Owen Open 60 Hexagon

Kiwi Graham Dalton and his New Zealand-flagged Open 60 Hexagon will carry the hopes of a nation in the next Around Alone single-handed round-the-world yacht race beginning in September. Steve Raea caught up with Dalton and his boat during sail training on the Hauraki Gulf and filed this report.

Owen Open 60 Hexagon
Owen Open 60 Hexagon

Having read A voyage for Madmen, a recently published account of the 1968 Golden Globe single-handed round-the-world yacht race, one can only marvel at the gains in technology when comparing the likes of Bernard Moitessier's boilerplate Joshua to Graham Dalton's new carbon fibre Open 60 Hexagon.

Everything about Hexagon reeks of cutting-edge technology, except perhaps Dalton himself, who has the Herculean task of harnessing that technology if he is to realise Hexagon's true potential and his own dream of being the fastest man around the world.

Dalton is already on the back foot. His boat is new and untested and, by Around Alone standards, he is inexperienced. He admits it. He admits too that having a yacht that derives much of its performance from its systems adds a critical dimension in the battle to be race-ready for the September start at Newport, Rhode Island.

It was the failure of those systems that prevented Dalton campaigning Hexagon in last month's Round the North Island Yacht Race and cut short our day testing on the Hauraki Gulf less than a week later.

But Dalton is not concerned and nor should he be. The boat had been in the water less than a fortnight and it was always going to a big ask. He concedes his program is tight but says he has the support and financial backing to ensure that he and his yacht are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Hexagon is a striking boat from every angle - a monolith in modern design. From the tip of its 94 ft carbon fibre mast to the bulb on the keel, it is a hybrid that sets a new benchmark in the world of Open 60 race yachts.

Hexagon was designed by Merfyn Owen from the UK-based Owen Clark Design Group. Owen was the principal designer of Kingfisher, the New Zealand-built Open 60 sailed with outstanding success by British yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur in the last Veendee Globe. Kingfisher proved her pedigree in the testing grounds of the Southern Ocean and continues to dominate on the European short-handed racing circuit.

Dalton says he cast an eye at the French Finot-designed Open 60's but elected to go with Owen.

"I liked the look of Kingfisher. It was a fast boat and a good starting platform on which to build. It also made sense to work with the UK design group and thus avoid the language barrier. Timing was also critical. We needed a seemless operation."

Dalton says a lot of money - some of it wasted - went in at the design stage with an exhaustive research and testing program heavily biased towards reducing weight. It was, he says, the driving force behind the whole design process and is reflected throughout the boat.

While Hexagon looks similar to Kingfisher that is where the similarities end. The boat was initially designed to Around Alone rules, a formula that allowed Merfyn Owen greater latitude in terms of new and radical development. It soon transpired, however, to be a costly mistake. Having gained clarification on the finer points of the rules from race organiser Robin Knox-Johnson, it was perceived by race organisers that Dalton had acquired an early advantage.

When word leaked to competitors a number of European entries threatened to boycott. The organisers then rescinded the Notice of Race and told Dalton his yacht had to comply to International Monohull Offshore Cruising Association (IMOCA) rules. Dalton says that ruling cost his team plenty in terms of cost and time. His contempt for the race organisers is thus well documented. "We're now just six months away from the start and we're still waiting for the Notice of Race. It's shameful."

Hexagon was built in Tauranga by Southern Ocean Marine which worked closely with High Modulus to establish strict quality control systems on the shop floor to ensure the carbon fibre/nomex construction complied to rigid weight tolerances. With the systems in place, the boat was built in 20 weeks - a credit to the dedication of her builders.

The result is a super light 60 ft yacht with a displacment of just 4.5 tons, about the same as the average 30ft keeler. The quest for light yet strong construction has resulted in a floating no-comfort zone that could generously be described as a shell.

One of the most notable and daunting characteristics about Hexagon is the sheer size of the Southern Spars carbon fibre rig towering off the deck. The mainsail, at 182 square metres, dwarfs those carried on the Volvo Ocean 60's at 120 square metres. Dalton concedes it's a big piece of rag but steels himself with the belief that once the sail is up it will stay up. He says its sheer size demands a conservative approach to reefing which will be aided by powerful winches, batten cars and lazy jacks.

