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Original Issue

How To Keep Your Head Above Water

Is that 12-meter yacht you've been eyeing just too rich for the budget? Here's a small solution to your predicament

It's not often you see a head sailing a yacht. But when the apparently disembodied noddle of a certain Jonathan Richards, 27, began tacking a 12-footer called Illusion among the sleek racing yachts gathered at Cowes on the Isle of Wight off England's south coast last July, it's accurate to say that consternation reigned. The waterfront bars, packed with hundreds of hard-drinking crew members gathered for the Admiral's Cup, the international racing series held each summer, quickly emptied and cameras appeared everywhere. For about half an hour, Richards, pleasantly aware of the excitement he was creating, sailed his enigmatic craft among the blue-chip yachts while onlookers tried to figure out where the rest of him was. In fact, the 6-foot Richards, a Cowes boat-builder and sailmaker, was comfortably stretched out in Illusion as if he were reclining in an armchair before the fire. His arms, busily adjusting a variety of below-deck controls, were tucked under the side decks, while his feet, resting against an aluminum rod attached by wire to the rudder, were doing the steering.

Much gratified by the general effect, Richards sailed Illusion back up the Medina River and hauled the boat out on her cradle—a converted bread trolley. In the following days, some of the cream of the Admiral's Cup skippers arrived to try out the little boat for themselves. What they discovered was a craft that looks like a yacht and handles like a yacht but weighs less than a small dinghy and has a sail area of only 65 square feet. In fact, Illusion—the choice of name wasn't an accident—is virtually an America's Cup yacht in miniature, a new concept featuring some of the characteristics of big boats on a pygmy scale. And at a fraction of the cost: Richards and his fellow originator, Neil Graham of Australia, 34, built Illusion for just $650. The little craft's graceful proportions belie the rather helter-skelter manner of her creation, which was a triumph of resourcefulness. She was put together from a design roughed out by Richards on a piece of old chipboard on a kitchen table in the tiny house in Cowes that he shares with his girl friend, Sue Brown, a sailing instructor. "In fact," says Richards, "it was all pretty much kitchen-table stuff." The mast and boom came from a length of hang-glider tubing, which he acquired from a New Zealander up the road. The sails were fashioned from bits of fabric-lying around from previous sail-making experiments. Most of the fittings were expropriated from old dinghies. The lead for the keel came from just about everywhere and was for the most part garnered by Graham's girl friend. Sue Morris, a psychiatrist.

Illusion took shape in a shed of rotting wood and broken windows at the back of the National Sailing Center. About the only items actually paid for were the planks of quarter-inch deal that form the hull. Says Richards, "The whole thing was really like finding a bit of wire in the attic, then asking, 'What can we use this for?' "

Although their methods appear to be amateurish, it's the sort of approach that Richards and Graham have been using for years—yet still ending up with professional-looking boats. Richards says, "I've always been coming up with these rather odd, silly ideas." But those silly ideas seem to work. As a boatbuilder Richards is totally self-taught—to his dismay, he wasn't allowed to do woodwork at school because it clashed with Latin, a requisite for taking high school science courses—but he has designed and built some 50 dinghies over seven years, a lot of them for fun rather than for commercial gain. And many of those dinghies have proved to be almost unbeatable in competition.

Quite apart from Illusion, Richards has plenty of other projects alive. He's experimenting with a radical dinghy design, finishing off another dinghy for friends, opening his campaign to represent Britain in the Flying Dutchman class in the Los Angeles Olympics—Richards was a member of the British Olympic team for the 1980 Games, but, unhappily for him, the yachtsmen decided to boycott Moscow—and racing or cruising keelboats. In September he was a key member of the crew that helped an Irishman, Harry Cudmore, win the World One Ton championships at Crosshaven, Ireland.

Richards discusses boats with the sort of glow that fits halfway between mere enthusiasm and fanaticism. He is hopelessly, irredeemably crazy about sailing. His father, John, a retired publicity manager for an industrial chemicals company, recalls how the young Jonathan used to fashion boats out of leaves, using twigs for masts, and race them on puddles around the family home in Birmingham. Indeed, it would be puzzling if Richards weren't sailing-mad. He was born with brine in his blood: his parents first met in a sailing club; Jonathan, or Jo, as he's known, was sailing at three weeks in his parents' small cruiser; both his brother and sister sail; there were never any cars in the family garage because it was always packed with boats.

