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How’s this for a thought experiment: imagine setting a diminutive Tiwal 2 inflatable dinghy alongside a Catalina 545 cruiser? It would be hard to imagine two more different watercraft, and yet they are both still very much sailboats. They are also both winners in this year’s SAIL magazine Best Boats contest, with the Tiwal winning in the “Honorable Mention” category and the Catalina taking the prize among monohulls 51ft and over.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. How about setting a new Cape Cod sloop, winner in the “Best Daysailer” category with its heartbreakingly gorgeous traditional lines and modern underwater appendages, against a cutting-edge Eagle Class 53, our “Best Large Multihull 51ft and Above?” Craziest of all, although these boats may look like they come from different planets, with their passenger-friendly cockpits and minimal accommodations, they are, in fact, both designed to serve much the same purpose as daysailers.

Same thing with the full-foiling F101 trimaran and J/99 performance monohull sloop. Who’s to say which provides the better adrenaline rush under sail? While very different in their conception, they are also similar in that they share the same outstanding build quality. Clearly, when it comes to naval architecture, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Something else that hasn’t changed is the way SAIL sets about determining the winners in its annual Best Boats contest: by having its editors fan out across the country sailing, studying, evaluating and discussing the latest the boatbuilding industry has to offer—an industry that even after centuries of hard work and innovation never seems to run out of fresh ideas. As always, enjoy, and congrats to this year’s winners!

Best Large Monohull 51ft and Above

Catalina 545


In the eyes of our panel of judges, the reason the new Catalina 545 stood out as this year’s best large monohull is because of the way its collection of engineering and design features all worked together to result in a truly outstanding vessel. Beyond that, although the company is including the new flagship in its 5-Series, Catalina fans will immediately notice some eyebrow-raising differences between it and the rest of the line.

A fiberglass “collar,” for example, is molded in all around the top of the hull. Shaped like a construction beam, this feature not only makes the hull more rigid, but provides a solid base for the deck, a strong sheer rail and a sturdy base for stanchions and cleats. It also incorporates a set of scuppers that drain near the waterline, thereby eliminating the formation of streaks on the boat’s topsides. Finally, up in the bow it blends into a sprit with an integral anchor roller, in contrast to the tubular sprits found on the other boats in Catalina’s 5-Series.

Overhead, the tall rig includes a self-tacking jib in addition to whatever light-air sails you may choose to fly from said sprit. Displacement is rather light, so this should be a quick boat in light to moderate airs.

On deck, other thoughtful details abound. The coaming step-over from the side deck, for example, is at the same level as the cockpit seat. There’s also a solid rail aft instead of lifelines in the interest of additional security. All sail control lines are conveniently close at hand for a singlehander, and the starboard seat extends to form a berth for sleeping under the stars. Oh, and the boat is also darn good-looking.

Beyond that, the boat’s systems are simple, strong and accessible throughout, with the house batteries located under a big hatch in the saloon, admirably installed wiring and plumbing, and plenty of working space around the engine. Catalina designer Gerry Douglas is an old hand at creating safe, comfortable cruising boats, and it shows aboard the 545. Kudos to this storied American builder for showing it still has what it takes.

