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Boats We Sail Part 3: The 1980s

As the IOR rule faded into oblivion in the early 1980s, boats began to take on a different look. A new generation of faster, safer cruiser-racers appeared, the charter industry began to influence boat design, and better and cheaper equipment began to change people’s sailing habits.History soon separates the significant from the inconsequential. A long look back at the 1980s reveals three
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As the IOR rule faded into oblivion in the early 1980s, boats began to take on a different look. A new generation of faster, safer cruiser-racers appeared, the charter industry began to influence boat design, and better and cheaper equipment began to change people’s sailing habits.

History soon separates the significant from the inconsequential. A long look back at the 1980s reveals three significant events on sailing’s time line: Australia’s wresting of the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club (thanks primarily to Ben Lexcen’s winged keel); the reintroduction of vacuum bagging as a production technique; and the French invasion, which brought Eurostyling to America. What history won’t remember about sailboat design in the ’80s is that a lot of boring, nondescript boats were built. Of course, many will also remember that a poor economy helped kill many old brands, including Pearson, C&C, and O’Day. But for starters, what about the rating rule of the time?

The Rules

Dissatisfaction with the International Offshore Rule (IOR)—mainly because of the odd looks and mediocre performance of boats designed to its parameters—led eventually to the development of a new rule, the Measurement Handicap System, which soon morphed into the IMS (International Measurement System). Instead of focusing on design, IMS seeks to assess, via computer predictions, a variety of factors affecting performance. Under the rule a velocity prediction program (VPP) was developed, which was used to determine an elapsed-time correction for each boat.

A principal aim of the IMS was to create wholesome, inherently fast designs and to allow good production boats to compete with custom racers. One result was narrower boats with more-vertical bows, high-aspect rudders, and deep fin keels. An important consequence of the Fastnet Race disaster of 1979, in which 15 sailors died, was that IMS paid more attention to factors affecting stability.

IMS calculations include a number called the Limit of Positive Stability, or LPS (or, in Europe, the Angle of Vanishing Stability, AVS), which is the angle of heel, in degrees, from which a boat should recover to an upright position after being knocked down. Desirable and Undesirable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts is a collection of papers prepared by designers, engineers, and others in response to the Fastnet disaster, with the objective of improving safety at sea. The book suggests a minimum LPS of 120 degrees, which is an important number to keep in mind when considering a boat for offshore work.

As noted in Part 2 (April), the J/24, introduced in 1975, popularized one-design keelboat racing. This trend accelerated in the 1980s. Other designs followed: the J/30 (1979), J/22 and J/35 (1983). They can be called one-designs in that J Boats has worked hard to organize fleets around the country, but they can be raced under other rules as well.

Numerous go-fast designs emerged on the West Coast, some of which, like Bill Lee’s 68-foot Merlin (1977), were optimized for the downwind slide to Hawaii in the biennial Transpac Race. Production versions, like the Santa Cruz 50 (1979–89), followed. The Carl Schumacher–designed Express 27 and 37 (1981, 1983) were similar concepts, with simple accommodations. No attention was paid to rating rules; instead, the priority was just good, fast sailing. One consequence of this emphasis was rather mundane looks with little attention paid to extraneous trim details.

Cores, Fabrics, and Bags

The two easiest ways to increase boatspeed are to add horsepower (sail area) and reduce weight. It has always been possible to install a taller spar (look at the J Class as an example), but taking significant weight out of a boat’s structure required a revolution in composite construction (this is the subject of Part 4). In the 1980s, weight was reduced by using not only end-grain balsa core in the hull and deck, but also foam and honeycomb cores in other structures, such as stringers and bulkheads and in such components as berth flats. Today, solid or single-skin fiberglass hulls are increasingly rare.

Vacuum bagging is a process in which a part (a mold with wetted-out fabric reinforcements placed in it) is covered by an airtight plastic bag. The air inside the bag is then withdrawn with a vacuum pump. This minimizes air voids and compresses the reinforcing fabrics and cores for improved resin-to-glass ratios. Vacuum bagging was developed at the dawn of fiberglass-boat building, in the 1940s, but was largely neglected in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

New fiberglass fabrics also helped make stronger, stiffer, and lighter hulls. The early standards were chopped-strand mat, cloth, and woven roving. But the ’80s saw the development of woven and stitched fabrics with fibers oriented in specific directions: unidirectional (either 0 or 90 degrees); double bias (fibers run at 45 degrees in each direction); biaxial (fibers run perpendicular to one another); and quadraxial (fibers oriented at 0, 45, 90, and 45 degrees). Thus was born the so-called engineered laminate, in which loads on a given part of a hull, deck, or other structure were calculated in advance and laminates were designed with fibers optimally oriented to best handle those loads. More efficient use of reinforcements means less fabric and fewer fibers are needed, hence boats weigh less and sail faster.

The French Invasion

Beneteau began building sailboats in 1972 and eventually became the world’s largest builder, but the French company didn’t have much impact on the U.S. market until the 1980s. Following the lead of Bob Perry’s Valiant 40, one of the earliest production designs to feature an aft cabin and aft cockpit, French builders like Jeanneau also eschewed center cockpits in favor of aft cabins under an elevated aft cockpit. This required beam to be carried well aft, which in turn led to flatter hull sections, which meant higher off-wind speed. The flip side of this coin is a hull shape that performs best at moderate angles of heel. When overpowered, the waterplane shapes of these hulls may produce a quarrelsome helm with a tendency to round up. And hulls with flatter bottoms are, of course, more likely to pound than hulls with more deadrise.

