Predicting the future is never easy, but Patrick Dixon’s job is to do just that. As a liveaboard sailor, he shares his ideas about what lies in store for yacht design
Millions of people across the UK are now spending some of the £190 billion saved during the Covid lockdowns on a wide range of new adventures and projects – including boat ownership. Up to 13 million people plan to change jobs in the next year or two, while 10% of 50-66 year olds want to retire early – up from 4% before Covid. At the same time, we’ve all experienced the freedom of virtual working – which of course is easy afloat. So what of the future?
My wife Sheila and I have become hybrid sailors, as a pair of empty nesters with a global business, a large family and lots of commitments back home. After sailing across the Atlantic on our Beneteau Oceanis 473, Moxie, we spent three months at anchor in the Caribbean. While afloat I gave many virtual keynotes all over the world on trends, while Sheila chaired court sessions virtually as a magistrate in Poole and Bournemouth. We had faster mobile bandwidth in many anchorages than we usually get from BT in Weymouth, at a cost of 75 gigabytes for £40.
We bought Moxie as an 11-year-old boat, for the price of a large motorhome. We have continued our journey via the Galapagos, Tahiti and Fiji, to Australia and next Indonesia. We are delighted to find that she is now worth 20% more than we paid for her nine years ago. That’s because so many people realise that they too can easily work part of the year afloat, without giving up the rest of their lives.
As a futurist my job is to live in 2050 and to see tomorrow as history. I have advised over 400 of the world’s largest companies, so visiting the Southampton Boat Show last year was interesting. It was striking how similar all the boats were – to each other and also to our own. At the same time, the pandemic has left many yacht designers behind, because so many expectations and practical needs are different now.
Leisure yacht design had already been highly optimised in many ways. Every yacht is a series of compromises, for example in terms of comfort in the cabin or space in the cockpit, limited by the physical properties of wind and water, and the needs of human beings.
So let’s look first at what designers can’t change much.
Shape of the hull and keels
The laws of physics place absolute limits on hull design, but shapes evolve nevertheless. Wider monohulls and deeper keels offer more stability to carry more canvas or less ballast, as well as more volume for accommodation. Our own 14.4m yacht has regularly topped 18 knots when surfing waves across the Pacific, which is great fun and exhilarating. But in big following seas, broad sterns became vulnerable to wave impact and to broaching and are slower to right if rolled.
That is why so many bluewater sailors are so passionate about older, heavier and slower yachts, with narrower hulls, longer keels, faster righting speed, and protected steering gear. So expect a niche market for new blue-water yachts with traditional hull shapes to continue. There are also practical limits for keel depth to allow access to a wide range of anchorages.
Conversely, for coastal cruisers, better weather forecasts make it easier to avoid bad weather, while rising expectations of comfort aboard drive a trend for ever more volume and luxury aboard coastal cruising boats.
Naval architects are constantly finding ways to keep these boats balanced and well-mannered under sail. Expect this type of boat to gain more above the waterline while hull below the waterline continues to decrease.
Catamarans will continue to soar in popularity as family friendly boats with masses of space and increasingly capable of sustained double-digit speeds without heeling. But many sailors like us will be happier if future cats have more aesthetically appealing and less box-like designs.
Fibreglass is still an absolute winner and will remain so – it’s strong, cheap, easy to mould and repair, and lasts decades. Almost all production hulls in 2040 will still be glass mat and resin. But much innovation is already underway to reduce the environmental impact and end-of-life disposal problems currently associated with composites.
Sustainable, low carbon and recyclable materials will replace conventional fossil-based cloth and resins, while there will still be a focus on adding strength and removing weight.
For those working aboard, better insulation in the hull against both heat and cold will become more important. Stainless steel will continue to be the main material used for deck fittings and fixtures, aside from aluminium masts and booms.
Composite materials for small parts such as wheels and stanchions, as well as carbon masts and synthetic fibres for standing rigging will become more popular as the cost becomes more affordable.
Teak decks will be phased out in all but high-end boats, in favour of synthetic materials due to cost, the environmental impact of teak production, heat absorption and maintenance requirements.
Hybrid working aboard
Most new yachts are very badly designed for virtual working. Two people need to be able to work comfortably, with decent back support and powerful downlighters, plenty of mains power sockets and USB adapters, plus masthead mobile network signal boosters. Ideally there should be at least one seating position at a table with suitable background for video calls, where it is not obvious that you are afloat!
Proper chart tables will make a comeback for home working, if not for paper navigation.
Elon Musk’s Starlink network is already delivering unlimited data to yachties more or less anywhere in the world at the astonishing speed of 220MB per second, for around £200 a month when close to shore, with extra charges at sea. So high speed satellite / WiFi connectivity will be standard on most yachts over 14m
by 2030 and is already a reality.
Safety on deck and below
The current trend to minimalism in cabin design looks nice, but creates serious risk of broken ribs, arms, ankles or hips. Any broken bone can be life-threatening offshore. Expect more attention to proper hand-holds below and the same on deck, at least for serious cruising boats, even if coastal and Med cruising boats continue to pursue open living spaces. Designers are already reducing steps and improving access for older sailors.
