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18FT SKIFF SPEED READING
3x World Champion Matt Steven Provides Insights To Racing 18 Footers
David McDiarmid, North Sails Expert Matt Steven, and Bradley Collins (NZL) have claimed the most desired prize in the 18-footer class, the JJ Giltinan Trophy in 2018, 2019 and 2020, making them three-peat Champions in the competitive class. The 2018 win was the first time in 45 years that New Zealanders won this event, which is considered the world championship of 18-foot skiff racing. As a result of their big win in 2018, David, Matt, and Bradley were awarded Orbit World Travel Sailors of the Year at the Volvo Yachting Excellence Awards, along with Dongfeng’s 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race winning sailors Daryl Wislang and Stu Bannatyne.
We checked in with middle crew Matt Steven about sailing 18-footers. Learn about what he has to say about choosing rigs, techniques, and how to sail an 18 to its full potential.
Crew work on an 18-footer can be challenging, especially in breeze. “We have pretty defined roles on the boat to keep consistency with boat handling,” says Matt. “It’s all about having as few crossovers as possible and not letting the boat slow down.” Crew weight also affects the technique. “I am the heaviest onboard, so it often pays to keep me out on the wire. Sometimes Brad [Collins], our bowman, gets loaded up with a few more jobs during the maneuvers. Luckily he is very fit and strong and lighter than me!”
One of the toughest things about 18’s, Matt explains, is rig choice. “You have two rigs for two wind ranges (0 -13 and 12-30 knots). However, within these ranges, there are a lot of different modes, so compromises have to be made, either at the top end or bottom end of each rig. It’s hard to have the ideal setup to cover an entire day’s worth of racing.” Though his team preferred their #2 rig, figuring out the right mode for each helped them adapt to changing wind ranges throughout each race day.
They weren’t the only ones wrestling with rig choice each morning. “There is often a standoff on the ramp,” Matt explained, as teams wait for others to make their choice. “Normally we are happy to be on the same rig as the majority of the fleet, but sometimes you just need to back yourself on the weather forecast.”
Rig tuning isn’t like other boats in the 18ft skiff. Matt explained that “the tuning tricks we have figured out ourselves over time, through practicing and spending time in the boat.” The 18ft skiff is fairly complicated, since almost every mast is custom built depending on crew weight and style, so there is not one specific guide for sailors.” Michael Coxon at North Sails in Sydney has a formula that most teams use. We have control over the rig with heel, and two sets of lower caps and primaries which we adjust accordingly as needed.”
Starting line technique is pretty similar to other fleets concerning positioning and acceleration however, the 18-footer can accelerate a lot faster. “One of the hardest parts,” Matt says, “is staying stationary and holding your position. Once you lose flow over the foils, it can be very challenging to stay in control.”
Upwind and downwind techniques Matt said have similar concepts. “Body weight fore and aft, as well as knowing when to press hard are the keys to speed. Regarding tactics, staying in pressure is key… two knots of wind could make a 2-3 knot boat speed difference and a 10-degree angle change.”
Matt’s team typically replaces two or three sails a year, depending on the number of events they compete in. “We have a good relationship with our design team,” Matt says, “so we understand our gear and how to use it efficiently.” He says it’s helpful to understand shape changes, even though only minor tweaks were made for the 2018 season.
Matt’s team is sponsored by Honda, which enabled a wardrobe upgrade to 3Di for the 2019 season. This is a nice addition not only because of performance factors, but it meant they won’t need to replace sails as often. “The best thing about North Sails 3Di is that you know the shape is going to be the same each time you go sailing, and there is never a worry about structural failure. We have much confidence in the product. The added stiffness will allow us to have another dimension of rig tuning that was not available to us before. The sail controls will be more ‘tweaky,’ in a significant way.”
The Orbit World Travel Award came as a surprise to Matt, who was just happy to win the JJG Worlds, as it has been his primary goal since he started sailing 18-footers.
“We were very honored to be recognized alongside some amazing sailors for the Orbit World Travel Award. We are just normal guys who work day jobs that try and fit in as much training and sailing into our normal life. We have a desire to keep the trophy in New Zealand and make our fellow skiff sailors proud. We are happy to win for them, as well as ourselves and the New Zealand sailing community.”