Features November 15, 1999 Issue

Hydraulic Backstay Adjusters: Sailtec vs. Navtec

Following Navtec’s redesign of its entire line, the two brands are remarkably similar. Choosing between the two is difficult.

When seven mechanical backstay adjusters were reviewed (in last fall’s August 15 issue), a promise was made to examine hydraulic models.

As it turns out, there apparently are but two makes—Navtec and Sailtec—available in the United States. Stearns and Merriman used to make them. No more. Overseas, England’s Seaway has dropped out of the European picture, leaving a couple of small German makers to compete with Navtec’s big network of distributors.

Through some complicated sell-offs, mergers and acquisitions, Navtec wound up as “Navtec Norseman Gibb” or “Navtec & Norseman Gibb,” all under the umbrella of something called Vector Marine. The important part is that Navtec, through Norseman and Gibb, acquired a dealer and service network in England and France. It sounds like a budding monopoly on a global scale.

Except for Bob Brehm, up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Bob is keeping Navtec honest. In fact, in the last several years, it sometimes seems like Sailtec, the little five-man company he’s owned for 10 years, has not only been keeping Navtec honest, it’s been keeping them up all night.

Navtec ruled for a long while.

But, competitively speaking, Bob Brehm found not one but two Achilles’ Heels.

By using the hydraulic cylinder as the case and by placing the return line and gauge on the outside, his Sailtec adjusters could be made less expensively and could have longer strokes—the latter very important because of the trend toward bendy rigs, some with split backstays that require considerable “take-up.”

“The exposed return line is not pretty. I wish I had theirs,” Brehm said, “but that good-looking case is very costly.”

A minor advantage of the exposed return line is that it permits easy conversion to a remote panel and pump, if later desired. (The same gear can be used to power a boom vang.)

Navtec’s models, in three basic sizes, had strokes of 7", 8" and 8.5". Sailtec offered roughly the same nominal sizes in both standard sizes (with strokes greater by 2") and long versions (with strokes almost twice as great).

Sailtec also was shaving Navtec’s prices. Looking at comparable models, a #12 Navtec, 24.8" closed and 32.8" open, discounts for $974.95. A Sailtec #12 Standard, 24" closed and 34" open, sells for $953.90.

The price difference for an individual buyer is not great; but it’s important to a cost-conscious boatbuilder. (For the keen racing sailor, the Sailtecs also are somewhat lighter in weight.)

Navtec Regroups
When Navtec decided to respond to Sailtec’s pressure, it didn’t flinch. It re-designed its entire line, engineering from the ground up, testing continually.

Scheduled to have been introduced at the Annapolis show, the new models will be ready on January 1, 2000.

Navtec very kindly loaned to Practical Sailor a prototype of its new line. It looks remarkably like a Sailtec, mostly because of the exposed return line, but we didn’t say that to Beau LeBlanc, Navtec’s very knowledgeable sales manager, when he dropped off the prototype.

“We’re not sure about the return line,” he said, “whether it’ll be stainless or Kevlar. And we’re still experimenting with the gauge housing. The gauge, by the way, will have an expanded face to make reading easier.

“Maybe the biggest improvements are the increase in stroke and moving the gauge from the bottom to the top of the tube for easier reading. Of course, the prices will be lower than the old ones.”

LeBlanc said Navtec also is looking at ways to put calibration marks on the rod as it exits the cylinder. It would be a “quick look” advantage to not have to read the gauge.

“We haven’t figured that out yet,” he said. “It’s not easy to put markings on the kind of polish that’s required on a hydraulic rod.”

Oshkosh Responds
Checking back with Oshkosh about Navtec’s new exterior return line produced from Bob Brehm this comment:

“I’m flattered.”

Then he explained that although he has over the last five years or so made 17 “running changes” (as engineers call improvements to existing equipment), Sailtec now has under way a “design sweep” (which is what Navtec just finished doing).

“To begin with, you know where the gauge is going,” Brehm said.

“We’ll be at Annapolis this fall when Navtec unwraps its new stuff,” Brehm added.

“And they’d better be at the Miami boat show next year.”

The Bottom Line
Navtec and Sailtec backstay adjusters both benefit from the principles of hydraulics, which greatly magnifies fluid pressures. The equipment also is almost foolproof; it’s designed to fail in the safe position.

It’s relatively easy, as with both the Navtec and Sailtec equipment, to build in an adjustable pressure relief valve that prevents a careless user from overtensioning a boat’s rig or breaking something.

The aircraft aluminum cylinders—gun drilled, honed and polished—never wear out. Nor does the powerful piston and rod, usually made of stainless running in bronze bearings. The seals and valves rarely fail. All because everything that moves is bathed in fine hydraulic oil.

When something fails, it’s usually the pump. A complete re-build typically costs $300 to $400, about a quarter of the original cost.

Navtec and Sailtec peck away at each other, arguing about needle vs. ball valves, who has the beefier piston rod, whose takes the fewest strokes, which can stand a side-load, etc.

But they openly admire each other’s equipment.

For Practical Sailor, it’s not possible to pick one over the other. If it’s good looks, the old Navtec with the squarish case was the winner. And if you want one, you’d better move now. They’ll be gone next year.

If it’s price, Sailtec has had the edge.

With Navtec lowering prices (not finalized yet) on its new models and Sailtec immersed in a “design sweep,” who knows what happens next?

One thing for sure: This is as good an example as one will ever find of the value to the consumer of a spirited, appreciative competition between two good companies—one large, one small—determined to out-do each other.


Contacts- Navtec Norseman Gibb, 351 New Whitfield St., Guilford, CT 06437-0388; 203/458-3163. Sailtec, 1712 Graber St., Oshkosh, WI 54901; 920/233-4242.

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