It’s Sunday afternoon at the 2015 United States Sailboat Show, and I’ve just met a man on the verge of putting a deposit down on a new Jeanneau. When I ask why he is interested in selling his current boat in favor of the Jeanneau, his answer is blunt:
“It sails like shit.”
Being generally familiar with the industry, I’m not shocked by his reply. The manufacturer of his current boat has historically favored the low end of the market and and has typically emphasized creature comforts over sailing capability in their products. I probe the shopper more about why he bought the boat in the first place, and his answers are compelling:
“It was roomy and had a great feature set for the price. Air conditioning, a generator, a freezer, a full suite of electronics. It was the best value we found.”
Unfortunately, this owner’s longer-term ownership experience with his boat exposes the risks of making a sailboat purchase without gaining personal experience sailing the boat first. That being said, it also raises an interesting question: how should cruising boat shoppers evaluate the sailing characteristics of a boat? Since I’ve been sailing since before I can remember aboard a wide range of boats, I thought it might be helpful to outline a framework for shoppers looking to evaluate a sailboat’s handling and performance. But before I do, there is a golden rule all shoppers should always understand: boat designs inherently involve trade offs. Here are the three most critical tradeoffs buyers should remain cognizant of when shopping:
- Cost. With no cost constraints, all sailboats would be built with exotic materials and the latest, most expensive engineering. But in a world of finite resources, finding an affordable boat means either buying a used boat, which may mean an older design, or a new boat closer to the entry level price point, which means less exotic materials and engineering. Our own shopping experience provides a perfect example. We bought a boat engineered in the mid 1980s. Sabre, the manufacturer of our boat, released a brand new design in the 2000s that is significantly faster but which costs nearly 3 times as much on the brokerage market. I’ll take the slightly slower boat for 1/3 of the costs, thank you very much. But each buyer needs to make this decision for him or herself.
- Performance versus sea kindliness. There isn’t a 1:1 tradeoff that says all fast boats must be miserable in heavy weather nor that all seaklindly boats are necessarily slow, but this is a broad tradeoff one should pay attention to. To put this one in more useful terms, buyers should consider how they plan to use the boat. If you plan long offshore passages where time is not of the essence but heavy weather may be encountered, you may prefer a narrower boat with a longer keel and deeper underbody to make those passages safer and more comfortable. If, however, you plan to use the boat close to the coast and time is of the essence (or you simply value the ability to sail past most boats your size) you may prefer the more contemporary, wider design languages with flatter bottoms.
- Performance versus draft. Deeper, higher aspect ratio keels typically result in better performance but on models larger than 35 feet they can prove impractical for cruisers. So most manufacturers build boats with shallower draft keels (in the past they also made boats with centerboards). In general, the tradeoff here is the ability to reach more cruising destinations in exchange for some upwind performance.
When shopping, buyers should keep these tradeoffs in mind and, when applying the framework below, they should be sure any boat they’re considering offers compensation for one aspect of the tradeoff when giving up another. For example, a poor performing boat that also lacks sea-kindliness isn’t a very good product!
Next, buyers should be careful to segregate the behaviors of the boat under sail, which I refer to as the sailing dynamics, from the outright performance of the boat. In general, I believe the former will be more relevant to most cruising buyers than the latter. And while I examine the two in isolation, in some cases (but not all!) good dynamics certainly are correlated with good performance.
Here are some key aspects of sailing dynamics that will help buyers evaluate the merits of one boat versus another:
Helm balance. When sailing close-hauled, does the boat need a lot of leeward rudder to avoid rounding up into the wind (weather helm) or (worse) does it exhibit lee helm (the opposite)? The general guideline here is to look for just a couple of degrees of weather helm when the boat is loaded up but trimmed to avoid more than 20 degrees of heel or so. Encountering a recently engineered boat with a badly balanced helm is probably going to be fairly rare, but keep an eye out just the same – it does happen. Older designs may exhibit these problems more frequently. Our 1979 Pearson 40 exhibited fierce weather helm on almost any point of sail, and our 1978 J/24 exhibited an annoying amount of lee helm (that design in particular was known for the problem). Lee helm is slow and ruins the helm’s feedback to the helmsman, causing the need for much more concentration when steering upwind. A boat with lee helm in particular will feel like it “sails like shit.” A boat with a stubbornly neutral helm will feel more like the boat with lee helm and will not be especially rewarding to sail.
Helm “feel.” This one involves a tradeoff. Naval architects can decide whether or not to build a boat with a balanced rudder. In general, an unbalanced rudder will give the helmsman more feedback and “feel” for a given degree of steering input, but will require more steering effort. A balanced rudder will require much less effort but will reduce the amount of feel, or feedback, delivered to the helmsman. As a racer at heart, I prefer the tradeoff of higher effort / more feel offered by an unbalanced rudder (within limits) but a balanced rudder means less power is consumed by the auto pilot when on long passages – something the cruiser side of my brain appreciates! Over the years we’ve owned both types: our 1984 J/29 had a transom hung, unblanced rudder. The boat’s “feel” upwind was a dream but the boat was absolutely exhausting to steer on a broad reach in fresh breezes.
