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Four years in the making, or five if you count an introductory toein- the water 2017 season during which the Plattners’ first TP52 Phoenix raced the IRC Europeans and the Copa del Rey, and so Phoenix winning Puerto Portals 52 Super Series Sailing Week on the Bay of Palma was getting to feel overdue. So too seeing Sled second – with owner-driver Mr Okura steering after missing all of last season – and Ergin Imre’s Provezza taking the third step. Portals certainly delivered plenty of good cheer and smiling faces.

Provezza have had a tough season so far, starting with enforced last-minute crew changes in Baiona due to health issues and a forestay fitting failure which meant missing several races. Then in Cascais their mood remained overcast with bright spells; but the confidence and speed were all back on the Bay of Palma.

But Phoenix delivered under pressure and visibly had the speed to keep climbing back into the top three or four, even after a less than stellar start on a mostly one-way track. The circuit cognoscenti have Phoenix as one of three fastest boats and some sailors last year had them fastest. But that has not been as evident this season, and tactician Tom Slingsby several times commented he feels they have not had the upwind speed they had 12 months ago.

Main picture: In Puerto Portals it was the Plattners’ Phoenix whose turn it was to take a first regatta victory. The sharing of the spoils in this fleet has never been so even, reflecting how boats once lower down the pecking order have been doing whatever it takes and hiring whoever they need to get to the top of a very distinguished pile

They were, however, quick in Portals. Key differences? Phoenix switched back to their original keel fin – a question of returning to the low-risk option Tony Norris was more comfortable with as helm rather than any direct speed issues. Among an all-North podium in Portals, Phoenix and jib programme manager Morgan Trubovich were the earliest adopters of North’s Helix 3Di jibs. The other factor is self-belief. And that will only grow now that they have won a regatta.

The keel swap
It was Tony Norris and Tina Plattner who decided to switch back. Norris says: ‘I felt the new fin was a little more difficult, there was a bit more to it. That we needed more time to learn it properly. I feel more comfortable mentally after the change, going back to what I know. Alegre added the same 2022 keel and is doing very well – but we did not make it work so well.’

Trubovich drives the Phoenix jib programme, working with Burns Fallow at North NZ in Auckland and loft manager Guy Hewson. Burns also does Sled’s upwind inventory. Phoenix had their first Helix test jib at the end of last season and decided to commit to it for 2022.

The relative headstay tension on the TP52s is so high that it has been considered that the flying shapes are already very finely optimised for upwind VMG. To a certain extent there has been a chicken and egg situation: trimmers have their preferred shapes and some are maybe resistant to starting varying the load-sharing patterns for fear of compromising their ‘sweet spots’. But being able to vary the sail loads in the jib luff raises the range of flying shapes available.

Burns Fallow explains, ‘For a given shape that we design you can use the sail through a greater range of tack or Cunningham loads, and the result is that you can have a wider range of flying shapes through fuller in the light to flatter – especially if you get caught over range. Trimmers like that extra adjustability. And you don’t want spring in the sail because that is a loss of energy; better to move the tack 10mm to get a result rather than 20mm.’

Trubovich recalls, ‘We got a first test jib last year. The structured luff has added fibres at the front… some people think this is added structure so that it can reduce rig tension but that is not something I believe in. What I see is that it is a tool to have a more dynamic response from the jib tack and Cunningham, amplifying their effect; you are getting more versatility because you can apply more tension through the cloth via the Cunningham. With up to 1,200kg of tack load your previous jibs would become too knuckled in the front so they’d have to take out luff curve.

‘But we did miss the mark on our prototype. Then we had two choices: scrap the idea knowing that the next set was an entire family of Helix jibs, so if we got them wrong we were screwed, or keep faith in what we asked Burns for in the new-concept jibs – and that is what we did. We had a prototype that we were not that happy with, we had one more shot at it. Luckily it turned out fine!’

Trubovich explains how Phoenix prefer to work with something close to the standard benchmarks in each area: boat, rig and sail design: ‘We are not very tricky on Phoenix. We did not design our own rig, we didn’t design our own boat, which was built in a hurry at Persico, and the sails are pretty standard…’

Self-belief and Slingsby
Trubovich: ‘If I am honest in Portugal we had keel vibration, we had a radical sea state and soft wind weight and our team started looking inwards and saying, “How come we are not as fast as we were?” It was such a good decision to go back to the old keel. We were not going as well. In my world we were obviously also worrying about the jibs, but I had all the images and I was sure I could get exactly the same shape jib as last year, so it did not make any sense.

‘Meanwhile, you cannot deny Tom’s input and what he has done. He is the greatest sailor on the planet at the moment. He is a really good communicator, a genius on the water. And him being among us just makes a difference. I don’t think any one of us really believed we were one of the top teams before. Now we are all looking at it from a different perspective. I feel like we have the belief now. Why should Harm Müller Spreer or Quantum beat us?

‘Previously we had good races, lots of them, but I don’t think we really believed we could win regattas. If there is one word it is belief – and Tom is a huge part of that. He doesn’t give us inspirational speeches, he just makes good decisions.’

Sled speed is back
Don Cowie: ‘In 2018 when we went to Croatia and we knew it was going to be light we were the first team to develop the really juicy purpose-built light-airs mainsail. Then everybody caught up with us! Our latest light-air main from North is quite different again, and we were more than happy in Portals where we got to use it for the first time. We also went with a Helix 3Di jib in Spain.

‘We still use Micky Ickert to design our kites but they are built in NZ; with downwind sails there is definitely an art to building them and Ben de Fluter there is very, very good. Again it is not only the design but the detailing. We have made very small, very minor changes in our downwind sails.

‘Different people have different philosophies. We started off with A2s and A4s and now we have the A2+ to fit better in the middle. Also how we sail the boat has changed the design of downwind sails. We sail a lot hotter, so a lot faster. In 25kt you would once put up an A4 but now we sail the boats a lot more pressed up so we are straight into the A3 or even A2+. Really leaning on it!’
Andi Robertson

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