When it comes to sailing, the first boat a newbie sets foot on can make all the difference in the world; which is why our editors were especially impressed with the new Zest training dinghy from RS Sailing when they selected it as one of their winners in SAIL’s 2018 Best Boat contest. Its sprightly yet predictable performance, ergonomic design and easily handled rig all combine to make the boat user-friendly, safe and fun to sail.
A bright yellow sculpted thwart seat provides inboard seating for small crew not yet comfortable with hiking and doubles as a rowing seat when the optional oarlocks and oars are in use. Intermediate side-seats and comfortable side-decks in the main cockpit also allow less experienced sailors to stay comfortable while driving the boat. The boom is nice and high to help prevent head-on-alloy encounters, and the boat can be sloop-rigged with a jib to keep a crew of two (or even three) entertained, or una-rigged with just a mainsail for solo sailing.
Construction, as with so many other RS boats, is in rugged roto-molded polyethylene, with carefully engineered hardware attachment points ensuring low maintenance and a long life as successive waves of students are initiated into the sport. Other smart details include a centerboard rather than a daggerboard, making shoal-water groundings less fraught, and a well-designed kick-up rudder with a simple lift-and-lock system that makes it easy to get the rudder both up and down. Likewise, a new proprietary mast step and gate design makes it easy for novices to raise and lower the mast without accidentally dropping it. In the event the boat turns turtle, an integral aluminum handrail on the bottom of the boat (it doubles as a skid rail when the boat is dragged up a beach) allows a soggy crew to quickly re-right their craft.
Best of all, the boat is an absolute blast to sail, even for a 6ft-tall middle-aged old fart like yours truly. Preparing to set out from the Severn Sailing Association, directly across from the U.S. Naval Academy, I confess the blustery conditions out on Chesapeake Bay had me a bit worried. It’s not keeping a little boat like the Zest on its feet underway that had me concerned. It was the prospect of tacking and gybing out in all that chop. My knees just ain’t what they used to be (never were, truth be told).
One of the great things about RS, though, is not just the company’s experience, but the way it puts its new designs through their paces out on the water, carefully debugging them before releasing them to the public. This was apparent pretty much from the moment I pushed off the dock, as the boat’s powerful foils offered the perfect combination of control and forgiveness so that gybing and tacking couldn’t be easier: same thing with driving the boat either on or off the wind.
Better still, all that space between the boom and cockpit sole meant there was plenty of room to get from side to side when maneuvering. Similarly, the hiking straps are nicely positioned, so you can slip your feet in while getting your weight outboard without having to think about it, and the sidedecks are nicely contoured so that life is still good once you get out there. The overall dimensions of the cockpit were also such that you never found yourself groping for a place to gain some purchase while moving about—something I can assure you is most definitely not the case with all the dinghies out there.
Ultimately, despite my trepidation, I was soon having so much fun I totally forgot I was sailing a trainer and found myself thinking, what a great boat, period. It’s enough to almost make this old fart want to take up dinghy sailing again.
LOA 11ft 9in
BEAM 4ft 10in
HULL WEIGHT 150lb
SAIL AREA 71ft (main and jib); 59ft(main alone)
SA/D RATIO 25 (jib and main, plus 150lb of crew)
D/L RATIO 79 (jib and main, plus 150lb of crew)
What do these ratios mean? Visit sailmagazine.com/ratios
DESIGNER Jo Richards/RS Sailing
BUILDER RS Sailing, Hampshire, UK, rssailing.com
U.S. DISTRIBUTORS Sailing North America,
PRICE $4,274 (sailaway) at time of publication