The Jeanneau 409 we chartered a couple of years ago also had an unbalanced rudder and exhibited similar tradeoffs to the J/29 (especially given it’s comparatively wide beam). Our 1989 Sabre 42 has a balanced rudder with very light steering loads and less feel than I would like.
Tracking – or the boat’s tendency to hold a steady course without steering input. This one also involves a tradeoff. In general, a boat that tracks well will feel less nimble, or willing to turn, when making a lot of maneuvers. One consequence of this characteristic, among others, is that the boat will be more challenging to sail upwind through chop than a boat that turns more easily. A significant determinant of whether a boat tracks steadily or is more nimble will be the aspect ratio of its keel. A high aspect ratio (tall and narrow) will allow a boat to be more willing to turn, while a low aspect ratio keel (short but long) will cause the boat to track more steadily. We’ve owned boats of both types; look below at the photo of our J/29’s keel relative to our current Sabre 42’s keel:
Note that in the photo of the Sabre, we show the boat with the centerboard lowered. Cruising sailors will likely prefer a boat with a longer keel more like the Sabre’s, especially when they are sailing on deep reaches. Buyers more focused on performance – especially those who want to race occasionally – will prefer the more nimble behavior of a boat with a taller, narrower keel.
As a sidenote, a centerboard boat like ours combines elements of both keel designs. Although the centerboard’s primary purpose is to provide additional lift and reduce leeway, it also significantly impacts tracking. We have found the Sabre is much happier to turn with the board down, as the boat “pivots” around the centerboard. With the board up, it doesn’t feel anything like as nimble and exhibits a much longer turning radius. Upwind, the lowered centerboard makes it easier to steer through waves, while on a reach we raise the board halfway up or more to get really great tracking. The centerboard, then, provides something like a “variable keel” that is very nice to have. Still, on balance the tradeoff of the centerboard is not unlike the shoal draft keel: some upwind performance is surrendered for the benefit of only a 4’8″ draft with the board up. By comparison, or deep draft J/29 was only 29 feet long but drew 5’5″.
“Stiffness” versus “tenderness.” Here’s the idea behind this one: when a puff hits, does the boat just heel over and not go any faster? Or does it resist the puff and accelerate forward? How soon do you need to reduce sail as the wind builds? A stiffer boat will allow the owner to carry full sail (and go faster!) with more wind. The owner of a tender boat finds that the boat often heels too much and that they have to reduce sail early. Although stiffer boats generally perform better, I actually like a balance between these two in my boats. I find that when boats are too stiff for their sail plans- like some of the most recent race boats I’ve been on – they’re dull to sail in moderate, puffy breezes because they can feel too wooden and unresponsive. Owners who have sailed both keelboats and dinghys will “get” the tradeoff I allude to here. Dinghys are such a blast because they are extremely tender and require the crew to immediately compensate for puffs by moving their crew weight. It’s the kind of personal involvement that creates a much more intimate interaction with the wind – which is what we want when we go sailing! Our Sabre 42 strikes a nice balance here; it’s responsive enough in puffs to make the crew feel like they are sailing but not so tender that it feels weak or vulnerable as the breeze builds, or worse, that it fails to accelerate in puffs. Ditto for the J/29. I wasn’t a fan of the narrow J/80s I’ve sailed, finding that their lack of form stability caused them to heel over considerably before the righting moment of the keel took over, and only then to accelerate. When puffs were short period enough, it was just ‘heel over briefly, then straighten up again’ with no acceleration. Blech. The Beneteau 322 Lisa and I chartered for honeymoon in the BVIs was just plain tender – it wouldn’t “take a set” at all like the J/80; in puffs it would just lean over and give up.
“Pounding” when sailing upwind. A good friend of mine has beautiful, large production boat he uses for Bay cruising. While it’s only a few feet longer than our Sabre it’s much faster and offers a vastly roomier interior. One evening we were having cocktails in the cockpit and discussing he and his wife’s ambitions for longer distance cruising and he exhibited reservations about using his current boat for the purpose. When asked why, he shared that the boat was prone to pounding when sailing upwind. I was curious why this might be so, so a couple of days later I took a trip to our local boat yard and found an identical model. Sure enough, the underbody was much flatter than ours – especially in the forward sections. Looking at many other brand new production cruising boats I found the same design language to be very prevalent. A flat underbody has considerable upsides in yacht design – among them better interior room and a faster boat. But that fast underbody may be more prone to pounding than a deeper one.
