The Original Design Process

Richards can’t remember how he and Graham first met, but it was probably on a boat. At first glance it’s an odd fusion of talent: Richards the botanist and Graham the philosopher (Bachelor of Arts, University of Sydney). In reality, the resemblances, and the differences, are irresistible. Richards is chatty and open, Graham is laconic and reserved. But they are equally besotted about sailing. At Nottingham the Englishman once fitted a mast and sail to a wheelchair to which he was confined after straining knee ligaments while sailing, then proceeded to crash the wheelchair in the hospital car park. The Australian alternated semesters in philosophy with boat-delivery trips across the Pacific and was once rash enough, while still a teenager, to borrow his father’s 55-foot cruiser for an impromptu excursion outside Sydney Heads. Since then, Graham has virtually sailed the world. He survived the sinking of his yacht Griffin in the terrible Fastnet Race of 1979.

The idea for Illusion was Richards’. It occurred to him about five years ago while he was sailing a radio controlled model yacht across a pond at Leicester. As the little craft sped along, he thought, “Why not design a yacht you can put only one person in?” He had heard of, and perhaps found inspiration in, those oil-tanker simulator models used for training prospective masters. But after sketching out some shapes, Richards forgot about the project until January 1981, when he and Graham were working on an Admiral’s Cup 42-footer, Recession, in a boatyard near Clearwater, Fla. The two were staying in a house overlooking Indian Rocks Beach, and it was the sight of the blue water of the lagoon in front of the house that revived the concept. The house was also shared by an American, a New Zealander and a few other will-travel sailors. Inspired by Richards’ idea, the salts drew up plans for a design based on model yachts, and within a few days a fleet of miniatures appeared in Clearwater under class rules: maximum length, two feet; maximum sail area, 125 square inches; maximum total weight, four pounds; maximum rig height, 30 inches; maximum keel depth, 10 inches. The fun had started.

Both Richards and Graham learned from those epic battles on the Florida lagoon, and when they got back to Cowes last March, they started work on Illusion. The money, such as it was, flowed from the sale of a Chevy sports van that the owner of Recession had donated to the duo as a reward for the hard work they put into his boat.

Cowes is a pleasant and settled place, lying 20 minutes from the mainland by hydrofoil. Its brick houses bear names that are solidly English or resolutely nautical—Old Priory, Topsides, Hardwicke, Stormalong. It’s yachting-mad and has been for decades.  Although Richards and Graham tried to keep the project quiet, those who did scent what was going on either didn’t believe them (“They thought we were pulling their legs,” said Richards) or made polite but dismissive noises. It was all accomplished within about three months, March to June, although the work on Illusion was, frequently interrupted; her builders took time out to race or to deliver yachts or just to mess about in boats.

From the start the aim was to produce a genuine sailing yacht, not an eccentricity. “It is not a toy,” says Richards firmly. Indeed, everything on Illusion works. The mast, for example, has two sets of spreaders and can be raked fore and aft or bent to stretch the sail for different wind strengths. There are enough controls in the cockpit to amuse even the most technically minded skipper. Altogether, Illusion has nine adjustments that the skipper must constantly make. The genoa is made of Mylar, the fabric used successfully in the last America’s Cup challenge. The ballast—small sandbags placed above the keel—is removable so that skippers can increase or reduce it according to their body weight.

It is important to note that Illusion isn’t a replica of an America’s Cup yacht, because a precisely scaled-down version wouldn’t work. She is, however, as faithful as possible to the 12-meter look. The designers’ aim, in short, was to get Illusion to work and look as much like an America’s Cupper as possible. “We fiddled the esthetics a bit,” says Richards.

