Best Boats 2021

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The past year has been a strange and tragic one, to say the least. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to everybody just saying to hell with it and giving up. Namely, people—and sailors, in particular—didn’t. Despite the uncertainty, sailors from coast-to-coast took to the water like never before, regardless of the almost complete lack of rallies, regattas and, of course, boat shows. Similarly, the marine industry didn’t stop doing what it’s always done, whether it be designing and building new boats, or reporting on the latest crop of boats to set sail here in North America. The result was a kind of low-key, nomadic boat show this past fall, as the SAIL staff made its way up and down the Eastern Seaboard at the same time those same boatbuilders who usually congregate at the Newport and Annapolis shows set out on a series of treks of their own making connections with potential customers. Truth be told, we (and I suspect the boatbuilders, as well) weren’t entirely sure we were going to be able to pull it off. But the end result far exceeded any of our expectations, both in terms of the number of boats we were able to sail and the boats themselves. Annapolis, in particular, felt a little like a kind of low-key gathering of the tribes. We only wish more of our friends could have been there. Fingers crossed we’ll all be getting together again the way we should in the fall of 2021. In the meantime, congratulations to everyone—the sailing public as well as the boatbuilding industry—for not losing faith. And congratulations, especially, to this year’s Best Boats winners. Kudos on another outstanding effort in these challenging times.

Best Large Monohull 50ft and Above

Dufour 530

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Dufour has traditionally built two lines of boats: a performance line and the Grand Large line, the latter serving as the cruising option. Now, though, the French company has essentially merged the two in its freshly launched 530, a boat that melds a performance hull with plentiful cruising amenities. She’s a lot of boat, but so well-mannered a capable couple should have no worries taking her out in pretty much anything.

The Felci-designed Dufour 530 is big on customization and personalization. To this end, there are five layouts available, offering three to six cabins, two to four heads, an option for an outdoor galley, two keel depths and a choice of rigs. Three different “packages” have also been put together to get you started: an “Easy” package with minimal sail controls that will probably be used in charter; an “Ocean” version with upgraded sail controls for more serious cruisers and passagemakers; and a “Performance” package for those interested in racing, with more sail area and a deeper bulb keel.

Dufour aficionados will immediately recognize the open saloon with the split galley forward. Similarly, the master suite is in the bow with a shower compartment to port and a head and sink to starboard. Crews can board aft via a drop-down transom and ascend to the cockpit along a set of the steps to port.

The outdoor galley, aft between the twin wheels, deserves a special nod, due to the fact that when not in use, it’s topped by a cushion and becomes a great place to hang out. If you’d rather catch your rays closer to the bow, another pair of sun pads can be found on the foredeck.

The solid fiberglass hull was designed from scratch (as opposed to being derived from an earlier model), and the deck is infused to minimize weight and lower the boat’s center of gravity. Best of all, the boat is a pleasure to sail, with a self-tacking jib for ease of handling and a Code 0 for downwind performance. Our judges lucked out, and for their test sail they had a solid 20-plus knots of breeze play with. The Dufour 530 not only made the most of the conditions but felt downright regal, reveling in the chop like a kind of waterborne Cadillac. Nice! dufour-yachts.com

Best Large Multihull 50ft and Above

Seawind 1600

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Seawind Catamarans’ sleek new 52-footer, the 1600, is the flagship of the line and features a low-slung coachroof extending into a hard Bimini aft. Designed by San Diego-based Reichel/Pugh, the boat’s hulls sport a pair of sharp plumb bows and hard chines running from the stems all the way to the transoms. In the cockpit, Seawind has created a cleverly innovative helm-station arrangement by elevating the two wheels for good visibility and placing them slightly farther aft of the coachroof bulkhead than is typical. The resulting configuration is not only eminently functional in terms of creating clear sightlines, but also makes it easy to duck under the coachroof out of the weather, something that isn’t possible with many outboard helm arrangements.

