Sailboat Design Conference Part II


Glenn Henderson (Hunter Marine), Tim Jackett (Fairport Marine; C&C and Tartan Yachts), Tony Smith (Performance Cruising), Jim Taylor (Sabre Yachts), and Robert Perry, share insights regarding the deck layouts, accommodations, and construction methods they favor.

Sailboat Design Conference Part II
The interior of the Saga 35, above, reflects designer Robert Perry’s emphasis on ample galley areas with substantial storage spaces.
Sailboat Design Conference Part II

Take a cursory glance at a new 35-footer and you might easily conclude that, except for cosmetic changes, the boat is essentially unchanged from those that made their debut in 1995. But that is not the case.

In contemporary designs, modifications to deck layouts, the design of creature comforts, and boathandling systems, all reflect the market’s desire for easy use, as evinced by below-deck sheeting systems (X Yachts), electrically controlled stern platforms (C&C), and removable traveler systems (Etap), for instance. Despite this general trend, the five designers we interviewed here agree on many issues, and strongly disagree on others when it comes to new sailboats.

On Deck
Regarding criteria used to design spaces in the cockpit and on deck, Robert Perry said the most important are “Ergonomics combined with functionality. The boat has to be designed for the human body without compromising the features of the deck layout that make the boat work. Cockpits that are too small at anchor are too big when the boat is at 20 degrees of heel, but you spend more time anchored. I favor large cockpits with high seat backs.”

At Hunter, said Glenn Henderson, “We design the boats on a computer using humanoids to model spaces, then we make a life-sized cardboard mock-up of the entire boat. Men and women of all sizes are invited to tour the boats to see how they really feel, after which modifications may be made. We call that inch-jiggling.”

Perry told us: “I like cockpit seats that are long enough to sleep on and seats that are 24″ wide. A good height for seat backs is 15″, but anything under 12″ is approaching the height where the top of the seat back just digs into your kidneys. That said, 15” is a big seat back to step over when you exit the cockpit.

“If you want the perfect distance between seats so you can brace yourself at 20 degrees of heel, you want 22”, said Perry. “This allows you to keep your knees bent (for bracing), but nobody wants a cockpit this narrow.” An alternative, he explained, would be “more width, with some type of cockpit table that can be used as a brace.”

Tim Jackett told us that “Good positions for trimming sails and fairleads for sheets are crucial. With Tartan, it is important to recognize that the boat will often be sailed short-handed by an experienced sailor. This usually means he wants to be able to get a hand on sheets to tweak performance in changing conditions, which must be done without straying too far from the helm.”

He specifies wide, unobstructed side decks, saying: “I want to be able to run from the cockpit to the foredeck without going through an obstacle course. It’s important for safety. It’s also simply more comfortable when moving around the boat at the dock or during docking.” The advent of inboard sheeting means that moving forward on newer boats is significantly easier than on decks cluttered with a forest of shrouds.

Another trend, Perry pointed out, is that “Cockpit storage is less important. The typical cruiser will have two jibs and a chute, and one jib will be kept on the furler. We try to make the sailplan mainsail-weighted so there is less need for a jib inventory. We would like the boats to be sailed with a small, 100% jib in almost all conditions.” Considering that Perry’s hobbies are cooking and playing the guitar, that translates to space for pots, pans, and instruments.

Henderson also prefers small-foretriangle sail plans. He told us: “It’s the only way to cruise. It should be noted that new race boat designs are going in that direction now. A smaller headsail is just easier to maneuver, and a larger mainsail makes a boat more maneuverable. It’s easier to tack, and new reef systems make it easier to shorten sail.”

He and Jim Taylor are at odds on that point, however. “Sabre still builds masthead rigged boats, exclusively,” said Taylor. “Fractional rigs on these boats would produce mainsails that are just too big,” especially for older, or shorthanded, crews. “Putting a sophisticated rig on a boat involves jumpers, and runners, and bendy masts. We prefer less complicated rigs.” (As an in-house preference, PS stands with Perry and Henderson on this point, since larger mainsails are now more easily handled with flaking systems and battens, and most rigs are now managed without running backstays.)

