Headings: State of the Art

With this column we begin a long-term exploration of modern boat designs and systems, intended to keep us up-to-date on which advancements in materials and techniques are within reach—and worth reaching.


by Nick Nicholson

Some 45 years after the introduction of the mass-produced fiberglass sailboat, a large percentage of the boats built today would be instantly familiar to a sailor from the middle of the 20th century. Most boats are still built in an open female mold, using a wet layup consisting of fiberglass reinforcement and polyester resin. The materials may be more sophisticated and the techniques more refined, but the basic construction is the same. From a distance, most sails still look like their counterparts from decades ago, and hull shapes seem evolutionary, not revolutionary. 

But evolution is accelerated in modern sailboat design and construction, accelerated to the point where the line between evolution and revolution is blurred. Where do we stand in 2004? What is the state of the art? Where lies the cutting edge, and how does it affect the average sailor?

In the coming months we’ll have a look at some specific areas of design, construction materials and techniques, and gear systems that are part of this rapid evolution. We’ll be concentrating on the following areas, in micro and macro views that, we hope, will allow us all to understand better where we are, and focus on where it’s possible to go.

Mass-produced extruded aluminum spars arrived on the scene at the same time as mass-produced fiberglass sailboats, and they still dominate the production sailboat market. There is a simple reason: cost. Despite substantial decreases in production costs for carbon fiber spars over the years, the simple fact is that the cheapest way to build a sailboat mast is to start with an aluminum extrusion, and bolt on all the bits and pieces. Hold it all up with some bits of stainless steel aircraft cable, and you’re ready to go sailing.

Note that we said this is still the cheapest way to build a rig, not necessarily the best.

Carbon fiber spars have become the norm on virtually every custom or semi-custom racing and cruising boat. They offer huge performance advantages that stem from saving weight aloft, and the incremental cost is often not great in a large-budget project.

But the advantages of carbon spars are not limited to the few who can afford custom boats designed for them. Some mainstream production builders such as J/Boats have brought high-performance carbon masts to production cruising boats.

Ironically, the first series-produced carbon fiber mast was the simple round, unstayed mast on the Freedom 40 cruising cat-ketch. As primitive as that mast may seem almost 30 years later, it was still a substantial improvement over the boat’s original spun-aluminum mast.

While the process of molding a carbon spar is still more labor intensive and expensive than creating a rig from a piece of extruded aluminum, the gap has narrowed considerably. Aluminum masts may still be the norm, but they share the mainstream with carbon.

When it come to spinnaker poles on boats over 35 feet, whether racer or cruiser, carbon is the standard material. It’s a painless, moderately inexpensive retrofit, even for a traditional, long-keeled cruising boat.

The modern fixed keel is pretty good at doing its job, but it has taken a different form at the extremes of performance. In fixed-keel, draft-constrained classes such as the America’s Cup (IACC) class, the fin-and-bulb combination—pioneered by designers like Nathanael Herreshoff in the late 19th century—has evolved from intuitive shapes formed by eye and hand into counter-intuitive, computer-generated designs tested in the towing tank and wind tunnel, and proven on the race course.

Along the way, however, this process has created keel forms so unforgiving that boats can only be steered upwind by full-time professionals with the concentration powers of an Indian mystic. The only thing left that’s intuitive about these keels is the inborn sensitivity to the interplay of helm pressure, sea state, and sailpower that is the common thread linking the few men and women who can drive these boats efficiently.

Yes, virtually any good sailor can steer boats equipped with these keels upwind and look good in the process, but the gulf between Joe or Joanne Driver and a Kenny Read or Russell Coutts is as wide as the water hazard between Sammy Slice and Tiger Woods.

But beyond the wonderful world of razor-thin keel fins and razor-sensed helmsman is a new form of stabilization: the canting keel.

The concept of the canting keel is simple: take something that looks like a conventional fin-and-bulb keel, but make it possible to swing the whole shebang out to windward to generate huge righting moment. This is a case of a simple concept with a complex realization.

The mechanics of swinging a heavy keel to windward—and holding it there, where it can strain against the desire of the sails to pull the boat down to leeward—are not simple. Canting keels may be beyond infancy, but they’re barely approaching adolescence. And like most adolescents, they have the disturbing habit of not always behaving the way their parents expect and desire.

Don’t dismiss canting keels as expensive experiments without application to Everyman’s boat. Mainstream production builders are already taking a hard, bottom-line look at canting keels, seeking ways to bring cost and complexity to a level that will make the profound performance advantages of canting keels practical on production racers and cruisers.

