Getting a Grip on New Boat Designs


Harry Horgan

Catalina Yachts chief engineer and designer Gerry Douglas gives a popular talk at boat shows regarding the evolution of yacht design. One of the main points of his discussion is how various measurement systems for offshore racing influence boat design. Our boat reviews often allude to this influence, tracing a particular boat back to the Cruising Club of America era, the International Offshore Rule (IOR), or some other rule. Douglas is one of the few contemporary sailboat designers who has wisely resisted the urge to latch on to the more radical racing design trends and try incorporate them in a cruising boat.

There are many obvious, commonsense reasons to be careful when introducing popular race-boat designs into a new cruising boat. Winning ocean-racing boats are usually fully crewed, actively helmed, and seldom serve as long-term homes. They don’t need to creep into shallow anchorages for a night on the hook. Comfortable motion is not a chief concern. And typically, there are few, if any, artificial joints among the deck crew.

A crossover racer-cruiser boat could certainly indulge in some of the go-fast features we addressed in our August 2015 article on high-performance cruisers. However, as we found in our look at on board ergonomics in this months issue, even subtle visual tweaks to make a cruising sailboat look like a fast racer can have unintended consequences.

In this issue, PS examines how many new boats seem to ignore the mobility limits faced by a large portion of their customer base. On shore, our furniture, stairs, and passages can easily be built to conform to common anthropometric measurements (ideal table height, seat back angle, etc.). Space is tight on a boat, so solutions like ramps, which are so easily applied ashore, are often impractical on a boat.

Our report found that some of the most egregious offenders are the big catamarans, boats that should have more room to make ergonomic adjustments.

Look hard at the navigation station or helm seat on almost any cruising boat, and you can see how the most basic ergonomic principles on lines of sight, sitting posture, and standing posture are ignored. Stairs, handholds, bunks, and settees are often built to conform to the builders budget, not the sailors lumbar. And once you start moving around some of these boats, the ensuing obstacle course seems like something dreamed up by a chiropractor drumming for new business.

Building a boat to fit the human body need not be any more expensive than building one that doesn’t. But it needs to begin early, in the design phase. Traffic flow, work stations, and sitting stations need to be taken into account before hull and liner plugs are built. Sadly, this does not always happen, and it is left up to us, the owners, to make things right.

Have you made-or dreamt of-any modifications to your boat to make it more comfortable to work and live on? Wed like to share them. Send your ideas to

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. 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.


  1. I have quite a few ideas for my dream boat. But the most practical is still wanting to have a comfortable seat on this boat. Where I can rest while on the trip. Easy to install, easy to clean, stain-resistant, lightweight, easy to transport 🙂


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