Boat Review September 2007 Issue

Sydney Yachts’ 36CR

The latest “performance cruiser” from Down Under looks to have more racer in her blood than cruiser. Designed by the firm of Iain Murray, Ian Burns, and Andy Dovell, the Sydney 36CR (cruiser-racer) is the latest product in the evolution of the 12-year-old BH Boats’ BH36 design

 

The Sydney 36CR reflects the agony and the ecstasy of modern handicap racing. Her designers’ aim was a durable, sexy, race-ready boat with “hassle-free” operation and cruiser accommodations. In Practical Sailor  testers’ opinions, the 36CR addresses a very small niche market. Sailed hard and well, it can win races in most places and fleets. But that’s not unique. It offers limited, yet realistic cruising, which expands its use. But how close to the top can you expect to get with a 12-year-old design optimized for Antipodean breezes? And is the 36CR enough of a cruiser to make it the “dual-purpose boat” of your dreams?

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Sydney Yachts’ 36CR
Call it a cruiser if you want, but the exterior of the Sydney 36CR says “at home on the start line.”

There’s no evidence that the first caveman who paddled off on a log was into racing, but virtually ever since then, the idea of a dual-purpose boat has been afloat.

Introduced to the U.S. in February of this year, the Sydney Yachts 36CR (Cruiser Racer) is an instructive take on that time-honored idea that you can have your cake and eat it too. Designed by the Aussie firm of Murray, Burns, and Dovell, the 36CR was developed by folks who have long operated at the highest levels of the racing universe. The boat is built by Sydney Yachts http://www.sydneyyachts.com/, a division of Azzura Marine born from BH Boats/Bashford International, which claims its boats have "strength-to-weight ratios that far exceed anything else available in the boatbuilding industry in either Australia or the rest of the world."

Looking at the boat with its 60-inch carbon-fiber wheel, open cockpit, and utterly clean foredeck, we couldn’t help but wonder whether it earns that "C"? What kind of cruising do they do down in Australia?

The term "performance cruiser" has gone through a dramatic evolution over the last few decades. Back in the day of Bob Perry’s Valiant 40, "performance cruisers" progressed mainly through the water. "Performance" today, it seems, is more about moving over the water. Few designers have been more involved in that evolution than Iain Murray and company. Six-time world champion (designer/builder/skipper) in the flying "Eye-deen" skiffs that race for cash off Sydney, Murray went on to world titles in varied classes (12 meter/Etchells/maxi) and offshore racing (Sydney-Hobart). He also devoted decades to the America’s Cup wars. His partner, Andy Dovell, point man on the Sydney 36 design, was designer of record for the past three Aussie AC challenges.

Sydney Yachts grew out of BH Boats, a company founded by J-24 and multihull wizard Ian Bashford in the 1980s, which morphed into Bashford International when it began to produce semi-custom offshore racers. Its first Sydney 41 was a Murray, Burns, and Dovell design named Raptor, a boat that won the 50th Sydney-Hobart despite being delivered to the line "out of the box" from the factory. The BH36 was launched in 1995. Like Raptor, it enjoyed early racing glory (winning Melbourne’s Nissan Regatta). Designer Dovell recalls the BH36 as "one of my favorite designs." In 1996, Bashford died at 37 of a heart attack. The company became Sydney Yachts, and the 36-footer lived on.

The Design

When the 36 debuted, it was very much in the shadow of the 41. "She never got much of a blast at the time, but ever since, I’ve been getting great feedback from around the world," Dovell said.

The 36 began life as a masthead racer, short-ended and relatively beamy by modern proportions. It weighed 9,500 pounds and carried 743 square feet of sail. Later, around 2000, it resurfaced with a new rig as a sportboat. Sailmakers who campaigned this version on the Great Lakes for a season reported it was a sweet sailor.

Toward the end of 2005, Sydney Yachts asked Dovell to revisit the design. He gave it a modern rig with swept-back double spreaders, a totally new deck, and, most importantly, a new and heavier keel.

"It was a question of taking a nice set of lines from a hull that had more than proven itself and making it better," Dovell explained. "The cockpit shrank, though the closed transom of the earlier design was traded for the proven advantages of an open aft-section; the interior grew; the rig became more efficient and easier to handle; and, most of all, we dramatically increased her stability with a modern bulbed keel." Voila—the Sydney Yachts 36CR.

Adding weight to a raceboat might seem strange. Dovell explains, "the 36 is relatively voluminous compared to a dedicated racer. Her sections are rounded and clean, so she can accept a reasonable payload. Balance and distribution of volume are keys. She’s not what I’d call ‘cruisey,’ but she is far more forgiving than lighter, narrower boats."