Best Large Multihull 51ft and Above

Eagle Class 53


More often than not SAIL’s Best Boats judges give their “Best Large Multihull” award to some kind of cruising boat—albeit typically a cruising boat with performance to burn—but not this time around. Designed by a team of designers that includes America’s Cup veteran Paul Bieker and built entirely in carbon, the Eagle Class 53 is billed as the “ultimate weekender,” incorporating a combination of luxury with the performance and technology of a cutting-edge race boat. Central to the boat’s design is a towering hybrid wing, with a rigid leading edge and a soft, easily hoisted leech. The idea here is that you can leave the leading edge up at all times—even at the dock, pivoting like a windvane—and then hoist the soft part when it comes time to go sailing. Equally high-tech are the boat’s foils. Hull #1 is equipped with C-foils, appendages that are fully capable of delivering speeds under sail of 30 knots and more. However, a set of computer-assisted T-foils is also in the works, with an eye toward full-foiling performance à la our two most recent America’s Cups. In terms of accommodations, what you see is what you get in terms of public space. But what you get is pretty cool, with an expansive cockpit outfitted with a hard carbon bimini for keeping you out of the sun, plenty of padded seating and even a wet bar aft. Twin wheels and all sail controls are set outboard and well forward to keep the sailors from bumping into the passengers. Belowdecks, there is also a surprisingly spacious cabin in each hull, making this a true “weekender,” in spite of its Space Age aesthetics. Obviously, this is not a boat for everyone, even those with the necessary financial wherewithal. Nonetheless, it’s always great to see designers and builders (in this case Rhode Island’s Fast Forward Composites) taking a chance. And if the boat’s reception thus far is any indication, this is one of those crazy experiments that just might end up changing the way the rest of us think about sailing.

Best Monohull Cruising Boat 41 to 50ft

Amel 50


Amel, the French builder of high-quality long-range cruisers, does not make changes frequently or frivolously: one of the many reasons why the Amel 50 caught the attention of our judges when they first came across it in Annapolis. First and foremost, this is a sloop from a company that built its name making ketches. The lines and rig are also distinctly modern, even as construction quality remains the same as ever, i.e, second to none. As the smallest boat in the Amel line, the 50 is also well within the reach of a wide range of buyers.

From a distance, you might think this is just another Euro-styled boat, with its plumb bow, long waterline, double-headed rig, wide stern and hull windows. Look a little closer, though, and it becomes apparent the Amel 50 is a true voyager of the type that will take you in equal safely and comfort either down the coast or across an ocean.

Many cruisers have a watertight compartment: the Amel 50 has four. Every cruiser has an engine compartment: the Amel 50 has a small engine room in which you can access the entire drive train. Many cruisers have a canvas cockpit dodger for weather protection: the Amel 50 has a rock-solid fiberglass hard top. The list goes on and on—top-notch nonskid, solid railings instead of wire lifelines and a truly superlative mainsail furler. Like the engine installation, the electrical and plumbing systems are also both substantial and easy to work on.

Belowdecks, the accommodations are simple and elegant, with a layout optimized for either a family or a pair of cruising couples. Although not a true custom boat, Amel will still be happy to make changes, so long as they do not require any structural modifications. For example, the second cabin forward can be made into an office or private retreat instead of living quarters. Bottom line: our panel couldn’t imagine a better boat than the Amel 50 to be its winner in this category.

Best Multihull Cruising Boat 41 to 50ft

Fountaine Pajot Elba 45


Targeting the sweet spot that is the mid-40ft multihull range, French builder Fountaine Pajot has now introduced the Elba 45, a cruising cat that is deservedly receiving much attention and many positive reviews. With its significant beam, this is a cat that can accommodate a crowd. However, its reverse bows and hard chines give it a look that makes it clear she’s no mere charter barge, and taking the boat out for a spin it quickly became apparent she’s also a lot fun to sail.

Seeing the Elba 45 and its big sister, the Saona 47, docked next to one another in Annapolis, the first thing our judges noticed is that the new boat, though shorter, is actually wider than the Saona, with four very large and distinctive social areas: an aft cockpit, a forward lounge, a fly lounge and the saloon. Fountaine Pajot has chosen to not describe the boat as a “flybridge” design because the helm is situated in a self-contained pod to starboard where the captain and crew have their own space. However, from this same space you can still easily access the U-shaped seating lounge and twin sun pads inboard, which can accommodate as many as eight people and are all within easy earshot. Aft of this lounge area, there’s also enough room on the hard-top bimini for a full traveler and a quartet of solar panels for topping off batteries without running the optional generator.

Available with as many as four cabins and four heads, the boat has obviously been created with an eye toward serving well in charter. However, an owner’s version with a sumptuous owner’s suite in the port hull is available as well, as are accommodations for paid crew in the bows, with a bed to starboard and a head to port.

