Boat Review June 2005 Issue

Saga 409

An all-new look and bulletproof hull distinguish this fast, versatile, but pricey cruiser.

Allan Poole was no stranger to boat-building when he founded Saga Yachts. In 1995, when he launched his "new-kid" company on the performance cruising block, he had already spent three decades developing, producing, and selling production sailboats. Poole, Saga's owner and CEO, is a Scot who got his engineering training at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and his jollies racing dinghies and IOR boats during the golden era of the grand-prix circuit.

Poole initially owned MG Yachts, Ltd., a firm in the U.K., which produced several Ton Cup champions. Then he sold off and emigrated to Canada, where he landed at CS Yachts in Brampton, Ontario. Poole later became director of marketing for Tartan Yachts and then president of Hinterhoeller.

The 409's narrow beam—evident from this perspective—means that the hull has a fuller form at its ends in order to enhance stability, according to designer Tony Castro. This shape favors light-air performance, at what the designer calls a 'small sacrifice in top-end potential.'

In the mid-'90s, when boatbuilding was a survival exercise, Poole and three partners were brash enough to establish a new and different company of their own—Saga Yachts. The company grew out of Poole's conviction that there was a significant and relatively under-served niche in the market.

”We started the company with a clean sheet of paper and a genuine lack of corporate dogmatism. We're building primarily for the experienced cruising couple. Our boats emphasize performance and can be sailed to their maximum by two people. They can be (and have been) sailed virtually anywhere. Instead of the plethora of beds and heads that you find in today’s beamy boats (targeted primarily for the charter trade), we offer real cruising comfort for a family, plus room for their guests. Our boats are fast—very fast—yet they are seakindly, moderate-beam designs, easy to handle, and fun to sail. We build and outfit them very well."

Poole's vision was validated. His company grew to occupy a 20,000-plus sq. ft. facility in St. Catharines, Ontario, and has sold more than 70 boats so far. Looking more like an offshore racer than most cruisers, Saga’s debut boat, the 43, was launched in 1996 and has remained a mainstay. Designed by Bob Perry, the godfather of performance cruising, her plumb ends, low profile, and twin roller-furling headsails were a departure from rugged icons like the Valiant 40, and subsequent Valiants, Tayanas, Cheoy Lees,, for which Perry is best-known. A 35 and a 48— both also by Perry—followed in the ensuing decade. The Sagas, Perry writes, "incorporate the lessons learned by watching substantive improvements in hull shape pioneered by the short-handed offshore racing fleets," plus an exhaustive search for a rig configuration to best combine efficiency with versatility and convenience.

Given Perry's stamp on the Saga family, we asked Poole about the choice of Tony Castro to design of the new 409.

"We wanted to add rather than imitate, and because we hoped to avoid competing with our own boats (all of which, even the 43, still have lots of life left), we went to a new designer. It was more than our long-standing friendship that brought me to Tony. His performance credentials are virtually unsurpassed. He's won four world championships and the Admiral's Cup under IOR, developed the new Laser sportboat, designed a world champion 6-Meter and the British America's Cup contender Blue Arrow. And he has produced some spectacular projects (like the recent 32 meter performance cruiser executed for Jongert) that combine speed, comfort, and flair.

"With the 409, we were after a more ergonomic and contemporary feel," said Poole. "In addition, Tony has a full-service office. We needed a designer to focus on performance, structure, and exterior style, but we also wanted to add to the boat’s appeal belowdecks. I felt that Tony could do that much better than we could.

"I use the metaphor of the Volvo cars," Poole continued. "Volvos from the '70s and '80s were safe, efficient, durable and performed very well, but they were boxy. The contemporary Volvos are certainly just as solid and efficient. They just look better."

Castro expanded that thought: "The challenge was to take the no-nonsense Saga and wrap it in a more-modern package. There's always a tension between function and style. In the end, of course, you have to blend all of the elements into a seakindly and pleasing sailboat. What it boils down to is bringing what style and design you can to what features you can without ever letting style affect use."

We must agree. From her tiger-eye portlights to her slightly-sprung sheer and saucy counter, the 409 is snappy, modern, and, well, almost sexy. It's certainly not your grandfather's performance cruiser.

We asked Castro what he did to assure that the Saga 409 would be as fast as she looks despite the fact that she is burdened with cruising tankage and the need to haul all of the impedimenta that cruisers normally bring with them.