A boat that pounds will be utterly miserable on long upwind passages in heavy weather, so buyers looking for a boat to suit this purpose will want to look for an underbody that more closely resembles our Sabre’s. Note in the photo below how the hull shape forms a deep “V” shape as seen from dead on (this is called “deadrise”) and note how there is a distinct curve to the bottom of the hull as viewed from the side (this is called “rocker” by some – alluding to the shape of a rocking chair).
During the year and well over 1,000 miles we’ve sailed it, we may have heard our Sabre pound two or three times total. And that includes our wild 25-knot upwind sail back from Block Island this summer. In other words, a boat like ours doesn’t pound – period. Lots of deadrise and / or rocker in a hull form will make a boat much more resistant to pounding than the opposite. But they will also reduce interior volume and performance to some degree – that’s why our friend’s production cruiser is faster and roomier than our Sabre. Since we always planned to emphasize offshore passage making in the use of our boat, this trade off was unquestionably the right one for us.
How fast is fast? For most cruising buyers this one might be purely subjective. Buyers looking just to bang around on short coastal cruises may not particularly care how fast their boat is, while those looking to cover ground on longer passages or those inclined to competitive streaks may pay more attention.
A good high-level view of how a boat might perform can be found looking at its PHRF handicap racing rating (if it has one) relative to boats of a similar size and design. Don’t worry too much about the absolute values here, just look for broad strokes. Lisa’s and my criteria for a cruising boat was that it could be no slower than our 29 foot race boat had been. In New England, the J/29 has a PHRF rating of 111 while the Sabre 42 rates 108. That means the techies who make up these ratings think the Sabre 42 will complete a mile’s sailing 3 seconds faster than the J/29 on average across a wide range of wind conditions. That was close enough for us! PHRF ratings are far from perfect but they are good enough as a proxy for cruisers when used the same way we used them here. If a buyer is concerned about performance, and she has her eye on a boat but find it rates in the upper 100s, then she might want to consider other options in the same size range! Asking friends who sailboat race what they think of various candidate boats is also a good starting point.
Next, buyers should always take that test sail or charter to gauge their own subjective reactions to the boat’s performance. Here are some items to focus on:
Does it point well upwind? Do the shrouds offer a nice close sheeting angle, and can the boom be sheeted onto the center line without interfering with the bimini or strapping the main leech far too tight (ahem, boats with no traveler)? When one tries to point the boat close hauled, does it just want to to stop? Does it punch through chop or give up?
Can it be sailed dead downwind with the main eased all the way out? As a cost cutting measure, many boats now come with spreaders that are angled well aft. This provides for cheaper, thinner, deck stepped masts but prevents the boom from being eased fully out to sail dead downwind. Does this sound like a minor point? When sailing from Seawanhaka to New York City this summer we were able to pole our jib out to one side and ease the main all the way out to the other, and thereby sail dead downwind. We watched a small production boat with angled spreaders jibe back and forth while trying to go the same direction. Left and right they went, back and forth across the sound as they faded further and further back into the distance, covering tons of distance but getting nowhere. The angle of a boat’s spreaders may seem like a minor point – until a cruiser is trying to go somewhere that lies dead downwind.
Does it go sideways in heavy air (“make leeway”)? On our honeymoon cruise in 2000, Lisa and I found ourselves trying to sail close hauled around an island upwind of its rocky shore. Our chartered Beneteau 321 began making significant leeway as the breeze built, raising the specter that we might blown onto the shore of the island (or its shoals) unless we tacked and tried to sail away from it! It made for a very stressful – if not downright scary – hour of sailing. We also found that our J/29 race boat was a dream upwind in heavy air – when we had the weight of 8 full crew members hiking out. When Lisa and I would double-handle the boat on weekend cruises we had an entirely different experience – one of an over canvased boat that liked to go partially sideways in big breeze. Not fun. We were surprised to find that our centerboard Sabre tracked resolutely ahead with no discernible leeway the first time we sailed it in big breeze – a big relief!
Candidate boats should always be taken out on test sails in fresh breezes before a purchase if performance is a purchase criteria. Also, buyers should drive through boat yards and look at the under bodies of candidate boats. Many recent production boats have the tiny, shallow keels that should raise a concern about their performance upwind – and that concern should make a test sail mandatory before a purchase.
Wrapping It All Up
Finding the right balance between all of the tradeoffs offered by both the new and brokerage boat market offerings is key. Buyers who remain cognizant of all of the factors we’ve explored here can find the right balance for their individual needs. Consider two extremes of boat design: a Hinckley Sou’weater 50, and the Beneteau Oceanis 48. Notice how our 1980s Sabre looks like she could have a little parental lineage from both of them?
So did we when we bought her.