Sailboat Design Conference Part I


We interviewed five leading designers of recreational and cruising boats to better understand the way they view the market and what considerations reside behind the designs they produce.

Sailboat Design Conference Part I
Bob Perry has over 30 designs to his credit, among them the oceangoing Valiant 40 above.
Sailboat Design Conference Part I

Beyond the text and photos contained in a sailboat manufacturing company’s brochures, and the words of a dealer or salesperson, and absent an understanding of yacht design, discerning the actual capabilities of today’s production boats is a major task. Gone are the days of Herreschoff et. al., when the conventional wisdom held that a long, deep keel was the best method of producing good tracking, displacement produced a seakindly ride, and performance (straightforward speed) was a simple matter of adding sail area. Prior to the age of fiberglass, most yachts used similar raw materials (wood and metal), and construction methods, so those variables were not generally a consideration.

Three decades ago, the playing field changed with the introduction of fiberglass, along with other material changes, which produced lighter structures that allowed manufacturers to re-examine their approach to design. Lighter structures translated to reduced ballast; thinner, deeper keels produced improvements in stability and weather performance; and, dacron sail fabrics added another dimension to the mix.

Those days aren’t that far astern, though it may be hard to believe that only 21 years have elapsed since the Aussies surprised the world with a winged keel. A seemingly unquenchable thirst for more boat speed (primarily attributable to pressure from grand-prix racers) is still producing new materials. A byproduct of this technology is an environment in which tinkering with raw materials allows designers to further push the edge of the design envelope, even at the mass-production level.

In the same way that benefits from the NASA space program and the world of professional automobile racing trickle down to consumers, the recreational sailor also enjoys the fruits of the racing sailor’s labor. Today’s production boats are, for the most part, capable of better performance than their predecessors, better built, and—surprisingly—more affordable than they were, based on 1980s prices.

Nonetheless, the challenge for the potential buyer remains the same: sorting through the hyperbole to find the real nature of a particular boat without needing a degree in naval architecture, or having to hire a naval architect to evaluate a design. In this case, you readers are not alone; we at PS are continually challenged to engage in critical evaluations of boats and gear in our ongoing attempt to uncover substance, as opposed to form.

To that end, we engaged five prominent American yacht designers and invited them to respond to a PS-prepared questionnaire aimed at providing us with a snapshot of the philosophical, technical, and marketing issues they consider when designing boats for John Q. Sailor. Our forum included (in alphabetical order) Glenn Henderson, Tim Jackett, Bob Perry, Tony Smith, and Jim Taylor, all of whom have designed production and custom boats.

Not surprisingly, their candor produced an informative, and interesting, result. They agree on many issues, but in some cases have divergent opinions about the methods used to achieve a result.

The Crew
As the general mManager of Fairport Marine (since 1997), Tim Jackett has guided the company through the reintroduction of the Tartan and C&C product lines, both of which were defunct in the mid ’90s. An indication of his talent lies in the versatility of these vessels: Tartans are typically more cruisy, while C&C sailboats are decidedly more performance-oriented.

Prior to assuming the mantle of director of engineering for Hunter Marine in 1999, Glenn Henderson was known for fashioning high-performance shapes for race boats. He “studied abroad” while cruising for six years, and in the process completed the degree requirements from the Westlawn School of Yacht Design. Henderson entered the boatbuilding business with the introduction of a 17-foot dinghy, followed by a 21-foot MORC racer, and the SR Max, a 21-footer that put his fledgling company on the map. Since joining Hunter, he has fashioned lines for the 356 (which became the Hunter 36), recently introduced the Hunter 38, and designed 41 and 44 footers, as well as the Excite 10 and the Hunter 216.

Bob Perry studied engineering at Seattle University, and was a professor of yacht design at Evergreen State College prior to opening his own design studio in 1974. In addition to maintaining an active clientele, as part of his daily affairs he now mentors interns from the University of Southampton and the Landing School. In 1989 he was among the first 15 industry professionals inducted into Cruising World magazine’s Hall of Fame. His series-built designs include the Tayana, Valiant; Espirit 37; Nordic; Cheoy Lee 35, 44, 48; Islander and Islander Freeport 36; Passport; and Saga 43 and 48.

An expatriate British subject and the only multihull designer in our mix, Tony Smith built his first multihull in a shed in England; that boat later finished fourth in the first 2,100-mile Round Britain Race in 1966. In 1967, he was among the first to research and develop foam-sandwich construction and fiberglass molding techniques, resulting in production of the 26-foot Telstar folding trimaran. In 1980 he and his wife Sue moved production of the Telstar to America. Eventually he designed the Gemini catamaran, the boat that has proven to be the most popular cruising catamaran sold in this country.

