Racy SUPER MODELS – radio controlled model yacht racing

Elaine Dickinson

With the pop of the starting gun, all hands flew into action. Rudders strained to tack sharply and get on the favored side of the racing course; sails were trimmed tight as a drum to eke every last iota of speed out of the wind; waves slammed into bows and washed clear over the decks. And as the fleet raced toward the first turning mark, the atmosphere intensified and nervous fingers grabbed the toggle switches for additional maneuvering.

Toggle switches?

Model yacht racing, or “RC” racing (for “radio controlled”) is what gets many boaters through the winter. It keeps the adrenaline flowing from the thrill of competition, albeit on a small scale. But, like boating, it offers camaraderie and fun that’s easily accessible to anyone with working fingers and enough charged up AA batteries for an afternoon of sailing.

Thinking small is easier on the bank account as well. The outlay for a ready-to-sail RC boat is usually in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Access to the water is as simple to find as a quiet pond at a local park. Some cities have even built special yacht racing ponds, such as San Diego, because it’s such an eye-catching attraction.

“Model racing is less of a commitment in terms of time as well as money,” said Dick Rutledge, a BoatU.S. member from Houston who is also the national vice president of the American Model Yacht Association (AMYA), the all-volunteer organization which sanctions classes of RC boats and all official races. “I can have my model loaded and on the water in 20 minutes.”

Rutledge and his wife Nancy are avid racers on Lake Conroe in Texas and compete in their full-sized “people boat,” a Ranger 22. One day at the dock, one of their Ranger class friends was playing with a model yacht and handed the control box to Rutledge. “I was hooked,” he said, and now travels throughout the U.S. to compete in the Star 45 and 36/600 class races. His wife is a top competitor as well. The Rutledges also belong to the Houston Model Yacht Club, one of 120 in the U.S. that organize local races.


Currently, 21 classes of boats are recognized by AMYA, from 30-inch, 4.5-pound Victoria one-design models up to huge 1/16-scale 1930s J class boats, nine feet long, 10 feet tall and weighing 100 pounds. Each class has a class manager and all sanctioned racing and championships are held within each class. (In fact, the enormous J class models will be holding their first ever national championship in a three-day event at Mystic Seaport, CT, July 28-30.)

Within AMYA are special interest groups such as the U.S. Vintage Model Yacht Group where builders of antique and classic yacht models such as the J boats congregate. This group works to preserve the history and craftsmanship of vintage model building. There is also a subculture of what’s called scale model builders, those who specialize in 1/144-scale fighting warships from 1900-1946, some wired with shooting guns and explosives with which to stage sea battles.

Two racing classes are recognized internationally — the International One Meter (IOM) and the Marblehead — and they’re raced all over the world.

While AMYA has grown to 2,000 members, it is estimated that tens of thousands of “unofficial” sailors race models around the country. The hobby has become a national craze in Japan where hundreds show up for a single race.

Just like the full-size yacht racing world, AMYA also recognizes a number of developmental classes. These are models that can be custom built as long as they conform to a specific rule, or rather, a formula of measurements. The old America’s Cup 12-meters are a good example.

Finely crafted boat models are an art form dating back centuries but, beginning in the 1800s, hand-built models were raced, with no controls. They were designed to sail in a straight line or use wind vane self-steering. Their popularity steadily grew, dampened only during the war years.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that radios became small enough to fit inside a miniature hull and the thrill of maneuvering a boat around a race course started to become the attraction, more than the model building itself.

Now in its third century, model building and racing may get a boost from the relatively new “ARF” kits — Almost Ready to Float — which make it easier for novices to put together a boat and join a fleet.


As life imitates art, so does full-size sailboat racing imitate model racing. If you’re really into competition, you can lead two lives and compete on two different levels. While the official U.S. racing rules are virtually the same for both, Rutledge and others point out some significant differences that make RC racing a different sort of challenge.

Out on a real sailboat, numerous adjustments can be made on board, such as adjusting tension on stays, changing sails and weight distribution. “For model racing you really have to learn how to tune these little boats up before you begin,” Rutledge said. “Once it’s out on the water you can’t change anything.”

The only thing the racer/radio controller can do once the boat is on the water usually comes down to two controls: trimming the sails (the mainsail and jib in tandem) from one switch, and steering with another switch. Two “servos,” little motors that adjust the sails and rudder, are inside the hull. Some of the larger models have two additional controls for backstay tension and jib “twitching” (trimming the jib separate from the main.)

The other big difference between full-size and RC sailing is that the view from on board a boat on the water is completely different than the bird’s eye view a model racer gets watching from above. The positions of the whole fleet are readily seen as well as puffs of wind, ripples in the water, and what direction they’re taking.

“It’s a whole different perspective when you’re standing on the shoreline,” Rutledge said. “You have to get your mind in synch with your fingers — and sometimes your fingers have a mind of their own!”

Another positive aspect of RC sailing is that physically challenged people can compete on equal footing if they’ve got basic finger control, Rutledge added. “Whether you just had surgery or can’t walk, you can come out and have a ball. We have an 87-year-old in our Star fleet and he’s a bear to beat.”

Timing is obviously different as well because a model race may be only minutes long, compared to an hours-long regular race. One lap around a model race course might last only three minutes, so reaction time is compressed.

“Mark roundings get pretty wild because the boats are so maneuverable and you can get very close. We all have rubber pieces on our bows because we hit each other all the time,” said Tom Price, a Marblehead class racer who also works in the ship model department at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Also a BoatU.S. member, Price regularly races Laser 28s and Star class boats, full size. “It’s amazingly the same as real racing and every bit as competitive and rewarding. Except, of course, that you’re standing next to your competitor and have to listen to their whistles and taunts.”

Marbleheads are one of the largest and oldest of model racers, begun a century ago. Price’s boat is eight feet tall and 50 inches long, weighing nine pounds, seven of them in the lead keel. He explained that scaling a normal light breeze down to the size of the models means that these boats are sailing in winds equivalent to 30 knots.

A small but growing fleet of RC racers within BoatU.S. Headquarters have taken up the CR-914 class model, a modern America’s Cup class lookalike. ARF kits cost about $450 and require about 40 hours of work to assemble, rig and paint. All stays, halyards and standing rigging are adjustable with tiny turubuckles, and four AA batteries power the servos and eight batteries run the hand control unit. They last for about 10 hours of racing.

“It’s probably less stress than a real race,” said Ted Sensenbrenner, in charge of the BoatU.S. membership marketing programs. “The tactics are extremely similar to any type of racing. You try to get a good start, get the favored side of the course and round the marks cleanly.”

He keeps the candy apple-red Imperatrix Mundi right next to his desk and said he picked up the basics of RC sailing in an afternoon. Developing the finesse to be good takes much longer, even years. About six to 10 model racers show up during the winter months for informal dockside racing in Annapolis, MD. For awhile, this less-stressed group even raced from the cozy interior of a waterfront restaurant.

You don’t have to be a sailor to enjoy model racing either, or even a boater, for that matter. In fact, some of the hotbeds of model racing are not in big boating areas, but places like Las Vegas, Mesa, AZ, Stowe, VT, and downtown Washington, DC.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Boat Owners Association

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group