I raced the Ultimate 20 yesterday on Mobile Bay out of Fairhope Yacht Club with skipper Jim Chapman and crew Jim Collins. The wind was around 4 knots at the start and 10 knots by the finish around a 5.5 mile fixed mark course.
Here are my impressions.
Build Quality: I think, because of the hull/deck lip, I was expecting it to be built cheaply with more emphasis on selling boats than building them. I was basically expecting a big soft Laser hull. That is my baggage though, and immediately I noticed a very well built little boat. Inside the boat, the main structure is one piece of tooled composite that forms the floatation forward, the frame for the mast step/ keel, and the aft running longitudinals. One big composite part bogged to a cored hull and then capped off by the deck. The hull and deck were very stiff when banged on and walked around. Certainly tougher than the Wavelength 24's I grew up sailing (a boat I still sail and freaking love). Construction is definitely not an issue. The internal floatation is also a tick off the list.
Deck Layout: The cockpit is very comfortable and as big as this boat could have and still have stowage room below. Because of the U20's size the cabin top isn't far from the helm, so you can easily trim sails with the tiller extension in hand and operate halyards and other running rigging. The boat I sailed used the little windward sheeting system that is stock with the boat, and the 2:1 purchase on the little jib was really easy to trim from the windward side, even when powered up. There are no winches on this boat, and it didn't seem to need them in 10 knots.
Stiffness: For such a light boat she was surprisingly stiff at the dock when I stepped on. Certainly no less stable than my 99' Finot prototype mini. She danced a lot at the dock, but that had everything do do with how light the boat is and motor boats coming in and out of the harbor. I haven't sailed a Melges 24 in a while, but this boat felt much less dependent on human ballast from what I can remember. The Melges felt more like a big little boat, while this one felt more like a little big boat.
Responsiveness: The boat was quick to accelerate in the light wind we started in. The rudder was deeper than I was expecting, and very powerful. Upwind in 4 knots felt great. I had Jim and Jim go as far to leeward as possible to see if I could make the rudder stall, and it was a non issue at around 20 degrees of heel. Of course there weren't big waves or big winds to really see how she'd behave, but it was encouraging. In real life, you'd never sail a U20 heeled over like that on purpose anyway. The small sail plan drives this boat very easily.
Maneuverability: Like many sport boats, the U20 turns on a dime. Even in the near drifting conditions we left the dock in you could easily maneuver the boat, throwing in 180 degree tacks/gybes within a boat length. That was definitely not like a mini
Simplicity: The U20 is among the simplest boats I've ever sailed on. The roachy mainsail without back stays is awesome for maneuvering. It makes tacking and gybing extremely easy. You couldn't do much about forestay tension without a back stay while sailing. Just make it tight with the shrouds and go sailing. The boat I was on was at base settings for standing rigging, and we were sailing one design against two other boats. Trimming the jib from the helm was very easy. No winch to ease off from, so you could use one hand like you're sailing a Laser and feel every adjustment on the helm as you did it. That seemed fast. Spinnaker pole is on deck and the hoist douses are standard sprit boat affair. Pole out with tack, halyard up and sheet on. Sit down and drive. I haven't sailed a sport boat in years and miss how easy it is to do. Anyway, the boat was very simple to sail, and compared to a mini REALLY simple.
There was some concern about the single rudder noted in this forum. For sailing on every wind angle I wouldn't change a thing. It was really good upwind and good reaching and running. We sailed really close to the wind with the kite up on the last reaching leg, in about 8 knots of wind, and even though powered up, there was not a hint of rudder stall. In fact I showed Jim how impressed I was to still be driving with my finger tips. They seem to be very well balanced boats.
Size: It matters if you are going well offshore. This boat probably has 50% less volume inside than a series mini. It has less beam, less freeboard and it weighs half as much so has a shallower hull. Basically the interior is bigger than a J22 and smaller than a J24. That wouldn't bother me for one or two days, but a third night would be pushing it. Upwind offshore would be really wet. Again not a problem for a day or two, but you'd want to be close to where you are going soon after that.
Life Lines: The U20's have life lines from the cabin top aft, but most don't have a bow pulpit or stanchions forward of the shrouds. That's all good in standard U20 sail handling when nobody has to go forward of the mast. However, if you did have to go up there for some reason, alone and out of site of another boat or land, it would be a good idea to have them. I don't remember actually using them on minis, but it made me feel better about going up there. Plus, what would the sailing majority say if they heard about this!
* I need to sail the boat in 25-30 knots to find the rest of the kinks. Basically those are the only cons I can come up with at this point.
If there were enough interested sailors to form a series within this class, I think it would be a good idea to design the course around the boat as opposed to the other way around. That's one reason I'm attracted to the series of overnights as opposed to one big fat offshore event. If everyone felt good about it after doing a series or two, maybe throw in a more challenging event. So far though I think this is a damn good boat for the price, ease of use, and quality of design/build. Plus you can race around the cans with your friends in handicap and one design. Also without seriously modifying the boat, it means there are a bunch of used boats on the market that could go directly into plug and play.
Okay, done pontificating.
Note: The race in Fairhope was a staggered start with a bunch of MORC type boats sailing spinnaker and non spinnaker. We finished first in fleet with the second placed boat also being a U20, so the boat seems to hold it's PHRF rating.