"First you have to make sure that you don't forget any of those cruising realities," he explained. "You must calculate a realistic weight from the beginning or the boat won't float on her lines. I still fight like hell to make sure that nothing is heavier than it has to be, but you know, no matter how you slice it, you're dealing with considerable displacement. How you distribute the volume to carry that payload is your next decision. This boat has much less beam than most modern cruisers. That means, of necessity, that her ends are fuller. Back aft that helps clean up waterflow and adds stability, which are good things. In general, her low prismatic (relatively full-bellied with considerable rocker) hull form suits her well for light air when sailing is most enjoyable, at a small sacrifice in top-end potential where comfort is generally the greatest priority. I also think it's always the case that deep, narrow boats have a better motion in a seaway than beamy boats with flat bottoms.

"Stability is like money," Castro continued. "You can never have enough."

The 409 has a ballast/displacement ratio—37 percent—at least the equal of all of her cruising competitors and carries that ballast in a modern bulb keel that's hydrodynamically clean and lift-effective, which works to create a very low center of gravity. This boat relies less than most contemporary cruisers on beam for initial stability; that allows her to achieve ultimate stabilty "well in excess of 120 degrees" according to her designer. "A narrow boat is more easily-driven, more seakindly, more mannerly. If you have enough stability in your pocket you can get all of that."

The 409's sailplan is based on a simple, slightly-swept, three-spreader rig. It entails a good-sized main for all-round power, versatility, and maneuverability, married to a unique (trademarked as Variable Geometry Rig) iteration of the "twins" first developed for BOC and other offshore racing boats: On the aftermost headstay is a 110% working jib. It's small enough to handle easily, high enough in aspect ratio to be efficient, with a clew cut high enough to offer adequate visibility. It's definitely the sail to use upwind, in a breeze, and for kick-around daysailing. This headsail sheets inside the cap shrouds and thus offers tight sheeting angles for pointing. On a permanently mounted sprit forward is a Code Zero (the newly-developed ballooner that's tough enough to go almost upwind, full enough to go well downwind, and big enough to virtually double your horsepower). A removable forestay that tacks to the mid-point of the foredeck—the ideal arrangement for storm conditions—completes the set-up.

Comparison with competing performance cruisers (J/42, Tartan 4100, and the Sabre 386 and 426) spotlights some numbers that speak very well for Castro's achievement. The 409's SA/D ratio (which we calculated to be 17.6) is better than all but the J/42 (18.3). Even figured using the industry standard 100% sail area and light ship displacement numbers as we did, however, we couldn't come up with the same SA/D number of 20 advertised in some Saga literature. Certainly this measure of horsepower to mass is an inexact predictor of sailboat speed. Given the tendency of some builders to juggle the numbers (by calculating, for instance, both a staysail and an overlapping jib as part of the "100% foretriangle") it's not even always an accurate relative measure of performance capabilities. Still, the difference between the 409's SA/D ratio and those of the other two boats is, we felt, significant.

Fuel and water are cruising necessities. Castro didn't make his boat fast by cutting back on her tankage. Several of her competitors carry as much water as the 409's 103 gallons, but no other boat in this group carries more fuel than she does (75 gallons).

A third significant number is mast height from the waterline. Why design yourself out of access to critical places like the Intracoastal Waterway for a few feet of mast? That’s why the 409's designed clearance— 61' 6" in view of the ICW's 65' minimum height limit—makes sense.

Deck Layout
In general, we liked the deck layout. While the step from the cockpit coaming to the side deck seemed awkwardly long, the combination of space and protection achieved here seems worth the occasional stumble. The boat's broad hindquarters allowed Castro to center the cockpit between wide side decks. That facilitates both traffic flow and offshore protection. Seat backs are a minimum of 16 inches high, the cockpit seats are sleepable (over 6 feet long), and a rugged grab-bar/table-stand is in the right place for a handhold and foot brace. The twin wheels open up a myriad of sighting angles and steering positions. They also offer a clear walkway fore and aft right through to the gated, open-style transom. This creates a seamless traffic flow and the feeling of sufficient elbow room, both of which make the 409's cockpit an achievement. Comfortable, padded corners and a house that's low enough for even a five-footer to see over further contribute to making the 409 comfortable and efficient to steer.

Other cruising realities have been considered. Poole pointed out the fuel filter installed in the engine overflow vent-pipe. "You don't want to inadvertently pump fuel overboard or have it slosh out when you're heeled. The fines for polluting aren't getting any smaller these days." Equally thoughtful, we felt, was a dedicated locker for safety gear hard by the starboard steering station. "It's big enough for a (tethered) life raft canister, a sizeable ditch bag, or emergency dock lines, and it puts them all where you can lay hands on them instantly." The port cockpit locker is cavernous. We saw two motorbikes in the bottom. "Lockers can be too big," admitted Poole, "but this one's certainly big enough to let the owners organize and compartmentalize it on their own."

