Jul 17, 2013

A-Class : Piet Saarberg Interview

Piet Saarberg has a broad racing  and building A-Class experience, he manages his own Saarberg carbon spars building company and lately he launched a new A design with Hans Klok from Catamaranparts.nl , the Vision, currently being raced by Chris Field who was crowned European Champion in 2012 after being 2nd overall at 100 boats Garda event.  

Piet has been involved in the Class management, he is the  current Gral Sec of the International A-Class  Assoc. I contacted him after the last Europeans at Barcelona to review current class developments seen through his large experience in the Class with all the R&D cycles and transitions.
- When did you start getting involved with the A Class?
Piet Saarberg: I was fascinated with the speed of the catamaran and tried a Hobie 14 and an A-cat. It was no choice, I fell for A-cat. This type of cat is very rewarding in getting the best of speed if you do it right. I started to build one for myself, designed by me. It was a success and 60 being built professionally at the time. Now we have done one more, the Vision, and it has proven to be up in the ranks again.

- The class has achieved 100 boats at major events , how were the numbers a decade or +20 years ago?
PS: When I started the class had a maximum of 75

competitors for the major events. This was changed some 20 years ago in 100 max. As one start was the norm it was already stretching the start line to the limit.

- Right now you are Gral Sec of the Class, which is the current status ? Nr of Assoc , nr Sailors, of builders?
PS: The nr. of National Assoc. is 19 over 3 continents , organised in an International Association. The latest number of sailors is 965 active regatta sailors. The A-class catamarans professionally being built in numbers are Dna, Bimare, Nikita, Vision, Exploder, Scheurer G6 plus two new French builders plus others in the US like Barracuda and a few types and in Brazil where there is a small builder.
It has the International status and attracts the top sailors. I any big event you will find a dozen Olympic sailors and ex WC sailors. You sail against the very top of the world.

- The Class is growing in the US too, where 120 boats were registered in 2012 Worlds.
I've seen the class has a good policy on distributing Worlds within continent locations Europe, Aus, USA, it is something pre established or it depends on the organizers bid? If predefined which is the range?
PS: We have the A-class Championship rules in which this is regulated. With the maximum of 100 competitors the distribution of places for the major events there is an allocation of places pro rata to the number of National members. This with minimum of 2 and a maximum of 15. 2 to assist the sailors traveling and 15 to avoid the big countries to have too much influence.
We have opened up the numbers for this year’s EC in Barcelona and for the WC next year in Auckland, NZL, but of course we are going there to promote the class in all continents.
This rotation is also fixed in a sequence. Image: Cristayn Fletcher .Chris Field at Barcelona Europeans 2013.

- From recent years I started following the Class , I've seen some technical discussions, but it seems the class is managing to get development transitions in a good form, as still 10 years old boats or even more are competitive. How many development stages or cycles the class has survived?

PS: The class has survived since 1965. It was the IYRU who established the box ruled A,B ,C and D class. This was an effort to get the catamaran organised in groups to get the competition possible in a better way. The box rules were length, width, sail area and number of sailors.
The A-class was the single handed and only real survivor. The class has put a minimum weight of 75kg to it in 1996 to get more reliability in the class. This was hotly debated. Without the limit the class reputation was not good as they were having too many failures during racing.
Now we have the issue of flying which was tried to ban with the curved board ruling. I see this as the next possible hurdle.

- Which where those quantum leaps or development changes that marked an era, for ie alu to carbon mast? straight to curved daggers?
PS: The carbon mast was a development which was held off at first due to cost, but in the early  90’s the cost of carbon was going down. When allowed this was like a light switch. In 3 month the aluminium section was history. The boards were more like a development over a few years as to get it right did cost a lot of trial and error to get the configuration right. Another leap was the square top sail which was a good step forward, and copied by a lot of classes.

- Mast have also gone more sophisticated last seasons too , when did you start building them?
PS: I was with this from the beginning, 1994. There was no experience with how to do it as it was all new. We were a bit lucky to have found the a lay-up schedule quickly which was quite near from the first product, so the mast were for sale without a lot of prototypes. We explored the sideways stiffness of the mast also as first, the other builders did not believe in them until quite some years later. We have built up a good record of non-breakage for years as well.