Jackett has a different take on the subject of cockpit storage. Despite the popularity of headsail furling systems, he said: “Cockpit sail storage areas are as important now as in the past because the cruiser is carrying everything imaginable and wants a place to put it. Even C&C’s dual-purpose boats have the same requirement.”

Hardware also will become more user-friendly, Jackett said. “Electric winches, windlasses with a self-feeding anchoring system, in-boom furling, ball bearing adjustable genoa tracks, lifting devices on radar masts, dinghy davits, built-in vacuums for cabins,” are on many buyers’ lists.

On that issue, Henderson said, “We target our performance and righting moment assuming that a mainsail furler will be installed,” and he assumes that the boats will be fully loaded. Sailors willing to forego such furling systems should see even better performance than Henderson predicts.

“If I had to place a bet,” said Henderson, “I would say that people are going to focus more on planning their limited time so they can do more fun sailing and less maintenance and boat chores. For example, our new 27-footer has a portable cooler that can be filled at home, taken down to the boat and plugged in for refrigeration,” a minor change with a big payoff.

And what about bow sprits? At Hunter, said Henderson, “We offer them on small boats, and are putting one on one of our larger models in the near future. The advantage is that the boat will maintain high speed for a longer period of time with a bow sprit, in varying wind conditions. It also makes it easier to balance the center of effort, so the helm is lighter and there’s less drag on the rudder, and the boat is less likely to round up.”

But Taylor disagrees. “I am not a huge fan of retractable bowsprits. They are complex and expensive to engineer, they compromise the interiors, and they can even be dangerous. For most cruiser/racers, the difference in performance potential is modest at best, especially as sailmakers do a better and better job of cutting downwind sails.”

As for Jackett, he told us that bowsprits are options on the C&C 99 and 110. “The new Tartan 3400 will have a self-tacking jib and a Code 0 type reacher set forward.”

Though virtually all new boats are equipped with halyards and sail controls running aft to stoppers, Tony Smith told us, “Those mechanical systems are unnecessary on a multihull. The size of mainsails on many production monohulls are increasing, as designers produce fractional rigs and non-overlapping headsails. That’s not the case with the catamaran, but there’s no need for furlers because the boat is a flat platform, and there’s plenty of deck space for crew at the mast.”

Nonetheless, many of Smith’s owners outfit their boats with furlers, and, having sailed the company’s Gemini in strong breeze and stiff waves on the Chesapeake, we would order our multihull with control lines led aft.

Down Below
Taylor was the most outspoken member of this group regarding interior accommodations. “Today’s sailors have less free time,” he said, “and they don’t go on many extended cruises, so these sailors don’t have the need for an expansive interior, but rather want a boat that can be gotten under sail quickly and easily, that is simple, fun, and quick on an afternoon sail around the bay, and has just enough interior to get the crew comfortably out of the rain in a squall.

“Headroom is what varies most as boat size changes,” continued Taylor, “and I think headroom is over-rated in sailboats in any case. I would much rather reduce headroom (if necessary) to achieve a handsome profile, than compromise aesthetics to allow headroom. Put another way, I am willing to stoop a little down below if it means people can’t take their eyes off my boat!

“There’s a growing niche for sexy profiles and self-tacking jibs, for sailors who will spend three to four hours a week on their boat.” Reinforcing that outlook is the fact that the three new boats that drew the most attention at the 2004 Annapolis Sailboat Show were 35- to 45-foot daysailers, the least expensive of which lists for $250,000.

Jackett, on the other hand, said that, for owners, “The goal seems to be to provide many of the same conveniences as at home, i.e., the ability to take long showers and have work stations for on board office work. And mattresses instead of fabric covered foam slabs for sleeping comfort.”