The optional electric swim platform is sure to be a hit since it makes carrying the dinghy a snap. It will also serve as a great teak beach for kids. Another excellent use for this platform is easy water access for those who may be a little less mobile. Just swim up, sit down and be raised up: no more ladders needed, an outstanding feature on a cruising boat that is a great boat all around. 

Best Cruising Multihull Under 40ft

Excess 12


With the express intent of creating a whole-new “experience” in catamaran sailing, Groupe Beneteau has introduced a new line called Excess. The first to reach U.S. shores was the Excess 12, a 38ft 6in model that is an evolution of the popular Lagoon 40. That said, while the new boat possesses a good bit of Lagoon DNA in its construction and design, it very much stands on its own as a different kind of boat.

The most obvious change is the placement of the helm stations. The Excess has dual helms, one aft on each hull, as opposed to a single helm farther forward in the cockpit or raised up on a flybridge. A neat little double seat tucks up and away behind each helm to provide access to the transom. Deployed, the seats create a border between the cockpit and the swim platforms, providing an extra measure of safety underway.

In the standard version, the starboard helm has a Raymarine MFD and engine controls, while the port helm has wind instruments and an attachment for a tablet loaded up with charting software and serving as a repeater. You can also get engine controls on both sides, placed outboard at hip level where you can reach them without taking your eyes off the bows while docking—a vast improvement over those arrangements in which you are forced to bend down to operate the engines.

Something else Excess has done possibly better than any other aft-helm model out there is to make sure there’s excellent visibility forward. You can actually see both bows from the helms through the saloon windows; Excess has even gone so far as to make all the windows clear rather than tinted in the interest of promoting situational awareness. Structurally, the French builder took literally a ton of weight out of the boat relative to the Lagoon 40 by streamlining the various components comprising the interior. They’ve also redesigned the hulls with a pair of chines that not only create more interior volume but also a whole new aesthetic, yet another reason the boat is a winner. Don’t be surprised if you start to see plenty of these boats skimming around South Florida and the islands in the years to come.

Best Small Cruiser

Beneteau Oceanis 30.1


The Beneteau Oceanis 30.1 packs a lot into a small package and is a remarkably versatile entry-level cruising boat. With two double-berth staterooms and a pair of comfortable sea-berth-size settees in the well-lit saloon, the boat can sleep six and carries a surprising amount of storage space. There’s also a proper galley and a large head with plenty of room for showering. In spite of this wealth of interior space, the Oceanis 30.1 is still narrow enough, at just under 10ft, that it can be trailered professionally without wide-load certification, making it relatively easy to shift cruising grounds.

Our judges were particularly impressed by this little cruiser’s adaptability under sail. The rig’s deeply sweptback spreaders obviate the need for backstay and allow for a generous square-headed mainsail. Up front you can fly an easy-to-handle self-tacking blade jib, an overlapping genoa sheeted to traditional side deck tracks or a gennaker set on a continuous line furler, or an asymmetric spinnaker. Twin rudders are controlled with a simple tiller or an optional twin-wheel arrangement that allows easy access to the open transom. Similarly, the boat can be ordered with a fixed or swing keel.

To top it off, the Oceanis 30.1 boasts a quality of finish one normally doesn’t find aboard entry-level mass-production boats. The boat also abounds in well appreciated big-boat details, like cockpit locker lights, proper bronze through-hull fittings, an accumulator tank for the freshwater system, clever storage cubbies and USB charging sockets right where you most want to find them. We’re glad to see more builders paying attention again to this important segment of the market and believe Beneteau’s new “little big boat” raises the bar to a new level.

Best Performance Boat 31ft and over



It was a fun year for SAIL’s Best Boats judges with a number of mid-sized performance boats to sail trial. Alas, the downside to having so many boats to choose from is also having to pick a winner. This was especially tough because of the variety of boats involved. How do you compare, for example, our winner in this category with, say, the Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300, another outstanding boat that was an absolute blast to sail? In the end, though, our judges decided to give the J/99 the nod for two reasons: build quality and breadth of sailing ability.