Over 90 percent of the weight added to the design (almost 2,000 pounds, according to Dovell) is in the cast lead keel. Its 12 percent (thickness/chord) fin is hardly a blunt instrument, but the designer chose it for efficiency through a wide range of attack angles to give the boat a relatively wide groove.

The bullet-shaped bulb at the bottom concentrates the majority of the weight 7.5 feet below the waterline, where it will do the most good. Form stability is important, as is a low vertical center of gravity, but having one of the highest ballast/displacement ratios (43 percent) among modern racer-cruisers means that owners won’t have to depend on "rail meat" to keep it upright.

Like other Sydneys, the 36CR carries an oversized wheel in a well. Available in assorted colors, of composite construction, and engineered to withstand a fair amount of abuse, the big wheel is nothing if not "racey." Dovell used a NACA section on the rudder; and reported that it tends to stall gradually instead of all at once, like some more aggressive shapes. "It all comes back to making the boat genuinely easy to sail," he says.

The same theme governs the rig. A pair of swept back (22 degrees) spreaders makes the backstay a sail adjustment tool rather than a structural necessity. Small and tall, the foretriangle accommodates a non-overlapping jib with a long, lift-producing luff. The lion’s share of the power is in the 36CR’s generously roached mainsail. The result is simplicity and ease in tuning, adjustment, and shorthanded sailing, with no significant penalty in performance potential.

On Deck

The new deck was designed to foster "all-round" sailing. Seats in the cockpit offer a respite from rail-
sitting while leaving the space open enough for a racing crew to work. The coachroof was lengthened, widened, and raised to provide a roomier interior. Styling has been updated via smoked glass "swoosh" side windows, rounded corners, and a profile that slopes integrally into the foredeck.

Call it "cruiser" if you will, but the Sydney 36CR looks like a raceboat. Its big wheel, open cockpit, thicket of winches, clear sidedecks, and flat-sheer/low silhouette profile say: "at home on the starting line."

Look closer, and the impression deepens. Our test boat was rigged with Dyform shrouds, Spectra lightweight running rigging, adjustable jib cars, and a removable, fixed carbon bowsprit designed to facilitate both fractional and masthead asymmetrical spinnakers. Dave Tomlinson, who oversees Sydney sales in the U.S. and hosted our test sail, says that some owners have opted for conventional spinnakers as well. One-design rules have yet to be codified.

Perhaps the supreme accomplishment of the layout is the 36CR’s mainsheet arrangement. A Harken windward-sheeting Big Boat Traveler (6:1) recessed athwartships in the cockpit sole, just forward of the wheel, offers the maximum in accessibility and fine tuning, by virtue of both gross/fine tackles and a "German" two-sided purchase system via the gooseneck that permits both high sided and double-winched mainsheet trim. All of this without creating a toe-stubber in the cockpit. Though a dedicated mainsheet trimmer could work easily while racing, the setup is one of the best answers we’ve seen to making solo or short-handed sailing less of a gymnastic challenge.

The 36CR’s spar is tapered aluminum. A carbon-fiber mast is available as an option. Having Harken two-step (40 x 2 & 44 x 2) self-tailers as halyard and primary winches is a plus. The additional spinnaker winches on our test boat were an option. Any (or all) of the winches can be electrified. Clustering halyards and control lines at housetop clutches port and starboard is efficient, as is the 36CR’s telescopic adjustable vang. All work stations seem to honor (as well as possible in a 36-footer) ergonomic reality. She has been set up for "hassle-free" operation, no matter how competitively you are sailing.

Accommodation

The big thing about the boat’s interior is that it’s big. While the Sydney 36CR doesn’t match most boats in its size in cruising niceties—like tankage, (29-gallon fuel tank/26-gallon water tank), stowage, privacy, or even convenience—it does offer a remarkable amount of space to live in. "What I like about my boat is her openness. She’s not cluttered," one Florida owner told us. "There aren’t the nooks and crannies that cut up other boats." While the head is small, ventilation might be better, and the galley is a bit cramped, there’s space enough for sailors to adapt to their own style of cruising and to make weekending and limited passagemaking attractive realities. Living aboard or taking it well offshore would involve substantial modifications.

Generally, the impression below is crisp, clean, and tasteful. The molded headliner masks deck hardware, but permits efficient wiring runs and appears easy to clean. Faux seams etched into the hull sides break up the "ice-box" feel. Joinery is production quality, but the touches of wood (southern myrtle for the most part) on door and locker frames, plus a large wooden drop-leaf table in the saloon work well.

The layout provides sleeping for six (two quarter-berths aft, two in the saloon, and a forecabin double). The saloon makes the most of the room afforded by the boat’s exterior chainplates, and there is surprisingly ample space for all aboard to dine and socialize below.

