has knock-on effects for the whole crew. Long established playbooks have had to be reappraised: for example, tacticians can now call for kite drops to be made closer to the mark, while the helmsman can now turn the boat faster through gybes.

Hosking continues: “We will be pushing further into the bottom mark and the potential to be able to gybe on someone and roll them is enhanced because we have the line speed with the spinnaker sheet now, so we might see that the tacticians knowing that they can now pull off some of these more aggressive manoeuvres against some of their competitors because you have got the line speed to be able to do that.”

In addition the primary winches now counter rotate – the starboard one now loaded anticlockwise. “We made the primary winches handed so that you have the same number of turns of rope on each winch,” explains Hosking. “Before you’d be sailing along with port pole going downwind and you’d either have half a turn too much or half a turn not enough.” So this too is now similar to other bigger grand prix race boats.

So what seems like a modest change, potentially has big effects out on the race course

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