In case you hadn’t heard, the fall 2021 boat show season was one for the record books. If there was ever any doubt the sailing public still enjoys making its way to Newport, Rhode Island, or Annapolis, Maryland, to see the latest in boat design, those doubts were put to rest this past fall. Boat sales were through the roof, and the lines to get in to see the various boats on display at the Annapolis show, in particular, were unprecedented. Even the weather was outstanding!
Adding to the fun was the fact the marine industry also pulled out all the stops this year. Even in the very darkest days of the pandemic, the naval architects and boatbuilders of the world never lost hope as they continued to do what they both love and do best. The result was another outstanding crop of new boats and as a strong class of Best Boat winners as we’ve seen in years. As in the past, there were plenty of big new boats to be seen, including, of course, this year’s Best Boats contest flagship winners, the Dufour 61 and Kinetic 54. Equally fun, though, were some of the smaller boats on offer, including two great daysailers that received a nod as Best Boats winners: the J/9 from Rhode Island-based J/Boats, and a brand-new performance catboat of all things. How cool is that!
On a personal note, it sure was nice being able to enjoy the energy out on the docks and reconnect with old friends. The kind of “maritime road show” that the industry put together last year to connect buyers with boats was interesting, but it sure was nice getting back to running SAIL’s Best Boats contest the old-fashioned way—fanning out at the boat shows and having a chance to see all the industry has to offer in one place. As always, congratulation to the winners of this year’s Best Boat contest, and thanks to boatbuilders, naval architects and sailors everywhere for keeping the faith.
Best Large Multihull 50ft and Above
There have been a few different builders striving to make inroads in the high-end performance cruising catamaran market that Gunship first popularized decades ago. Kinetic, a U.S. company operating in South Africa, is a recent contender in this field and made a big splash this past year with its impressive all-carbon Kinetic 54. A slightly scaled-down version of Kinetic’s first offering, a 64ft cat that debuted two years ago, the 54 has all the features buyers now look for in this niche: a modern performance-oriented design with narrow hulls, a high bridgedeck, retractable boards, aggressively lightweight construction, an easy-to-use forward working cockpit and elegant finely finished accommodations.
What set this boat apart for our judges is the level of sophistication and thoughtfulness Kinetic brings to the package. The boat boasts a very modern DC-based 24-volt electrical system that allows for an all-electric galley. Fully exploiting C-Zone’s ultra-modern power-monitoring software, this system will automatically balance any high loads placed upon it and can auto-run its DC generator as needed. Large-capacity fuel and water tanks in the two hulls are inter-plumbed with transfer pumps to shift weight from side to side. The boat’s three steering stations (two outside aft on each hull, one inside right behind the working cockpit) are cleverly engineered so that only the active station engages the boat’s steering system. There are several other eye-opening details as well, like a live bait well that can be installed in the back of one hull for those who like to fish on passage.
And of course, the Kinetic 52 sails well. With its carbon rig and laminated sails, including a screecher or A-sail that can be set on a generously long carbon-fixed bowsprit, the boat can exceed wind speed in light conditions and scoots along comfortably at double-digit speeds when the breeze gets up. kineticcatamarans.com
Best Large Monohull 50ft and Above
It has become increasingly common for mass-production fiberglass boatbuilders to offer up super-sized sailing vessels designed to appeal to owners with a fair bit more disposable income than your typical sailor. The new Dufour 61, the largest Dufour on offer since the storied French monohull builder recently merged with the iconic multihull builder Fountaine Pajot, certainly falls into this category. What set it apart for our judges, though, was not just the impressive amenities and LOA, but how much fun it was to sail! Though hobbled with a less-than-optimal in-mast main (conventional slab-reefed or in-boom mains are, of course, also available), our test boat handled wonderfully. It was fast, responsive and nicely balanced, with a visceral seat-of-the-pants feel to it that evoked dinghy sailing at its best.
