Deneen Demourkas Gets Back in the Groove
Sixteen years of top-flight international one-design racing netted Deneen Demourkas and her Groovederci programme four Mumm 30 North American Championships and three consecutive World Championship titles. But when the pressure of her relentless campaign schedule took its toll two years ago, a burned-out Deneen turned her back on sailboat racing and headed for the golf course, vowing never to return. Now however, she is back on the water and has a renewed enthusiasm for racing. We asked Deneen to tell us in her own words what made her put an end to her self-imposed exile from the sport.
I awoke to a bright blue sky, a gentle breeze filling my hotel room and vibrant tropical waters in shades of blue and green reflecting off the walls. It took me a moment to remember where I was and why I was there.
It was March of this year and I was in Bermuda to race an M32 catamaran for the first time. I had not raced a boat of any kind since December of 2014, after taking a much needed hiatus from sixteen years of non-stop competition in three separate one-design classes across the US and Europe.
Managing such an intense racing programme is akin to herding cats a great deal of the time and that had taken its toll on me. When I made the decision to stop I found it effortless to walk away from competitive sailing. Golf became my new best friend.
A couple of months into my sailing hiatus one of my good friends, longtime main trimmer and golf buddy, Luke Molloy, rang me and suggested I think about trying out an M32 catamaran.
Having recently sailed one, he briefed me on the rapidly growing class, the simplicity of the of the boats, the manageable crew size (4 to 5) and most importantly, the fun factor.
“Deneen, these boats are fast!” he enthused down the phone line.
I promised Luke I would give the M32 some thought, hung up the phone and headed out the door for yet another important date with a golf ball.
It’s fair to say I didn’t exactly leap at the opportunity to return to sailboat racing. In fact, it took a couple of months before I could even give the idea any serious thought. When I eventually got around to it, I sat down and identified the three things that would be needed to get me back into sailboat racing.
Number one, it had to be easy. In my book, easy means that you don’t have an entourage of seven to twelve crew members (on a few previous occasions we had as many as 15 or more with their extended families and a chef - hence the ‘herding cats’ reference earlier). Easy also means that logistics should be uncomplicated and it shouldn’t take a thousand hours of advance planning.
Secondly, it had to be fun. For me, fun is about simply being able to enjoy a good boat with a few choice people who you like sailing with and who know what they’re doing. Ideally, no weigh-ins and no fleet politics.
Finally, number three - the boat would have to be exciting. I define exciting in a really simple way as ‘something which makes your heart skip a beat!’
With these three criteria at the forefront of my mind I began to think more earnestly about Luke’s suggestion and started to do some research of the M32 online. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to looking at the GC32 catamaran as well, but it quickly became clear that it didn’t fit my criteria, nor my checkbook!
To flesh out what I learned from my online research I also I asked some of my friends in the sailing industry for their views on the M32 and, more importantly, their honest opinion of whether or not I would enjoy it - in fact, if they honestly thought I would be able to sail one!
The overall consensus was positive. Everyone told me how fast and fun the boats were and said I would love it and should definitely give it a try. One of those friends was Luna Rossa’s America’s Cup tactician, Francesco Bruni. We had done some sailing together previously and he, more than anyone, convinced me that I was not only capable of sailing an M32, but would really enjoy it.
I think it’s important to note here that my previous catamaran experience was limited to a ride aboard an Inter 20 as ballast, some twenty years previously. When I watched the exhilarating online videos from M32 events of boats capsizing, collisions, crew falling overboard and the boats generally ripping around at high speed, I had to wonder if I would survive such an adventure.
I can tell you that our boat captain of thirteen years, Rob Huntingford and my husband both thought I would come back on a stretcher. Me, I took the approach I always have with sailing and that is: ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Luke put me in touch with Dave Doucett and Taylor Canfield who represent M32 North America and we made arrangements for a test ride in September of 2015 in Newport, RI for my first M32 experience. After a crash course in cat sailing courtesy of Taylor, we then spent two hours zipping up and down the bay, reaching speeds of nineteen knots in twelve knots of breeze. Amazing.
I decided to charter a boat for two events in the following year, one in March and the other in April, just to see how things went. The way I looked at it, if I survived both these regattas then this might just be the ride I’ve been looking for.
To give myself the best chance of making it through, I chose a warm weather venue for the events and that’s how I ended up in a Bermuda hotel room on that idyllic March morning.
Once on the water, the M32 is relatively simple in both concept and design: two sails - a mainsail and gennaker - twin rudders, just a couple of halyards and a hiking rack for the crew that simply folds up when not in use.
Now you’d think, with all the sailing I’ve done, that getting this thing around the track would be easy? Well, you would be right - it was and I honestly believe anyone with a reasonable sailing background and a knowledgeable crew would find it easy too.
The boat is light and responsive and has very little weather helm, making her very easy to maneuver. That’s helpful when you are flying around at 20 plus knots on a short course with eight of your new-best-friend-skippers in hot pursuit! Sailboat racing at those speeds is most definitely not for the faint of heart and as a helmsman, keeping your wits about you is even more crucial than in monohulls.
Hand on heart, I had a real blast on this 32-foot machine and felt Increasingly comfortable ripping around the track. That said, I was always conscious not to let myself get complacent, as the consequences would likely be quite painful. While the boats are stable, they are still catamarans - with no lead balloons hanging underneath to keep you glued to the water like a monohull.
Extra buoyancy is designed into the M32 bows, meaning that if you nosedive, the dreaded pitch poll isn’t likely to occur. Capsizing sideways is a possibility however. Thankfully, we never came close to capsizing, but, when we buried the bows, I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity before they popped out of the white and blue froth we had driven them into and we shot off again at high speed.
With two events in Bermuda under my belt now, I would most certainly do more M32 racing and absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for a fast change. The boat itself was great fun, the competition was fierce, the racing was fast and furious (around eight races a day, at about seventeen minutes each, means you hardly have time to catch your breath).
The regatta’s support system worked very well with M32-supplied tenders getting the big cats out and back into the docks each day. If needed, technical support was readily available on the water and the relaxed attitude of the race committee allowed everyone as much time as needed to get sorted and ready to race before the next warning signal was fired.
At the last event I attended in early April, two boats had some damage after close racing in the harbor. Rather than race without them, the fleet decided to return to shore and wait while they were repaired. The next day, one boat unfortunately lost its rig and after asking all the teams for their cooperation, the race committee devised an improvised rotation system, where each team sat out two races. It was an excellent solution to keep everyone in the game and not something you will find happening in any other class that I’m aware of.
Shoreside, the hospitality was sumptuous and there was a real camaraderie amongst the teams which made for a very nice overall regatta experience.
The M32 class is still in the early stages of its development, but it has a real driving force in the form of Hakan Svensson, the CEO of M32 builder, Aston Harald.
Hakan’s passion and enthusiasm for the development and sustainability of the class are evident from the moment you meet him on the dock. He is always eager to hear your opinion as a sailor and as an owner. He also races in the fleet which gives him an honest and clear perspective on the events.
That Hakan is making a number of boats available for charter at most, if not all, of the M32 Series events, is a measure of his remarkable commitment to growing the class. Its fair to say that any class, at any stage of its development, could not find a better friend than Hakan.
Speaking as someone who has tried it and been left wanting more, the bottom line is this: if you are reading this and think you might like the M32, you are probably right, but you won’t know for sure unless you get out there and give one a go.
Hopefully I will see you out on the water!
[Main Image: Ian Roman]