This article is reprinted, with permission from the editor, from the February, 2000 issue of Racer’s Edge which is published monthly by (aq) Aqueous International and distributed to yacht clubs, class associations and marine supply houses nationwide

The Ultimate 20

This six-year-old class is getting it right, slowly but surely

by Dick Martin

The first Ultimate 20s were built in 1994. By the time the U20 had been named the sportboat of the year and the class held its first national championship in 1995 thirty of these 20' 10" retractable-keel sprit boats had been built, and sail numbers are now in the 140s.
A veteran of 54 years of sailboat racing in seven one-design classes, Dick Martin was the first president of the Ultimate 20 Class Association and now serves as its executive secretary. He is also the chairman of the One-Design Class Council of the United States Sailing Association.

The success and steady growth of our class during a period when several other new classes have been struggling, results from a happy combination of several unique design concepts, the evolution of a strong U20 class organization and a close collaborative relationship between the class association and the builder.

The boat and its rigging were designed to be light but sturdy, easily trailerable, exciting to sail, simple and user-friendly. Guy deBoer, writing in Racer's Edge about his experience racing a U20 in the 1998 St. Petersburg NOOD, described it as "a perfect opportunity for the club-level sailor to step up into a sportboat design without fear of being overpowered or intimidated" and, rather than a sheep in wolf's clothing, "a sheep that can move like a lion."

To keep the cost of ownership down, the U20 uses carbon fiber only in critical areas like the keel and rudder, and it is equipped with aluminum spars and woven Dacron main and jib. The very first U20s are still as stiff as brand new ones, and several are being campaigned successfully with three and even four-year old sails. Although a few minor changes to improve convenience have been allowed (for example, lowering the step into the companionway a couple of inches after the first dozen or so had been built and modifying the keel trunk to make it a little stronger) strict adherence to one-design principles will continue to ensure that all U20s will remain competitive, regardless of when they were built.

One of the important initial design decisions was to extend the application of one-design principles to U20 sails. In order to be eligible to race in one-design events, all sails must be made from standard patterns by a single sailmaker (the Newport Beach loft of Ullman Sails which is home to the designer of the U20 sail plan, Jay Glaser). Over the years this policy has created some controversy and several heated debates, but U20 owners favor it by a 4:1 majority which has remained stable for the past three years.

The Ultimate 20 is a manufacturer's class; our boats are built near Santa Cruz, California by Ultimate Sailboats, Inc. (USI). The Ultimate 20 Class Association was formed in early 1996; a totally independent entity, over the five years of its existence it has prospered, grown, and matured steadily. In 1997 the class association leadership took the initiative to write and publish the class Constitution and One-Design Rules, with the cooperation of the U20's designer, Jim Antrim, Ullman Sails and USI. Although Antrim and a representative of USI serve as technical advisors to the Executive Board of the class association, they have no vote on class decisions, including one-design rule amendments. And the class association has had the final say in the few instances where marketing considerations were felt to be in conflict with the long-term best interests of the class.

Collaboration, much more than conflict, has marked the relationship of our class association and builder, however. U20 owners are some of the best salespersons the company has. And few if any manufacturer's classes must ever have experienced the cooperation we have enjoyed when our class has faced challenges. For example, in order to encourage the formation of a new six-boat U20 club fleet at Detroit's Bayview Yacht Club last year, in the face of a very short deadline our class association membership voted virtually unanimously to modify our class owner-driver rule.

So, having been blessed with all this good fortune, where does the Ultimate 20 class stand at the end of itsfirst six years? We aren't very big yet, but our growth has been steady. Only a few used U20s have become available, and they generally sell fairly fast. For its small size, our class organization must be one of the most active and strongest in the country as witnessed by our paid membership of 86% of the owners of Ultimate 20s in the U.S. and the broad representation of our members in the leadership of the class. Our class newsletter, the ultimatum, has been published every quarter since 1995, using only material submitted by our members plus an occasional guest expert. Our class list server circulates an average of thirty messages a week; most of our owners participate as do many other sailors who crew and/or are contemplating buying a U20 some day. Our large class association website (www.u20class.org) which has received considerable praise first went online in 1996. It currently offers 13.6 megabytes of text and graphics and receives more than 5,000 page requests per month.

U20 owners are scattered all over the country—indeed the distribution of our boats in 33 states looks like someone aimed an unchoked shotgun at a map of the United States and blasted away. This phenomenon has probably hurt our visibility, since we are just now beginning to form fleets in a few areas, e.g., Detroit and Lake Norman in North Carolina (there are also fairly large state clusters in Oregon, Washington and Texas). Despite our geographical diversity we have been well represented at the St. Pete and San Diego NOODs for the past two years (last year nine U20s were on the line at each event and we were the fifth largest keelboat class at the San Diego NOOD). This year we expect to have U20 fleets racing at the Detroit and Houston NOODs as well.

As U20 sailors gradually begin to appreciate the fun of one-design racing, more and more are also traveling to our class-sponsored regattas. These include championships in each of our five districts plus an annual national championship which last year drew sixteen boats whose crews represented fifteen states. Indeed, last year U20 sailors effectively circumnavigated the globe to tow their boats to Little Rock for the nationals, logging a cumulative round trip total of 23,482 miles to race there!