Of course, a boat this large also offers posh accommodations. Even with a super-handy dinghy garage wedged in under the cockpit, there’s plenty of room inside for a large family and/or crew. The positively palatial companionway leads down into an interior that can be configured three different ways. Two of these feature an athwartships galley forward of the saloon, one of which will surely put a smile on the face of any world-class chef. The guest staterooms are among the best we’ve seen, with full standing headroom, generous berths and good ventilation. The forward master stateroom features a unique offset Pullman berth to maximize both comfort and space.
On deck, too, the new Dufour 61 is distinctive and attractive. A lightweight carbon-fiber cockpit arch keeps the mainsheet clear of a social area just behind the companionway. Sailing controls led aft to the twin helm stations fall easily to hand. The foredeck is clean and unblemished. All in all this platform makes for a very dandy mass-produced “superyacht.” dufour-yachts.com
Best Monohull Cruising Boat 40-50ft
Originally formed as a ski-equipment manufacturer in 1949, Slovenia-based Elan has for the past two decades also distinguished itself as a respected boatbuilder. This new offering, second in Elan’s performance-cruising line of “grand touring” boats, is especially attractive. Hailed in its advance publicity as the first-ever boat “designed by Porsche” (though the hull design and naval architecture are still by Elan’s go-to guy Rob Humphreys), our judges did feel this is one craft that truly lives up to its good looks.
Build quality, as one would expect from Elan, is well above average. The vacuum-infused hull, laid up, per Elan’s sophisticated 3D Vail system, is cored with closed-cell foam, skinned with vinylester resin, and interior structural parts, such as bulkheads and the beefy keel grid, are fully glassed in place. Ballast is lead, rather than the iron found on most European boats. Finish quality is likewise better than par, and the deck layout mixes sailhandling convenience and cruising comfort quite nicely. The aft-led lines fall easily to hand at both steering stations, making the GT6 an easy boat to sail shorthanded. The belowdeck line runs have handy inspection ports at each turning block. The cockpit boasts twin fixed tables for dining en plein air, and there’s even an optional cockpit barbecue and fridge, which allows a chef to serve up food and drink from the fold-down transom.
This boat also does sail very well. It’s fast and responsive enough to keep racing sailors interested in what’s going on, yet not so intimidating that cruising sailors will shy away from pushing it hard. Try as we might we couldn’t get the twin rudders to let go of their grip on the water. In the end we found the GT6 to be a sexy-looking boat with sexy performance, a most fine combination.
Best Multihull Cruising Boat 40-50ft
A collaboration between Balance president Phillip Berman and naval architect Anton du Toit, the Balance 482 features a pair of narrow, slippery hulls with the option of either high-performance fixed keels or dual daggerboards (the latter far and away the more popular of the two); wave-piercing bows that serve to minimize weight in the ends; a low cabintrunk to minimize windage; and a powerful rig with a square-top, fully battened main and self-taking jib—the latter to make the boat easy for a single sailor handle. Reaching sails can be flown from a centerline longeron sprit fabricated out of aluminum, and the boat boasts Balance’s proprietary Versa-Helm, a system whereby the wheel can be raised up to a position overlooking the cabintrunk or swung back down to a more sheltered position beneath the hard dodger, depending on the weather. So much for the facts: how does the boat do underway? Well, for our test sail we had a crowd of no less than a dozen people aboard, and there was not only plenty of room for all, but the boat went tearing around Chesapeake Bay at 10 knots or more with little if any effort on the part of the sailors among us. Better still, it did so in such a way that the non-sailors on board, including a couple of adorable little girls in life jackets and sundresses no less, couldn’t have felt more at ease, even bouncing around on the tramp forward with the A-sail up. Pure boat speed is one thing. Boat speed and an easy motion is another matter entirely and the mark of a true performance-cruiser. With that in mind, we can think of few better ways of getting from point A to point B quickly under sail—whether out daysailing or on passage—than aboard the Balance 482. balancecatamarans.com
Best Performance Boat
Grand Soleil 44
