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Australia's John Bacon - from 5.5m sailor to IRC racer

by North Sails 4 Jul 04:02 NZST
Dark Star - MC38 © Tilly Lock Media

World Champion yachtsman John Bacon has put many successful racing programs together, and his next few months of sailing is no exception.

With a range of sailing projects on the go, John's also contesting two exciting regattas in two vastly different racing yachts on two continents in the next month: the 5.5m World Championships in Hanko, Norway, and the Rolex New York Yacht Club Race Week in Rhode Island, USA on his new Dunning 44.

Stepping up in Sydney

Growing up on the water, John had always sailed with his family and friends. However it wasn't until a change of scene to Sydney's Pittwater that gave the yachtsman a push into the racing side of the sport, and after crewing on various yachts, he realized it was about time to pull together his own team.

"I enjoyed crewing, but I really liked steering - and I thought the only way I'd do any steering is to buy a boat. So, I started with a little boat and began to upgrade and work my way up through a series of different boats and ended up at the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club (RPA). I was happy doing keel boat handicap racing and had a pretty nice Sydney 39 and it was a pretty good IRC boat where we did really well in that. That's where I started to get involved with North Sails, with getting better sails and crew with that boat. I've used North Sails from the get go in all my campaigns, and now, it's never a question of using anything else."

Jumping into One Design racing with a McConaghy 38, John knew the next step was to assemble a competitive program to race against the best.

"I got to know David Sampson and Cameron Miles, and although we knew each other already, we got to form a really tight-knit team together at RPA, and just loved it! We've had a great relationship with Norths through the MC38 program and it was never a question of using anything else. We sailed that boat for 10 years everywhere! We did every regatta, and I think we won one nationals and came second a few times."

The challenge of 5.5m sailing

The 5.5m development class all race on the same start line, however the fleet is scored in three divisions according to their age, as Classics, Evolutions, and Moderns. The Evolution is where John saw his next pursuit as the world championships were coming to his home waters in Australia.

"As my time started to free up I was doing less work, I got interested in the 5.5m. I really loved the concept of 5.5ms and was really drawn into it. The boats are all different, it's all in a box rule. They've got different designers, different sail plans, as one boat may be good on a Swiss Lake, whereas another one is really good at the Baltic. They've all got this character of their own."

"We bought an old Evolution boat in Europe, in the 1973 to 1993 division, and we thought we'd go sail it and do the German Open Regatta, but the poor boat was a wreck, so I got a mate of mine over in Europe to completely restore it for the worlds in 2019 in Helsinki as a bit of a practice. Terry Wetton, James Mayjor and I formed this really nice team, and we ended up winning both regattas, it was just amazing."

"After the 2019 worlds, we brought the boat back to Australia, and RPA was hosting the worlds in January 2020, so instead of trying to win it at our home club we had to defend our title. And we did!

From evolution to modern

John's decided to level up and compete in the main Modern division for the upcoming 2022 5.5 metre World Championship in Hanko, but the change in division is all the same racing for him and his team.

"Everyone's on the same start line. You've got boats that could be up to 70 years old on the line with new modern styles. So within the fleet, it's actually a really interesting strategic point of view among the divisions, as the speed differential between the divisions is not that much. With 5.5ms it's actually about the equipment."

When discussing the North Sails inventory, John's vision for the development of his team includes tweaking and recutting the North Sails designs to suit the racing conditions he expects.

"We've done some fantastic work with Darren Jones, our coach, working with Alby Pratt and the designers on coming up with some really nice sails. We've gone away a little from the One Design sails, and we've got a full wardrobe of 3Di sails. But we've looked at some light air paneled sails as well as an option, which is a work in progress that we're going to look at in Hanko."

When asked about how quickly the class progresses, John's passion for the project shines through. "There are a couple of new sails turning up for us, and the good thing about 5.5m is that it's a development class. You get to push the development of the class further each time you make a change, and I really like that. It's good and when you turn up with something a bit different and it works for you, it's fantastic!"

Where John has spent the most time developing are with his spinnakers, optimizing the inventory for the class minimum and maximum wind speeds for racing, between 4 and 25 knots, allowing him to extend the crossover of the larger spinnaker and remove the smaller spinnaker completely from the boat.

"North Sails has been amazing and we've got a great relationship. It's fundamental to what we're doing with the program, so we've got some nice new sails meeting us when we get over there and we're looking forward to getting out there on the water."

New project for race week in Newport

Racing his Dunning 44 at 2022 Rolex New York Yacht Club Race Week fits perfectly into the packed schedule John has planned for this year, but he hasn't yet seen the boat he plans to race with his international crew of mates looking to have fun.

"We had an opportunity to buy a Dunning 44 in Newport, Rhode Island, called The Edge. And I love it there. We haven't travelled for the last couple of years, and the Rolex New York Yacht Club Race Week regatta is on in July this year, originally we didn't think we could fit it in, but it fits perfectly as it's the week after."

"It's going to be a bit of a scramble, and somewhere we talked Ken Read into doing tactics for us, and Suzy Leech is navigating too. So I'm going to be surrounded by all these absolute legends. And then we look at the entry list, and it's the who's who of big boat racing."

"I am where I am in sailing because of the relationships I've got with people, and I really respect that and am really grateful for it. And I am a North Sails customer, but you get more than the sails, you get everything. The development, the help with that development, the backup, the support, and you know if we blow a spinnaker up in Norway, I guarantee you we can get it fixed."

"So we're working with the North Sails loft in Newport for the Dunning 44. The boat's brand new, it's only done two regattas. The sails that are coming with the boat are okay, but we want to keep moving, so we've ordered another North Sails spinnaker and a medium jib, and we're doing a recut of the main to a more specific design that Ken Read has been part of. The boat's got lots of potential but it's going to be another massive challenge to sail against some of the competition we're up against, but we'll see!"

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