It’s shocking how few yacht manufacturers have sorted out dinghy storage, in part due to the increasing reliance on walk-ashore marina berths for coastal sailors. Most yacht owners have a dinghy, however, and are forced to stow them on clunky davits or inconveniently on the foredeck.
Wave and sun protection
Unlike the brochure images, designers have not worked out how to make yachts look as attractive when used in real cruising conditions, but with a global pandemic of sun-linked melanoma, it is madness to offer new cruising yachts without sprayhoods or full biminis. As helming positions become more exposed on the aft quarters, expect a growing reliance on advanced autopilot systems.
More of tomorrow’s sailors will be planning longer trips without easy access to fresh water refills, while also becoming less tolerant of water shortages for hot showers. Expect larger water tankage, and better insulated hot water tanks.
Water-makers offer huge freedom for cruising and may be a built-in option on all yachts over 14m in length by 2025, though with boatbuilders aiming to cut person hours by stripping out complexity, don’t expect this level of fit-out as standard any time soon.
Manufacturers must raise their game on the longevity of important parts. It is ridiculous that the only thing preventing most yachts from sinking are tiny stainless steel jubilee clips around every (cheap brass) seacock, each of which can rapidly corrode and fall apart.
In-mast furling mains, as with furling foresails, will be standard on all non-racing boats. Full cockpit controls mean safer offshore sailing, with infinite options to adjust rapidly and rebalance the boat. Expect far better UV and stretch resistant membranes. We still don’t have a thread to stitch sails which will reliably last more than seven years in sunny locations!
All yachts will continue to be charged on their length in marinas, yet useful sails like gennakers mean that many boats now have fixed bowsprits. If cost continues to be an issue, then expect a return to retractable bowsprits.
The most important innovations for cruisers in the next decade will be power-related and dominated by solar, as costs continue to fall very rapidly. Traditional panels are ugly, take up space at the stern and can’t cope with partial shading. But future leisure yachts will have plenty of other surfaces for solar cells. They may look like teak or fibreglass, provide a non-slip, hard-wearing surface and by 2035 will usually be factory-installed.
Expect big improvements in energy efficiency, especially in the design of freezers and fridges, which are currently still poorly insulated and power hungry.
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Engines and batteries
Large lithium house batteries will be standard by 2030, with ultra-fast charging from diesel engines or generators – and yes, both will still be found on new yachts in 20 years time.
There is no other technology on the horizon with such power density, while also providing hot water and electricity. Lithium battery prices are falling rapidly while offering twice the usable energy storage for less than half the weight of lead acid batteries.
But where auxiliary power can be a matter of life or death in bad weather, lithium power simply doesn’t have the range or power yet. Cruising yachts will be one of the last market segments to adopt 100% electric power before 2050.
There is also emerging evidence that the lifecycle impact of making lithium batteries does not really justify their use for propulsion in leisure cruising boats.
Expect greater simplicity, with larger fixed screen displays relayed onto a mobile device. Many yachts will still have additional standalone displays for things like wind speed and depth, allowing instant decisions to be made at a distance, without peering at a big display with salty reading glasses.
By 2030 many yachts will be installed with 3D colour sea bed scanning.
We love the magic of anchoring, especially in remote places, but are often dismayed by the damage to the sea bed from the chain as our yacht veers around. Many areas are introducing eco-friendly moorings to reduce this damage. As topsides grow, yacht designers are going to need to give more thought about how to help people pick up moorings more easily than at present.
For coastal cruising boats, the trend is away from serious anchoring bar the odd lunch stop, in favour of walk-ashore marina pontoons, so anchor locker space will continue to diminish, making room for accommodation. The only caveat is that large forepeak lockers are increasingly taking the place of cockpit lockers, and allowing wider, more rectangular berths in the foreward cabin.
For blue-water cruising boats, expect deeper anchor lockers, holding at least 80-100m of chain, with powerful windlasses and robust bow fittings to handle at least one heavy anchor.
Lifting a yacht for annual antifouling is costly, wasteful and toxic. Legislation is tightening, so expect research into alternatives, but driven by industry so trickle-down solutions may not be ideal for sailing boats initially. Expect hard or slippery antifoul products like Coppercoat or Hempel’s Silic One to be applied at point of sale.
Expect larger holding tanks as governments tighten up on regulations about discharging sewage into coastal waters. Shore-side infrastructure for pump outs also needs to improve.
Waste stowage and disposal
Facilities for waste storage, recycling bins and so on are very poor on most production boats, and lazarettes end up full of loose plastic bags of waste. For long-term cruising boats, provision needs to be made for separating and compressing different types of waste.
Yacht production is one of the most unsustainable industries in the world, with no easy way to recycle fibreglass hulls when the boat is no longer worth repairing. Abandoned composite boats will become a growing problem.
Expect many other nations to copy laws in France which add a disposal tax onto the sale price of every yacht. As with the auto industry, yacht manufacturers will be expected to create a complete plan from launch to disposal, in their entire design.
Time to sail away?
So what do we learn from all this? Now is a really great time to buy a boat and begin your own adventures as a hybrid live-aboard. If you can AirBnB your home when on board as we do, you could finance your entire journey plus air fares. Older boats offer great value, depreciate little and put many new boats to shame with their build quality and seaworthiness.
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