Two-thirds of Sailing World’s editorial staff take a ride on the new Melges 20 and find it to be a peppy, rewarding sportboat that shares some of the characteristics of its more famous siblings, but not all. (And that’s a good thing)

Sep 19, 2008
By Dave Reed and Stuart Streuli

Dave Reed’s Take: A Rough Cut Rock

The Melges 20 is on the streets. It was only last year, this very weekend of the Newport International Boat Show where the Boys from Zenda discretely announced the imminent arrival of the Melges 24’s mini-me. Whether they’ll admit it or not, the popularity of the Laser SB3 in Europe and it’s arrival in the U.S., as well as the strengthening other 20-foot sportboat classes, played at least some part in finally getting the Melges 20 off the drawing board. It was at the Newport show last year where salesman Sam Rogers handed me a card-stock pamphlet with a sail plan and intentionally vague ad copy hyping the boat

“Here you go,” he said with a playful smile “Now you know as much as I do.”

Now, one year later, the first two Melges 20s have arrived from McConaghy Boats’ China operation and the Melges factory team is piling on the mileage with demo rides in San Francisco, Zenda, and Newport. Annapolis is up next in October at the U.S. Sailboat Show, and the boat will be available for those of you looking to take a spin (if you’re really keen, schedule yourself a time slot ahead of time). The various reviews from those who’ve sailed it have been all good, with most everyone taking an easy dig at the boat’s $47,000 price tag. We’ll get to that later. First let’s get to the sailing.

Stuart Streuli and yours truly finally got our hands on the boat this week, and it was well worth the wait. Narragansett Bay was alive with a 15- to 20-knot westerly running against an incredibly bumpy ebbing tide.

The boat was rigged and ready to sail before we got it, so I can’t speak to the boat’s ease of set up, but my guess is it’s an hour or so tops, from trailer to sailing. The carbon rig, drops into its tabernacle step, uppers and lowers get fastened to fore-and-aft adjustable shroud cars, roll it to the hoist, hit the water and drop the keel. The jib goes to the roller-furling headfoil, the mainsail gets peeled on, and so on. The roller-furling drum, developed by Harken for the boat, is hidden below decks.

There’s not much rope at all in the long, open cockpit: sheets and control lines were cut to size, which gives the boat its clutter free-look. I’ve sailed the Laser SB3 a lot, and it’s no secret it’s a favorite of mine, but in the housekeeping department, the Melges 20 seems to require a lot less of it.

Speaking of housekeeping; one important detail that has not yet been worked out is how to stow the kite. The SB3 solution was to bag it, old school style, at the forward end of the cockpit, which requires a crew to go forward to stuff it and launch it. Melges has instead implemented a cockpit-floor sock set up, like that found on the 49er. Three belly-string retrieval points suck the kite in really quick, but the problem is you end up with a chubby lump of sail right about where the forward crew would put his legs. The sock, as we had, was simply not long enough, but Kimball says they’re still working out a better solution, possibly extending the sock all the way to the back of the boat. I don’t think this is the right solution, but I have no doubt they’ll come up with a smart solution, so there’s no need in laboring over this detail. Also, the boat we sailed was not yet fully refined, and Kimball acknowledged as much, pointing out that they’ll work out the ergonomic and system-related kinks with these two prototypes before letting the production run roll in China.

The same is true of the sail plan. The rig is shorter than its original design iteration and Kotoun pointed out that the sails we were using had been re-cut three times already. Once Harry Melges gets his hands on them, Kotoun tells me, they’ll be “sweet.”

I’m no sailmaker, so I’ll trust him, but the sails we were flying for this breezy one-hour sail were more than adequate to give us a sense what the boat is capable of. Upwind in the mixed-up, foot-high chop, the boat scurried along at six or seven knots over the ground (as read on Kotoun’s hand-held Velocitek unit). I haven’t driven a Melges 24 much at all, so even with my inexperienced hand on the tiller the boat sailed beautifully. There wasn’t a lick of helm until the big puffs came rolling in, and I let the main rag too much as I was trying to drive off the jib. “It’s OK to bubble the jib,” Kimball pointed out after a few minutes. “Like the 24, it’s all about heel.”

I didn’t get my morning surf in this day, so I was more than happy to end the upwind portion of our test and to turn and burn. It’s an easy spinnaker set for the forward crew who must hand feed the first few feet of the kite before pulling an arm’s-length or two of the combination tackline/pole-launch control. Once that’s done, he rolls the jib and it’s everyone to the back of the bus. The boat has superb balance, and obviously, the faster we went the better it felt. Carving up and down to catch waves was easy and the boat quickly jumped on surfs. The Velocitek was showing 12s and 13s, and frankly, had we had one less body, we could have done another tick or two better. I think I may have topped Stu on the top speed of the morning, but without official confirmation we’ll just let the each of us think we had the better number. Stu, however, had the better round-up after dropping the tiller coming out of a down-speed jibe. It took no effort at all to get the boat back under the kite and tearing along again.