Saga's system for handling the dinghy shows similar forethought. It utilizes brackets on the transom swim platform. Hook the dink athwartships across the stern, attach the fall from a single davit, and hoist the inflatable (or even rigid dink) flush across the transom. Extra-high (30") and extra-stout (1-1/4" diameter rail) the aft pulpit and lifelines surrounding the cockpit continue the concern with security begun by the cockpit coamings. A uniform geometry between backstay, radar arch, and bimini supports indicates attention to the details of both style and function.

"I put in a lot of effort on the back end of the boat and the bimini in particular," Castro explained. "Saga let me make it a part of the boat's overall style. It's not often that designers get that kind of opportunity." We are perhaps more wedded to watching our sails than most modern sailors, so biminis always seem to cause isolation and claustrophobia. Despite some big flexible windows in the overhead, we had those feelings sailing the 409. Still, for living aboard and sailing anywhere the sun shines, having a bimini is advantageous. The 409's twin steering stations partially resolve the problem of seeing the sails while underway because they offer numerous steering positions.

The deck hardware is primarily Harken. While would we like better access to the mainsheet from the helm than her mid-boom traveler affords—especially for shorthanded sailing—we applaud the webbed jacklines for safety harnesses that come as standard equipment, and we appreciate the hidden nicety of a chain locker divided for chain and rode A Muir 1250 electric anchor windlass with cockpit remote is standard. Halyards are led through cabintop "tunnels" to rope clutches on the house. Tails stow in bags. This relatively common arrangement is executed with precision; i.e. all of the leads are good and the stoppers work well under load. The mainsheet traveler is affixed atop the arch that supports the dodger. The arch is fabricated from thick aluminum which is bolted to the cabinhouse. The track itself is four feet in length, adequate to provide some depowering for the full-battened main.

Castro described the interior: "The design follows an established layout, prioritizing the owner's cabin (in the bow), but having a good-sized guest cabin (aft) as well, all with above-average headroom. The styling is more modern than that usually seen on sailboats, but it incorporates all the required amenities and is ergonomically friendly with good storage and lots of wood."

Wood is the primary medium by which Castro gave the 409 interior its feel and flair. The broadest surfaces are done in cherry. Lighter than teak, redder than oak, it's unique and pleasant. Despite its relatively soft sheen and light color, however, it can become overwhelming. We sensed that up forward where there is a minimum light and contrast. In the saloon, where the lighter shades of the upholstery, house sides, and overhead brighten things up, the cherry bulkheads, furniture, trim, and cabinetry seem warm and appropriate.

"Some of it is pure styling. I've used the wood to create a feeling that the boat is chunky and well-built. The details are a delight in themselves. Moldings, hand rails, locker fronts, they all have a function, but they all are a part of an aesthetic. I've gone for softer corners, curved doors, bulkier trim." We think Castro's designer use of wood makes the 409 feel both shippy and contemporary.

We liked the U-shaped galley to port. Bigger than those on most 40-footers, it’s still centralized, organized, and in a good spot hard by the companionway. We wondered about the efficiency of a sidedoor-opening (as opposed to top-opening) refrigerator. Poole assured us that, "We religiously followed the instructions of the experts at Glacier Bay." Still, it's hard to discount the fact that cold air escapes fast from the bottom of a box. With full recognition that the efficiency of any system depends on design, precision, execution and insulating properties, we still wonder whether home-style reefers that open from the side are ultimately as efficient as top-opening boxes.

Some 40-footers have raised saloons. Aboard the 409, however, you are sitting in the boat rather than up high with a spectacular view of the outside. There are no hull ports. Still, interior space is light and open. Good light comes from the large windows and an overhead "windscreen." The view is unobstructed fore and aft, offering an airy feel. Though hatches and dorades should make for reasonable airflow at anchor, the boat also has air-conditioning. Yet one area where we feel style dominates function is in the absence of opening ports for cross-ventilating the saloon. The small-sized hatches overhead here hardly seem like they'll promote sufficient natural airflow in warmer climes.

Castro spent a lot of time on the folding table, and it worked out. It's more solid and less awkward than most such applications. Seat-back stowage is generous, and a wide shelf outboard the settees is good, if not ample. The bilge sump, at 28 inches, is deeper than most found aboard even bigger boats. The electrical system is all tin-wired, clearly labeled, and accessible via a panel that takes just four screws to loosen. The clear, radiused shower door is clever, stylish, and substantial. For a boat with a single head, however, we felt the lack of elbow room in the w.c. was a negative. We generally favor owner’s cabins that are located closer to the steering and nav stations, but this one near the bow is replete with hanger and drawer space sufficient to the task and sports a vanity that deserves to be termed elegant. Unlike the saloon, the after cabin has more than enough ventilation with an overhead hatch and ports in either bulkhead.