A retractable canting keel could give a cruising boat the shallow draft of a gunkholer, combined with the upwind stability of an ocean racer with a bellyful of water ballast and a rail load of elephants.

Deck Hardware
Nowhere is the state of the art more accessible than in deck hardware and fittings. Weight on deck and aloft is anathema. Friction wastes energy. The concept of winches and blocks hasn’t changed, but the reality is light years ahead of the components of just a generation ago.

The high stakes of big-time racing have compressed the time from prototype to production. The custom hardware you saw in last year’s America’s Cup is coming to this year’s mail-order catalog.

When the schooner yacht America sailed away from the opposition during a race around the Isle of Wight just over 150 years ago, one of her most potent weapons was a suit of cross-cut sails made from a soft but tightly woven fabric that held its shape better than the stiffer, more porous sails of her English competition. A large percentage of the sails sold today are made using similar concepts, even if the materials are created in the chemistry lab and the designs come from computers.

At the cutting edge, however, the process has moved to another level. The quest to save weight aloft has resulted in sails that contain not an ounce of excess material. We still see woven fabrics of the general type that date back to Day One of sailing—but we also see strands of high-tensile fiber laid in computer-generated arcs on featherweight transparent membranes, the whole sandwich cured under heat and pressure like some giant panini.

Little more than a decade ago, it took a half dozen of us to manhandle the genoa for a 60-footer off the boat. Today, the sail can be rolled into a package the size of a normal sailing duffle, and tossed to the dock by the owner’s teenage daughter. And while these sails do not always have as long a usable life as their low-tech ancestors, they can maintain a shape that gives a far longer competitive lifespan.

A single, lowly element has become the wonder material that is transforming virtually every aspect of sailboat design and construction: carbon. In its fibrous form, carbon is the reinforcing material of choice in virtually every composite component of sailboats at the cutting edge.

Composites rule. Composites are, as their name implies, new materials created by combining disparate substances into a symbiotic amalgam. The original composite of the modern boatbuilding age was glass reinforced plastic—a matrix of reinforcing glass fibers held together by polyester resin.

The composite which typifies today’s marine cutting edge is generally a mixture of carbon fiber and epoxy resins. In various forms and formulations, these materials can be combined to create hulls, decks, foils, chainplates, blocks, winches, and spars.

But carbon is not always used to produce rigid structures. Defying logic, it can be woven into relatively soft and flexible fabrics which can be draped into complex shapes. As a sail reinforcement it can be stiffer than metal, or soft enough to flake atop a boom.

Combined with other fibers, it forms ropes that can be easy on the hand, but enormously strong in tension and low in stretch. At the extreme cutting edge, rods formed from miles of carbon fiber can be fabricated into standing rigging with virtually zero stretch, and which weigh but a small fraction of their metal counterparts.

Big Boats, Little Boats
In sailing, we often equate the state of the art with the biggest and best—hundred-foot racing multihulls, big canting-keel monohulls, logic-defying monsters such as the new Mirabella, with her single mast towering almost 300 feet above the water— two and a half times the height of an America’s Cup rig. But sometimes, the state of the art is found in smaller packages.

At the other extreme of state-of-the- art sailboats lies the Mini 6.5 meter. These 21-foot ocean racers are high tech in miniature, and by their scale alone they seem more familiar and usable to most of us, if we could only get our hands on one.

But that’s not easy. The market for these tiny racing thoroughbreds lies almost exclusively in Europe, with its tradition of singleminded singlehanding. Mention extreme singlehanding (is there any other kind, beyond daysailing?), and the image that comes to mind is usually something like this: wild hair, wild eyes, lean, mean, nicotine-driven, and, oh yes, probably French. Never mind that a rising star in the prototype division of this class is American Jonathan McKee, Olympic medalist and America’s Cup sailor in his spare time.

They race these boats over 4,000 miles of open ocean, from France to Brazil. These little boats aren’t toys: they’re Petrie dishes of innovation, with canting keels, tacking canards, and spider-web rigs.

Directionally unstable, overpowered beyond belief, light beyond reason, they require parts and materials at the absolute edge of sailing technology to find the slightest competitive margin.

Because of their small size—and the frequently limited budgets of those who race them—the technology of the Mini Transat boats seems more realistic to most of us. It is easier to understand and appreciate a boat that will fit in a suburban garage than it is to comprehend a boat that takes a hanger-sized shed, a full-time battalion of caretakers, and a Croesus-like owner to build, sail, and maintain.

