Melges 24 - The Renaissance of Competitive Sailing in Croatia

Melges 24 - The Renaissance of Competitive Sailing in Croatia

The best Croatian competitive sailors have always been looking for a way to compete on an equal footing, but in the past 30 years, an accessible one-design class that attracted the top local sailors has never materialized.  Top Croatian sailors were able to prove themselves internationally, while ORC handicapped racing on cruiser-racers was the best opportunity for others in the region to prove their sailing skills. Things started to change during 2021, when at the initiative of sailor Filip Jurišić, who normally sails in the ILCA 7 class, as well as several top Croatian sailors decided to invest in Melges 24 class sailboats. Quickly this one-design fleet caught on to become the Holy Grail of competitive sport sailing on the Adriatic leading to a renaissance in the sport of sailing in Croatia.

From Strong Winds to Doldrums

The past 20 years have seen a huge boom in sailing regattas in Croatia, covering a wide variety of vessels and classes.  During that time, Croatian sailors made a strong mark internationally in Olympic classes and hosted many international Olympic class events. Local investors also built strong teams in IMS and ORC sailing, and the country even hosted World and European Championships.  Croatia became a hotspot for elite sailing, hosting events for classes such as TP52, GP40, and RC44.

During this period, Croatia also experienced a boom in one-design cruiser-racer charter race fleets, leading the world in this type of racing. Starting with a fleet of 20 Bavaria 42 Match boats, racer's from around the world came to Croatia to experience one-design sailing.  This promoted Croatia as a racing destination, but successive fleets became more cruiser oriented than race oriented, which was good for tourism, but did little to promote the competitive aspect of sailing. 

As we approached the pandemic, investment in sailing teams had weakened, and the pandemic further dampened the racing spirit in Croatia.  There became little incentive to invest in a sailing vessel or racing team, as there was not a clear or affordable platform to allow top sailing talent to make their mark in an objective way.

Sailing Renaissance

Joining the Melges 24 was an easy choice for top Croatian sailors, as this 24foot (7.3 m) boat has attracted more than 900 owners worldwide.   It was introduced in 1993, by the 1992 America’s Cup winning helmsman Harry “Buddy” Melges, who integrating high-tech materials and concepts used at the America’s Cup level into a vessel that was fun, affordable, easy to rig, set-up and tow.  The vessels are sailed by a 4 person crew with a total weight limit of 375 Kg.

This class brings together many of the best sailors in world, including America’s Cup participants, Volvo Ocean Racers, Olympians, as well as many top professional sailors.  In Croatia, the Melges 24 class has gathered the cream of Croatian sailing - Olympians Šime and Mihovil Fantela, Tonči Stipanović, Karlo Kuret, Tomislav Bašić, Ivan Kljaković Gašpić, Luka Radelić, Ivan and Toni Bulaja, Enija Ninčević, Anđela de Micheli Vitturi, as well as the top sailors Filip Jurišić, Tonko Rameša, Luka Šangulin, Stipe Vitaljić, Darko Hajdinjak.  

A large number of Croatian teams and top names have successfully positioned themselves on the European and world Melges 24 scene. In local sailing circles, the CRO Melges 24 Cup has earned the nickname ‘Champions League’.

The CRO Melges 24 Cup in Croatia in a short time became the most numerous and strongest sailing series, gathering the best of the best in sailing.  Currently the fleet on the Eastern Adriatic is the world's third largest with more than 20 boats.  

The strength of the class

According to the president of the Croatian Melges 24 Association Filip Jurišić: “We are especially proud that in addition to reputable sailing names, we have succeeded in including a large number of teams from the so-called Corinthian groups, ie crews that do not have sailing professionals in their ranks. After a long time, we finally have a competition on equal terms, in which the skill of the sailor is brought to the fore. Our vision has resulted in top regattas, and we hope that in the future Croatia will have the opportunity to organize many more international Melges 24 regattas that best promote our fantastic sea.

The strength of the class is perhaps best shown by the fact that participants in the CRO Melges 24 Cup currently include an Olympic Gold medalist, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, 14 medalists from the World Championships and 25 medalists from the European champions in Olympic classes.

In 2022, the winner of the CRO Melges 24 Cup was the vessel Panjić, skippered by Luka Šangulin, who said The Melges 24 is currently the most resounding project in Croatian sailing, and I think the class will grow even more in the next few years. I am glad that almost all the best from our sport joined in.  It is also very important that many amateurs teams participate, because the boats areaccesible, fun and competitive. This offers up and coming young sailors an opportunity to taste sailing at the highest level and gain some useful knowledge for the future”.

The CRO Melges 24 Cup series is sailed in partnership with the special hospital Medico, OneSails and Sailing Point, and the regattas are hosted by Croatian clubs across the Adriatic. In the first part of the season in 2022, four regattas were held.

The season started in Dubrovnik (SC Orsan) with the victory of Panjić's crew, then the sailing 'circus' was in Biograd (JK Briva) where Panjić celebrated at home, Opatija (YC Croatia) was the first regatta victory for the Universitas Nova crew. The icing on the cake was the first international Melges 24 regatta within the European Sailing Series held in Rovinj (JK Maestral). At the foot of St. Euphemia, 30 crews from seven European countries performed, and the winner was the Italian crew Strambapapà.  During the autumn, two regattas will be held in Split (JK Mornar and JK Labud), and at the end of the season Zadar (JK Uskok) will host the Croatian International Championship.

CROATIAN FLEET IN FIGURES

1 America's Cup participant - Karlo Kuret

10 Olympians - Karlo Kuret, Toni Bulaja, Tomislav Bašic, Ivan Kljaković-Gašpić, Šime Fantela, Mihovil Fantela, Tonči Stipanović, Enia Ninčević, Ivan Bulaja and Siniša Mikuličić

1 Olympic gold - Šime Fantela

2 Olympic silver medals - Tonči Stipanović

2 world champions - Šime Fantela, Mihovil Fantela

14 medals from the World Championships in Olympic classes - Šime Fantela, Mihovil Fantela, Tonči Stipanović, Ivan Kljaković-Gašpić

10 European champions in Olympic classes - Šime Fantela, Tonči Stipanović, Ivan Kljaković-Gašpić

25 medals from the European Olympic Class Championships - Šime Fantela, Mihovil Fantela, Tonči Stipanović, Ivan Kljaković-Gašpić, Karlo Kuret, Filip Jurišić, Enia Ninčević, Mihaela de Micheli Vitturi

Photos: Zerogradinord/Mauro Melandri i Hrvoje Duvančić/regate.com.hr