It is not very often that Hull #2 of a design beats Hull #1 onto the water by a couple of decades—which is why Jay E. Paris, longtime technical editor of SAIL and designer of the 32-foot cruiser Petrel, laughs ruefully as he looks back at the lengthy build timeline of his boat, which hit the water this past summer, just on 30 years since her keel was laid. A Who’s Who of Maine boatbuilders had laid hands on her hull over the years, as funds and time permitted, but it was the respected Lyman Morse yard in Thomaston that finally breathed life into the project.
Since Jay first drafted Petrel’s lines, many fads in yacht design have sprung up, ebbed away or become part of the new design orthodoxy. Boats are fatter now, taller in the topsides, packed with complicated systems, tailored to meet ever-evolving expectations of onboard comfort and performance. Petrel is slim, compact, low to the water; the uneducated eye passing over her varnished cabintop sides and easy sheerline might take her for a beautifully restored relic of the 1950s or 60s, but a boat nerd will quickly discern a singular blend of time-proven design features and clever engineering that bespeak a much more recent launch date.
Jay conceived her as a maxi-trailersailer with offshore capability, a couple’s boat with room for the occasional guest or two to crash out on the saloon settees. In general, the layout is a lesson on optimum use of available volume—not a cubic inch of space is wasted. She’s a snug boat, but in no way cramped; the 10 opening ports combined with the light finish and the very wide main hatch brighten the interior. There’s a nav station, a full galley with decent stowage and a fridge/freezer, a roomy double berth forward and a four-seater saloon with a drop-leaf table built over the centerboard trunk.
Back in the day, the maximum beam for a trailer-sailer was 8ft, just like Petrel’s beam; had he designed her today, Jay would have added 6in to that in line with current limits. The extra beam would have permitted wider side decks and more hip room belowdecks. The keel/centerboard concept is integral not only to the trailerable part of the design brief but also to the coastal exploration that lies in Petrel’s future. Drawing just 3ft with the bronze plate up, she can dry out on her long, flat-bottomed ballast keel. Board down, she draws 5ft 9in.
The rig and sailhandling setup is the end result of plenty of late-night ruminating and napkin-doodling. Jay loathes windage with a passion—even the boat’s stanchions are made from rod rigging to cut down on their wind resistance—and so the boat has just two shrouds. The carbon fiber Seldén mast was designed with some prebend; the upper panel is unstayed, the diamond upper shrouds in tandem with swept-back spreaders support the center panel, and the only shrouds that terminate at deck level are the lowers.
Jay designed a novel jib boom for the self-tacker that permits the sail not only to tack itself but, thanks to a track atop the boom, to be trimmed more efficiently when sailing off the wind. The self-tacker will suffice most of the time, but if more horsepower is needed the yankee, set on a continuous-line furler, can be deployed. Seldén single-line reefing defangs the big full-battened main. The payback for such a functional sailhandling setup? Cockpit spaghetti, and lots of it. Still and all, if you don’t like string, you should buy a powerboat, right?
Jay likes narrow-beamed boats because, as he says, such hulls are easily driven, track well and don’t mind a bit of overloading. On the other hand, they lack form stability and thus heel more at lower wind speeds than a typical wider-beamed boat. Which is exactly the way Petrel behaved as we tacked up the St. George river outside Thomaston, Maine, enjoying a fresh breeze on an unseasonably warm October day.
I thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the tiller and the responsiveness of the boat, which displayed a rather startling eagerness to point high and go fast that will no doubt embarrass a good many more contemporary designs. The beat upriver also gave me a chance to enjoy the quirkiness of the boat, for instance the unusual sheet winches that were designed by Jay himself back when Petrel was only a twinkle in his eye, the multi-functional dodger, and the cunning arrangement that allows a lone person to raise or lower the keel-stepped mast without help.
There is nothing about this boat that doesn’t make sense, and considering that common sense isn’t often a factor in dreams, that’s a major achievement in itself.
Photos by Peter Nielsen