Mirabella V is the world’s largest sloop and the Maltese Falcon is the world’s largest clipper. BYM News was invited to sail on the Mirabella.
Very few sailors have experience with yachts anywhere near this scale, so BYM News took along one who does and briefed him to give an expert opinion of how the Mirabella V sails.
James Scott-Anderson is a J-Class tactician; this is what he had to say, after a day spent sailing on the Mirabella V.

Having spent the last two years listening to the dockside gossip about Mirabella V, I was sceptical about what she could really do. Critical whispers suggested she was oversized and beset with problems. So, I set out, on September 24, to answer the question put to me by Aldous. “Is the Mirabella V just a motor boat with the world’s tallest mast, or is she a sailing yacht that can push the envelope?” First, I put a question to owner, Joe Vittoria:

The big thing about Mirabella is that she is the biggest thing in the world, so why, with all the available technology and all the money that’s been spent and Ron Holland as a designer, couldn’t she have been made a better sailing boat? Why are there tacking constrictions, because the mainsail has to be dropped to clear the backstays when, if you’d reduced the mast height by ten metres it could have been made a lot faster? Dockside gossip says ‘It’s the biggest sloop in world, because Joe wanted the biggest in world and that’s the only reason it was built, but it doesn’t sail well. People like to say bad things about boats, so I’d like to be able to go back and say ‘Well, actually, I’ve been on her and I can tell you that isn’t correct.’

Joe Vittoria: Yeah, I know this and, you see, I don’t have a boat building business that advertises, so, because I don’t advertise, the magazines just don’t need to worry about what they say about it.
People like to write negative things, but they won’t write negative things about a Feadship, or a Lurssen, because there is too much advertising at stake. I hate to be commercial, but that’s what it’s all about and I understand that.
I’ve sailed on it, I know what it can do, despite what some people have said. I know that anyone we take sailing on it will understand its capability.

Next I put a technical question to designer Ron Holland; how does the boat deal with a Chinese gybe and, if that arose, what are the systems that would help to get through it?

Ron Holland: It would be a huge accidental crash job and you’d break something, like rip the sail. So you just don’t do that. Because you have two sheets we are controlling the boom very well, it cant go bang bang right across and the two sheets give you a much smaller range of uncontrolled boom movement.

Have u got a system where you can very quickly release the load on the vang?

Ron Holland: Yes, but basically this is an operational thing; you can’t fly a 747 into a stunt manoeuvre, so you can’t sail this boat without being aware of what’s going on. You sail this boat sensibly, so we have operational limits that we don’t have on say a J24.

Outside Monaco harbour, Mirabella’s crew set about hoisting sail. Joe Vittoria had explained that they were using a secondary halyard system as they were re-designing the main one after it had broken earlier in the season. Even though it was a slow process, it is understandable considering her main is the biggest in the world. Once it was up, the number two jib was unfurled and we had about 10 to 18 knots of breeze and were sailing upwind on a close reach with the wind at 75 degrees apparent.

The Falcon was about quarter of a mile from of us. We were heeling 15 degrees, which was very comfortable sailing, but the speed was surprising. We were doing 15 to 16 knots and this was just on GPS data. Once we settled in, we found that we were able to match the Falcon’s speed – a big surprise even though this point of sail is not the Falcon’s best. It was nonetheless a great thing, as her hull length and sail area is greater than Mirabella’s, especially as problems with the roller reefing mechanism meant that the sloop couldn’t use her big foresail. Tom Perkins, a talented and very experienced racing sailor, later said that it had been a great experience to have been out sailing with the Mirabella V and had been a wonderful sail.

To be on a yacht of Mirabella’s size and to be sailing so well is an extraordinary experience. Mirabella has never been noted for her sailing ability, but this is something that can now change. The hull motion, which is one of the best indicators of good performance, is excellent; lifting and surging forward into the swell with a long steady motion, allowing the rig and sails to provide uninterrupted power.

The breeze picked up very quickly and soon we had to come about to put a reef in and prepare to drop some of the guests and film crew off. This is not a fast process on Mirabella and one for which she has been criticised. However, as Joe Vittoria pointed out, she is not always sailing – even on charter – so the crew does not have as much practice as it could. It was whilst we were manoevring that, to use Joe Vittoria Junior’s phrase, things ‘went pear shaped’ and the Falcon came very close to us, much to the delight of all the photographers on board, who had been struggling to get photos on this gloomy day.

