Modern sailboat design began with the advent of fiberglass construction immediately following World War II. Why? As in many other industries—automotive and aerospace, to name but two—materials development and design move forward hand in hand. Composite construction technology allows designers to create shapes that are virtually impossible—or at least prohibitively expensive—to fabricate in wood or metal. The Corvette sports car, for example, which was introduced by Chevrolet in 1958, wouldn’t have been the Corvette if it hadn’t been made of fiberglass. (Remember the underground sales slogan “Wrap your ass in fiberglass!”?) The substance that L. Francis Herreshoff dismissively described as “frozen snot” has truly changed the world. Fiberglass has been used to build not just Corvettes, but bathroom showers, bridges, telephone poles, airplane fuselages, and, of course, boats.
Sailboat design has been influenced by more than materials technology. Rating rules, such as the CCA, IOR, IMS, and IRC rules, have had a profound effect on design over the last 60 years. So, too, has continuing research into hull forms and wave theory, not to mention the evolution of trend and style (think of Wally Yachts) and pure invention (think of Garry Hoyt’s Escape and Hobie’s TriFoiler).
The wonderful thing about boats is that they’re always changing—generally becoming ever faster, lighter, and stronger. And this is what makes the study of the history of yacht design both intellectually stimulating and, if you like boats, just plain cool.
Early Fiberglass Boats
Glassfiber has been around since 1880, when American showman Herman Hammesfahr patented the first glass cloth made of spun fibers. To publicize his invention he tailored a woman’s dress out of it. Then, in 1931, an Owens-Illinois consultant named Games Slayter earned the title “Father of Fiberglass” for realizing that the crude fibers he saw hanging from the roof joists of the Owens-Illinois glass plant might be useful as a filtration media. In 1938 Owens-Illinois merged with Corning Glass to form Owens-Corning Fiberglass. Four years later, Ray Greene of Toledo, Ohio, got his hands on some glass fiber from OCF and a batch of polyester resin from American Cyanamid and molded the first polyester-fiberglass boat—a dinghy he built in his garage and cured in a homemade autoclave. Greene went on to become a notable builder of one-design boats—the 16-foot Rebel daysailer and an early auxiliary sailboat, the 25-foot Sparkman & Stephens–designed New Horizons.
Only a handful of sailboats were built of fiberglass during the 1940s and ’50s. The notable smaller boats were Greene’s Rebel, Carl Beetle’s 121/2-foot Swan catboat 1947); Bill Tritt’s 21-foot Green Dolphin daysailer (1948); The Anchorage’s 9-foot Dyer Dhow (1949); Cape Cod Shipbuilding’s Bullseye (1950); and Palmer Scott’s 19-foot Hurricane, the forerunner of the Rhodes 19 (1952). Among larger auxiliaries were the 42-foot one-off Sidney Herreshoff–designed Arion, built by The Anchorage (1951); Fred Coleman’s Bounty II, designed by Phil Rhodes, and the Chinook 34, built by Yacht Constructors, adapted from a Frederick Geiger design (1956); Greene’s New Horizons (1957); Frenchman Henri Amel’s Super Mistral 23 (1958); and Clint and Everett Pearson’s 28-foot Triton, designed by Carl Alberg (1959).
Last Days of the CCA Rule
In any field, innovators learn quickly that the most difficult obstacles to overcome are those cemented in tradition—conventional wisdom and accepted ideas. In the 1950s, the CCA (Cruising Club of America) rating rule governed most offshore U.S. yacht racing. Its goal was to promote the development of true dual-purpose cruiser-racers. In some ways it was traditional, in that it penalized light displacement and long waterlines. Generous overhangs, especially at the bow, were then thought to be the key to seaworthiness because they provided reserve buoyancy that prevented the boat from burying itself in waves. But the rule was also untraditional in that it promoted greater beam-waterline ratios so as to allow for comfortable interiors and to prevent gutted-out racing machines from dominating the sport.
Because the maximum hull speed of any displacement vessel increases with waterline length, boats with short waterlines, like those designed to the CCA rule, would seem to be at a disadvantage, but that’s not necessarily the case. Here’s how the designers got around it: Given their moderately heavy displacement-length ratios (see “D/L and Performance Characteristics”), CCA boats were made to heel easily to 25 degrees or more, thereby immersing much of their overhangs and increasing their effective waterline length. More-modern flat-bottomed boats are designed to sail at lower heel angles, for reasons we’ll look into in subsequent installments of this series.
The CCA rule did not count mizzenstaysail area, and the mizzen itself was not much of a consideration, which explains the popularity of the yawl rig at this time. Keel/centerboard designs were also treated favorably, which accounts for Bill Tripp’s popular centerboard yawls—the Block Island 40 (1958), probably the first series-produced auxiliary sailboat designed specifically to be built in fiberglass, and the Bermuda 40 (1960), two of the most beautiful boats ever built to the CCA rule.
