Deep dive into the IRC-winning formula

David Anastasi, Elusive 2

Podestá family owns BENETEAU First 45 Elusive 2 since 2009. For two consecutive years, 2019 and 2020, they were overall winners of the 40th and 41st editions of the Rolex Middle Sea Race by corrected time. The last time one yacht managed to achieve it was in 1980. We've talked to David Ansatasi, General manager of Mediterranean Yacht Sales, a Beneteau dealer for Malta and one of the key members of the team, to discover the secrets of their success.


Tit: David, greetings to Malta. The results you've achieved with BENETEAU First 45 Elusive 2 are outstanding. Before we get into more technical details, could you briefly introduce yourself, so readers can better understand your sailing background?

David: So first of all, thank you very much for inviting me for this interview. Elusive 2 is owned by my partner Maya and her brothers, and I started sailing with them in 2016. They've accepted me into the team, and they've allowed me to put my ideas on the table. It's basically four of us putting our ideas together and coming up with this strong team.

All four of us have quite an extensive sailing experience, especially on the Middle sea race. We've all done between 18 and 22 middle sea races each. So if you add them all up together, we're closing in on the 80 mark.

Amazing. That's really a lot of knowledge and experience in the same yacht. Before we get very technical, help us understand your role in the team - what are your jobs and responsibilities in the team?

So my role has developed towards a navigation role, where I've been sailing in the navigator position for quite a few years. I started off on the J125 and on the J133, as well as on Elusive I. The navigation role is quite a vast role. By profession, I am an architect, and navigation seems to tie in with, I'd say, architecture. It's a technical role where there is maybe some more theory behind it or some calculations which need to be done.

There are two sides to navigation. There's the racing side, where you're analyzing the weather and analyzing or trying to find the best course, the best route through the weather systems. And on a long race, on a 600-mile race like the middle sea race, which takes around four corners, there are many different options and many different routes to take. Conditions are always changing. Weather forecasts at this time of the year are not always very accurate. So there's a lot of, let's call it, guesswork and calculated guesses, which you need to make.

But from the navigation and numbers side, there's also the analysis of the boat's performance - how to increase the performance of those, how to make the boat sail faster. That's done very technically by recording your performances. We use Expedition racing software onboard. And one big part of the navigator's role is to look back at the numbers after the race and see the performance of the boat depending on which sail. So sail design, sail choice.

We can start to see where their outstanding results are coming from. How much of your success do you entitle to experience, and how does the team dynamic work?

Experience there is crucial. Experience and hard work. You need to work at it to get results.

And what experience has taught us is what areas to focus on so that we can put the hard work in the areas which are going to make the biggest difference.

Do you consider yourself a professional? And how would you classify racing on Elusive 2?

Christoph is the captain of the J class and he has done a lot of professional sailing on superyachts, so he's the only proffessional in our team. But what makes a professional sailor is debatable. We all have a lot of experience. And I think experience is what helps us get the result. This is not new to us, and we put in a lot of effort. The advantage which I think we might have over some professional sailors, we have fun sailing together. So maybe it's a little bit more than professional. We might actually give it a little bit more than professional sailors give it.

It's time to move on to the main topic of the interview. How did you find the winning formula for BENETEAU First 45 Elusive 2 with consecutive wins in 2019 and 2020? Can you take us back in time to the 2019 and 2020 Middle Sea Race and the conditions in these two years?

So IRC, for those who don't know, is a simple single-number rating. So there's a one-time correction coefficient, TCC, which is applied whatever the conditions. And it's a secret formula, which is how the rating office comes up with this number no one really knows. Some guidelines, there are a limited amount of trial certificates that you can do in a year. So the idea is that it is mostly a secret formula. And the spirit of the rule is that it tries to equalize all boats.

Now, it's really trying to do something which is quite impossible because it's very hard ... let's face it, it's impossible to equate a 35-foot with a 100-foot Maxi. But surprisingly, it does a very good job, and it's very well accepted. Obviously, certain conditions favor certain boats, and other conditions favor other boats. So when you're racing in such a diverse fleet, you need to channel your expectations to your targets. 

We say our aim at the beginning of the race, at the beginning of the campaign, was winning our class and beating the boats with similar characteristics even if they're in different classes. And I think that is an achievable goal. 