The 409 is the first boat to be built using a new hull laminate that tests (conducted by Maritime Technical Services, Ltd., Southampton, UK) show to be twice as strong as conventional glass/epoxy lay-ups. "When I say 'strong,' I'm talking about impact resistance," Poole explained. "Do you know how many containers fall off ships? No one knows for sure, but it's more than we’re comfortable with. We want a Saga to be able to withstand collisions with that sort of sharp, puncturing object. Like they found out with Titanic, watertight bulkheads aren't the complete answer.

"We embarked on this over three years ago. We talked to expert builders like Barry Carroll," Poole added, "and collaborated with DuPont (for a glass-kevlar hybrid cloth), JB Martin, Ltd. (Quebec) for an improved vinylester resin compatible with it, and MTS in Southampton for testing. We've achieved a skin that is three times stronger than aluminum."

The 409 is balsa-cored (hull and deck) with a solid (1-3/4") glass bottom. The laminate is tailored to address localized loads and laid by hand. "To work with Kevlar," Poole said, "you need a compatible resin." The company offers a 10-year warranty against osmotic blistering. Both structural bulkheads and furniture components are structurally bonded to the hull and deck. This boat is quiet under sail, but we found weather stripping used to tighten the fit of the floorboards. "With the amount that wood swells," explained Poole, "we've had to do that to keep the boards from swelling shut." Given the impermanence of the solution and the messiness of the fix, we thought Saga should find a better way to outwit Mother Nature.

The sub-floor framing structure, designed to anchor the rig, utilizes bi-directional E-glass reinforcements. The hull-deck joint is a flange bonded with 3M's 5200 and through-bolted on 4" centers. The slotted aluminum toerail encapsulates a full-length PVC rubrail, and is likewise through-bolted. The solid bottom portion of the hull is 18" deep and made of six layers of 2408 matt.

The rudder is all carbon fiber, making it light and strong.

We found the building practices at Saga very similar to those at other top-shelf shops, and we commend the company for developing this new, safer laminate.

Making 6.9 knots in 8 knots of true wind convinced us that there were good grounds for considering the 409 a speedy boat. The secret was the Code Zero. It proved the difference between ghosting and charging when we set it and rounded onto a close reach on the flat water of Biscayne Bay. Her convenient rig and clean, balanced hull seemed ideal for the big balloon jib. All of this hammered home Poole's claim that the 409 was meant to make sailing "more fun more of the time."

It was hard to tell in light air, but the tight sheeting angles for the jib and the high-lift potential of the keel should make the 409 quick upwind. Despite the light air, we tacked through just over 90 degrees. Additionally, the 409 is fun to drive. Castro said that he modified a deep, high-aspect ratio, NACA section foil by adjusting both leading and trailing edge to lighten the feel and increase effective control.

From what we could tell in Biscayne Bay, Castro's modifications work. The 409's Westerbeke 55B is self-bleeding and develops 55 horsepower at 3000 rpm. A two-bladed fixed prop is standard, but a boat with the capabilities of the 409 seems to cry out for the optional feathering three-blade that Saga does offer. She powered quite easily to her 8-knot hullspeed on our trial sail with 500 to 600 rpm left in reserve. There was, however, considerable engine noise. Checking it out, we obtained readings of 80 db (in the forecabin), 96 (saloon), 98 (aft cabin) and 88 (cockpit) while running at 2500 rpm. That's hardly excessive, but louder than you'd expect in a premium-quality boat.

With the 409, Allen Poole, Tony Castro, and the people of Saga Yachts have done a lot to resolve the time-honored comfort vs. speed dilemma. Builder and designer have drawn heavily on remarkable banks of experience to create a boat that delivers much of what cruising sailors are seeking. Without being radically or offensively new, the 409 is a bundle of fresh solutions, valuable developments, praiseworthy evolutions, and common sense ideas. At a base price of $329,000, she's one of the highest priced boat in her class. And this boat isn't perfect, especially in the areas of zero-tolerance joinery and soundproofing. Still, it strikes us that her combination of top-drawer performance, full-bore cruising efficiency, and head-turning style, makes her not only unique, but a good value as well.

Contact - Saga Marine, 905/646-4040,


Also With This Article
"Saga 409 in Context"

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