Evolution and revolution move more swiftly in smaller scale.

Looking Ahead
So where, exactly, does the cutting edge slice? Is it in the huge multihulls of the mega-nuts who drive them—often to destruction—at improbable speeds in impossible conditions? Perhaps in the lofty atmosphere of canting keel monohulls and the owners who seldom drive them? How about the America’s Cup, where the world’s richest men spill hundreds of millions of dollars?

It’s all these and more. But at the end of the day, the cutting edge is on your very own boat. It’s right under your nose every time you coil your low-stretch halyard. It can make you look like Superman every time you pick up your carbon spinnaker pole. It is in 60-footers that an ordinary couple can handle more easily than a 40-footer of two decades ago. It’s in the average, mid-priced production boat.

You sometimes don’t even know it’s there.

In the next few months, we’ll explore more of the state of the art. We’ll tell you what it’s already done for you, and what’s just around the corner.


PFD Debates
They’re at it again. Just about the time you read this, the Miami International Boat Show will host a one-day workshop co-sponsored by the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturer’s Association (PFDMA) and the US Coast Guard. The theme is a familiar one—how to increase the number of boaters wearing lifejackets while on the water. The pressure for regulation is greater than ever, and the results of this workshop may help determine whether wearing of PFDs will become mandatory for all American sailors.

In 2003, a regulation was proposed in Canada requiring boaters to wear PFDs anytime a vessel was underway. Although this has not been implemented, it lurks in the background, both in the US and Canada.

It is important to note that, according to the US Coast Guard, there is no specific rule-making in the pipeline that would change existing federal regulations. The workshop is just that: a meeting to discuss various ways to get more people to wear PFDs.

One obvious path would be a federal regulation mandating the use of PFDs. To many, that would be Big Brother, out to get us once again. To others, it’s a sensible concept, like requiring motorists to wear seatbelts or motorcyclists to wear helmets.

At this time, there’s no federal requirement that anyone wear a PFD aboard any recreational boat in the US. Yes, you must have them aboard, and they must be accessible and in good shape, but no, you don’t have to wear them. Two years ago, we almost got to the point where children under 13 would be required by federal regulation to wear PFDs when aboard a boat under way, but that proposal died at the last minute under the weight of conflicting state requirements.

A large percentage of states have specific boating safety laws that are significantly tighter than federal regulations, particularly when it comes to wearing PFDs. A large number of states require that children under a certain age wear PFDs when aboard boats underway, and that all operators of personal water craft and waterskiers wear PFDs.

Existing state regulations constitute a Tower of Babel of inconsistency when it comes to regulating boating safety, particularly when it comes to PFDs. A boater cruising the 60 or so miles from Cuttyhunk, MA to Montauk, NY can traverse four distinct sets of state PFD requirements in a weekend of cruising.

While a lot of states require youngsters to wear PFDs, the cutoff age above which they’re not required varies from a high of 12 to a low of five years of age. Your 10-year-old doesn’t need to wear a lifejacket in Rhode Island, but has to in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. In New Hampshire, your six-year-old can go sailing by herself without wearing a lifejacket. A few states defer completely to the federal regulations, and don’t require that anyone wear PFDs aboard a conventional powerboat or sailboat. A boater headed from Massachusetts to Florida for the winter can travel through a dozen state boating safety jurisdictions, and is unlikely to know at any one time exactly what laws are in effect in his location.

It might be argued that the manufacturers of personal flotation devices have a conflict of interest when helping guide discussions of regulations governing the use of PFDs, but that’s an oversimplification. Federal and state laws already require virtually every boat to carry Coast Guard-approved PFDs. Any proposed new regulations will only cover who has to wear them, and when.

Safety regulations are a tricky subject for sailors. We would like to think that our own sense of good seamanship should dictate what safety equipment is aboard our boats, and when and how it should be used. In practice, we fall short of this, although very few of the people who die every year in boating accidents in this country are sailors.

We’re not proponents of big government, but the lack of consistency and confusion about PFD regulations is pretty inexcusable. A sailor caught in a squall in the Gulf of Maine may be more at risk than a sailor on a pond in South Dakota. But if you suck up a lungful of water and sink like a stone when your dinghy capsizes, you’ll be just as dead on that pond as you would be on the high seas. There should certainly be more consistency in these regulations.

For now, we’ll keep an open mind on the whole issue of mandatory wearing of PFDs. We’ll also keep wearing our inflatable PFD/harness combination virtually every time we’re underway.

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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