Amidships, captive daggerboards are recessed into the decks, with their tops covered by a pair of flip-up deck sections to help protect the lifting mechanisms from the elements. Hiding the boards this way also keeps the deck clear and reduces windage. An unusual feature is the boat’s retractable rudders, which make the big cat easily beachable. With the boards and rudders both up, the 1600 draws a mere 2ft 1in, adding all a whole new world of versatility to any cruising plan.

With nearly 1,600ft2 of sail between its square-top main and 7/8 fractional self-tacking jib, the Seawind 1600 moves lightly and slices confidently through the eye of the wind during tacks. For easy shorthanded sailing, a couple would find the perfect combination in the self-tacker and an optional screecher. Expect sailing speeds in the 6-plus knot range in 10-15 knots of true breeze. With winds around 20 knots, the 1600 will glide along at 9-plus knots. Originally from Australia, where founder Richard Ward likes to take his new designs out for shakedown cruises in the stormy Bass Strait, Seawinds have long be known for their sailing ability, and the Seawind 1600 is no exception. Among the notable upgrades available on the boat are CZone digital switching, Mastervolt lithium batteries and a carbon-fiber Park Avenue boom. A carbon-fiber mast is also available. seawindcats.com

Best Monohull Cruising Boat Under 50ft

Beneteau Oceanis 40.1

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The new Beneteau Oceanis 40.1 is a true sailor’s boat that just happens to also have a drop-dead gorgeous interior as well. The judging panel really appreciated the boat’s fine sailing qualities when the wind kicked up. These include easy motion, maneuverability and the boat’s superior tracking ability. The Oceanis 40.1 is also plenty fast. On our test sail, it easily exceeded 8 knots on a close reach in 15-knots of breeze.

The boat’s cockpit ergonomics are also outstanding. Handy pop-up footrests and a sturdy centerline table with brace points provide welcome security for both passengers and crew if/when the boat is ever on its ear. Similarly, all lines lead to conveniently mounted winches just forward of the two wheels. An in-mast furling mainsail comes standard, and the hinged transom drops down to reveal a wide, two-level stern platform that will serve as an excellent area for swimming or boarding from a dinghy.

The interior is exceptionally bright and open, thanks to the boat’s plentiful ports and hull windows. It’s a layout that will suit a racing crew or a small family equally well. Our test boat included an unfinished workshop area under the port cockpit seat that will make a seasoned cruiser smile but can also be finished as a cabin. The forward and starboard aft cabins on our test boat were spacious and pleasant, with good stowage and sizable berths.

Like other Beneteaus, cabinetry aboard the 40.1 is Alpi, an engineered wood that can be delivered in either a light or dark finish. The wiring, plumbing and joinery were all neatly arranged and installed. The boat meets Europe’s CE Category A offshore standards.

The galley is amidships along the starboard side, a layout more popular in Europe than in America. It yields big counters and opens up extra seating space in the rest of the saloon, but is less secure than a traditional wraparound galley aft. A comfy dinette and nav station are to port. Bottom line: the Oceanis 40.1 is an outstanding boat in the truest sense of the word—comfortable, great for entertaining and also a heck of a lot of fun to sail. beneteau.com

Best Multihull Cruising Boat Under 50ft

Excess 11

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The Excess 11 cruising catamaran was designed by VPLP and features twin chines running well aft, both to increase interior volume and create a strikingly different exterior aesthetic. The smallest of the three models in the Excess (or XCE) line thus far—the other two models are the XCS 12 and 15—it is also the first all-new design in the fleet. As such, she does an exceptional job of combining comfort with performance under sail, a hallmark of the Excess concept.

As is the case with the 12 and 15, the Excess 11 is equipped with twin helm stations set well aft on the hulls and no flybridge. Usually, these kinds of outboard helms mean you can see the transoms and bow immediately forward no problem, but the opposite bow is completely obscured. In the case of the Excess 11, however, you can easily see through the saloon to the opposite corner via a set of vertical windows that have even been thoughtfully made clear (rather than tinted) in the interest of maximizing visibility.

The Excess 11 is available with three or four cabins, and both versions come with two heads: one in the master suite in the port hull (if that configuration is selected); one shared by the two cabins to starboard. The saloon and galley are compact, but lack for nothing, with plenty of refrigeration, seating and countertop and storage space. The interior aesthetic is clean and minimalist.