There are several notable departures from previous Open 60's, an obvious one being Hexagon's wide-open cockpit design and the use of twin titanium wheels over the European-favoured tillers. Dalton says while autopilots will steer the boat in the main, he intends spending long stretches at the helm coaxing boat speed in the light. The wheels, he says, are more practical for longer periods of helming.

Hexagon's under-water appendages don't differ significantly from Kingfisher with the same twin angled rudders well aft to maintain control when sailing hard pressed on the wind. The boat has an electro-hydraulic canting keel that tilts the keel to 45 degrees from vertical. Unlike Kingfisher, Merfyn Owen opted for a single centreboard rather than twin centreboards forward of the keel to maintain the boat's windward ability when sailing with the keel fully canted. The yacht is water ballasted with in-built venturies sucking in, and expelling water from the tanks. Dalton won't reveal the size of the ballast tanks which are postitioned on the centreline to satisfy the rules' stability requirments. There are two ballast tanks, one under the cockpit and the other just aft of the keel.

Dalton's quest to reduce weight is evident on deck with the latest thinking in deck hardware, running and standing rigging. All winches are off-the-shelf carbon fibre drums from US manufacturer Harken. Hexagon's blocks, cars, traveler and twin self furlers are all Harken gear. The jammers and remaining deck gear is from the Spinlock stable. Titanium has replaced stainless steel where possible including stanchions and rails. The standing rigging is all PBO by UK company Future Fibre and covered in an outer weave to protect against UV deterioration. Dalton says the rigging has a life span of just 20,000 miles and will be replaced before the start of the race. PBO has proven itself in both the America's Cup and Volvo campaigns but Dalton concedes that it is wickedly expensive. The inner forestay is hydraulically controlled from the cockpit with a ram providing the sort of forestay tensions required to carry the powerful headsails.

The sail wardrobe is from Doyles Auckland loft and include a main, genoa, gennaker, code zero, code five, solent jib and staysail jib. Dalton says the wardrobe will include a "secret weapon" that is still in the design stage and won't be seen until the start. A new suit of generation II sails will be waiting at the start line.

Hexagon's deck layout is wide open and clean with the mainsheet traveler running aft along the full length of the stern. The cockpit instrumentation and keel canting controls are mounted in the bulkhead and protected by the cabintop overhang. Dalton describes the boat as a big dinghy, which goes someway in describing the positioning and set up of the deck gear.

Below decks is a Spartan affair. The pod-like cabin is accessed through a small, almost circular hatchway set into the bulkhead. It demands considerable dexterity, particularly in any sort of seaway. Comfort is not a word that applies to Hexagon in any shape or form. It was a big part of the tradeoff in Dalton's quest to reduce weight. The navigation station is located immediately inside the pod and lies amidships. It is the only sitting area and where Dalton will spend the lions share of his time when below. A small pipe berth is located on each side of the nav station. The only natural light is that that filters through three small oval ports built into the pod.

The rest of the boat is continually in darkness. There are no coatings below - another weight saving measure. A single-burner stove and small wash basin aft of the nav station completes Dalton's world. Below decks is a truly bleak affair. A manual toilet is fitted well forward for corporate guests but may yet go over the side before September. There is a ton of sail stowage forward of the mast accessed by a round deck hatch. Anchors, warp and fenders are located further forward.

The nav station bristles with all the latest communications and computer hardware common to modern racing yachts. Electronics includes twin Furuno GP 31 GPS units, Furuno radar, Icom VHF and SSB radios, electronic barograph and CD player. Hexagon will carry French NKE electro-hydraulic autopilots interfaced with NKE wind and speed instruments providing standard navigational data to optimise sail performance. Computer hardware includes a VEI computer and waterproof 20 inch LCD screen running MaxSea charting software. Backup is provided by a Toshiba laptop running the same software.

Onboard communications includes a Nera Mini M world telephone used for both voice and e-mail coms from the boat. Hexagon is also equipped with an inmarsat sat C system used in conjunction with the MaxSea charting software providing automatic position reports to race organisers. Two cameras will be rigid-mounted on board, one on the stern post and a second on the mast. A third hand-held camera will be carried below. The images will be processed via a Sony Vaio laptop computer running compression software allowing edited images to be sent from the boat using the Nera Mini M satellite link.