To win the overall, you first have to win your class, but you need that extra element of luck. Weather conditions can favour your boat type. If I just give you a silly example or a very obvious example, if the race starts off with very strong winds and the winds die off after three days, the big boats are going to sail around the course at a good average speed while after they finish, the wind drops, and the rest of the smaller boats have to sail around the course in the wind which is what happened this year. So, when it's a year like that, so this year, our overall position was... something 28th, which, I mean, I don't even remember the position because it was so low. But in class, we got a 2nd. And we were proud of that. We sailed a hard race. We didn't sail badly, I think. And we wanted to improve, but there was no way, with these conditions, that we stood a chance for the overall.

But in 2019 and 2020, we were lucky that the conditions could suit our type of boat. So it was strong competition, there was a lot of competition in our class and our types of boats, so we came on top of the similar boats, and the race favoured our type of boats, and that's how we managed to win the overall.

How did you approach IRC rating optimization, and what was the IRC rating that you started with in 2016?

So 2016, the boat was set up with a very short bow sprit, fractional spinnakers as the original design, and she had an aluminum mast. Our rating in those days was 1.107. Today, our rating is 1.112.

There are two trains of thought or two techniques, I guess, in optimizing the IRC rating of a boat - you can try to reduce the rating by reducing sail area, reducing the bow sprit length possibly, or you can try to make the boat faster and see what the outcome in the rating is. 

Our strategy has always been to make the boat faster. So our first, the way we looked at it from the start, was what is the strength of the boat? And the first 45's strength, undoubtedly, was its upwind performance. She's got a deep thin keel. And her upwind performance was always very good. We did well upwind. Downwind, especially in light weather, was the weak point.

So our starting point was how do we fix this weakness? If you're weak at one point of sail, that sets you behind to a point where you need to catch up. So we needed to basically plug this hole where we were leaking performance, you could say. So the first thing was to try and get the downwind performance up to par with boats of similar size. And what we did over there was we changed the spinnakers and the masthead and put on a 1.5-meter bow sprit which is about the same size bow sprit as the new BENETEAU First 44 has. And it's also roughly the size of the bow sprit the J boats used to have. So maybe that's something we learned, or I learned from that style of boat and transported it to the Beneteau First 45.

And that first change showed us that we could now keep in touch with our opposition. At the time, our biggest competition was the XP 44s, who would just sail away from us downwind while we would be able to keep up with them upwind, and they owed us time. So, that was our first change.

Once we had that settled, we knew that the boats had potential. Once we fixed the biggest weakness, it was time to maximize the strong points, so the upwind performance. And the big change there was changing the mast. IRC does not penalize a carbon fiber mast, so if you look at the results of previous races, I think there's been a boat with a carbon fiber mast winning the race for many, many years. And an aluminum mast hasn't featured in the winning boat for some time now. And with the carbon mast, we were able to transform the boat's performance, both upwind and downwind. There was weight saving, the righting moment got better, and the pitching effect was reduced. So that was probably the second big change we made that transformed the boat's performance.

From that point on, we could keep up with our competition in any point of sail, and even boats which gave us time on the water. We could beat over the line.

Okay, so the first point is improving performance downwind, second then improving upwind, both having a minimal effect on the TTC.

Yes, another important thing we need to mention is the sailing weights. We valued reducing the weight, the all-up sailing weight, quite a lot. Now, this is where IRC is a little bit tricky. IRC rating depends on the weight of the boat apart from the sail area and all the other things. We just spoke about the weight of the boat. So if you can reduce the weight, the rating will go up but not necessarily penalize you as much. So the weight which we reduced from the carbon mast did put up our rating slightly, but we felt that the performance gain was better.

We added the watermaker, for example. The watermaker reduced our sailing weight because on a race like the Middle sea race where you've got ten crew for potentially seven days, I mean, that's a lot of kilos of water. So we reduced our sailing weight considerably by adding a water maker.

Then in architecture, there's a saying where we say, "God is in the detail," and that is the way we approached some modifications. We looked into very small details, which, taken on their own, might increase performance, but when you add everything together, it makes a change that adds up. So certain things like the stanchions, the standard stanchions on the Beneteau First 45, that they're inside the toe rail. However, this makes it uncomfortable to hike out because the lifelines are inboard. It also reduces the lever arm of where you're sitting on the rail. So one modification was to move the lifelines outside the toe rail. The toe rail is actually a couple of inches inboard, so there's space to put the stanchion on the outside. I mean, all racing boats have stanchions on the edge of the boat, and that was a small change we did.

Seen in isolation, you think maybe it doesn't make a difference, but as I said, God is in the details.