One of the trickier things about SAIL’s Best Boats contest is deciding how best to categorize some of the winners. A prime example of the kinds of conundrums faced by the judging panel is the Grand Soleil 44 from Italy’s Cantiere del Pardo. Lead designer, Matteo Polli, describes the sleek, low-slung 44-footer as a performance-cruiser. And he’s right, in so far as the boat has all you could ever want in terms of comfort afloat. Belowdecks and topsides, the 44 also exudes the same elegance and build quality sailors have come to expect from one of Europe’s top shipyards. Taking the boat out for a spin in 12 knots of breeze, though, it was impossible to get around just how speedy this drop-dead gorgeous sloop is under sail—that and how well balanced and easy to handle it is. Hard on the wind, or power reaching with an A-sail flying from the boat’s attractively tapered fixed sprit, the boat is a joy to helm in the completest sense of the word—precisely the kind of boat you’d love to compete aboard out on the racecourse, whether inshore or off soundings. Tweaking a sheet lead, finding a puff or lift, getting into the groove, the boat responded precisely the way you’d want. As a practical matter, the Grand Soleil is available in two different performance “modes” with a variety of options besides. As an example, owners have two sailplans to choose from: standard, with an aluminum mast; or a larger carbon “race” version for those in search of more horsepower. According to Cantiere del Pardo, “The soul of the new Grand Soleil 44 is that of a performance cruiser, which knows how to be competitive on the IRC and ORC regattas: a boat that is easy to use for both cruising and racing in regattas.” Fair enough. Even cruising, though, this boat has performance to burn, so the winner in our “performance” category it is. There, that was easy! grandsoleil.net
Best Monohull Cruising Boat Under 40ft
Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 380
The Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 380 replaces Jeanneau’s 389 and nestles into the middle of the other four models in the line. This Marc Lombard design features a hard chine that runs from stem to stern, twin rudders, twin wheels, and an optional lifting keel that draws 8ft 10in in the down position and promises fiery performance upwind. The result is an outstanding combination of boatspeed and comfort for those cruising sailors and daysailors who also like to get places fast.
The fractional rig includes a Seldén mast and no backstay, so you can spec a square-top traditional hoist main for more sail area. Add a 110 percent genoa on tracks, a reverse bow (the bottom of which sits just above the waterline at rest), and a bowsprit for a Code 0, and you have a performance-oriented design that’s easy to handle even when sailing short-handed. Jeanneau’s now famous “walk-around deck” has made it down to this size—another treat, as you can walk from one wheel all the way to the bow and then back to the other wheel without ever having to climb over the cockpit coaming. It’ll save your knees for sure. The drop-down transom extends a cockpit that is already impressively proportioned. Lines are led aft and the winches are close-at-hand allowing them to be tended from the helms.
Layouts include a choice of two or three cabins with one or two heads. The master is forward with an angled bed and an optional second head. Aft, there’s a choice of two cabins or a single cabin and large storage area. In the latter iteration, you can also specify a separate stall shower to starboard that doubles as a wet locker. The interior is bright and airy and combines traditional functionality with contemporary design. Who says you need to go over 40ft to have a yacht that ticks all the boxes? This is a fun, great-looking boat in an easy-to-handle LOA that looks to make a splash on both sides of the Atlantic. jeanneauamerica.com
There are plenty of boats out there that can be used for daysailing. It could be argued, though, that a true “daysailer” is not just a boat that can be used for this kind of sailing, but a boat that takes care of its crew—including guests who might not be as thrilled with sailing rail down as their host—in much the same way a bluewater boat takes care of its crew on passage. With this in mind, it would be hard to think of a better daysailer than the J/9. The latest design from J/Boats’ Al Johnston, the J/9 not only offers the same great performance sailors have long come to expect from the famed builder, it’s also great at standing up to a hatful of wind. How do we know? From experience. The day of our test sail was a spirited one to say the least, with winds in the low 20s gusting to 25 knots and more. The J/9, though, couldn’t have been happier. Al expressly designed the boat to handle as well under main alone as under main and jib, and while this works it terms of convenience, it also provides a great way of de-powering the rig. When tacking back and forth off Fort Adams under full sail started to feel a little too much like work, we simply rolled up the headsail and kept on going, pretty as you please—gossiping to our heart’s content without a care in the world. The boat’s expansive cockpit, easy-to-board open transom aft and comfy cockpit benches with equally comfy, practical wraparound cushions meant there was plenty of room to stretch out in as we did so. Electrical auxiliary power only served to make this sporty little sloop that much more pleasant for anyone looking to enjoy an afternoon on the water—no matter what the weather. jboats.com