Having been in the water for just six weeks, it is early days to draw a definitive line on the boat's performance, especially when gains are being made daily as the sailing program gathers momentum. The systems, too, are still being tweaked but Dalton is happy. And it is little wonder. The boat is fast. Our early morning sail - just Dalton's third since the February 15 launching - was something of a voyage of discovery. It was a challenge in itself just to get the boat off its berth and the huge main grunted to the top of the rig.

With a shifty northerly breeze of 10 to 12 knots, Hexagon ghosted along at eight knots under main only where, at North Head, we gybed for a windward beat to Flat Rock off Kawau Island.

With the solent jib sheeted home and the main trimmed up, Hexagon was off, lifting to building breeze as the keel was swung to weather. The boat's pointing ability was clearly obvious as we powered up on the wind, boat speed rising until finding the "groove". With an apparent wind speed of 10 and 12 knots Hexagon slipped along comfortably at eight to nine knots as we worked our way up the East Coast Bays on a falling tide. While conservative on sail selection, Hexagon felt surprisingly stiff, gaining height and speed in the puffs with no obvious tendency or want to heel excessively. The helm was light and positive and the boat seemed more than willing to steer itself. Two things struck me as we worked the boat up the coast; the fact there was very little to hang on to when working in the vast open cockpit and the total lack of shelter from sun, wind, rain and sea. A safety harness is a must, particularly working the primary winches. I found myself frustrating was the size of the instruments, which I considered were almost lost in the expanse of the cockpit. The NKE instruments are small and might prove challenging for a tired single-handed sailor. The sheer beam and size of the boat tends to negate the sensation of speed and Dalton agrees. He says, however, that the "feel" is misleading.

"Because the boat is so wide you don't have the same sense of speed that you might in a smaller yacht. But when you look at the log you realise just how quickly your moving. Its effortless which is pleasing because the race is about building and maintaining averages."

With a draft of 4.5 metres, Hexagon demands deep water which meant quick and regular tacks as we worked our way towards Kawau Island. The boat went through the tacks quickly and the carbon fibre winches made light work of sheeting. Like fractional rigs of its kind, runners are a prerequisite and one of a number of tasks that had to be worked through when going over. The hydraulic canting keel takes time to return to vertical and longer again to swing out to its full 45degree arc. Hexagon was not designed to race around cans. Our plan to tack through to Flat Rock and run back to Auckland was abandoned when the keel hydraulics failed, allowing the keel to swing freely in its casing. Despite the set back, the call went out for the number one gennaker. With all hands to the halyard, up she went, her sock preventing any chance of a premature set. Hexagon carried the big sail well, averaging 11 to 14 knots in about the same apparent wind speed. But again there was little sensation of speed. One thing, however, became quickly obvious - noise. The slightest slap on the carbon fibre hull is amplified throughout the boat and sounds like a clap of thunder. Hexagon will be noisy and Dalton knows it, pointing to the six-stack CD player strategically placed at the nav station.

Hexagon's third outing was not without its dramas as we were about to discover when gybing the gennaker onto starboard for the final run home.

For some reason (later identified as a rudder fault) Hexagon refused to answer her helm as the big sail filled, forcing Hexagon on her big flat starboard topside. Our efforts to get her back were in vain despite easing the main sail and dumping the vang. Each time it looked like we had her back the gennaker would fill again, pulling her back over sending the boom into the water. Our only option was to sock the sail which was giving the rig a fearful time. The gennaker was eventually cloaked and the boat righted and put back on a proper course for home. Dalton says it transpired that the angle on one of the twin rudders had been incorrectly set at five degrees instead of 15 degrees.

"She didn't have a chance. It was a good thing it happened when it did. We had a problem and its been corrected. Its part and parcel of learning about the boat and its systems and getting it right for when it counts."

Despite the initial set backs, Dalton is confident that he and Hexagon are on track to take the game to the rest of the world when the real business begins in September. Dalton's progress during the Around Alone will be constantly monitored and updated on his website at www.grahamdalton.hsbc.com.


LOA: 18.3 metres
Displacement: 4500kg (dry)
Draft: 4.5 metres
Beam: 5.4 metres
Designer: Owen Clark Design Group (UK)
Builder: Southern Ocean Shipyards (NZ)
Rig: Southern Spars (NZ)
Sails: Doyles (NZ)
Electronics supplier: Crystal Electronics (NZ)
Engine: Yanmar 3GM30
Deck gear: Harken/Spinlock

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