Were there any changes in the interior? We know that the First 45 comes with a relatively rich wooden interior, which is not very light. So, did you make any changes there, modifications in the galley? There are many things you could take out.

 Yes. So this is where the rating game, the IRC game, gets a little bit more complex because IRC will penalize you for changing the original interior. So you've got quite a lot of kilos to lose by taking out, let's say, your oven. However, IRC will just penalize you for that. So, we explored that route, but we ended up leaving the oven in.

So, we tried to look for opportunities to save weight without modifying the standard interior because that gives you a penalty rating more than the potential gains. So, although we did reduce the weight of the boat, we did not reduce it by removing the standard cruising items, which IRC counts as necessary to keep the standard production boat. So the table inside cannot be removed because that will penalizes you.

What we did, which was modified slightly, is we added pipe cots to the interior. So, the First 45 standard would have lee cloths to allow you to sleep to the windward side, but we added pipe cots so we can now sleep four people on the windward side. So we have two pipe cots in each aft cabin and the pipe cot in the saloon. So, there's a pipe cot and the leak lot underneath in the aft cabin and in the saloon. So that's four people sleeping in the proper place when you're sailing upwind, which, again, it's a small detail but allows the crew to get the rest while still helping with performance.

When on an upwind leg, we have a saying that one person off the rail equates to 0.1 knots. So if you have five people down below sleeping in the wrong place, that's half a knot of boat speed.

It is physically impossible to keep up the concentration unless you get a good rest. Now, some of the crew can get a good enough rest when they're on the rails, sleeping on the rail. However, the drivers, and the trimmers, need to get a little bit of rest down below.

What about the sails? They are the engine of every sailing boat. 

So sails are a crucial factor.

So once you have a good boat with a good mast and a good team, you need to have good sails. You're not going to win a race without good sails. It's one of the essential ingredients. You need to choose a brand and a sailmaker who is going to give you the service and help you optimize, and we went with North Sails. I mean, their reputation is second to none.

We did spend a lot of time choosing the sail sizes. With IRC, that is the area where you are allowed to make changes, and they will penalize you or not accordingly. So sail area is one of the basic elements in the IRC rating or any rating. So we did some trial certificates, especially initially with the spinnaker sizes. So when we extended the bow sprit, we did that to be able to carry bigger spinnakers. And again, you need to try and find the trade-off of what is the maximum size you can carry before the rating starts really hitting you, but it still pays out in the performance on the water. The upwind sails, so we carry three downwind sails and the code zero, so that's the way we're set up. We've got an A1, an A2, and an A4, so it's a big downwind in light weather, which is the A1 and also turns into a bit of a reacher. A big downwind sail, which is the A2 which, takes us up to, let's say, 18 knots. And then an A4 which is our heavy weather downwind Spinnaker. Code zero is another very crucial sail for offshore racing. You normally have a lot of reaching conditions, and code zero is crucial for that.

For Upwind sails, we use 3Di, which I think are the stiff and lightest sails on the market. And the performance gain in having stiff, light sails is second to none. So this is an area where you have to find out what the best is, and we believe that the North solution was the best, and go with that. And that's our sail wardrobe effectively.


Since you're a navigator, I cannot avoid a question about the instruments. Which instruments are you using and how much and how do they help you to win the race?

Yes, the instrument package is one of the main factors. So I would say that after having good sails, you need good instruments. You need them both. We changed to a full B&G H5000 system, I believe, in 2016. So that was one of the first changes. And having good instruments and a good way of recording, so using good instruments, using software like Expedition, where you can record your data, is a good base point to quantify your gains with the changes you make.

Especially in handicap racing and mixed fleets, you don't have your competition who's directly sailing next to you. You need to be able to have reliable data to follow your performance. You're looking at small percentage increases for changes, and having good reliable instruments which are very well calibrated and something to record the data is very important. Probably is that, as a navigator, that is quite an important role, and it's something that I have done throughout the last 15 years of my career on different boats.

Are there any other little details you've changed you could share with us?

Well, saving weight up the rig is always beneficial. The running rigging we started sailing in 2016 and what the boat came out with originally from Beneteau was 12 millimeters. Now we went down to 10 millimeters and stripped half the halyard, so we got rid of the cover weight. You don't need it. And now we've even got some 8-millimeter halyards. That's probably on the limit, but all together, we've saved about 20kg. It's not huge, but when you add everything else when you add everything up, it all adds up, and all makes a difference. The cumulative differences are bigger than the individual changes.