Arey’s Pond 14 XFC
The original catboats evolved as workboats for the inshore fisheries of the East Coast in the 1800s. With one big easy-to-handle sail, a crew of “a man and a boy” could easily put the boat in “neutral” while they tended their lines or nets. With the advent of the internal combustion engine, sailing rigs were abandoned commercially. However, catboats continued to be sailed recreationally, and as is inevitably the case with sailors, whenever there are two or more of them to be found, you’ll find them racing. In the Arey’s Pond 14 XFC we see the very latest in catboat design as envisaged by veteran builder Tony Davis. While very similar to the company’s popular 14-footer, the hull of the XFC (which stands for “extra fast cat”) weighs 150lb less, but has the same sail area. With its lower displacement. Tony was also able to give the hull a flatter run aft, while a redesigned bow with a fine entry allows the boat to both point higher and sail faster than its predecessor. When we first saw the XFC underway in 12 to 18 knots of wind, we were reminded of a Finn dinghy and the way it cuts through to the water. Under sail to windward with a reefed main, the boat easily exceeded her theoretical hull speed of 5 knots while tacking through 95 degrees. With her high-aspect rudder (a radical departure from the barn door rudders traditionally found on cats) the XFC also has a very light helm. At one point, we hit 8.2 knots planning off the wind. This is one spirited cat!
The wooden hull is strip-planked tongue-and-groove cedar set in West epoxy with transverse frames of 3⁄4in cedar, also sealed in West epoxy. The hull and deck are both finished with Awlgrip. The mast, a two-section carbon spar, is lightweight, making it easy to step singlehanded. The gaff and boom are varnished Sitka spruce. The result is a beautifully crafted boat that is pure joy to sail. areyspondboatyard.com
Every fall boat show season we note the evolution of boat systems, and how they are forever growing, shifting and changing. This year builders continued to bring to market 50ft-plus boats designed for a sailing couple, with systems to support just about any kind of shoreside mod con you can imagine. The continued development of lithium batteries also now finds them installed in more and more cruising boats. The advantages of these kinds of cells are many, including a useful working range nearly 40 percent greater than conventional batteries and rapid recharge. It seems builders have coalesced on electrical systems built around a house bank of 800 to 900 amp hours.
The systems aboard the Hylas 57 especially impressed our editors. The complex plumbing and electrical systems are well laid out and well documented. Behind every cabinet door and under every hatch you will find the plumbing, valves and electrical components neatly arrayed and labeled. An owners’ website offers worldwide technical support.
In designing the electrical system for the Hylas 57, the goal was to make the boat as comfortable offshore or on the hook as it is at the dock. With this in mind, there is a 12-volt system for entertainment and communication equipment, and a 24-volt system for navigation and lighting. The 6,000-watt inverter easily runs the hydraulics, and cooking and comfort systems from the 48-volt battery bank. The battery banks of 900-amp, 48-volt lithium batteries can run all the heat, cooling, cooking, entertainment and operational systems (including, hot water, which reclaims heat from the air conditioning water discharge) for 12 hours without recharging. This same battery bank can be recharged with only three hours of generator run time, and a set of Xantrex Solar Max flush-mounted solar panels on the hard top can keep the batteries charged and the air conditioning running all day while under sail. Topsides, there is a plethora of ancillary systems, from multiple video cameras for viewing the rig to a clever, motor-driven retractable sunroof—all intended to make life as pleasant as possible afloat. Look for even more of this kind of tech in the future. Bare-bones sailors may grumble. But the ease with which the Hylas can be operated by a small crew looks to be a winning formula, both for veteran mariners and those new to sailing. hylasyachts.com