Known for the designs of custom one-offs and many of the Sabre sloops, Jim Taylor apprenticed for five years with Ted Hood, and in 1977 was responsible for the upgrade of America’s Cup winner Courageous. He formed Jim Taylor Yacht Design in 1978, and has since designed, built, and campaigned Mini-IOR/MORC/PHRF racers and America’s Cup designs. He also is responsible for the lines of the Sabre 362, 402, and 452, and Colgate 26. A champion of small boats, he designed several for Precision Yachts, including an 18-foot performance dinghy and 23-foot cruiser.

Though all five designers share the common denominator of having been commissioned to produce racing and cruising yachts, the first task each faces in developing a new model is having a clear understanding of a boat’s intended market and use, prior to putting pencil to paper.

Sailboat Design Conference Part I

Most of Perry’s designs, excepting flat-out racers like ICON, for example, “are targeted to experienced cruisers, people who spend extended periods on board,” the Valiant 40 being a primary example.

Hunter’s clients, according to Henderson, are mostly families. “We are designing boats that have predicable reactions so novice sailors don’t have to guess about how they will respond in various conditions.” In his words, “That means tight turning radiuses, and a light helm, among other characteristics.” He believes that those traits “enhance the experience for the veteran owner.”

Taylor says: “The overarching premise is a recognition that the designer has a very narrow focus on the precise details that a client wants to see,” whether it’s a Sabre production boat, a Precision 23, or custom one-off. His charge from Sabre is “to produce mainstream yachts that combine good sailing characteristics with comfortable accommodations. Historically, designers and builders compensated for heavy displacement and spacious accommodations by adding more sail area through extending the rig and increasing the size of the foretriangle. With modern boats, we accomplish the same thing by building a lighter structure.”

As the designer of both Tartan and C&C models, Jackett’s challenge is twofold. “The general use of Tartans has moved towards the performance cruiser definition, particularly in the larger boats,” he explained. “Our smaller models see some club level weekend racing.” In each case, however, he is targeting a market of experienced sailors.

At the other end of the spectrum, he says, “The new C&C models have been developed as exciting racer/cruisers. Club level race boat performance is important. C&C owners in general have been a bit younger, more families, who do their racing as a family activity, and when not racing, use their boat for weekend or two-week-long cruising.”

Of the quintet, Smith may have the most laser-like focus. His perception of the primary buying public for multihulls is “aging couples, two-thirds of whom use their boats for short and extended cruising, the balance being daysailors,” he said.

From a designer’s perspective, offered Smith, “First, it’s important to understand the different roles of the catamaran and monohull.” Of the Gemini 105MC, a 33′ 6″ catamaran, said Smith, “A potential buyer would have to purchase a 38- or 39-foot monohull to have comparable accommodations, and the boat would have to come close to the 10 knots of boat speed that the catamaran typically generates on a reach in 15 knots of true wind.”

Ask a dealer to describe the primary performance attributes of a boat he is selling and odds are the response will fall in one or more of the following categories: “She’s fast. She’s beamy and stiff. She’s narrow and slippery, and stiff. She has a light displacement. Her heavy displacement means she’s comfortable at sea. She has a masthead rig, so… She has a fractional rig, so….”

It’s no surprise that the market is filled with repeat buyers. From a defensive standpoint, it is usually safer to expect similar performance, comfort and construction methods from a manufacturer with whom you have experience, rather than taking a risk, perhaps at the expense of missing an opportunity to improve your enjoyment of the sport. In fact, though all designers are working with the same physical variables, (target LOA, LOD, volume, draft, displacement, etc.) different results are produced with different methods.

We asked our experts how they approach the design of this era’s new boats, which are typically characterized as “performance-cruisers.” Not surprisingly, they agree on many points and differ on others.

Henderson, who is leading a drive at Hunter to improve the performance capability of every new model, said, “We discovered that the market has changed from the time when interiors sold boats, to a baby boomer generation that comprises more performance-oriented buyers. But performance is not measured entirely by speed. It is a combination of speed, motion, stability, the boat’s reaction to conditions, and maneuverability when docking. Bow entry angle, hull form, beam, and displacement all integrate to achieve performance.

“We have to build in hull-dampening characteristics that will not compromise the ability of a boat to get up to hull speed quickly.”