The Result

Sailing Illusion is one of the sport’s unique experiences. Her skipper doesn’t climb aboard so much as wriggle inside, going feet first, as though squeezing into a Grand Prix car. Once installed, he lies supine along the top of the keel with half his body below water level. When he ducks, there’s just room for his head to clear the boom as it swings across in a jibe or tack. At first, the novelty of sailing Illusion can be rather unsettling. Gusts whistle across the water at eye level, spitting water straight in your face. As the wind hits Illusion’s sails, she heels sharply. My God, she’s going to capsize! A dollop of cold Solent spray hops into the cockpit. But like a true narrow-beamed America’s Cup boat. Illusion suddenly stiffens as the weight in the keel counterbalances the pressure of the gust of wind on the rig.

At a thought-provoking angle of about 45 degrees, with the skipper’s ear an inch or two from the water. Illusion bashes along happily. A little foot pressure on the steering bar feathers her nicely into the wind. That’s comforting. In a big gust you “throw” the main sheet to spill wind from the mainsail. After a while you relax. Illusion won’t sink or capsize. And it’s so comfortable, which is perhaps the most disorienting part of all. Sailing, whether hiking out in a dinghy or clinging to a yacht’s windward rail, is supposed to hurt.

When tacking, Illusion steers across the wind like a true yacht instead of spinning around like a dinghy, though making the adjustments can be like playing all the instruments of an orchestra almost simultaneously. Uncleat the windward genoa sheet, haul in the leeward one, tighten the windward runner. Oh, yes, remember to keep foot pressure on the steering or Illusion will stop head to wind, sails flapping, and start to drift backward. Don’t forget to duck as the boom swings across.

The pinnacle of achievement is flying the boat’s 45-square-foot spinnaker. First ease the leeward runner and bear away before the wind, ease the main sheet, ease the genoa sheet, hook the guy into one end of the spinnaker, then attach the pole to the tack of the spinnaker and the base of the mast, and toss the spinnaker cloth in the air while hauling on the halyard. Now you should be in business—but you aren’t. The spinnaker halyard has snarled on the shroud. Try again. Still snarled. And again.

Even without the spinnaker, Illusion slices joyously downwind, leaving a trail of astonished yachtsmen whose reactions run the gamut of incredulity. Most simply stand speechless as an apparently head-powered yacht pops up alongside. Others rouse themselves to comment. “I don’t believe it; I just don’t believe it!” muttered one skipper to his crew. Another noted gravely, “I’d be careful if I were you. There’s a 60-foot dinghy around the corner.”

Objects on the seaway loom in a menacing manner. A three-foot-high buoy becomes a lighthouse. A 30-foot cruiser is the QE 2. You’re in a different world, a silent, private one, a mouse among the elephants, a Lilliputian among the Brobdingnagians.

All the sailing people who have seen her are delighted with Illusion. Rodney Pattisson, who has won two Olympic sailing gold medals and a silver for Britain: “I loved it.” Michel Maeder, main-sheet hand on the last French America’s Cup challenger: “It’s beautiful.” Clive Johnson, who runs a Cowes ship chandlery: “Something completely different.” As they speak they grin in wonderment and pleasure.

Since its introduction at the 1981 Admiral’s Cup in Cowes, England, ILLUSION, the original miniature 12-Meter, has captured the imagination of the sailing fraternity throughout the world. Combining the true classic lines and features of a 12-Meter, ILLUSION is manufactured to a strict one-design class. ILLUSION fleets are currently competing throughout the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Canada.12-Meter sailing, such as Australia II and Liberty, is without doubt the most stimulating and satisfying experience a sailor could ever perceive. That same feeling can be experienced when you sail your ILLUSION for the first time. Her heavy displacement design delivers the same uncompromising thrill as sailing on a regular 12-Meter. And, like any 12, ILLUSION is extremely maneuverable. An ideal quality for match-race tactics.

Just imagine the thrill of circling to get the advantage of the start. Controlling the big powerful main. Tacking the jib. Adjusting the leg, getting the spinnaker ready in time for the weather mark. All of these features, and more, right at your fingertips. Features such as a bendy 12-Meter rig with all internal halyards. Roller furling headstay. Her boom has an internal adjustable outhaul and the main sail, genoa, and spinnaker are all standard. Standard features that add to the excitement of the ILLUSION experience.


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