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Can Smaller be Better?

Just you on the helm and no one else on board—the world of radio-controlled sailboat racing.
No matter where you live in the US (and most places around the world) there’s a brand of sailing that you can get into for relatively minimal expense where you’re the boss, and there’s no one on board to tell you otherwise—not a soul. What’s this all about? It’s model boat racing—radio controlled model boat racing to be more specific. And in case you’ve been too engrossed in full-scale boats to notice, it’s more widespread and popular than you might imagine.

Proponents of model boat sailing say that their sub-discipline of the sport has been taken seriously almost since sailing began. They do acknowledge, however, that the advent of relatively inexpensive and reliable radio control electronics in the 1960s made a significant impact on their pursuit. Instead of simply coaxing their boats across the pond with gestures and shouts, now model boat enthusiasts partake of interactive competition where shouts of "Starboard!" are more than common as nimble fingers maneuver the joysticks that translate trimming and steering out to the boats.

If you hang out pondside with some of these model boat-racing devotees you’ll realize that this crowd is as dedicated to its minute arena as the rest of us are to our life-sized racing. Practitioners here engage in technical debates regarding sail shape, rig tension, and ballast ratios. There’s a national authority to guide these sailors (The American Model Yacht Association), and class associations and clubs for them to belong to, and magazines to enjoy. There’s even a separate set of rules maintained by the sport’s international governing body that you’ll find included in your own rulebook. It’s almost as though this parallel universe of sailing exists, yet most of the rest of us remain completely ignorant of it.

Mike Elldred shows off his 36/600, the design whose National Championships were featured on The Outdoor Channel. 

So how popular is model sailboat racing? Two words—prime time. That’s right; The Outdoor Channel's Whistle Stop program featured the 2001 AMYA 36/600 National Championship Regatta from Mesa, AZ, broadcast for a half hour on May 21. The host club for that event—the Mesa Model Yacht Club—lists 28 different manufacturers of model sailboats. The AMYA says that it recognizes 21 different classes of boat, and that’s just here in the US.

Jack Gregory, the President of the AMYA, says that his organization incorporates 120 different model sailing clubs across the US, and has roughly 2,500 individual members. "Every major city in the US has at least on model sailing club," says Gregory, and they’re not just playing at this. Over the past 10 years, he says, model boat racing has evolved in the US to move from hobby status to that of a bona fide sport. At national championships and most of the more prestigious regattas, it’s common to have the boats measured and certificates checked prior to competition.

"We’ve got an interesting mix of participants," explains Gregory. "I grew up sailing as a child and I came into model yacht racing after college, but I run into a lot of people who have never sailed on a full-sized boat." Gregory says that most of the top sailors in model boats are also top sailors in big boats. "We have a very high percentage of retired racing sailors in our midst," he says, mentioning that one active participant—Chris Jensen who lives in Chicago and sails East Coast 12-Meters—was an Olympic competitor in the Star Class.

Avid racers at Larchmont Yacht Club in New York get their steeds off the starting line.

Gregory, who lives near Boston, MA, races his boats twice a week at this time of the year, which he says is quite typical. "We sail from April through October," he says, "and we have one crazy race in November that you sail for four hours straight to see if you can last. It’s called the Enduro. Sometimes it’s snowing and sometimes it’s not."

Although there’s a proliferation of classes in model boat racing in the US, Gregory says that there are only a few classes that enjoy special status at the apex of the sport. "For many years the top class was the Marblehead or the M Class. It’s one of four boats in the sport that have international recognition, but it’s been losing favor recently to the International One Meter, which is more restricted and somewhat of a one-design. You could say that if the Marblehead is the Formula 1 of our sport, the IOM is like NASCAR. In the IOM there are weight limits and all the sails have to be identical."

The analogy to Formula 1 cars seems particularly appropriate because of the level of technical experimentation that goes on in the ranks of model boat enthusiasts. Says Gregory: "I like to think that we’re ahead of the game. Just look at models and you’ll see what’s going to happen in boat design 20 years. Because our expense for experimentation is so much less, we actually think that big boats are evolving toward the area where model boats have already gone. We definitely see that in the America’s Cup arena. We’ve been sailing light, skinny canoes for 50 years. All the things that are considered innovations on big boats now we’ve had for years. Of course the strength-to-weight ratios for model boats make high-tech experimentation a lot easier."

The carbon-fiber hull and keel, along with the swing-rig headsail on this boat are tell-tale signs of the high-tech trends in model boats.
Gregory admits that all of that high-tech trend setting doesn’t mean that his sport has forsaken its traditional heritage. There’s still a lot of model boat sailors out there who prefer schooner rigs and the classic model designs that were the original mainstays of the sport. Many of these older-style models can be seen plying the placid waters of ponds and lakes around the country alongside their more speedy cousins. Just take a stroll almost any sunny weekend day around a local pond and you’re apt to see some of this action. Or if you prefer, log on to the AMYA's website and check out where radio-controlled sailing is happening in your home waters.  (

Among the Lilliputians

OK, so you want to join the fray and start toggle-sticking your way around the pond. Instead of running out and getting a boat based on looks or price, the folks at the AMYA suggest that you contact any of their affiliated clubs (by logging on to that organization’s website:, or any local radio-controlled model sailing club, and find out what boats they sail. That will put you in touch with people who can answer some of your questions, and expose you to their activity in your local area.

To get involved you’ll ultimately have to reach for the wallet. Prices run from the bare minimum for used boats ($200 for a stock Victoria), to the mid-range ($800 for a brand new CR-914), to the top of the line ($1,600 for a customized International One Meter with carbon-fiber foils). You’ve also got the option of plying your skills on the pavement with a model landsailing boat. Ian Moore, one of the navigators aboard the illbruck Challenge’s entry in the Volvo Ocean Race has developed one such craft that SailNet tested. Moore sells the boat and controls for roughly $300 US, though we couldn’t reach him for verification at the time this article was written because he was busy navigating his way across the Atlantic.

Suggested Reading:

Seeing the Wind by Bob Merrick

Getting a Handle on Wind by Dan Dickison

A Different Kind of Cross Training by Dan Dickison

Buying Guide: Binoculars

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