What characteristics make a yacht fit for purpose? Duncan Kent explores the meaning of 'seaworthy' and how hull design and technology have changed the way we think
A hundred years ago a yacht was considered seaworthy if it could stand up to a full gale whilst continuing to make headway under sail while still keeping its crew safe.
Today, yachts are designed and built using entirely different construction parameters, with far more emphasis on speed, ease of handling, openness and comfortable living.
Do any of the old maxims still apply or are new cruising yachts better than the classics?
There are many improvements to the contemporary offshore yacht that have indeed increased its seaworthiness.
Take sail plans and sail handling, for instance.
Fifty years ago it was common to battle your way to the bucking foredeck to change headsails as the wind reached screaming pitch.
Rarely would you be wearing a lifejacket either, as these consisted of big lumps of foam tied awkwardly together, which always got in the way of what you were doing.
Today, the fractional sloop rig with furling headsails is pretty much standard, so the foresails are smaller and the risk of leaving the cockpit to reef is removed.
Cutters or ‘slutters’ (twin headstays close to each other) seem to be the sail plan for long distance sailing and even downwind sails come with furlers and the yachts with bowsprits for their tacks.
The same goes for the mainsail which, even if it isn’t the furling type, is often fully battened and can usually be dropped safely into a zipped sail bag using cockpit-led sail controls.
There’s no doubt that this has brought about a massive improvement to the safety of the crew, and in turn the yacht’s general seaworthiness.
The introduction of modern ropes has also improved the life of the sailor no end.
Massively strong man-made fibres such as Spectra and Dyneema have allowed much lighter and smaller diameter lines to be used and many are changing their old steel shackles for the more user-friendly ‘soft’ shackles, eliminating the dangers of flying bits of heavy metal and making a corroded shackle pin a thing of the past.
Despite modern yachts being able to sail so much better than the classics in light airs, at some point you’ll need an engine – even if it’s just to charge your batteries.
Despite being relied upon so heavily these days, the good old marine diesel can be the cause of many headaches.
A properly designed engine installation will offer easy access to all the regular service points, particularly the water pump, fuel filters and water traps, alternator, coolant, oil filler, dipstick and filter and starter battery.
One of today’s most prevalent and popular yacht designers is Stephen Jones, creator of the Rustler 33, 42 and 44, Starlight 35 and 39, the Hunter Mystery 35, Sadler 260, Southerly 32, 38 and 470 and many more performance cruisers as well as traditional racing designs such as the Spirit.
One of the primary reasons for his popularity is that he undoubtedly has the knack of blending tradition and technology – the result being a stunning combination of beauty and performance, rather than an indifferent compromise between new and old.
Of his many classic designs Jones says: ‘Without doubt the modern CAD-derived hull outperforms all of those built in the days when the main criteria for a cruising yacht was just that it had to be virtually indestructible. I try to blend the aesthetically attractive elements with the best technology can offer in order to produce a yacht that doesn’t just look beautiful but is also exciting to sail.’
A great deal has changed in hull design since the advent of the famous Folkboat, some 50 years ago.
The advent of bolt-on keels has allowed bilges to be shallower, improving the yacht’s speed – especially off the wind.
Whereas a 50% ballast ratio used to be considered the norm for an offshore yacht, today fin keels often have the ballast placed deep down in a bulb at their tip, where it provides the greatest righting moment possible for the least amount of ballast, so it’s not uncommon to find the ratio is now more like 30-35%.
In addition, the keel’s short length reduces the wetted area and associated drag. Some insist that bolt-on keels are unseaworthy and indeed, accidents have happened where they have become detached. But these incidents are actually very rare and almost always the result of a hard grounding or poor maintenance.
Making the bilges too shallow made for a good deal of slamming when sailing to windward in many 1980-90s boats, but in later years this habit was eliminated with the introduction of finer bows with deeper entry.
One downside of a wide, flat boat is that it can be almost as stable inverted as upright, so increasing the angle of heel at which the yacht’s stability vanishes (AVS) to the highest degree is very important.
Hull chines, which were originally introduced for plywood and steel boats to allow simple flat materials to be used in their construction, have made a widespread comeback over the past decade.
With sterns becoming wider and wider to improve accommodation below and cockpit space for twin wheels, any means of increasing a hull’s inherent form stability (the hull natural resistance to heeling and inversion) is welcome and hard chines appear to do just that – giving the hull defined ‘rails’ on which to run.
They also improve directional stability and help prevent the yacht rounding up when over-pressed.
More cruising yachts are disabled through loss of, or damage to their rudder by flotsam than almost anything else.
Traditionally, they were well protected either by a long keel or, more likely, a stout skeg at least half the depth of the rudder.
The modern trend, however, appears to be for deep spade rudders with no such protection, and twin rudders are now becoming popular. Primarily they’re designed to keep steerage when the quarter of a very wide stern lifts clear of the water when heeled.
Some believe they provide redundancy in the event one is knocked off, but any amount of heel beyond 10° with a wide-sterned cruiser can cause the windward rudder to come out of the water. If you’ve lost a rudder, you are forced to remain on one tack or to sail dead downwind.
More importantly, unless you’re smart (like renowned circumnavigator Jimmy Cornell with his new Aventura) and you ensure each rudder can be independently steered, damage to one rudder will very likely disable the entire steering system due to the linkage between them.
Although there’s a tendency these days for yacht designers to prioritise style over substance, the wide-open cockpits of the modern production cruiser can fulfil both the need for lounging space at anchor and safety at sea by making a few simple, relatively inexpensive modifications.
Before embarking on regular offshore passages, the owner needs to carry out a careful analysis of the likely risk areas and to retro-fit extra safety features such as grabrails and harness points where necessary.
