While Team Aqua’s Cameron Appleton remains unchallenged as the RC44 class’ longest-serving crew, not far behind is the Netherland’s Dirk de Ridder.
A winner of the Volvo Ocean Race on John Kostecki’s Illbruck Challenge in 2001-2 and of the America’s Cup on BMW Oracle Racing’s USA 17 at the 2010 ‘DoG’ match when he had the scary responsibility of trimming the mega-trimaran’s 55m high skyscraper-tall wing, de Ridder (nicknamed ‘Cheese’) is one of the Netherland’s most accomplished sailors.
Unlike most of his contemporaries who started out in Optimists, graduated up via their national youth programs, de Ridder’s sailing roots were principally with his family, aboard their cruising boats. Once’s he’d got into racing, his mentor, who helped him “get out of Holland” as he puts it, was Roy Heiner, the 1996 Olympic Finn bronze medallist, for whom De Ridder end up crewing in the Flying Dutchman at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, where they finished fourth.
However de Ridder admits while his friends played with their Action Men, he was from childhood quite simply a yacht racing fan, whose ambition from an early age was to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race/Volvo Ocean Race: “That was my big dream, growing up with Flyer and Philips Innovator posters on the wall! We used to go on holiday to Hamble to take pictures of Admiral’s Cup boats! It was the same for my dad and the whole family. And when Simon le Bon entered sailing, my sister stopped complaining!”
His dream came true in the 1997-8 race, when he sailed round the world to second place aboard Merit Cup with none other than race legend Grant Dalton, winner of the previous race. According to de Ridder this opportunity came about after he had been got the job as a trimmer on Dalton’s Grand Mistral (a one-design maxi boat of the mid-1990s). With one round the world race under his belt, plus a growing reputation, even then, of being one of the best trimmers in the business, led to his joining John Kostecki’s Illbruck Challenge, earning him victory in his dream race aged just 29.
Between round the world races, de Ridder was also getting good rides racing inshore. During the 2000s he started sailing with the period’s greatest sailor – Russell Coutts – a journey which saw him win the America’s Cup in 2010, but also getting deeply involved in the development period of the RC44. Back in the early days of the class, he raced with Coutts, especially on Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle RC44 over 2009-2011, winning the fleet racing season’s championship in 2010, a year when the Oracle boss’s team also became first ever RC44 World Champions.
Three years ago de Ridder returned to the RC44 as main sheet trimmer aboard Igor Lah’s highly successful Team CEEREF, winner of the season championship in 2016 (when they were also crowned World Champions) and 2017. Currently Team CEEREF lies second overall to Nico Poons’ Charisma.
Despite the length of time he has spent in the class, de Ridder remains a firm fan of the RC44, a boat that was well ahead of its time when it was first launched in 2006 and which remains the best 40 footer to fit into a standard-sized container for easy, low cost shipping or trucking between events.
“To this day there is still nothing out there like it,” says de Ridder. “The boats are solid – we’ve had quite a lot of collisions with them when the bow piece came off or the stern piece. Thanks to those, despite the amount of collisions we’ve had, structural damage to the physical boat itself has been very little.” In addition, the boats being built robustly in carbon fibre, means that they are also set to have a long, long life span.
There also physical features of the boat which de Ridder likes, many of which are no longer trendy, but the absence of which he feels definitely represent a loss on more modern race boats.
“The boats have overlapping jibs, which no one has any more. That makes for a different technique of sailing. It enables good racing in 5 knots of breeze and yet the RC44s are robust enough that you can slam them around in Cascais in 28 knots of breeze. So you have lots of gears.”
Then there is the trim tab, the flap on the back of the keel foil, developed by America’s Cup teams, that effectively makes the foil asymmetric. Its effect, says de Ridder “is huge. If you lined up two otherwise identical boats, one with a trim tab and one without, the one with it would be first at the top mark every single time.” This is not so much due to the improved pointing ability the trim tab provides, as the absence of leeway. “It goes through the water straight, whereas other boats have 3-4° of leeway. You can use it tactically as well, so you have lots of different modes. In fact sometimes you play the trim tab more than the main sheet.” Typically the trim tab is operated by the main sheet trimmer, which on Team CEEREF makes it de Ridder’s job.
While the RC44 on the one hand has overlapping headsails, on the other it has a retractable bowsprit for use with asymmetric downwind sails – used in preference to a traditional spinnaker-pole due to the speed of the RC44’s speed. However compared to other boats with retracting sprits, the RC44’s is special in that it can also be canted to weather. “We do that in anything over 6-7 knots of breeze,” says de Ridder. “It makes it easier for gybing and you can sail a bit deeper.”
Another joy of the RC44, that is a function of its 12-year-old, age is that there are now a lot of crew around who have sailed them at the very highest level. “When we first sailed them, there were always spinnakers in the water. That doesn’t happen so often anymore.” Plus there are no passengers in the crew. “Everyone on the boat has plenty on. The pitman does runners – so it is busy and at the end of each day you are tired.”
De Ridder also commends the class for the way they run the circuit, the stringent safety and measurement tests, etc that ensure the RC44s remain perfectly even. As he observes: “The CEEREF boat is now 11 years old and has been measured God knows how many times… Everyone is on max draft, everyone’s bulbs have been measured and everything has been corrected. You look at the results - you can’t say there is a rocket ship in there.”
Given that it is a 44ft long boat, in a class featuring many of the world’s top sailors, de Ridder adds that the RC44 also represents unprecedented good value for money for aspirant owners (“you can run one for €500k per year). “There are not many places you can spend the money as it is very restricted. Plus it an owner-driven class and between the owners and Bertrand [Favre – RC44 Class Manager], it is quite a healthy system. Bertrand has a good feel for what the owners want and how to achieve it. There is good understanding in the class about how to run it. It is not a big organisation, so there are not many people to deal with.”
As to the circuit itself, de Ridder says his favourite events are the ones where they get to go to new places. For example, while they are yet to be announced, two new venues are being introduced to the RC44 circuit in 2019. “It is really good that we can go to places where we normally don’t get to with keelboats, like Lake Garda or like Lake Traunsee – which was my favourite event. That is where this class is strong. At the end of the day it is the owner’s holiday and we are lucky to have made a job out of it.”