With respect to the build quality, the J/99 is wonderfully constructed: top to bottom, stem to stern. Topsides, the boat continues designer Al Johnstone’s use of plumb ends and elegantly sculpted cabintrunks to create a look that is all business, yet still elegant. Belowdecks, the saloon and accommodations are well laid out, with just enough woodwork to keep things from looking sterile while still saving owners a lot of maintenance headaches. The rig is aluminum with a fixed sprit for flying an A-sail. The layup, overall finish and hardware installations are top-notch.

With respect to sailing ability, what most impressed our judges was the combination of performance and versatility, all in a surprisingly low-key package. While some of the other boats in this space very much wear their performance cred on their sleeve in the form of a welter of halyards and control lines, the J/99 is a fairly simple platform by comparison. Not that there’s anything wrong with complexity. On the contrary, for an awful lot of sailors out there, it’s all part of the fun. However, there are also an awful lot of other sailors out there, not to mention friends and family when out daysailing, for whom it’s not, and it’s here that the J/99 truly excels. On the one hand, with its tiller and carefully apportioned cockpit, the boat is perfect for such offshore events as the Chicago-Mac race, whether fully crewed or shorthanded. On the other, it’s also the perfect boat for beer-can racing or just tooling around the harbor on a sunny day. Successfully combining these two types of sailing in a single 32ft sloop is no mean feat—and the reason our judges chose the J/99 as the winner in a very strong field.

Best Daysailer

Cape Cod


Built by Rosewest Yachts of France, the 29ft open-cockpit Cape Cod was a boat that immediately charmed our judges. With its elegant overhanging stern and bluff bow, the Cape Cod presents a deliciously beautiful craft that evokes traditional European pilot cutters of the 19th century. At the same time, though, it’s also a thoroughly modern daysailer.

The spacious cockpit can seat eight people comfortably, with a well-thought-out working area aft, where a single sailor, or a skipper and mate, can easily and safely manage the boat without disturbing guests seated around a comfortable U-shaped bench seat forward. When sailing in flat water, or when the boat is idle, a clever pop-up cockpit table can be deployed to regale these same guests with food and drink. If they want to go swimming, there is also a stowable ladder to bring them back aboard and a freshwater deck shower for rinsing off as they do so. If they feel like napping, there’s even a cozy little cabin hidden under a large deck hatch forward where they can stretch out on a pair of comfy berths.

What also impressed our judges is the Cape Cod’s versatility. With its long centerboard and deep kick-up rudder, the boat not only sails well, but can be driven up onto a beach. The boat’s rig is also quite malleable, with an easily handled blade jib (a transverse self-tacking track is also available as an option), and a retractable carbon bowsprit that can be used to carry either a big light-air gennaker or an asymmetric spinnaker. If you really want to summon up that seductive pilot-cutter aesthetic, you can even fly a high-cut yankee jib from the sprit and count the blade jib as a staysail: a setup that will for sure get heads turning when sailing through your favorite harbor.

Best Performance Boat under 30ft



In this brave new world where the cutting-edge of sailing finds more and more boats with hulls that fly clear of the water, there is an ever-growing divide between sailors who foil and those who don’t. This has boatbuilders chasing the Holy Grail that is an entry-level foiling boat that is both fun to sail and easy to learn on: a gap that, while it might not be possible to bridge entirely, may at least be narrowed. With this in mind, the new F101 foiling trimaran struck our judges as a promising monofoil boat that stands a very good chance of fulfilling this important mission.

With its long central hull and dependent amas, the F101 offers a base platform that is much more stable than super-twitchy monohulls like the Moth or breakneck small catamarans that require crew to trapeze while flying. This, in turn, allows neophytes to actually bring an instructor (or a guest, once they get the hang of things) to come along with them as they make their climb up foiling’s inevitable learning curve. To get started, all you need do is sit on the windward hull, which cants the rig to windward, sheet in and—you’re flying! Even better, in the event a beginner does crash the boat, the F101’s super-wide footprint (usually) prevents it from fully capsizing, thereby reducing both the trouble and fear factor inherent in so many of the other foiling boats currently on the market. The boat also boasts an adjustable flight control wand that allows sailors to steadily increase their ride height as they gain skills and confidence.