Computer programs allow designers to predict a boat’s performance at sea, including measuring the movement of the center of gravity and center of rotation when underway. By duplicating wave action on a computer, a boat’s tendency to hobbyhorse, for example, can be eliminated. “Comfort is still important, but we’re equalizing all of the contributing factors,” Henderson explained.

For Taylor, the design parameters of the Sabre line of big boats, and of the Precision line of small boats, are all “very consistent, and are all chosen to provide the optimum mix of speed, comfort, and convenience, true all-around performance,” he stated. “We expect boats to sail well in 6 knots of wind, and not need a reef until the windspeed reaches 20 knots. Target ratios are an SA/D of 20 to 22; D/L of 175 to 195; and L/B of 2.63 to 2.86, all of which fall in the fast cruiser range, based on historical performance.”

On that point, Taylor and Perry think alike. “Moderate cruising boats built with less than state-of-the-art, high-tech materials will generally have to be targeted around a D/L of 180 to 200,” explained Perry. “Tankage and machinery will determine the displacement. I have a preference for keeping the boat as narrow as I can with L/B usually in the middle to upper 3.00s. SA/D will be determined by the client’s sailing style or the overall personality of the boat, but I like to keep SA/D between 18.5 and 22. In general, clients want too much sail area because they do not appreciate the problems associated with towering rigs,” he offered.

“Comfort is achieved through hull volume and freeboard. Obviously you want as low a freeboard as you can get, but this has to be balanced against the need for volume and aesthetics. Beam aft is also driven often by the need for volume aft and deck plan requirements.”

Though Jackett acknowledges that the buyers of his boats may have differing demographics, his approach for both C&C and Tartan models is similar.

“Performance is always first,” he said. “However, it must be understood that the performance metric is different for different purposes. Obviously, the simplest measure of performance relates to the age old boat show question, ‘How fast will your boat go?’ The fastest monohull sailboats today are very fast relative to their predecessors; however, that does not make them the perfect solution to every requirement of performance for every customer and every use,” Jackett told us. “Performance measures that are important for different purposes include stability, maintaining a balanced helm throughout a wide range of conditions, the ability to maintain good performance at various loaded conditions, the ability to maintain good performance with limited crew, while still providing cruising amenities; a boat that rewards its crew with response to sail trim and adjustments, while still delivering dockside comforts.

“The same holds true for C&C. However, added to the equation is the ability to go out on the weekend and do some good, competitive club-level racing. Both brands have owners who use their boats a lot because both tend to attract more experienced sailors. We don’t have many first timers, so they know their wants and they know their use plans, which may lead to fewer boats sitting at the dock.”

The target ratios for Tartans, he said, “are typically SA/D of 18 to 19 and for C&C 23-plus. The D/L for Tartans is typically 200 to 230, and for C&C, 140 to 160.”

Sailboat Design Conference Part I

For Smith’s owners, comfort is a key ingredient. Though a catamaran might appear to be two hulls connected by a bridgedeck that houses living quarters, Smith has redesigned the hulls of the Gemini on three occasions, once following a TransAtlantic trip with his son Neil.

“We are producing narrower hulls with a finer bow entry angle, and less draft, which result in less pitching in a seaway. The challenge was designing a bow that, when it hit a wave, would pierce the wave and not push displaced water under the bridge deck. Water flowing under the bridgedeck increases drag and reduces overall performance.” In the redesign he also reduced the rocker and draft of the hulls, an approach that is contrary to most catamarans, but one that works.

“However, the Achilles heel of a catamaran, as with a monohull, is that an overloaded boat will still slog through a wave.”

Our Take
In the production world of sailboat manufacturing, the companies that employ these designers want you to buy their products. And their challenge is to motivate you to take a second look at their offerings.

As Taylor put it: “It is important that a production boat must positively appeal to a potential buyer the minute he steps aboard;” sufficiently so that the marketers can engage a potential client in conversation.

And, absent an extended daysail, a seller should be capable of articulating a boat’s sailing characteristics in varying conditions, not solely in 10-knots of breeze on flat water. The smart shopper may use his current or former boats as a reference, but should also take off the blinders that preclude exploring new products. Using a company’s stated objectives, the background of the designer, and the historical ratios as a benchmark, along with an analysis of the boat’s polar diagrams, you will likely learn more about that boat than can be gleaned from the text of a brochure.

Next month, we’ll continue this designer’s forum with a focus on how these professionals produce user friendly, and efficient deck layouts. We’ll also ask them to examine the considerations and compromises involved in performance and accommodations as well as contemporary construction methods and market trends.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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