The centre cockpit, made famous by Bill Dixon in his many Moody yachts, is still popular in many Swedish yachts, but like many aspects of yacht design it has its advantages and disadvantages.
Being higher up and forward in the boat means that water rarely gets near it and it often imparts a feeling of security in the crew being so far above the water.
However, it does restrict the helmsman’s view forward when the genoa’s flying and it can make those prone to seasickness feel worse due to the more pronounced side-to-side movement in a beam sea.
One real bonus, however, is the raised height allows for huge aft cabins – something for which Moody and Halberg-Rassy yachts are renowned.
An aft cockpit, though more vulnerable to a steep following sea, does make you feel more in touch with the boat somehow.
A high bridge deck or similar can greatly reduce the risk of down-flooding from the stern in stormy conditions.
The seaworthiness of a yacht is not only affected by its hull design and rig, but also how sea kindly it is below.
For a start, those wanting to cruise overnight will need a decent bunk for the off-watch crew.
By that I mean one that’s preferably close to the middle of the boat and that can be converted to a comfy, secure single berth.
In most production cruisers this will mean the saloon berths, so if you’re looking to buy it’s worth just checking the length, width and suitability of these.
If not, then double berths can often be converted using lee cloths or boards, which can be removed or folded away when at anchor or in port. The worst place for a sea berth is in the forepeak, as this is where the motion will be greatest.
You’ll often need to add a few handrails around the boat too, especially as you descend the companionway. A little clever repositioning or subtle padding of furniture can make a difference.
One of the most important aspects of boat safety is the through hull fittings. It’s a good idea to draw a sketch of where they all are and what they do so that crew unfamiliar with the boat could find them quickly in an emergency.
Also ensure all your seacocks are good quality marine devices (Bronze or DZR), not domestic plumbing ones (worryingly common on many new boats) and that you tie a suitable softwood bung to it.
Choosing a yacht
The very first question you should ask yourself when considering buying a yacht is ‘what do I intend to do on this boat?’
The answer should then steer you towards the type of yacht suitable for your endeavours, whether they be pootling along the coast on fair weather days and tying up in a marina berth at night or taking your family on long passages in open and unprotected offshore waters.
The former is catered for by myriad production boatbuilders and should be reasonably affordable. The latter not so.
A properly designed and constructed offshore yacht will cost much more – probably three to four times as much as a production cruiser – and rightly so.
All that extra investment will be reflected in the integrity of the design, the quality of the materials used and the standard of craftsmanship put into building her.
Saying that, it’s a myth that many pocket cruisers are inherently dangerous if sailed offshore.
I’ve often felt happier sailing a well-found 26-footer across the English Channel in a near gale than I would have felt in a modern 50ft production cruiser set up for day sailing in fine conditions.
I know this rather makes a mockery of the RCD categorisation scheme (A-ocean; B-offshore etc), but often smaller boats are only Cat B or C because the builders can’t afford the more stringent testing for higher categories.
Any sailor worth their salt will know that a large portion of a vessel’s ability to sail safely offshore is in how you prepare your boat and crew beforehand and many adventurous sailors have ventured far afield without incident in small yachts.
Roger Taylor single-handedly overcome the vagaries of the northern latitude weather systems, covering thousands of miles safely in the same type boat in which Ellen MacArthur first circumnavigated Britain.
Shane Acton’s 18ft long Caprice, Shrimpy, would never get an RCD A (Ocean) rating whatever you did to it, but she proved seaworthy enough to get Acton around the world in one piece.
Without doubt, there have been numerous innovations over the past few decades that have made offshore sailing easier.
A crew of two can now easily handle the latest 60ft yacht, thanks in particular to cockpit sail controls, electrically assisted deck gear and up-to-the-minute navigation technology.
The greatest advantage a modern yacht has over an older, heavier boat is speed. A modern yacht’s ability to make headway fast is in fact one of its most seaworthy points as it allows the crew to navigate around a slow-moving storm or to sail off a dangerous lee shore in the event the engine dies or the anchor drags.
Problems encountered by many of the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entrants were certainly aggravated by their inability to sail faster than a few knots away from threatening weather.
Instead, they had to sit it out, hoping their sluggish old classics would be tough enough to take the hammering of the Southern Ocean waves.
Most recently launched hulls are a huge improvement over the over-engineered 20th-Century designs, but changes in style mean compromises will have to be made to ensure your yacht is as seaworthy as it can be.
Wide, open cockpits require more clipping on points and extra handrails, and for those planning to go world cruising in a standard production boat, much of the kit supplied will need to be upgraded before you set off.
Top tips to improve seaworthiness before blue- water cruising
- Install watertight crash bulkheads forward and aft (forward of the rudder stock).
- Move heavy items such as batteries, tanks, spare anchors and tinned provisions as low and as close to the centre of the boat as possible and ensure they are strapped down.
- Make sure all locker lids, soleboards and washboards can be securely locked in place.
- Pre-build a workable emergency steering system and test it out in heavy seas before you depart.
- Create easy-launch stowage for the liferaft.
- Carry several heavy lines, a series drogue and a sea anchor.
- Ensure you have a fourth reef in the mainsail and storm sails. Jack stays and multiple attachments points are a must.
- Make tough wooden shutters and easy attachments for vulnerable hatches and portlights.
- Any windows in the topsides should be non-opening and made from seriously reinforced glass.
- Ensure you and the crew know exactly where all the hull skin fittings are and fix a diagram inside the chart table lid.
- Tie suitable bungs to every skin fitting for emergency use.
- Fit fire extinguishers of varying sorts near to where they might be needed and keep them regularly serviced.
- Fit a bilge alarm and dual electric bilge pumps plus a manual.