Beneteau, fueled by a French law that granted fat tax exemptions to individuals who placed boats in charter service, became a major supplier to charter companies like The Moorings, for which it still builds private-label versions of its standard models. Business was good—so good that in 1986 Beneteau opened a U.S. plant in Marion, South Carolina.

And Beneteau wasn’t alone. Jeanneau, Dufour, and Wauquiez also began exporting boats to North America. Their appeal? On top of delivering good performance at a reasonable price, these boats were distinguished by their Euro-styling, typified by low, sleek cabinhouses; streamlined, geometrically shaped windows, often with smoked acrylic lenses; interiors styled by famous industrial/fashion designers like Philippe Starck.

Winged Victory

Few upsets in sports history compare to Australia’s wrenching of the America’s Cup from the white-knuckled grasp of the New York Yacht Club in 1983. In all of the Cup’s 132-year history, no country other than the U.S. had ever won before. Pulling it off took a Herculean effort, led by entrepreneur Alan Bond and skipper John Bertrand. Boat design played a huge role. Keel shapes had long been disguised in the water by painting underbodies in camouflage colors. Australia II was no exception. When the last race was finally won, Bond, standing above the dock crowd in Newport, Rhode Island, ordered his boat to be lifted from the water, and the world then saw its secret—a winged keel.

At that point in the development of 12-Meter designs, there weren’t many avenues left to exploit, but designer Ben Lexcen, with help from the Netherlands Ship Model Basin, gambled boldly with this innovative appendage. The heavy wings helped lower the hull’s center of gravity and provided some extra lift, and the short chord of the inverted keel shape reduced wetted surface area and improved maneuverability. We’ll never know how Australia II might have fared against Dennis Conner’s Freedom with a conventional keel. As it was, the races were very close, and winged keels soon appeared on a number of production sailboats, including several from Hunter Marine and Catalina Yachts. Some builders persevere with them to this day, but most have found other ways of reducing draft while retaining windward ability.

Traditional Cruising Boats

While the big, beamy sloops built for the charter trade were serviceable for private ownership and coastal cruising, they had shortcomings when it came to shorthanded long-distance voyaging. Most had more double berths and staterooms than necessary, more beam and less draft than was optimal for offshore stability (see “Stability,” page 47), and in some cases their construction was better suited to protected waters.

Many high-volume builders of cruiser/racers went bankrupt in the 1980s. The survivors, like Catalina Yachts and Hunter Marine, did so by stressing value. Filling in the niche markets were a number of companies offering more-traditional designs that were well built and well suited to bluewater cruising. For example, the Mason 43, introduced in 1978 and updated to a 44 in 1986, was offered as a double-headsail sloop or ketch. The full keels on these boats draw more than 6 feet, and their hefty displacement-length ratios of 366 and 382, respectively, indicate they have plenty of room for tankage and stowage. Masons were built by Ta Shing, one of Taiwan’s best yards. Most have teak decks and a lot of hardwood joinery.

The Bill Crealock–designed Pacific Seacraft 34 (1984) and 37 (1980) represent more-modern interpretations of the ideal cruising boat. With cruising fin keels and skeg-mounted rudders to reduce wetted surface area and improve upwind performance, these boats have narrower tacking angles thanks to their efficient underwater foils. Other wholesome cruising designs of this era include: Bob Perry’s update of his classic Valiant 40, the Passport 40 (1984); the Shannon 50 (1981); the Cape Dory 45 (1983), one of Carl Alberg’s last designs for the company before his death in 1986; and another Crealock design, the fullkeel Cabo Rico 38 cutter (1980).

The Charter Trade

The Caribbean bareboat-charter companies drove design for their own market; what they wanted was an easily handled boat with private accommodations for two or three couples. To meet this demand, designers and builders developed larger boats—to 45 and 50 feet—with multiple staterooms. To protect their investment, the charter companies needed boats that were as idiot-proof as possible, and that meant simplifying systems. Headsail and mainsail furling, notoriously unreliable and even dangerous in their early years, became nearly failsafe. Solo offshore sailors like Phil Weld, who won the 1980 OSTAR in the 56-foot trimaran Moxie, arrived relaxed and fit, saying he simply dialed in the sail area he wanted with his two furlers. Suddenly, a skeptical public found they could trust the damn things. In addition to furlers there were multispeed selftailing winches, including electric-powered models. In the same vein there came better ground-tackle systems incorporating electric and hydraulic windlasses, some of which could handle rode with rope-chain splices.

The consequence of all this development was a new generation of bigger, faster, more luxurious cruising boats that could be safely skippered by couples to the corners of the globe. In the 1960s and early ’70s, a 40-foot production fiberglass boat was considered large, but by the end of the 1980s, 50- and 60-foot cruisers were commonplace. Most were sloop-rigged, as the equipment and hardware developed during the 1980s made it possible to handle the large sails; ketches and yawls simply cost more and didn’t have the same overall speed.

Go to "The Boats We Sail Part 4"



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