Shoal Survivor

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There was a time when the variable-draft sailboat was a common sight along North America’s coastlines. Tartan, Pearson, Morgan, C&C, Sabre, Hunter and other builders all offered largish cruising boats with centerboards or swing keels, and many of those now-elderly vessels still populate the thin waters of the Carolinas, Chesapeake and Florida.

Changes to racing rules in the 1970s made keel/centerboarders unfashionable, and as other ways of achieving shallow draft—wing keels, Scheel keels—were developed, so the big centerboarder fell from grace. I suspect builders weren’t too unhappy, as centerboarders are more complex and therefore expensive to build than a fixed-keel boat.

To cut a long story down to size, that’s basically why you don’t see high-volume builders producing big variable-draft boats. You don’t see many low-volume builders doing so either, with a few notable exceptions like England’s Southerly Yachts and Florida’s Hake Yachts.

For many years, Hake has produced a pair of idiosyncratic but eminently sensible trailerable lifting-keel cruisers, the Seaward 26 and 32. Both boats share retro styling—I do like a touch of tumblehome—and an electrically operated keel-retracting mechanism that transforms them from efficient deepwater sailing machines to shoal-draft creek crawlers at the touch of a button. Having once owned a big centerboarder whose plate took 120 cranks of a winch to raise or drop, I can attest to the desirability of the latter feature.

Luxuriating in the enviable position of being both president and chief designer, Nick Hake is able to indulge his personal vision of the ideal cruising boat. His latest design, the Seaward 46, is the culmination of a lifetime spent drawing “the kind of boats I would like to own.” It is, as you would expect, no ordinary 46-foot cruiser. Like its smaller siblings, it is designed around a (7,500 pound) lifting keel and its support structure, in this case a curved main bulkhead that braces the keel trunk and also carries the loads from the deck-stepped rig. The beavertail-shaped ballast bulb is recessed into the hull when retracted; the boat can dry out on this, supported by the twin rudders. Draft decreases from 7 feet 6 inches to 2 feet 5 inches when the keel is raised.

The long, lean hull (beam is a whisker over 13 feet) looks easily driven, and this boat should be a fine windward performer. The mainsail-driven sailplan features a self-tacking jib, and owners can specify a tabernacle arrangement to allow the mast to be lowered and raised easily. A “fisherman sailor” option includes a swiveling captain’s chair, outriggers and a big insulated fish box. Interesting features abound belowdecks too—for instance, the forecabin is watertight, and there is the option of twin diesel engines.

Hull #1 will be on display at the 2011 fall boat shows, and I expect to see long lines waiting to board her.

While it’s unusual to find a lifting keel in a big monohull, such is not the case in the multihull world. Most catamarans with any pretensions to sporty performance have a pair of daggerboards to boost their windward credentials. A prime example of the kind of fast cruising cat I’d like to see more of is the Outremer (pronounced “oot-reh-mare”) 49. The most immediately obvious performance feature on this boat is that it has a pair of tillers, which is highly unusual on a boat of this size—though there is also a wheel for maneuvering under power. The idea is that you can spend a few hours reveling in hand-steering a fast boat while reclining in your carbon-fiber bucket seats, then retire to the helm station and let the autopilot do the work. Sounds good to me.

Outremer has built a string of fast cruising cats over the years, and like most builders, it has used the downturn as an excuse to renew a tired range. Tillers aside, the 49 is an interesting boat. It is light—less than 10 tons in light-ship trim—and by all accounts can turn in impressive daily mileages on passage. The mainsheet traveler is on the transom beam, which was once standard on most cats but is now unusual. Instead of the now-common solid top over the cockpit, there is a partial hardtop on a stainless steel frame around which a full cockpit enclosure can be rigged.

The cockpit and saloon are on one level, and the interior styling is light and effective, dominated by a big chart table and large galley. Owners have considerable freedom in customizing the interior so it’s unlikely any two boats will be the same.

This boat will also make its American debut at the fall boat shows. This is shaping up to be a fine year for boat geeks.

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