A touch of amiable eccentricity inhabits Jo Richards. He appears to care hardly a whit about money ("My bank balance hovers between £50 in the red and £50 in the black"); he walks around in jeans without knees and in jerseys without elbows. Richards is also one of the few fungal ecologists in Britain, having earned his Bachelor of Science degree at Nottingham University in that subject, though he has never attempted to put the knowledge to any practical use.

"I'm the wrong mentality to spend my life in stuffy little laboratories peering down electron microscopes," he says emphatically as he walks along the cliffs above Cowes. After graduation—his father still can't understand how he managed that because "he seemed to do nothing except sail while he was at Nottingham"—Richards joined the Royal Navy as a navigation officer but left after a year "because it became very obvious that I wasn't going to do any sailing at all."

Richards can't remember how he and Graham first met, but it was probably on a boat. At first glance it's an odd fusion of talent: Richards the botanist and Graham the philosopher (Bachelor of Arts, University of Sydney). In reality, the resemblances, and the differences, are irresistible. Richards is chatty and open, Graham is laconic and reserved. But they are equally besotted about sailing. At Nottingham the Englishman once fitted a mast and sail to a wheelchair to which he was confined after straining knee ligaments while sailing, then proceeded to crash the wheelchair in the hospital car park. The Australian alternated semesters in philosophy with boat-delivery trips across the Pacific and was once rash enough, while still a teen-ager, to borrow his father's 55-foot cruiser for an impromptu excursion outside Sydney Heads. Since then, Graham has virtually sailed the world. He survived the sinking of his yacht Griffin in the terrible Fastnet Race of 1979.

The idea for Illusion was Richards'. It occurred to him about five years ago while he was sailing a radio controlled model yacht across a pond at Leicester. As the little craft sped along, he thought, "Why not design a yacht you can put only one person in?" He had heard of, and perhaps found inspiration in, those oil-tanker simulator models used for training prospective masters. But after sketching out some shapes, Richards forgot about the project until January 1981, when he and Graham were working on an Admiral's Cup 42-footer, Recession, in a boatyard near Clearwater, Fla. The two were staying in a house overlooking Indian Rocks Beach, and it was the sight of the blue water of the lagoon in front of the house that revived the concept. The house was also shared by an American, a New Zealander and a few other will-travel sailors. Inspired by Richards' idea, the salts drew up plans for a design based on model yachts, and within a few days a fleet of miniatures appeared in Clearwater under class rules: maximum length, two feet; maximum sail area, 125 square inches; maximum total weight, four pounds; maximum rig height, 30 inches; maximum keel depth, 10 inches. The fun had started.

Both Richards and Graham learned from those epic battles on the Florida lagoon, and when they got back to Cowes last March, they started work on Illusion. The money, such as it was, flowed from the sale of a Chevy sports van that the owner of Recession had donated to the duo as a reward for the hard work they put into his boat.

Cowes is a pleasant and settled place, lying 20 minutes from the mainland by hydrofoil. Its brick houses bear names that are solidly English or resolutely nautical—Old Priory, Topsides, Hardwicke, Stormalong. It's yachting-mad and has been for decades. Every second shop sells something nautical, whether life jackets or antique navigation lamps, and many pubs have interiors decorated to resemble ship cabins. But even Cowes was astonished at Illusion. Although Richards and Graham tried to keep the project quiet, those who did scent what was going on either didn't believe them ("They thought we were pulling their legs," said Richards) or made polite but dismissive noises. It was all accomplished within about three months, March to June, although the work on Illusion was, frequently interrupted; her builders took time out to race or to deliver yachts or just to mess about in boats.

From the start the aim was to produce a genuine sailing yacht, not an eccentricity. "It is not a toy," says Richards firmly. Indeed, everything on Illusion works. The mast, for example, has two sets of spreaders and can be raked fore and aft or bent to stretch the sail for different wind strengths. There are enough controls in the cockpit to amuse even the most technically minded skipper. Altogether, Illusion has nine adjustments that the skipper must constantly make. The genoa is made of Mylar, the fabric used successfully in the last America's Cup challenge. The ballast—small sandbags placed above the keel—is removable so that skippers can increase or reduce it according to their body weight.

