With big breeze, blue water and waves, Key West has long been an ideal stage to spotlight the newest grand-prix sailing toys, which now include the emerging Cape 31 One-Design class. At the Southernmost Regatta in January, five crews of these 31-footers marked its North American arrival, and the class stole the show.
The Mark Mills-designed and South African-built sportboat has gained international attention as a high-performance speedster that is competitive in all breeze conditions. “The inspiration for the Cape 31 came from renowned Scottish yacht racer Lord Irvine Laidlaw, who wanted to provide a boost to the Cape Town yachting community with a cutting-edge boat that could be built locally and offer youth sailors a compelling reason to step up to big boats,” Mills says. “It needed to offer high performance across the full range of Cape Town conditions, be fun to sail and be robust—all factors that have stood the design in good stead as it expands around the world.”
The 31 fleet at the Southernmost Regatta was a mix of European teams en route to winter regattas in the Caribbean and a few charters arranged for potential American owners keen to try before they buy.
“I feel momentum in terms of people talking about the boat,” says Dan Cheresh, of Saugatuck, Michigan, who chartered a Cape 31 for the regatta. Cheresh is past president and champion of the C&C 30 One-Design class, another Mark Mills design. “We have the IC37 and the J/70, but I really think that a 30-foot highly technical one-design fleet is something we’re missing.”
At the core of the Cape 31’s success is its versatile design and ability to perform across the wind range—and more importantly, at the upper end.
“Modern hull shapes offer more opportunities to tune the weight and righting moment across the range of heel angles, which means we don’t need so much bulb weight,” Mills says. “Upright in the light, it’s a relatively low wetted surface shape that goes well, but once you start heeling, the righting moment builds quickly to allow you to power upwind or reach like crazy. Then it’s just a question of finessing the right amount of sail plan onto that platform—not too much, so you don’t overpower too early, and not too little to make sure the boat is fun all the way through the wind range.”
The intricacy of the design places a premium on teamwork, communication and boathandling to be competitive in the fleet. “I think one of the reasons that everyone is interested in the boat is that it’s highly technical—it takes a lot of coordination to sail,” Cheresh says. “If there’s anything I learned, having no experience on the boat, it is that you have to recognize the importance of the relationship between the jib trimmer, the main trimmer, the helmsman and the runner. All those people have to be aware of the difference that’s occurring with pressure, whether it be a puff coming in, a light spot, or a left or right shift. If a guy on the rail calls a puff and waits for the mainsail trimmer to process it, and then calls for a runner and jib change, you’ve already missed it—you’re two seconds late, and it takes another three seconds to get back up to speed.”
True to Laidlaw’s intentions, the Cape 31 is providing a pathway for youth sailors onto a physically demanding sportboat that teaches the skills necessary to thrive in modern high-performance keelboat racing.
“If you’ve got a strong youth sailing background, then this is the perfect boat to get into,” says Madelaine Kirk, a student at the University of Southampton and a former member of the British Youth Sailing Team. Kirk began sailing on the Cape 31 Jiraffe on the Solent after 29er and Nacra 15 campaigns as a youth sailor. “A lot of owners want young people on the boats because they are physically demanding to sail. You get put into a position that is accessible to you at that point, and then you learn from the others on the boat. There are pros on almost every boat, and you learn so much from them, which gives you the skills and ability to then go into professional sailing if that’s what you want to do.”
According to 31 North Yachting, the exclusive Northern Hemisphere supplier, 65 Cape 31s have been built to date at Cape Performance Sailing, with strong fleets now established in South Africa and Europe. Marty Kullman, of Sailing Inc., the US distributor, says they have five boats incoming and five more down the line, enough to build a summer race calendar in New England. Base price for the boat starts at $185,000; once shipped to the States (it fits into a 40-foot container) and pimped to grand-prix travel-program status, the options list grows to $250,000-plus.
Cape 31 class rules stipulate owner-drivers and a minimum of five crew (1,311 pounds maximum and 1,124 minimum) with three pros on board, which owner Sandra Askew says are needed to handle the boat properly. Askew, who came from the C&C 30, the IC37 and the Melges 24 before making the switch to the 31 in 2021, was initially attracted by the boat’s racy look and the three-pro allowance. “They’re technical boats—not hard to sail—but you do need to know what you’re doing,” she says. “They definitely get up and go, so it’s good to have people on board that know what they’re doing. It’s challenging but just really, really fun. Fast and easy to manage downwind, and it goes upwind nicely.”
Despite robust fleets at England’s top regattas in 2022, the fanfare of Cape 31 class racing in Key West and its success abroad, Cheresh is taking a wait-and-see approach. “I think it’s going to be tough to build a fleet because all of us are sitting back and waiting for the next guy to buy a boat to determine if there will be a fleet in the US,” he says. “I’m a bit on the fence, only because I want to make sure we can develop a fleet in North America. I am very interested in purchasing one of these; I just want to see a commitment from other owners.”
Across the pond, UK sailors have faith in the class’s longevity. “We’ve always had the conversation about whether or not the class will stick around,” Kirk says. “There’s been this five-year cycle where boats turn around, but I can see them sticking around because they are so accessible and so many people can sail them. I only weigh 60 kilos (132 pounds), and I can jump on the bow of one, and it is fine. The owners are very involved in the class, so I believe that the boat is not just a fad.”
Mills is confident the Cape 31 will stand out among other one-design keelboat options and has a thriving class to ensure its continuity. “What sets [the Cape 31] apart from other one-designs is that it goes upwind like a bigger boat, which attracts a wider range of racers looking for a tactical challenge as well as pure adrenaline,” Mills says. “But the boat is only half of the formula; the class has built a fun, competitive dynamic that draws owners and crew into the fleet. Happy owners have been our best salesmen; they are having a ball in a well-managed, colorful class.”
While the Cape 31 has a way to go before it becomes an established international class, at least one thing was clear from its Southernmost coming-out party: The boat looks great in the spotlight and sure is a head-turner when planing past.