Extraordinary boats: Cape 31

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The Cape 31 is a one-design yacht originally created for racing in South Africa, which has rapidly expanded with fleets around the world. Andy Rice reports

Thirty-foot keelboats come and go all the time. Most arrive with a short-lived fanfare, only to fade gradually out of sight and memory. Not so the Cape 31, which looks set to be the ‘must sail’ boat for the foreseeable future. With 25 boats sold into England and Ireland in little more than a year, this Mark Mills one-design seems to have hit the sweet spot.

Dave Swete is part of the small team promoting the Cape 31 out of a small office in Port Hamble in the UK. Swete is a Volvo Ocean Race veteran and the sole professional sailor on Sunrise, Tom Kneen’s Fastnet-winning JPK 11.80. Asked why the sailing world needed another 30-something keelboat, Swete replies: “I think it’s because it just ticks a lot of boxes. We believe that it’s the only class boat that’s winning on IRC and other rating systems at the moment.

“You can get this boat straight out of the box and go and win races. The Cape 31 won overall in Les Voiles de St Tropez last year, as well as a whole host of local events in the Solent.”

Whereas some 30ft keelboats might like to describe themselves as a ‘big dinghy’, Swete insists the Cape 31 is “a small keelboat”. He explains: “We can take this boat out in 25 knots wind against tide in the Solent and have a really nice day, then come back in and the boat’s in one piece, it’s not full of water. We haven’t been broaching out and nosediving all day, we’ve just been bow-up, doing 20 knots downwind and 7.5 knots upwind. It’s fair to say it’s a proper yacht.”

Working with his R&D partners KND/Sailing Performance, Mark Mills produced a hull with low freeboard and aggressive chines designed to maximise form stability in a breeze while maintaining a low wetted surface area when upright in the lighter stuff. The chine running forward to the bow helps produce the Cape 31’s distinctive bow-up attitude at speed downwind.

Bow-up, crew weight aft and the potential for 20+ knot downwind speeds. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Cape 31 Class

For some, the Cape 31’s upwind speed – even more than its electric downwind pace – is the most impressive statistic.

“The real head-turner is that this is a 30ft boat that goes upwind at a similar speed to a Performance 40. Then you turn it downwind and really put the hammer down,” says Swete.

Having previously owned a Corby-designed cruiser/racer, Lance Adams was looking for something sportier when he got into the Cape 31 class. He’d considered the J/70 but didn’t gel with it; and had watched the Fast 40s battling around the Solent but didn’t fancy getting into what looked like an arms race. After a conversation with Swete, Adams bought a Cape 31 without ever having sailed one. “It sounded like the boat that the Solent has been needing for a while,” says Adams.

His Katabatic was the second boat into the country and Adams raced it regularly throughout 2021. One of the big attractions for Adams was the strict one-design rule. He was looking for close competition and hasn’t been disappointed. “At Cowes Week last year I think we had five different race winners after five days. It’s sensational racing.”

Tokoloshe III was the first Cape 31 in the UK and immediately racked up winning race results under IRC. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Cape 31 Class

He also likes the fact that the boat goes, in his words, ‘hell for leather’ downwind. “We peaked at 21 knots last season but 2021 was quite a light year for wind. I think the boat has the potential to go quite a bit faster.”

Created for the Cape

The origins of the Cape 31 stem from Cape Town, a sailing venue where prolific Maxi yacht owner Sir Irvine Laidlaw likes to spend time. Laidlaw wanted a new design that could be sailed in the famous ‘Cape doctor’ winds and swell off Cape Town. “His concept was for a ‘no holds barred’ 30-footer for delivering maximum fun,” explains Swete. “It certainly wasn’t designed to be an IRC weapon. It was designed simply to be the best boat it could be in Cape Town, which actually transferred nicely over to the Solent with the wind against tide and the rough conditions we can get here.”

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The Cape 31 is primarily aimed at round the cans racing, or the occasional long distance day race, such as the Round the Island Race. “We’ve got a 90-mile Cannonball Run planned from Antigua to St Maarten,” Swete adds.

Mark Mills was commissioned to design the boat back in 2017, and although initially successful in South Africa, it took a couple of years for it to gain a wider reputation. “Some international teams had been invited down to Cape Town to race the boat which had gone fairly well,” recalls Swete. “It wasn’t until we brought the boat over [to the UK] and started winning races on IRC that it got noticed properly, and that’s when things really kicked off.”

The Cape 31s have a crew weight limit of 595kg, which usually translates to seven on board, with an owner-driver rule and no more than three professionals. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Cape 31 Class

The centre of gravity of the Cape 31 class has now shifted firmly to the UK, although its handicap performance has given other owners the courage to order boats in different parts of the world.

“The class is very much established in the Solent now, to the point where we’re attracting international teams over here. We’ve got an American team flying in for our local regattas, and a Dutch team too. But we’ll start travelling as a class soon. Next year we’ll travel to the Caribbean, and we’re looking to get some racing going in the Bay of Palma. There’s a fleet starting up in Australia, and the beauty of these boats is they go in a container.”

The aggressively-chined hull shape maximises form stability in a breeze. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Cape 31 Class

Cape 31 – owner-friendly

Aside from the high-performance and handicap appeal of the boat, Swete and his partner, Dave Bartholomew, have pushed hard to establish a strong class ethos that focuses on having fun first and foremost. It’s an owner-driver class with a maximum of three pro sailors permitted on the crew, although Swete encourages teams to sail with fewer.

“We’re all about matching the fun on the water with fun off the water, and we’ve taken it back to the yacht clubs.”

The clean ramp deck offers ease of movement of sails and sailors. Photo: Tor Tomlinson/Cape 31

Keeping it fun includes avoiding an arms race where teams might be tempted to tweak their boats up to – or beyond – the limits of the class rule. Swete says there is a strong policy in place to keep that in check, and he’s not afraid of chasing the wrong sort of owner out of the fleet if it threatens the overall ecosystem of good, clean Corinthian fun and sportsmanship.

“We are investing in keeping people in line. We have a rules guy, Mike Richards, who’s an IRC measurer. He’s been involved in everything from Swan 45s to Fast 40s, Farr 40s and Mumm 30s. We got him involved very early on, because it can sneak in, where people want to take advantage of a new class and loopholes.”

A 15hp Yanmar diesel engine confirms the Cape 31’s ‘yacht’ (not a dayboat or dinghy) credentials. Photo: Tor Tomlinson/Cape 31

Swete acknowledges that launching a new class is in some ways the easy part. The greater challenge could come in maintaining longevity well beyond the honeymoon period that the Cape 31 is currently enjoying. “It’s about looking after the bottom third of the fleet and keeping them happy. We don’t really want teams to all sail with three pros. When you see team coach boats out on the water, I think that’s a very bad sign. It’s not something we’ve banned, but it’s highly discouraged.”

Cape 31 specifications

LOA: 9.56m / 31ft 3in
Beam: 3.10m / 10ft 2in
Draught: 2.45m / 8ft 0in
Displacement: 1,770kg / 3,902lb
Sail Area Mainsail: 39m² / 420ft²
Headsail: 25m² / 269ft²
Gennaker: 116m² / 1,248ft²
IRC Rating: 1.15

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