Regardless of where these designers stand on the issues of fractional vs. masthead rigs, bowsprits, roller-bearing genoa tracks and aft-led halyards, it’s clear that they have their fingers on the pulse of the American sailing market. The market isn’t growing; it’s dominated by an aging population of experienced sailors whose needs are different than they were 20 years ago, along with a smattering of newcomers. Both groups demand comfortable spaces in which to maneuver, easy sailing characteristics, more room for cocktails, fewer berths, and fewer maintenance requirements.

Sailboat Design Conference Part II

At the Factory
At Fairport Marine, Jackett has been successfully laminating hulls since 1985 using NPG gelcoat and vinylester resins as a preventive measure against blisters. “I think most builders are producing boats that meet the ABS scan’tlings, but they could be better,” which is one of the reasons why the company converted to epoxy resins last year for both its product lines.

“Our laminates,” said Jackett, “were typically chop-strand mat wetted with resin, and alternating layers of 1.5-ounce mat and 18-ounce biaxial fabrics, with balsa cores,” all of which were hand-laid. That approach typifies methods employed throughout the industry for the past 15 years.

However, a common characteristic of chop strand is that “it is like a resin sponge, so it is difficult to keep the resin content around 30 percent,” explained Jackett. Despite the use of spray guns that regulate the amount of material that is applied, adding the human factor (a worker spraying resin onto a fabric) results in resin-to-glass ratios that are more the product of art than science.

“We purchased C&C so we could push the performance element while adding interiors,” said Jackett. “We wanted to make a quantum leap in the materials we used, and the process, using engineering principles that people can understand.

“Being able to build lighter hulls allows us to use less weight in the keel without compromising stability and comfort.” He estimates that the epoxy hull laminates are “as much as 1/3 lighter” than their predecessors. On the race course, the weight savings translate to performance. In the Tartan line, where performance and comfort share equal billing, Jackett said” “We have better impact resistance, and the ability to improve performance with taller rigs and more ballast.”

Though not entirely convinced of the universal appeal of epoxy, Taylor agrees that “the real benefit of epoxy is elongation properties that are better matched to reinforcing material, so it will stretch without coming apart.”

He agrees that “the benefits are reduced weight for a given strength, and given fatigue factor,” but adds that “the material is more difficult to mold and temperature-sensitive. The designer has to know the techniques and culture of his shop to be successful.

“So, the first thing we had to master was training employees in a method that is the opposite of an open-air curing process. Then we made the transition to producing hulls in a female mold,” which required an investment in new tooling. “And, we began coring hulls with CoreCell foam, rather than balsa. CoreCell is more impact resistant, lighter, and stiffer.”

Finally, said Jackett, the company added a 58-foot-long oven, 18 1/2 feet wide, through which each boat passes. “Generally, epoxy will only reach 60 percent of its cure at ambient temperatures.” During 24 hours spent in the oven, the hull is baked at temperatures elevated to 145 degrees before being ratcheted back to ambient levels. The process, however, limits production to one boat per day, absent a larger furnace.

Jackett’s next step was to begin using a resin-infusion method in the decks, a method “that reduces resin content to 35 percent with a more controlled curing process. The result also assures that there are no voids in the little channels in the balsa core.”

Taylor, also a proponent of resin-infusion because of the ability to produce proper resin-fabric ratios, cautions that “a potential drawback is that you can’t guarantee structural integrity in areas you can’t see.” At Sabre,” he told us, “the company switched to vacuum-bagging, which I believe produces a bigger incremental bonus by compacting the laminate so the mechanical links of layers of fabric are better locked together. Unfortunately, the buyers can’t see it.” The process is common in shops that produce one-off, high-performance yachts, However, the application in a high-production environment is time-consuming, and expensive, which are aspects that most manufacturers think outweigh the tremendous benefits.

These transitions in construction methodology can be costly. “The entire shop staff was retrained,” said Jackett. “Our labor costs have gone up, as have material costs. But I have more confidence that we are building boats that are closer to their designed weights. Now, when an owner adds his 2,000 pounds of gear, it is not an addition to a boat that might have been 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. heavier than designed.”