Though the all-carbon F101 is certainly sophisticated compared to non-flying training boats, it is not overly complicated, especially for a full-foiler. The wand is positioned behind the foil, which simplifies the foil-control system, and all sail controls are within easy reach. Bottom line, what you get with the F101 is a boat that foils in 8 knots of breeze, hits speeds from 10-25 knots, is stable enough to sail in non-foiling mode and can be launched from a dolly. We call that a winner!

Honorable Mention

Tiwal 2


Whatever you do, don’t be fooled by this boat. Sure, it may be cute, but it’s no toy. It’s a serious boat, as well designed and ably built as any other vessel around. Not only that, but like its predecessor, the Tiwal 3, of which more than 1,200 have been built since its launch in 2013, it is also a darn good sailer that can be enjoyed by an adult or a pair of kids. In fact, SAIL’s associate editor, Lydia Mullan, may have had the most fun of all of this year’s judges when she went sailing under the watchful eye of Tiwal creator Marion Excoffon on a warm, sunny October day on Annapolis harbor. Among other things, when Marion told Lydia the boat is easy to right after a capsize, Lydia promptly (intentionally!) capsized and then re-righted the boat not once, but twice. Good times!

Beyond that, the 9ft boat employs an inflatable hull complete with inflatable wings for stability that, when deflated, can be transported along with its rig, sail and rudder in a pair of duffel bags. All-up weight is just 90lb, meaning it can be taken as over-sized luggage on many standard flights. The boat, along with its carbon mast and North Sails-built main, can be assembled and disassembled in a matter of minutes.

Despite, or maybe because of its diminutive size, the engineering and construction quality of this little boat are outstanding. Being so small, the boat is easy to store aboard a larger cruising boat or transport by car. No matter how you choose to carry it, and no matter what waters you sail, expect to have an awful lot of fun when you get there.

Best Systems

Catalina 545


This past year marked the 50th anniversary of the Annapolis Boat Show, and it was fascinating to contemplate the many changes to boat design and construction that have taken place over the decades. Among other things, what struck our judges this year was not only how many boats between 50ft and 70ft were on offer, but how many of them were expressly designed to be handled by a couple. In 1969, a Cal 40 might have been considered a big boat for a couple to handle. Not anymore.

Exploring the boats at the show, it was also clear that no one system can be credited for having created today’s ease of handling. Instead, it has been the cumulative effect of many advances. Sails are lighter and stronger; roller jibs and in-mast furling mains are now well-proven, making them simple to set and stow; more and more boats offer self-tacking jibs; and trimming even the largest sails has become a push-button affair thanks to today’s electric winches. Of course, the downside to all this convenience is additional complexity. Electrical systems, for example, have increased dramatically in both scale and scope in the interest of such “necessities” as refrigeration, bow thrusters and AIS. This, in turn, requires top-quality design and installation if your dream boat is to avoid becoming a nightmare—which is where the Catalina 545, this year’s winner in the “Best Systems” category, comes in. Put simply, the boat not only has all those same systems today’s sailors have come to expect, but they are all both admirably well laid out and provided with excellent access points for maintenance and easier servicing down the road—a design consideration that can be as important as the installations themselves.

Beyond that, the boat is chock full of good ideas in general. The fenders, for example, have their own “stateroom” in the bow where they are easy to access and won’t make a mess, while the watertight bulkhead aft is located ahead of the rudderpost, so any leaks or damage resulting from a collision will be sealed off from the hull. There’s even a dumbwaiter in the galley leading out to the cockpit, and the hull-deck joint includes a clever gutter to more effectively carry away water from the side decks—something our lead systems judge, Tom Hale, had never seen before, and no small detail from a boatbuilding perspective. Bottom line: the devil is in the details when it comes to systems and boatbuilding, and in both these areas the Catalina 545 is a winner.

January 2020



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