Staying in Class: Fixing the Pitfalls of Running a Classic Regatta

This is our second year as major sponsors of the Camden Classics Cup, the latest addition to the classic boat racing circuit here in the northeastern U.S. But we’ve been racing Vintage, Classic and Spirit of Tradition boats since the 1990’s. And, as with most things, we’ve developed strong opinions about what makes a compelling vintage, classic or SoT regatta.

Growth of classic regattas has put pressure on race organizers to fairly class newer SoT boats from Classics from updated classic designs.

Growth in classic regattas has put pressure on race organizers to view boats fairly. Newer SoT boats have classic DNA and fit into their own class.

Guess what? We’re going to share those thoughts with you, now.

The rebirth of Classic yacht racing was a disorganized grassroots movement. Each regatta was built on the dusty, rotten framework of the old days, driven by the rebirth of many of those old yachts. These early events were clever and fun. They got boats on the water. But each event had its own ideas of what a classic yacht regatta should be. There was little consistency from race to race. These early events never fully translated into a serious racing circuit. Some events worked. Others did not.

No one seemed to push to consolidate a consistent program.

In spite of the disorder at earlier regattas, the focus on vintage and classic yachts grew. More yachties became fascinated with great classic looks blended with modern performance sailing abilities. That’s how the early days of Spirit of Tradition boat racing began to take shape. One SoT boat would appear at an event. Then, another. Then another. And before we knew it, a small collection of classic-looking, yet very modern war horses dominated classic regattas. So began the rise of a formal Spirit of Tradition class for high-tech, yet classic-looking boats.  

The idea was to enhance the classic experience, not compete with it.  

Adding to the excitement, Vintage and Classic yacht owners began recognizing that their boats could benefit from the tools developed in SoT racing. As classic fleets worked through maintenance updates Kevlar sails, carbon masts, and stiff, high modulus rigging began appearing in older, Classic boats.

But with upgrades, came confusion. Regatta planners hurried to find stopgap methods of dividing the pure classics, from the updated classics, from the ground-up SoT custom-designed yachts. Planners struggled to find simple and easy ways to communicate amongst a fleet that appeared with growing complaints about each other’s boats. This began to reveal a lack of consistency and logic around how we tell one class of racing boat from another.

Classic regattas got tricky fast.

Many events, like the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, or Marblehead Corinthian Classics and our Camden Classics Cup have excellent camaraderie. But there’s little cohesion between events. Each regatta evolved its own rules for class divisions. And strange ideas began showing up in Notices of Race. Statements like “no ‘space-age’ materials can be used in sails.” Owners and designers never knew which problem a committee might be addressing with poorly-worded technology rules. Some owners would invest in new sails and or hardware, only to have race committees penalize them by moving them into a class where they could not compete — usually, to a newly-formed SoT group created for modern classics.

But no amount of carbon fiber spars can make a 1930’s R-boat competitive with one of our modern SoT boats.

How then do we fairly race Classic, Semi-Classic and Spirit of Tradition boats?


Spirit of Tradition Concordia Yawl

Classic yachts, like these Concordia yawls, have been upgrading to carbon spars for decades. Results indicate performance gains can be reasonably handicapped.

A Working SoT Racing Rule

We think the answer is simple. Accept the fact that proper maintenance is key. Make all feel welcome to show their appreciation of our yachting history and the principles of classic beauty. But do it without losing the essence of a boat’s classic charm.

Take a Concordia yawl, like one of these beating to windward in Stonington Connecticut. The leeward boat snaps her mainmast. As the rig settles to the bottom, the owner starts pricing out alternatives. Nowadays a top-quality wooden spar is considerably more costly than buying a state of the art carbon mast. Let’s study the choice: Pay more for a heavier mast that comes with considerable maintenance? Or save money for a super-light, super-durable, low-maintenance carbon stick. The additional benefit of the update to carbon, amongst many, is reduced pitching and heeling, making the boat faster and safer! Upgrades to classic designs have been going on for decades. This story the lovely Crocodile breaks out the details of the process. Regardless, the yacht’s fundamental design is unchanged. The carbon mast would only represent a small improvement in the boat’s ability to sail better, and reduce wear and tear on the yacht’s structure. A new mast is not a fundamental alteration to the design.

It is a mere improvement, a simple update. That’s all.

But, if the Concordia owner opts for that carbon stick, he may find at the next classic regatta that his boat gets bumped out of the Classics division and perhaps shoved into the Spirit of Tradition class. Or maybe just asked to go away.

That’s not right. She’s still a Concordia yawl. This is a true classic that should race against other classics. A new mast does not change that. She has the same hull shape, the same structure, she gained only slightly improved performance potential. The boat didn’t suddenly change into an Class 40, grow a chine, or sprout a fin keel/spade rudder (And, if it did, we can discuss that, too).

The Concordia boat is faster, yes — but incrementally so — to the tune of maybe 2 percent upwind and an unnoticeable wash downwind. She is still no match for the SoT fleet. The boat is a classic and should remain such.  

The boat should stay in its class.

It’s a Classic Rating Thing

Spirit of Tradition Concordia design

Classic designs are almost impossible to fundamentally alter. New materials, sails and hardware enhance this Concardia yawl. Not dramatically alter her.

So then, how do we address the slight performance improvements in the classic yacht with updated gear? We argue the answer is to slightly adjust for the speed change in the rating, based on a holistic approach and scientific method.

When we change a rig, we do alter the yacht’s ability, only slight, but let’s address the effect on the handicap rule at a given regatta. The adjustment could slightly over-penalize to provide an incentive to keep classics, classic. But we should never discourage an owner from making updates, improvements or simply replacing the gear on their yacht.

What would this logic look like for classing a yacht? Here you go:

  • Look first at the design date. Any yacht designed before 1975, she fits in classic or vintage. Simple.
  • Were changes made to the yachts’ structure during restoration and was a replica built of an entirely different approach or material? We’d argue this would not ever change a yacht enough from its original design to be considered a completely different yacht. The quick and dirty logic: A heavy boat built in the early days of fiberglass construction is not a fundamentally different boat than her sister built in wood. She may have different CG, therefore affecting her ability slightly, for better or worse. But these incremental changes do not equate to immediate accelerations in speed. Address these matters in the rating, if need be.
  • Renewing sails, hardware, rigging or systems should never push boats out of class. These are welcome improvements and are intrinsically necessary. The logic: The owner who spends money on modern sails, once every 15 years is competitive with the owner who replaces Dacron sails much more often. But, the sailor who continues to use his 20 year old sails will never have the potential to compete. We should encourage the upkeep and maintenance of vital pieces of a yacht’s equipment, with sensible use of modern materials where appropriate.


A Simple Ratings Rubric:

  1. Avoid pushing boats in or out of classes based on changes in construction materials or for equipment updates.
  2. Only consider the basic character of the boat and the era in which she was designed when placing her in a class.
  3. Sensibly adjust the ratings to keep the Spirit of Tradition class from being a dumping ground for boats somebody thinks will not fit elsewhere.


Try our logic, use our rubric. See our SoT Manifesto from earlier this year. We like the inclusivity. We like excitement. We like the fair regattas.

Proper class divisions make better racing for everybody.  Let’s give it a try.