- Which are the latest developments on mast bend characteristics or other features?
PS: With sail maker Andrew Landenberger we are now exploring a complete softer type of mast since 2 years to get the possibility of carrying a full sail in the light and being able to trim it back to flat when the wind picks up. This seems to work well. We also brought the weight down.

- The CClass is already making the transition to flying winged cats, Are wings a viable solution in the future for the As? How about larger wing mast / soft sail combo? How do you see the long term future for spars?
PS: The A-class catamaran is very light and a wing mast is by nature a lot heavier. Also they are very impractical as you have to store them every time you stop sailing and they are more vulnerable for damage. These are the reasons I do not see them in the near future playing a role. The present rig is already very efficient, so the difference is not that big. Larger sail will need a ballot again and I am sure this will fail. The boat is already very powerful. There is still room for developing the mast further.

- A Wing might provide enough power in the future for reliable flight? or the power ratio of the A will be always a limiting factor in your view?
Wing masts weight will bring in more sensitivity to pitching so I do not see them playing a role here as. The very important balance factor is just the weight of one sailor to balance it all, so not much room for more power.

- In my view having flying boats being developed within current rules is a nice status quo for those wanting to innovate but as shown in Barcelona , the floating mode is still king.
Heard some talks on ballots towards open the rules even more toward foiling, the class as talked about this in Barcelona?
PS: Flying A-class is a hot item and stable flying still has not been shown yet. In the past the class has taken some measures to stop this development, but clever constructors/sailors have been trying to develop around it still. One of the major problems is the sailor.
The reaction time of a human is pretty slow and the distance between the 2 foils to carry the platform used so far is under 2m. So any gust of wind at the pressure point in the sail will upset the balance very quickly. The discussion in Barcelona was not to get more rules to stop this but to let the development go and kill itself or may be the stability issue will be solved.

But to make the flying easier we have to take away the rule of being able to insert the daggerboard from above. This needs a ballot with all the A-class sailors and demands a 2/3rd majority. This ballot has been one of the stabilisers in the class to avoid wild changes by a few people , and the class has survived because of this. As seen in Barcelona, a cat set up for foiling will suffer badly when not foiling in lighter winds. A major series is done over more than 4 days and preferably we want all kinds of wind. The Moth did not solve this. This is a choice the class has to make, so a ballot may stop this flying once more.

- At Barcelona latest innovations were not still defining , and an incredible combination of brands and equipment within the top 12 shows that lots of options are available.
But still As are somehow expensive due to the materials used and the build refinement needed to achieve minimal weight . Being a builder, is there any chance to reduce costs? I mean from the outside the numbers of sailors is in good health, so it is a matter of having even more. Which is your view on this?
PS: Cost wise we should go back to just straight boards limited in the angle in a hull. Also taking away the carbon mast would save considerably. I was glad with the carbon mast as being light I could not righting the cat after capsize with an aluminium mast under all conditions. I needed help with the old aluminium mast because of the weight. This is safety. The platform weight can be achieved with cheaper material. In the old days I built a cat at 68kg with glass and an alu mast. This one was not strong and easy to damage, but with the extra 7 kg I could have done a lot. We use carbon now to make the platform stiff. All the popular regatta classes of sail boats are not cheap. The only thing to make an A-class really cheaper is to build your own, which is allowed in the A,s.

- What about hull design? We had a good conversation by mail on this. And I don´t see any breakthroug changes in the future for As and F18. Or there is any room?
PS: I agree I do not see any major changes here. It will be more refinement of the hull shape, which has been going on for a lot of years now.

- How do you see the different concepts used in Oracle & ETNZ ? It seems that beyond flying having a good designed volume still a key factor..
PS: The designed volume is major key for popular cats. The AC’s can afford to abandon the boat after just one series. So design choices are made for that one series in the conditions expected at the spot. The ETNZ has taken a more universal approach which might help them to get through all sorts of wind conditions. Oracle has been taking too narrow a window of use where they can be successful. They did not change the wind strength for nothing.

- Another good thing about the As is you can sail and race for years, so I know I can start racing without worries late in the game! Has new downwind techinques affected the kid vs old guard competition?
PS: No, I only see the flying might play a role in this. When we are really going to fly I see more injuries around the corner. To make it work you need to be in trapeze to control it as the weight body balancing here plays a big role. I would invite you to get a go on an A, and be hooked for life.

Here we covered mainly technical aspects but also check this 2010 A-Cat.nl interview ,  more focused in his quite interesting personal background.

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