Later, BYM asked Joe Junior why the Falcon had come about so suddenly and there had been a little drama on the Mirabella V? Here’s what he told them:

“We had been sailing for a while, on the windward side of MF when the decision was made that we should tack. Part of the tacking procedure (maybe MCA requirement, I am not sure) is to fire up at least one engine in case we needed extra maneuverability during the process. The engineer went into the wheelhouse to start it up. The props had been feathered during the sail and the shaft brake was on.
The procedure would normally be to de-feather the prop and then release the brake.  The engineer told me afterwards that this procedure is hard-coded into the system by Kamewa (Rolls Royce), so I am not sure why it is done that way but it is bound to be for a good reason.  In any case, they had probably not thought about the impact of de-feathering while running at 17 knots and the result was that the brake started slipping and then tore off its seat.  Luckily, it also tore off the hydraulic hose and so the brake opened, thereby preventing it from going round with the shaft.  When the brake started to slip it caused a lot of white smoke to come up the engine room vents and this was noticed, quickly, precipitating a call to the engineer to go the engine room.
For safety sake, the captain decided to signal a fire alarm and we mustered in the designated place (as instructed in a general briefing before we went out that morning). Engineers quickly reported that all was fine, it was not a widespread problem, but meanwhile the boat had been pointing upwind for a considerable period of time and the crew, having had to muster also, was now facing a jam in the first reef point sheet. They were facing 35 kts of wind and were trying to get the mainsail down, when we noticed a small rip in the first segment. Luckily for us, this did not ruin the day, because we never needed the full main after that point anyway.
I did not see what happened to Maltese Falcon during all of this, but I noticed that she was now windward of us and quite close. She could not have known what we were trying to do and that she was now, inadvertently, blocking our ability to complete the tack, so at that point the captain looked at my father who was signaling “down” and he agreed and the main was taken down. I then spoke to several people who said, while we were mustering, MF tacked, but seemed to have caught a big gust as she swung her sails (cross-booms?) across, which would have appeared to have caused her to scrub off a lot of speed, almost to the point of looking like she was in reverse.  My engineer (who is friendly with MF’s engineer) said “Wow I bet they never did THAT before.", but having read their web site blog, I think they have done just about everything.  It was frustrating to be sitting there like that, but we learned something from all of it and so did the crew, who had not had much practice in 35+ knots of wind. We will be speaking with Kamewa about changing the procedure and we will also investigate improving the use of the reef winches and downhauls for the mainsail. So, it all went pear shaped for about 10 minutes, but all was forgiven that afternoon when she went like a train!"  

At 40 knots, the main was dropped and it became very overcast – not ideal for a helicopter shoot. By the time we had taken the guests ashore, the Falcon had set sail and was on her way to Juan le Pin. The breeze and the sea had fallen off, and we thought the show was over. The film crew thought it was worth trying, however, so we set the main with one reef in and the number two jib. We had 25 to 30 knots of wind and were heeled to 20 degrees: the maximum she is allowed by safety regulations. The wind was at about 80 degrees apparent and the instruction was given to “go as fast as you can.” With the two sails up, we began to pick up speed and were averaging 17 knots, at one point reaching 18.3, which is the fastest she as ever sailed. The crew, the Vittorias and their guests were all delighted. It was absolutely thrilling to be doing that speed on such a big boat, with the added fun of the helicopter coming very close to film us.

The Mirabella’s captain, Mark Coxon, then invited me to take the helm and this was a revelation. Though a computer attached to the helm controls the rudder, I was driving by feel and the sails and she was remarkably responsive! Sailing at over 17 knots, with a yacht weighing over 700 tonnes, and finding her so quick to respond was exhilarating, and was the final proof that Mirabella V is a great sailing yacht.

The yacht herself was a huge engineering challenge and the owners and crew are still working through ways to improve the sail setting and manoeuvres. This is a positive attitude, considering the size of her rig (positively colossal at 96 metres) and the huge sail area and, during her build, some great advances in engineering were achieved. She is very comfortable and spacious – not always a quality on sailing yachts and the day answered Aldous’ question; "Is the Mirabella V just a motor boat with the world’s tallest mast, or is she a sailing yacht that can push the envelope?"

"The Mirabella V is, indeed, a true sailing yacht and capable of giving a good run with the best of them." James Scott-Anderson

Don't forget to check out our America's Cup stories.

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