The 57ft Z-Spar rig and Incidence sails delivered a good turn of speed during out test sail. There’s also the option of a turbocharged PulseLine package, which adds 3ft to the mast and 59ft2 of canvas to the sailplan. With a self-tacking jib and a Code 0 flying from the optional sprit, the boat can be easily sailed by a couple. In the course of our spirited test sail out on Chesapeake Bay, the boat tack and jibed effortlessly. In short, it’s a great performer that will do well in a wide range of conditions for both neophytes and veterans. excess-catamarans.com

Best Performance Boat Over 30ft

X-Yachts X40

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We at SAIL have long been big fans of the X-Yachts line, and the 40ft X-Yachts X40, which splashed in Europe in 2019 to mark the famed Danish builder’s 40th anniversary, is no exception. Although we chose to recognize the boat in our “Performance” category, as part of the company’s “X” line (not to be confused with the “P” for performance and “C” for cruising lines) the X40 also offers more than adequate accommodations for cruising, distance racing or hitting the rack during weekend-long regattas.

At the heart of the new boat is a trademark X-Yachts galvanized steel grid, which serves to both anchor the boat’s keel and help manage rig loads. The rest of the hull is infused in epoxy and then post-cured for 24 hours to maximize the laminate strength while at the same time minimizing weight. Two different keels are available—standard and deep—both comprising a steel fin and lead bulb encased in epoxy and then precisely faired to ensure optimal efficiency. A single, deep, high-aspect rudder ensures good control on all points of sail. A plumb bow and fine entry combined with an almost plumb transom provide plenty of sailing length. A carbon-fiber rig is available as an option.

Aesthetically, the X40 is classic X-Yachts, with its nearly flat sheer complimenting those same blunt ends and a no-nonsense cabintrunk. The result is a look that is purposeful without being in any way stark. A fixed sprit helps keep the hook from dinging the stem and also serves as an attachment point for an A-sail.

Amenities aside, where the boat really shines is underway. Whether in light air or as things begin to pick up, the boat is an absolute joy to sail. Tacks and jibes are effortless. The helm is light and wonderfully responsive, and good sail trim or a puff immediately results in a burst of boatspeed. If there’s anything more satisfying than sailing a stripped-down racer it’s conning a boat that sails like a witch, but is also plenty comfortable to relax aboard afterward. If any X40 skippers out there are in need of crew, don’t hesitate to give us a call. x-yachts.com

Best Performance Boat 30ft or less

Dehler OD 30

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Recently, in response to the growing interest in shorthanded distance racing, the marine industry has created a whole slew of purpose-built boats designed expressly for this kind of sailing—an effort that has only become all the more focused with the decision to include an offshore doublehanded event as part of the 2024 summer Olympics. Among the results of these efforts has been the Dehler 30 One Design from Germany’s HanseYachts AG, a boat that is as fun as it is fast. Make no mistake, while Dehler may bill its new 30-footer as a “racer-cruiser,” with its twin water-ballast tanks, powerful high-aspect square-top main and plethora of control lines—not to mention its “stealth drive” auxiliary power system (see “Systems” on the facing page)—Hanse has very much put the emphasis on the “racer” side of the equation. That said, for those with the inclination and wherewithal, it would be hard to imagine a more rewarding ride. For our test sail, the Chesapeake provided solid breezes of 15-plus knots, and the Dehler 30 OD ate them up. Better still, it did so in a way that, while exciting, was in no way scary. At one point we were roaring along at a steady 14-plus knots under full main, an asymmetric spinnaker and staysail. But while it was certainly important to pay attention when steering, the reason for doing so was far more for the sake of maxing out our boatspeed as opposed to just trying not to wipe out. This is important, not just because it makes sailing the boat a lot more fun—especially for we mere mortals—but because success in distance races means keeping your averages up, as opposed to hitting big numbers during moments of adrenaline-fueled madness. Granted, every now and then things would get a little “focused,” you might say. But the boat’s twin rudders kept a firm grip throughout, and you always had plenty of time to, say, bear way a touch to keep the boat under control. Suffice it to say, our Dehler 30 OD test sail had to have been one of the best of SAIL’s entire Best Boats program. If this is the kind of sailing that appeals to you, you owe it to yourself to give this boat a look. hanseyachtsag.com/dehler