It is important to note that Illusion isn't a replica of an America's Cup yacht, because a precisely scaled-down version wouldn't work. She is, however, as faithful as possible to the 12-meter look. The designers' aim, in short, was to get Illusion to work and look as much like an America's Cupper as possible. "We fiddled the esthetics a bit," says Richards.

Sailing Illusion is one of the sport's unique experiences. Her skipper doesn't climb aboard so much as wriggle inside, going feetfirst, as though squeezing into a Grand Prix car. Once installed, he lies supine along the top of the keel with half his body below water level. When he ducks, there's just room for his head to clear the boom as it swings across in a jibe or tack. At first, the novelty of sailing Illusion can be rather unsettling. Gusts whistle across the water at eye level, spitting water straight in your face. As the wind hits Illusion's sails, she heels sharply. My God, she's going to capsize! A dollop of cold Solent spray hops into the cockpit. But like a true narrow-beamed America's Cup boat. Illusion suddenly stiffens as the weight in the keel counterbalances the pressure of the gust of wind on the rig.

At a thought-provoking angle of about 45 degrees, with the skipper's ear an inch or two from the water. Illusion bashes along happily. A little foot pressure on the steering bar feathers her nicely into the wind. That's comforting. In a big gust you "throw" the mainsheet to spill wind from the mainsail. After a while you relax. Illusion won't sink or capsize. And it's so comfortable, which is perhaps the most disorienting part of all. Sailing, whether hiking out in a dinghy or clinging to a yacht's windward rail, is supposed to hurt.

When tacking, Illusion steers across the wind like a true yacht instead of spinning around like a dinghy, though making the adjustments can be like playing all the instruments of an orchestra almost simultaneously. Uncleat the windward genoa sheet, haul in the leeward one, tighten the windward runner. Oh, yes, remember to keep foot pressure on the steering or Illusion will stop head to wind, sails flapping, and start to drift backward. Don't forget to duck as the boom swings across.

The pinnacle of achievement is flying the boat's 45-square-foot spinnaker. First ease the leeward runner and bear away before the wind, ease the mainsheet, ease the genoa sheet, hook the guy into one end of the spinnaker, then attach the pole to the tack of the spinnaker and the base of the mast, and toss the spinnaker cloth in the air while hauling on the halyard. Now you should be in business—but you aren't. The spinnaker halyard has snarled on the shroud. Try again. Still snarled. And again.

Even without the spinnaker, Illusion slices joyously downwind, leaving a trail of astonished yachtsmen whose reactions run the gamut of incredulity. Most simply stand speechless as an apparently head-powered yacht pops up alongside. Others rouse themselves to comment. "I don't believe it; I just don't believe it!" muttered one skipper to his crew. Another noted gravely, "I'd be careful if I were you. There's a 60-foot dinghy around the corner."

Objects on the seaway loom in a menacing manner. A three-foot-high buoy becomes a lighthouse. A 30-foot cruiser is the QE 2. You're in a different world, a silent, private one, a mouse among the elephants, a Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians.

All the sailing people who have seen her are delighted with Illusion. Rodney Pattisson, who has won two Olympic sailing gold medals and a silver for Britain: "I loved it." Michel Maeder, main-sheet hand on the last French America's Cup challenger: "It's beautiful." Clive Johnson, who runs a Cowes ship chandlery: "Something completely different." As they speak they grin in wonderment and pleasure.

The only less-than-enthusiastic comment heard came from Graham's girl friend, who dislikes sailing in any form. "I think it's lovely," she says loyally. "Just don't ask me to sail in her."

Illusion is a contradiction, small but stately, dignified but sporty, a big boat that's only 12 feet long. She might, just might, be a breakthrough. If so, an addition to nautical terminology will be required to describe her accurately. Single-headed sailing, perhaps.



Whenever co-owner Graham cruises off Cowes, England in his 12-foot-long 12-meter Illusion, he really maintains his heading.



As water rushes by him at earlobe level, Richards is a one-man band at Illusion's controls.



Richards hauls Illusion out on a bread trolley after an eye-popping sail on the Solent.