What were the low-hanging fruits that you would suggest other owners start with?

The main changes that we discussed, so the bow sprit, the mast, let's say, the watermaker and the pipe cots, that kind of gave us a good package. And those were the low-hanging fruit, let's say, that's where we made the biggest gains.

And so apart from small changes in the boat, we're also looking at small changes in the way the crew works together, the decision-making process, the maneuvers. So once you have a good basis, you start trying to refine in as many areas as possible.  

What happened with your IRC rating through all your changes?

Our rating actually increased. In 2016, we were 1.107, and the last race we did was 1.112. However, this needs to also be taken in context because the IRC, as we said, is a secret rule which is evolving. So from one year to the other, the rating might change without you making any changes. So you need to kind of compare it to your competition.

But in general, our approach was to make the boat faster and live with the rating that we were given because we believed that the boat was faster and we could sail against that rating better.

An inevitable question – how much did all these modifications and optimization cost you? 

So let's look at it differently. We had a goal where wanted to win the middle sea race. We had a boat already. What are our options? Selling the boat and buying a new boat, building a boat specifically? I mean, what's the budget for that? We can't afford it. At the end of the day, we work hard, and we have other things to spend our money on. Also, we need to live. So buying a new boat is out of the question. So if we look at the price or what we spent to bring what was already a decent boat, the design of the first 45 is a good one, and the platform we started with was very good.

So I think if you look at it that way, it was not very expensive at all, because we couldn't have done anything which would give us a chance and which actually did give us the results we wanted, not once but twice, for what we spent. So yes, the number in our minds is big. We did make sacrifices to be able to afford it. We did manage to get some sponsorship to help, so we had sponsors who did chip in.

The mast was a big chunk of it, and the mast probably cost as much of this as a new set of sails. And the sails didn't come all at once, so we could say we would spend, let's say, 20,000 a year on sails, sometimes a bit more. The mast was a big chunk, so that was a big one to swallow. But the bow sprit was ... we made it ourselves, so it's a carbon fiber bow sprit which we made ourselves.

What would be your recommendation to other owners who might consider racing under IRC and optimizing their boats? Where to start?

First, look at other boats; look at what the winning boats are doing. If they're winning, they must be doing something right, so try and look into that. Look at the rating certificates, look at maybe their changes from year to year, and look at other designs. Try and see where their strong points and where their weak points are, and then do the same with your boat. The process I outlined before looking at taking away the weak points and strengthening your strong points.

For the end, let's touch on the last generation of First boats. You're now a Beneteau dealer, and in 2022, we got two new models – First 36 and First 44. When you look at these two boats, which is an instant thought when you see these two boats?

So the two, these two new offerings from Beneteau, I think, have traced back the heritage, and it's been a long time since the First 45 to have two new boats which both looked very capable in their rights. I haven't sailed either of them yet. I'm looking forward to maybe sailing them next year. And the First 44 reminds me a lot of the way we have set up the First 45, so it's got a bow sprit which is roughly the same length, masthead spinnakers, it's got the deep keel. The difference is that it's got twin rudders, and it's wider and more powerful. The water ballast is something that is very interesting, although I'm not sure that it would work out well with IRC.

But for shorthanded racing and fast cruising, that would be a very strong setup. If I was going to cruise some summer cruising in the Mediterranean, I think the First 44 would be my boat of choice.


The First 36; I mean, what can I say? Wow, it looks like a Downwind flying machine.

It has an interior which I really like. The concept of a boat that is fun and fast to sail is a good starting point for a design brief. So make it fun and exciting, and what can go wrong? If it's fast, fun, and exciting you're winning even if you're not getting the results - at least you're getting the smiles. It looks like a very good platform with a very logical layout and is very well laid out.

I mean, both the 44 to 36 have very good cockpit dimensions and logical and efficient layouts. So even if right off the bat they're not 100% sorted, there's a good base to tweak. If you have to ask me which one of them I would choose, I would like to have both of them, and depending on the conditions of the race, you will choose which one to take with me. Because if it's a predominantly downwind race, I'm pretty sure that the First 36 is going to be a very, very strong contender. The 44, I think, is I see the, let's say, the DNA of the 45 in her. So I imagine she might have the same potential. 

And there's an element of luck in the results of the first part, so hopefully, they get the conditions, and the teams that sail them are quick to get the boat to react the way it should. But in the long run, I think they both will be successful race boats.

Published on 19.01.2023