Michigan boatbuilder ‘stars’ in global market
Posted on 26 October 2012
Written by Jim Flannery
For a lifelong Star sailor, it was the next best thing to winning an Olympic medal: boatbuilder Jon VanderMolen of Richland, Mich., built the Star boats for all three of the Olympic medalists in the class at the London games this summer.
“We built 13 out of the 16 [Star] boats that competed, and 11 of the top 12 finishers,” says VanderMolen, who is 46.
There are just four Star builders in the world: Folli and Lillia, of Italy; Mader Bootswerf, a German builder; and VanderMolen’s North American Sailing Center, which builds the PStar (www.thesailingcenter.us). The P is for Marc Pickel, the German Olympian, Star racer and boatbuilder who designed the VanderMolen PStar.
VanderMolen attributes the PStar’s success to its design and high-tech construction. In the fall of 2002, Pickel started working with the Yacht Research Unit in Kiel, Germany, on a study of hull designs and underwater appendages for the Star. Although a one-design class, the Star rule allows small tolerances at the different measurement stations because the early boats were built of wood, which bends, VanderMolen says.
He says Pickel and his research team tested 50 designs, “tweaking a millimeter here and a millimeter there.” They found that the most efficient design was the one with the longest waterline and least volume that allows the boat to rest lower in the water. Olympic courses are windward-leeward, so boats such as the PStar, with long waterlines, do better on the leeward legs, VanderMolen says.
Pickel built the first five PStars in his shop in Kiel before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he finished seventh. In 2009 he partnered with VanderMolen and started building the PStar in Richland, which was advantageous at the time for exporting because of the weak dollar.
600 hours per PStar
VanderMolen says the PStar benefits from the advanced production processes he and Pickel developed. “We’re the only Star boat builder in the world that uses prepreg fiberglass,” he says, referring to fiberglass that’s impregnated with epoxy resin before layup. The PStar hull is vacuum-bagged and laminated using Core-Cell foam sandwiched between unidirectional S-glass and E-glass. Vander- Molen says each hull is carefully built to strict tolerances, but some aspects of the boat are semicustom. He offers multiple rigging options, layouts to the skippers’ specifications, and sophisticated keels. The production process produces a lighter, stiffer boat, he says.
Total man hours to build one PStar with three men working on it: 600. The PStar’s cost reflects those man hours, and the advanced design and construction: $85,000 versus $55,000 for an Italian boat. He says the PStar, hands down, is the choice of professional Star sailors now. “We’ve been building these boats for the last three years,” VanderMolen says. “We won the last world championship. We’ve won the last three European championships. The other builders have not invested in this technology.” He says they are going to have to change their processes to remain competitive.
Not everyone is convinced that the PStar’s competitive advantage is overwhelming. U.S. Olympic Star sailor Mark Mendelblatt, who sailed an Italian Folli at Weymouth, the sailing venue for the 2012 games, says he initially wanted a PStar, but VanderMolen’s build schedule initially prevented him from buying one. When a new PStar later became available, he was having success with a new Italian-built Folli, so he stayed with that boat for the Olympics.
“My feeling was that we had an advantage all-around in lighter winds and that we were fast upwind in all conditions [with the Folli],” he says. “I felt that the PStar was a slightly better boat downwind in surfing conditions. As it turned out, I think that assessment was fairly accurate.”
Mendelblatt doesn’t blame his boat for his seventh-place Olympic finish. “In my mind, we were simply beaten by six teams who sailed a better regatta than we did,” he says.
Out of the Olympics
As successful as he has been in building winners, VanderMolen’s future remains a bit clouded. His 10-man shop probably has gotten more ink in the international press as a result of his Olympic successes than the sailors themselves, but for now the venerable Star — an Olympic class since 1932 — is out of Olympic competition.
The Star has been the keelboat of choice for some of the world’s best sailboat racers — Brazilians Torben Grael and Robert Scheidt; British Olympian Iain Percy; Americans Dennis Conner, Tom Blackaller, John Kostecki, Buddy Melges and Mark Reynolds; Bahamian Durwood Knowles; Italian Augustino Straulino; and Swede Freddie Loof, among them.
VanderMolen says the granddaddy of Olympic sailing classes is being replaced at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games by an upstart: kiteboarding. Others say men’s and women’s kiteboarding are replacing men’s and women windsurfing in 2016 or that the Mackay FX, a women’s double-handed skiff, and the Nacra 17, a mixed multihull class, are replacing the Star and women’s match-racing Elliott 6 Meter, both keelboats. In any case, VanderMolen believes the International Sailing Federation’s decision to chuck the Star and bring kiteboarding to Rio are windows into the future of Olympic sailing.
“It was a total shock,” says VanderMolen, who started racing the 22-1/2-foot Star 29 years ago at the Gull Lake Yacht Club.
VanderMolen grew up on the shores of Gull Lake. He worked for 15 years at Gull Lake Marine, a powerboat marina, and became its president and general manager, but his passion always has been sailing. Gull Lake has been a hotbed of Star racing since 1936. “My grandfather, my uncle, my father, my brother, my cousins — they all sailed Stars,” he says.
VanderMolen says the decision to drop the Star from the Olympics blindsided the class, as well as himself. He says the ISAF thinks sailing as an Olympic discipline is on the ropes. It doesn’t attract television coverage or sell tickets, and the public doesn’t understand sailing. The Star also has this going against it: The boat is expensive, so it excludes athletes from developing nations.
A kiteboard rig, on the other hand — “if you can call it a boat,” VanderMolen says — costs $1,000 to $3,000. It is a beach sport. Spectators line the shore to watch it. Kitesurfers “do aerial tricks that people want to see. They’re turning [sailing] into the X Games,” he says.
Kiteboarding has a wow factor that the Star lacks, and the decision to go with one and not the other has thrown a big wrench into VanderMolen’s business plan. But VanderMolen is not convinced that the decision to eliminate the Star from Olympic competition is final. He says the Brazilians are avid Star sailors and have fielded a number of world and Olympic champions, Scheidt and Grael among them. “There has been pressure from the Brazilian Olympic organization to get the Star boat back in the Games,” he says. “[Its Olympic demise] is not a foregone conclusion.”
If the Star is not reinstated, “it’s not going to kill the class,” VanderMolen predicts. The class has 2,200 members in 38 countries, and the competition within the class is fierce, especially in Europe. “Winning a Star world championship is even more coveted than an Olympic gold medal,” VanderMolen says.
The builder says he has received 15 inquiries about buying new PStars since the games. Eleven of the inquiries were from European sailors. “The Europeans still are interested in the boats as the premier racing boat,” he says. “I need to get five [confirmed] orders before I do another production run.”
Meanwhile, VanderMolen has begun fielding inquiries about building other one designs, as well. Last February, Mark Bryant of Estero, Fla., a longtime builder, sold him the molds for the single-handed, deep-keel 2.4mR sailed in the Paralympics and international competition for both disabled and able-bodied sailors. “The 2.4m Class is trying to overcome the whole idea that it is a boat for the disabled only because the able-bodied certainly can [and do] sail it,” he says. “I’m going to market it to the able-bodied. It’s an exciting little project. … I think we can build 30 to 50 [2.4m’s] a year if we hit our target.”
November 2012 issue.