And about that 47K price tag: If it makes you stop and scratch your head about how you’d come up with the cash, then the boat is probably already out of your price range. But Stu and I (both barely capable of rubbing two nickels together) agree that it’s not too far out of line given the price of other new one-design builds. Raw materials aren’t getting any cheaper (don’t forget these are petroleum-based products we’re talking about there). Nor is labor, even in China, so 47K isn’t really all that surprising. Plus, with this price comes the trailer, an outboard engine, sails, and everything else required to race the boat right out of the box. On top of this you get the same service and one-design class support that has gotten both the Melges 24 and 32 to where they are today.

And like the Melges 24 before it, which has been through years of refinement to be the quintessential raceboat it is today, the 20 is still in its early stages. Before it shines, it needs a bit of polishing, and once it is, it’s going to be a gem.

Stuart Streuli’s Take: The Same, But Different

Like any younger sibling, the Melges 20 will be subjected to comparisons to its older (and larger) sisters, the 24, primarily, and the 32. This certainly has an upside. The Melges 24 is the world’s premiere sportboat; its world championship is one of the toughest regattas to win. A decade and a half after it debuted, it’s still going strong, setting the standard for close one-design competition and thrilling downwind performance against which all other 20-somethings are measured.

But to assume that the 20 is simply a smaller version of the 24 is to do the newest member of Buddy’s family a disservice. Melges Boatworks president Andy Burdick stressed that the goal with the Reichel/Pugh design wasn’t to create a boat for those who felt the 24 was a little too big or too expensive, but liked everything else. It was to create a boat that could attract sailors who maybe hadn’t considered the Melges 24 sailing to be their proverbial cup of tea.

To that end, Burdick pointed out a few features of the 20 that separate it from the 24 and the 32: a simplified deck layout with no backstay or traveler, an upside-down vang, comfortable legs-in hiking, ramped tracks for easy shroud tension adjustment, and a chine on the aft third of the hull.

Burdick made a convincing case, but I wasn’t about to take his word for it. Not when I could find out for myself. The day after the Newport boat show Dave Reed and I took the 20 out for a sail on Narragansett Bay in a gusty southwesterly.

The Melges 20 is a hoot to sail. It tracks like a train upwind, rewarding a steady hand on the tiller, and is very nimble off the wind. We hit speeds of 13 to 14 knots downwind in 15 to 20 knots of wind and very rough seas. It’s tippy, and much more like a dinghy than the 24. When the lulls hit, the boat would quickly roll to windward, both upwind and down. (Dave may be correct in his assumption about which of us holds the speed record from the test. If so, however, I maintain it’s largely because when he drove, I flew the kite, and vice versa. While I worked that sheet like I was trying to start a rusty lawnmover, Dave caressed it in and out like he was jigging for flounder. This boat rewards the team that works.)

The legs-in hiking is the most significant change from the 24; it drastically alters the crew dynamics. As opposed to the 24, where three or four suffer on the rail so one guy can drive, this is a cooperative experience. Without the ability to hike harder to flatten the boat, the crew must actively work the sails and sail controls to keep the boat on its feet. With three people on the boat, everyone will have a vital role upwind and down.

Local keelboat guru Anthony Kotoun thinks the key to sailing upwind will be to manage the heel. I took his advice. Even in Monday’s wind-against-current chop, the boat feathered very nicely. Depowering by pinching requires a delicate touch, but it’s hardly impossible. The helm is balanced all the time, even at 15 to 20 degrees of heel.

Downwind, it’s all about breaking out of displacement mode. The boat loves to plane. But as light as it is, the chines give it remarkable stability. It also pops back up quite quickly after a knockdown.

With all these positives, what will hold the boat back? The $47,000 price tag is the highest of any of the 20-foot sportboats. It’s more than $15,000 greater than the Viper 640 and Open 5.7 were selling for at the Newport Show and $7,000 above the price of the Laser SB3. This much the boat has in common with its bigger sisters. Melges boats are not cheap. Nor, however, are they overpriced for what you get. Once the fleet is established, this price will be less of a factor. Initially, however, it may hinder the boat as it tries to gain traction in a crowded niche.

With four of us on the boat, it was a little crowded downwind as we moved our weight as far back as possible to keep the nose out of the water. I don’t imagine sailing it with four medium-sized men—three should be plenty. But even with that number, or with four smaller sailors, it’s going to take some choreography to keep out of each other’s way.

There was a lot to like about the Melges 20. It’s a worthy addition to the company’s line of performance sailboats, but it’s a lot more than merely a 20-foot version of the formula that has served the company so well in recent years.