December 27, 2012

Length tells it all

ANYONE WHO SAILS can form a fairly accurate mental impression of a yacht by establishing its length. A 20-footer is probably a daysailer, for instance, and a 35-footer is probably a coastal cruiser.  That’s not always the case, but as generalizations go, it’s pretty solid.

According to author Douglas Hunter, and yacht designer Steve Killing, hull length has such an impact on the cost, usefulness and speed of a boat that it should be one of the first decisions made by the designer and the prospective owner.

In their book, Yacht Design Explained, the two men maintain that boat length permeates the mindset of the purchaser of a boat, and also of the production builder — much more so than displacement or sail area.

Because we all relate far more to length than to any other criterion of yacht design, the relationship between the length and the price of production boats can encourage what the authors call “absurd marketing strategies.”  I think we all know boats that fit that description, with models being given names that don’t reflect their actual size.

“The boat advertised as a Blue Ocean 42 may actually be only 40 feet overall,” Hunter and Killing say, “but the name creates visions of safe and comfortable ocean passages at a reasonable price; conversely, the Zippy 38 (actually 40 feet overall) is promoted as ‘a fast boat for its length.’ Of course it’s easy to be faster than all the other 38-footers when your boat is two feet longer.”

The obvious benefit of a large boat is the space it contains, but the authors warn that there are instances when longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. “A 40-foot sailboat can be much more difficult to handle than a 30-footer. The area and weight of the sails increase, which means that not only are they more difficult to carry up on deck and hoist, but sheeting them in also requires greater force. Jobs like moving the traveler to windward, which can be done by hand on a small boat, require a winch on a large boat. A retired couple might appreciate the below-deck amenities of a larger boat, but could find sailing it overwhelming or at least tiring and inconvenient.

“And with a larger boat, even the cruising ground is surprisingly altered. The larger boat often will expand the territory, since longer voyages are now possible on larger bodies of water. But what happens when the boat arrives at its destination? A 45-foot cruiser, while spacious and fast, won’t be able to enter many fine little anchorages due to the increased depth of its keel.”

Hunter and Killing say many cruisers find that a boat in the range of 35 to 39 feet offers the best trade-off — small enough to be ably handled by one or two, but large enough for a family of four to cruise with some comfort.

A few feet of extra length in a sailboat make a disproportionate difference in speed and accommodation (as well as price) but they also make a great difference in the stresses and strains of boat handling and the cost of repairs and maintenance. For those reasons I have always advised cruising couples to go even smaller.  For me, 39 feet is getting too big.  My preference is between 29 and 35, with a heavy-displacement 30 or 31-footer being the ideal size for a cruising couple.

But, as Hunter and Killing point out, for every sailor there is an ideal boat length.  And it has been my experience that trying to convince people that I am right, and they are wrong, is a thankless and pointless task.  So I don’t argue. I just bite my tongue and leave them to find out for themselves by making expensive mistakes. 
Things would be so much easier if people would just listen to me and do things my way.

— Yacht Design Explained, Steve Killing and Douglas Hunter (Norton, New York, 1998)

Today’s Thought
The first requisite of any practical boat is safety, the second comfort, and the third speed.
— Edson B. Schock

“Do you know your blood type?” the doctor asked the blonde blood donor.
“Yes, of course, doctor.”
“Well, what type are you then?”
“I’m the sexy type, doc.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Unknown said...

Hi John,

Only a happy confluence of the planets would produce an antecedent/consequent pair of authors named Hunter and Killing.

Neat columns!

John Vigor said...

Hi Carter, yes, you're right. I believe the publisher has a sequel in mind for the next alignment of the planets, a volume by Skinner and Butcher.


John V.