The Late 1980s: The Golden Age Of Yacht Design?

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By Rich

Stay with me here, because even I think I sound a bit like an old fart with this line of reasoning. It could well be that we all have an affinity for things that remind us our our youth. A such, I could just be getting old and prone to lamenting the passing of the “good old days.” But just in case I might be right, let me pose the following question for debate: have the best-sailing cruising boat designs that history will ever record already been built? Are marketing and other business considerations distorting contemporary yacht design away from the best hull forms in a manner similar to the way the IOR racing rule distorted 1970s designs? Here is one article, and another that can serve as primers for the discussion. 

I’ll summarize the salient periods of cruising yacht design this way (admittedly, the following is a considerable over simplification with each time period exhibiting exceptions to these design trends. Still, at a high level, this summary is pretty close):

1960s: very slender hull forms prevail, many with full keels. Lots of deadrise (deep “V” shaped underbodies).

Pros: excellent blue water handling characteristics.

Cons: modest performance upwind and little room down below relative to a boat’s length.

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1970s / early 1980s: bolt on keels emerge en-masse, with an attendant reduction in deadrise. The IOR racing rule distorts hull forms to take on wide beams but very narrow transoms. Shoal draft models of more performance-oriented models are offered with centerboards.

Pros: better performance and room below than 1960s designs.

Cons: Not as good in rough seas as full-keel boats, and scary downwind handling when IOR-like narrow transoms are present. Below, our 1979 Pearson 40 was the perfect example of a performance-oriented cruiser designed to mimic the narrow transoms of the IOR age. And true to form, it handled dreadfully off the wind. Despite being 40 feet long with a very wide beam, down below it only offered a quarter berth where later designs offered at least one aft cabin.

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Mid to Late 1980s (was this the Golden Age?): The IOR transom distortion dissipates and transoms widen sufficiently to provide much better downwind handling. Interior volume grows enough that aft cabins replace quarter berths and sail lockers on mid size models and larger. Centerboards are still available on many boats, while others partially reduce draft by modestly reducing the span of the traditional fin keel while increasing the cord length. Moderate deadrise and deep forefoot designs typify this period’s design trends.

Pros: Excellent handling up and downwind, very good performance, enough room down below for aft cabins.

Cons: I’m biased, but I’m at a loss here. All yacht designs force compromise, and the entire premise of this article is that these designs may represent the best balance between competing needs. Below, this beautiful Baltic and the Swan at the top of this article typify designs from what I personally believe was the Golden Age of performance cruising yacht design. Note the moderate beam at the transom in both designs.

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Below: Our Sabre is another example of the same design language, which is why we bought her. Note the similarity between the transoms on the Swan, the Baltic, and the Sabre. After this period, centerboards all but went extinct. We love our keel-centerboard design despite the significant maintenance issues we have encountered with it. Note the high-aspect ratio provided by this combination of foils for upwind sailing. Downwind, the board is retracted and the boat slides and surfs easily through the water. In port, we enjoy a 4′ 8″ draft. The best of all worlds. Would we buy another, even given the mechanical issues we have addressed with ours? In a heartbeat. See below for more on our experiences on the water when we line up with newer shoal draft models and go upwind in a breezy conditions!

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1990s to Present: A secular trend toward wider transoms, very low deadrise (flat bottoms) and small, bulbous shoal keels with poor lift characteristics takes hold, culminating (to date!) in today’s “pizza slice” designs.  Here are two examples:

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Compare the draft on the boat in the top photo with our Sabre’s when the board is lowered! A handful of marketing incentives play a large role in these design trends – much more so than a desire to design boats that sail well.  First, as in the IOR days, these designs are intended to mimic the appearance of light, purpose-built race yachts. Second, large (or twin) aft cabins and gigantic cockpits make terrific impressions at boat shows and in printed materials. With respect to shoal keels replacing centerboards, the marketing push is low maintenance and simplicity of operation.

Pros: huge aft cabins (or dual aft cabins!) and cockpits. Very good THEORETICAL performance capabilities. Sexy twin wheel cockpit designs.

Cons: Imitating the design language of super light race boats with heavier cruising boats results in disappointing performance, even as on-paper performance promises big results.  Race yachts with transoms this large are light enough to plane downwind and often sport canting keels, daggerboards, and dual rudders. Those foil configurations allow them to heel at angles sufficient to lift much of the wetted surface out of the water when going upwind. Cruising boats haves short, inefficient fixed keels, so they tolerate very little heel before performance suffers. Downwind, these designs are much too heavy to plane in all but gale force conditions. The result? Poor upwind handling (and consequently performance) in puffy conditions, “sticky” downwind performance due to high wetted surface areas and lots of loud pounding in chop due to the flat bottoms. As a result, the impressive performance capabilities  these designs promise on paper prove hard to attain in practice.

I can offer a real-world example to illustrate the implications of these design contrasts on performance – no matter what the advertising promises. Just two days ago I went single handling in a 20-25 knot southerly wind here on the Chesapeake Bay. As luck would have it, I followed a newer French built boat of similar size to my Sabre (probably a Beneteau) out of Lake Ogelton. I chose to canvas only with a full jib and no main, which balanced the rudder perfectly and kept me around 20 degrees of heel on average. My centerboard was fully lowered, giving me an 8′ 6″ draft compared to the French boat’s 5-ish feet. Watch the videos below for why we love the centerboard design so much. Despite being under jib alone and fully canvassed for the conditions, watch the horizon in the first video very carefully: she tracks dead straight, with absolutely no leeway. In the second video just enjoy the way she powers through the chop, again, with no leeway even as the waves try to force her nose down. Oops, I almost forgot. In the second video, watch the set of waves that starts 13 seconds or so into the video. Do you hear her pound? With her deep forefoot and moderate deadrise, good luck getting a Sabre 42 to pound!

Now here is how things turned out “racing” the newer French design. Let me preface this by pointing out that the French boat chose a full main and a storm staysail versus my jib alone. That’s a lot more canvas and it represents one of the promises of wide-transom designs: tons of form stability means lots of sail-carrying capacity upwind. Also, their sail choice (a storm staysail? Respect!) and election to go for a joy ride in challenging conditions both indicate that my opponents were no rookies. The boat was very likely well sailed. Here is how our “race” started: with me behind and to leeward in their dirty air.

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After just 20 minutes of sailing across the Bay, here is how things wound up just before I tacked away: the French boat was abeam and way, way to leeward.

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Ultimately, an individual buyer’s choice comes down to whether he or she values sailing dynamics and performance more or less than interior space and race-inspired contemporary styling. But from a theoretical standpoint, my question is this: was there indeed a Golden Age of cruising boat design, and if so, was it the late 1980s? With the sport increasingly on the decline, one can’t help but wonder if these fantastic hull forms will ever make a resurgence at scale.

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