At Performance Cruising, Smith converted from conventional hand-laid polyester lamination methods to a resin-infusion process in 2003 during construction of the prototype of the Telstar, a folding trimaran. “The objective,” said Smith, “was to make the boat more comfortable (more complete interiors) than the competition, without making it too heavy. Since the strength of fiberglass comes with the fabric, not the resin, one element is maintaining specific resin-to-fiber ratios. Since vacuum-bagging only removes air, but does not, we think, improve bonding, we decided to pursue resin infusion.”

The result, said Smith, after two years of tinkering is that “The hull of the Telstar weighs about 30 percent less (proportionately) than the Gemini catamaran,” the company’s primary product, “and is dramatically stronger, despite having fewer raw materials. Our ultimate goal is to do both the deck and hull at the same time, in one mold, so there will be no seams on the structure,” a tremendous chemical and physical challenge considering the size and number of vertical surfaces on the Telstar.

At Hunter, Henderson is evaluating all of the company’s construction methods. “We are aggressively looking for different coring materials. Balsa is very good, but has become very expensive, though every core material has its disadvantage. We also are exploring alternative methods of constructing stringers,” with an eye toward fabricating hollow fiberglass sections that can be used for wire chases and plumbing runs.

Hunter is now using Plexus methyl metacralate glue rather than other brands, said Henderson, “because it has ultra-high tensile strength, and flexibility, so it is excellent for bridging gaps. It also has an etching agent that cuts through plug wax or other contaminants that may be on the hull surface. That’s important because the greatest export from a boat factory may be dust,” which inhibits proper bonding.

Henderson said that the company is on the cusp of making a commitment to a resin-infusion laminating system, evidenced by the launch of 44-foot and 27-foot prototypes late last year. “The use of a controlled resin method really pays off in a cored situation, especially in the deck,” he explained. “You can impregnate balsa without losing any of its thickness, and there’s no secondary bonding problem because everything goes together at the same time. Plus, resin fills all of the cracks in the balsa.”

In Henderson’s opinion, the final product “has increased shear strength and increased compressive strength. There are no voids, so the end result is a monolithic structure.

“We can’t reduce fiberglass in hulls so much that we get flex where we don’t want it. But, in areas where we do get flex, the structure is still stronger, and better bonded together.” The result, says Henderson, “will be a higher value product than ABS requires and, probably, an increase in the cost of boats.”

PS was pleasantly surprised that each of these designers rates sailing performance as their No. 1 criterion when approaching a design challenge, though some disagree on the methods employed for achieving that. Following an era in which the emphasis in the market was focused on creature comforts, rather than on sailboats as a recreational method of transportation, designers and builders are now finding ways to reduce the number of hands necessary, or musclepower required, to maximize performance. These designers all agree that a more thoughtful approach to easing maintenance and mechanical chores is important.

That these designer’s ages (44 to 60) closely parallel those of their constituencies, may be an advantage to the consumer. Each is an active sailor, Jackett and Taylor on a competitive level, and Henderson is also a surfer because “that’s where you really learn about the behavior of water.”

The gains detailed above come at a cost that requires builders using space-age materials and methods to face Adam Smith’s “conditions of the marketplace,” but that ultimately works to the consumer’s advantage. Long-term durability should translate to higher resale value, offsetting part of the additional cost of these higher priced boats. Hunter has carved a reputation as the manufacturer of affordable boats that compete for buyers principally with Beneteau, Jeanneau, and Catalina, but will convert to more contemporary construction technology ahead of that pack. Tartan and C&C boats are targeted to a more affluent market, as are the Sabre models and those from Performance Cruising, so those companies have slightly more wiggle room in pricing wars.

The bottom line is that technological gains and healthy competition always benefit the consumer by improving quality, and eventually cost. Thus it’s encouraging to see this happening in the sailboat industry, especially when it increases the number of options available to buyers.

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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