It's not often you see a head sailing a yacht. But when the apparently disembodied noddle of a certain Jonathan Richards, 27, began tacking a 12-footer called Illusion among the sleek racing yachts gathered at Cowes on the Isle of Wight off England's south coast last July, it's accurate to say that consternation reigned. The waterfront bars, packed with hundreds of hard-drinking crew members gathered for the Admiral's Cup, the international racing series held each summer, quickly emptied and cameras appeared everywhere. For about half an hour, Richards, pleasantly aware of the excitement he was creating, sailed his enigmatic craft among the blue-chip yachts while onlookers tried to figure out where the rest of him was. In fact, the 6-foot Richards, a Cowes boat-builder and sailmaker, was comfortably stretched out in Illusion as if he were reclining in an armchair before the fire. His arms, busily adjusting a variety of below-deck controls, were tucked under the side decks, while his feet, resting against an aluminum rod attached by wire to the rudder, were doing the steering.
Much gratified by the general effect, Richards sailed Illusion back up the Medina River and hauled the boat out on her cradle—a converted bread trolley. In the following days, some of the cream of the Admiral's Cup skippers arrived to try out the little boat for themselves. What they discovered was a craft that looks like a yacht and handles like a yacht but weighs less than a small dinghy and has a sail area of only 65 square feet. In fact, Illusion—the choice of name wasn't an accident—is virtually an America's Cup yacht in miniature, a new concept featuring some of the characteristics of big boats on a pygmy scale. And at a fraction of the cost: Richards and his fellow originator, Neil Graham of Australia, 34, built Illusion for just $650. The little craft's graceful proportions belie the rather helter-skelter manner of her creation, which was a triumph of resourcefulness. She was put together from a design roughed out by Richards on a piece of old chipboard on a kitchen table in the tiny house in Cowes that he shares with his girl friend, Sue Brown, a sailing instructor. "In fact," says Richards, "it was all pretty much kitchen-table stuff." The mast and boom came from a length of hang-glider tubing, which he acquired from a New Zealander up the road. The sails were fashioned from bits of fabric-lying around from previous sail-making experiments. Most of the fittings were expropriated from old dinghies. The lead for the keel came from just about everywhere and was for the most part garnered by Graham's girl friend. Sue Morris, a psychiatrist.
Illusion took shape in a shed of rotting wood and broken windows at the back of the National Sailing Center. About the only items actually paid for were the planks of quarter-inch deal that form the hull. Says Richards, "The whole thing was really like finding a bit of wire in the attic, then asking, 'What can we use this for?' "
Although their methods appear to be amateurish, it's the sort of approach that Richards and Graham have been using for years—yet still ending up with professional-looking boats. Richards says, "I've always been coming up with these rather odd, silly ideas." But those silly ideas seem to work. As a boatbuilder Richards is totally self-taught—to his dismay, he wasn't allowed to do woodwork at school because it clashed with Latin, a requisite for taking high school science courses—but he has designed and built some 50 dinghies over seven years, a lot of them for fun rather than for commercial gain. And many of those dinghies have proved to be almost unbeatable in competition.
Quite apart from Illusion, Richards has plenty of other projects alive. He's experimenting with a radical dinghy design, finishing off another dinghy for friends, opening his campaign to represent Britain in the Flying Dutchman class in the Los Angeles Olympics—Richards was a member of the British Olympic team for the 1980 Games, but, unhappily for him, the yachtsmen decided to boycott Moscow—and racing or cruising keelboats. In September he was a key member of the crew that helped an Irishman, Harry Cudmore, win the World One Ton championships at Crosshaven, Ireland.
Richards discusses boats with the sort of glow that fits halfway between mere enthusiasm and fanaticism. He is hopelessly, irredeemably crazy about sailing. His father, John, a retired publicity manager for an industrial chemicals company, recalls how the young Jonathan used to fashion boats out of leaves, using twigs for masts, and race them on puddles around the family home in Birmingham. Indeed, it would be puzzling if Richards weren't sailing-mad. He was born with brine in his blood: his parents first met in a sailing club; Jonathan, or Jo, as he's known, was sailing at three weeks in his parents' small cruiser; both his brother and sister sail; there were never any cars in the family garage because it was always packed with boats.
A touch of amiable eccentricity inhabits Jo Richards. He appears to care hardly a whit about money ("My bank balance hovers between £50 in the red and £50 in the black"); he walks around in jeans without knees and in jerseys without elbows. Richards is also one of the few fungal ecologists in Britain, having earned his Bachelor of Science degree at Nottingham University in that subject, though he has never attempted to put the knowledge to any practical use.
"I'm the wrong mentality to spend my life in stuffy little laboratories peering down electron microscopes," he says emphatically as he walks along the cliffs above Cowes. After graduation—his father still can't understand how he managed that because "he seemed to do nothing except sail while he was at Nottingham"—Richards joined the Royal Navy as a navigation officer but left after a year "because it became very obvious that I wasn't going to do any sailing at all."
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 teen-ager, 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.