Tucked well outboard, the galley suffers from squeezed headroom and a rather small centerline sink. Cruising essentials like cooking, dishwashing, refrigeration, and electricity are not exactly afterthoughts, but the innovation and intensity reflected in the 36CR’s set-up for racing seems not to have been carried belowdecks.

Some plusses in the details, however, include well-placed and copious gear lockers; high-quality positive push-button closures on their doors; see-through Plexiglas sliders to maximize transparent stowage; an attractive wooden shower grate; and a simple, serviceable Whale manual bilge pump.

Still, even with the (optional) cockpit ports, we thought ventilation for the after-doubles was minimal. Cabin lights seemed randomly placed, in awkward spots, and too low for reading. The convertible combination of nav seat and ice chest seemed far from convenient, though the chest was deep and well-insulated. Lifting the companionway steps provides superior engine access, but dealing with the unshipped housing at sea might prove a problem.

 

Performance

During our test sail on Biscayne Bay, Fla., in February, the breeze never topped 6 knots. Beyond recording our pleasure at how much speed the 36CR wrung from so little pressure and noting it was markedly quicker than any of the two-dozen multihulls or cruiser-racers around us, it was hard to attach much significance to the experience. Certainly the boat is laid out with creditable efficiency, and it is undoubtedly a joy to get behind its 60-inch wheel.

In such instances with boats of this ilk, we turn to race records, owner feedback, and hope for another chance to sail the boat and amend our performance report.

There’s limited data on the 36CR—it’s too new. However, the Sydney 38 One-Design, a Murray, Burns, Dovell design that came after the BH36, has had a brief career in the U.S. Introduced around 2000, the boats finished first through fifth overall under Americap in the 2001 Chicago-Mackinac.

Said a Chicago sailmaker: "The Sydneys are optimized for Aussie conditions. That means breeze. Summertime around here is pretty drifty. The class never really established itself as a vibrant one-design. Some of the original boats have migrated to San Francisco though, and they seem to be thriving there."

Here’s what we’ve been able to gather from existing owners.

"My boat approaches 7 knots uphill in 25 knots of wind through a Golden Gate chop," said an owner in San Francisco, whose comments regarding stiff-air performance were echoed by others.

"The sense of something solid, almost bulletproof, is what I like best about her," another owner commented.

"She’s much less of a handful in a breeze than the 38, for instance," Dovell says.

We asked Dovell if his 36CR was well-suited to the sort of light-air racing that characterizes many parts of America: "It depends, of course, what sort of competition you’re talking about, what sort of fleet you’re racing against. In the under-8-knots portion of the wind range, I’d say that a weakness is there. Still, masthead asymmetricals and creative use of Code 0 type headsails can really juice up light-air performance."

With its relatively high prismatic coefficient, generous wetted surface, and small foretriangle, the 36CR would hardly be an ideal "drifting machine." Efficient, easily driven, and stable, however, the 36 seems to possess a quickness that doesn’t disappear as the wind diminishes.

The Southern Florida (a quite typical American sailing ground) PHRF handicappers rate it at 63. Using the J-109’s rating of 72 (or a handicap of 9 seconds/mile) for comparison, it seems there are some who believe her potential, even in lighter airs, to be noteworthy.

Conclusions

The Sydney 36CR reflects the agony and the ecstasy of modern handicap racing. What better way to "get into the game" than a durable, sexy, rocket that’s fast, forgiving, and manageable? On the other hand, how close to the top do you expect to get with a 12-year-old design optimized for Antipodean breezes and marked as a "ringer" by the handicappers? Does the life of chasing regattas and sleeping aboard appeal or appal? And is the 36CR enough of a cruiser to make it the "dual-purpose boat" of your dreams?

Sailed hard and well, it can win races in most places and fleets. But that’s not unique. It also offers limited but realistic cruising that expands its use. It is solidly built and intelligently designed.

However, it addresses a relatively small niche in the market. That limits its ability to hold its price. Comparing winners’ lists is a black art; predicting performance potential and outlining what’s needed to deliver the silverware are patently risky. Getting the most for your money depends a lot on your answer to "most of what?"

Last year, we reviewed the C&C 115 (August 2006) and Beneteau 10R (November 2006). Billed as "racer-cruisers," they nonetheless combine cruising and competitiveness in about the same proportions as the Sydney 36CR. Costing considerably less than the Sydney ($255,000 FOB San Francisco), they make greater use of strength/weight technology (both have carbon spars) and modern design thinking. In a heavy-air area like San Francisco, we like the Sydney’s stability and good manners, but it’s hard otherwise to set it above those other two choices.

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