Big, fast, and beautiful
They are starting to appear at many of the big boat regattas sailed off Newport, Cowes, Cannes, and other ports around the world. Often you see two or more running side by side under a cloud of sail to the finish as their crews strain to snatch every bit of power from the passing gusts and lulls. They’re not purebred racing boats; they’re the latest generation of performance cruisers, the genre that used to be known as cruiser-racers.
The competition is intense but friendly and when it’s over, those racing sails and other bits of performance gear are either put below or carried ashore. And when all the snatchblocks, winch handles, and spinnaker sheets have been stowed away the boats take on an entirely different persona. They become a comfortable home away from home for the owner’s family and friends. Priorities change and now there’s time for shared conversation in the cockpit and during dinner below. Tomorrow will bring either a new race, a new anchorage or a return to familiar sights and cruising grounds.
With many dedicated raceboats hobbled, temporarily anyway, by economic uncertainty, large cruiser-racers are enjoying a renaissance. They are attracting sailors who not only enjoy the occasional racing skirmish with boats of similar size and crews of comparable skill, but also enjoy watching the sun go down in some quiet anchorage.
Most of these big cruiser-racers are production or semi-production models. And like most boats over 50 feet they can carry things that can’t fit aboard their smaller cousins. There’s a lot more space in cabins, the galley, and entertainment areas. And bigger sailplans and longer waterlines let them frolic in a building breeze even as their smaller sisters are shortening sail.
The cruiser-racer concept hasn’t really changed much since the Finnish builder, Nautor, began producing its first fiberglass 36-footer 40 years ago. Designed by Sparkman & Stephens, the Swan 36 not only performed well, but also had all the important safety features found aboard the best seagoing wooden boats of the time. Because the Swan 36 weighed significantly less than its contemporaries and also had more living space below, it became an overnight success around the world.
Since then, computers, construction materials and techniques, and rating rules have homogenized features on sailboats such that narrower bows, wider sterns, and reduced wetted-surface areas, to name just a few, have made it harder to distinguish between designs. Now the differences lie more in how builders use materials in the construction process. The emphasis has shifted from how a galley is laid out—although that still is important—to how to create a lighter structure.
Cored hulls and decks, carefully engineered deep-fin keels, carbon-fiber rigs and high-aspect carbon rudders are among the many features that will improve a boat’s sailing performance. Draft, of course, cuts both ways for a cruising sailor, because it limits one’s ability to cruise in a predominately shoal area.
When thinking about what type of cruiser-racer you’d like, the first question to ask is what sort of racing do you want to do? “I have to admit that I would have been able to give you a much more precise answer to the question of what features should be aboard a cruiser-racer 20 years ago than I can now,” says Oyster Marine’s Robin Campbell. “I do think that if you are going to race only every now and then you have to think hard about what kind of racing it will be. For example, one thing I have noticed in regattas where cruiser-racers are competing is that a slightly heavier boat can do quite well in longer-distance races. The boat often can be pushed at speed in heavier conditions, while the lighter, more purely race-oriented boats start to become very uncomfortable.”
But the game changes quickly when the races are shorter. Because a heavier boat takes longer to accelerate out of a tack than a lighter boat, in almost all cases, says Campbell, the heavier boat is going to be at a disadvantage in a short afternoon race. That’s one reason why Oyster, whose boats have long been admired for their seakeeping abilities, is beginning to design for speed. There’s a tradeoff, of course, and in this case it involves giving up a small amount of interior volume forward because of the narrower, faster, bows on the newer boats. And if anyone wants to up the ante, carbon spars, lightweight interior joinery and even deep T-shaped keel bulbs are available for the asking.
“I’d say a cruiser-racer is a boat that can excel equally in both modes,” says Christer Still of Baltic Yachts. To illustrate his point, Still points to the Baltic 56, a design that has garnered rave reviews for its versatility. “For years our studies have told us that if you use high-tech materials properly and in a creative way you can produce a boat that not only has good cruising amenities below, but also races well over a wide range of conditions.”
Baltic removes many pounds from its interior furniture by covering foam or honeycomb cores with pressed prepreg carbon fiber. Is the process sophisticated? Yes, but for those who understand and appreciate what’s involved, the results are worth it.
Deciding how to achieve good performance has important consequences says Grand Soleil Yachts’s Harold del Rosario. “For example,” he explains, “you can take a Grand Soleil 54 and keep its cruising interior. But if you put on a carbon rudder, add a deep CNC‑machined keel, and reinforce the deck to support the increased rig loads, you are going to dramatically increase the boat’s speed.” Of course, neither he nor anyone else can guarantee these alterations will make you competitive against an all-out grand-prix racer.
But, continues de Rosario, you can mix and match features in a way that will determine whether you wind up with a high-performance cruiser or a genuine cruiser-racer that has a chance at a podium finish. “In the end,” he says, “it comes down to what you think is important to have on the boat for the sailing you plan to do.”
“When it comes to boats this large,” says Nautor’s Keith Yeoman, “that decision is always going to be a personal one.” And the answer, he continues, could take you in any number of different directions. When Nautor first went into production with the Swan 36, says Yeoman, things were not as complicated as they are today. In recent years Swan has built boats that are unambiguous as to purpose, with high-performance raceboats on one end of the spectrum and solid cruiser-racers, like their Swan 66, on the other end. “We’ve been pretty successful with high-end carbon-fiber raceboats,” says Yeoman. “But we’ve given the 66 a cored fiberglass hull and that’s let us cast a wider net among owners. Even though it’s not as light a structure as a carbon hull, it’s still a boat that doesn’t shy away from competition. And when the racing is over it can take you and your friends anywhere you want to go, quickly and in great style and comfort.”