In 1963 designer C. William Lapworth and builder Jack Jensen dropped a bombshell on the CCA rule in the form of the Cal 40. The Cal 40 was not the first boat ever built with a divided underbody, but its impact was profound. The keel was what today we’d call a cruising fin, as it was large enough that cast-lead ballast could be dropped into it. The rudder was not hung on the trailing edge of the keel, but was a separate appendage fastened solely to its stock—thus the name “spade rudder.” Race results were immediately impressive: It was overall winner of the 1964 SORC, winner of three consecutive Transpacs in 1965, ’66, and ’67, and winner of the 1965 Bermuda Race, in which five of the first 15 boats were Cal 40s. Yachting’s Bill Robinson was moved to write: “This still stands as the most remarkable record of victory in major races by a stock design, and there were, of course, wins in a host of other events.” The Cal’s hull was solid fiberglass, and it tended to oil-can in a seaway, but it never experienced a catastrophic failure.
While the CCA rule was dominant in the U.S., the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) rule was prevalent in Europe. The two were quite different and inhibited competition between the continents. The International Offshore Rule, which combined elements of each, was developed to redress this, and by the end of the ’60s it had replaced the CCA and RORC rules. Boats designed to the IOR were radically different. Designer/builders like Cuthbertson & Cassian jumped on the IOR bandwagon with a fleet of new designs, but at first even their boats, like the 35-foot, 8-inch Invader, had full keels and attached rudders.
Across the Pond
Some of the first fiberglass auxiliaries sold in the U.S. were molded in Europe. Initially only the hulls were laminated; decks and houses were made of wood, hence suffered from problems like rot. To minimize this, the decks and coachroof were usually covered with a layer of fiberglass cloth. Examples include the Northeast 38 (1962) and the Challenger 38 (1960), both built by Adolf LeComte in the Netherlands. These were CCA-type boats with long overhangs and keel-hung rudders.
Throughout the ’60s Europe continued to supply the U.S. market with innovative designs. Westerly Marine Construction in the U.K. sold a lot of twinor bilge-keel boats, especially the 26-foot Centaur. Designed to settle upright on dried-out mud flats, twin -keelers made sense in England, but less so in North America. Nevertheless, the Centaur’s quality construction and standing headroom persuaded buyers to overlook its stodgy performance. Other popular models include the 17-foot Silhouette, the 19-foot Alacrity, and the 22-foot Vivacity. Few of these are in service today, but many can be found languishing in the back of boatyards around the country.
Production for the Masses
Fiberglass enabled builders to adopt assembly-line procedures, though laying up a hull in a female mold is a process that still resists total automation. Nevertheless, it was now possible for a well-organized shop to build several hundred boats or more a year. During the 1950s, only runabout skiffs profited from this, and their builders often relied on chopper guns to expedite hull molding. But during the 1960s the first sailboat builders began building remarkable numbers of hulls. Chief among these were Pearson Yachts (Bristol, Rhode Island), Morgan Yachts (St. Petersburg, Florida), and, in the mecca of West Coast boatbuilding, Costa Mesa, California, Islander (Wayfarer Yachts), Columbia Yachts, and Cal (Jensen Marine). All, sadly, are now defunct.
The trend today is for high-volume builders to design boats in-house, but the 1960s big-name independent designers worked on commission. The product line at Pearson Yachts, for example, was drawn by a who’s who of great American yacht designers: Carl Alberg, Bill Tripp, Phillip Rhodes, and John Alden. While they had to satisfy their clients, they were not employees, and they had enough reputation and clout to resist demands (usually from the marketing department) they thought were unwise. Andy Vavolotis, founder of Cape Dory Yachts, recalls that when discussing new designs with Carl Alberg he used to beg for more beam. Alberg might give him an inch or two at the most, but no more, because “it wasn’t right.”
The boats Pearson built in the 1960s, like the 28-foot Triton, the 32-foot Vanguard, the 37-foot Invicta (which won the 1964 Bermuda Race), the 41-foot Rhodes (a rehash of the Bounty II), and the 44-foot Countess, were all full-keel or keel/centerboard designs, drawn to the CCA rule. Bill Shaw’s arrival in 1964 heralded a new era and resulted in transitional designs like the Pearson 43, which had a deep cruising fin keel and a skeg-mounted rudder. By the late ’60s the big West Coast builders had also ventured into new territory. Columbia Yachts, founded by Richard Valdes and Maurice Thrienen in 1960 and soon financed by Vince Lazzara, purchased the molds of Charley Morgan’s Sabre, which made an impressive showing in the 1964 SORC, and produced it as the Columbia 40. It was a keel/centerboarder, but incorporated a unique steel skeleton. The 39-foot Constellation, purportedly a development of the 40, shows a pared-away keel like that of the Pearson 43, but retains the long forefoot while eliminating the deadwood to reduce wetted-surface area and improve maneuvering. Designer William Crealock completed the company’s transition to fin keel/spade rudder configurations with his Columbia 28 (1967) and Columbia 36 (1969). Accompanying these changes was a gradual increase in beam (to improve form stability) and waterline length (to improve speed and increase interior volume). To provide adequate headroom and comfortable accommodations, topsides were also raised and sheerlines were flattened.
The implications of these changes may have been lost on the general public, but nevertheless were profound. Lighter displacement boats are faster and less expensive to build, but often do not track as well or have the volume to accommodate the large fuel and water tanks and storage lockers essential to cruising. In effect, during the late 1960s the average series-produced fiberglass boat evolved from a full-keeled, moderately heavy cruiser/racer capable of offshore work to a fin-keeled medium- to light-displacement coastal racer/cruiser.
Go to "The Boats We Sail Part 2"