Best Daysailer

Happy Cat Hurricane

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And now, for something completely different, the 16ft Happy Cat Hurricane, distributed in North America by Red Beard Sailing. Actually, the boat is not entirely different. Inflatable boats have won Best Boats awards before, including the Tiwal 2 inflatable dinghy in 2020. Nonetheless, this new 16-footer is, by any measure, an exceptional vessel, with far more “rigid” boat features than you would ever otherwise expect aboard a boat of this type. She’ll even fly a hull.

Austrian manufacturer, Grabner, has equipped its flagship with a pair of large hulls for greater buoyancy and less resistance, in the process creating a vessel capable of sailing upwind at true wind speed. In more boisterous conditions, the boat has been clocked at an impressive 15-16 knots under jib and mainsail.

Aesthetically, the Happy Cat’s wave-piercing bows and carbon mast create the look of a cat on the prowl. The boat is also eminently practical, with its a pair of rubberized hulls and rigid aluminum frame connected by a sturdy set of sleeve inserts to port and starboard. A deep centerboard keeps the boat tracking and can be easily adjusted for any point of sail. The rudder can also be quickly kicked up for beach landings, and there’s a tramp both forward and aft.

The boat’s high-aspect, square-top mainsail is fully battened and together with the furling jib provides 118ft2 of sail. Clear sail windows help you keep a good lookout to leeward, while well-placed hiking straps allow you to get your weight outboard when the wind kicks up. There are enough fine-tuning adjustments aboard the Hurricane that it feels like a raceboat as much as a daysailer. A pair of lower-horsepower variants—the Happy Cat Neo and Evolution—are also available.

Make no mistake, the Happy Cat Hurricane is anything but a mere beach toy. It is, in fact, a true speed demon, great for teaching, racing or just getting away for a day of spicy sailing. redbeardsailing.com

Systems

Dehler OD 30

The fall boat show season displays the best of new boats and products. Each year we note the evolution as sailing continues to grow, shift and change. In 1980, a 45-footer might have been considered a large boat for two people to handle. These days, builders are bringing to market boats with LOAs of 60ft or more expressly designed for a couple. Similarly, hull shapes have evolved, and things like lifting foils and water ballast are increasingly seen on production boats. Every now and then, though, a “new” idea appears that is actually quite old, and idea that, thanks to advances in materials and engineering, has become even more functional now than when it was first created.

This year, for example, as we were working our way through the latest crop of new boats, we couldn’t help noticing the disappearing “stealth drive” propeller and shaft aboard the Dehler 30 One Design. In fact, the idea of a propeller and shaft that stow away into a hull cavity was first patented in 1915 as a means of providing protection for a boat’s running gear in uncharted, often rocky lakes and streams. The same concept can also be seen on some of today’s custom and semi-custom raceboats. As far as we can tell, though, this is the first time such a drive has appeared aboard a production sailboat.

Deploying and retracting the shaft/propeller combination is done quickly and easily from inside the cockpit while underway, with much less effort than wrestling an outboard up and down. Not only that, the fact the system allows you to use a fixed prop means you get top-notch thrust in both forward and reverse. Under sail, of course, the propeller and its attendant drag have been taken entirely out of the question, which means that much more fun sailing in lighter conditions especially. Whether or not this approach will catch on aboard non-performance boats remains to be seen. For passagemakers, though, shaving a couple of days off an ocean crossing would be quite a savings. Similarly, sailors in Maine and the Chesapeake Bay might feel that much more comfortable having one less thing to snag a lobster or crab pot with. In either case, the Dehler 30 One Design’s Stealth Drive represents a clever, well-executed solution to the problem of auxiliary power aboard a sailing vessel. hanseyachtsag.com/dehler

January 2021

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