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Boats We Sail Part 4: The 1990s

In the 1990s yacht design really began to shrug off the straitjacket of rating rules, and sportboats, open-class racers, and light, nimble cruising boats all became commonplace.Looking back over 50 years of monohull design and composite boat construction (including not just fiberglass, but other fibers like carbon and Kevlar, as well as numerous core materials), the trend has been toward
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In the 1990s yacht design really began to shrug off the straitjacket of rating rules, and sportboats, open-class racers, and light, nimble cruising boats all became commonplace.

Looking back over 50 years of monohull design and composite boat construction (including not just fiberglass, but other fibers like carbon and Kevlar, as well as numerous core materials), the trend has been toward longer waterlines, lighter displacement, greater beam, and deeper, narrower appendages. These concepts matured in the 1990s, and the results made for some very exciting sailing. There’s no denying the slogan coined by designer Bill Lee: “Fast is fun.” Multihull designer Dick Newick amplified this thought when he said,“People sail for fun, and no one has yet convinced me that it’s more fun to go slow than it is to go fast.”


Outside the realm of rating rules, there has been an equally strong movement toward boats that are just plain fun to sail. Enter the sportboat. These are designed to be light, fast, and simple—no complicated electrical and mechanical systems here. Most are on the small side and are meant to be daysailed, though many can function as satisfactory weekenders, despite their long cockpits and short, Spartan cabins. Most notably, they have retractable bowsprits from which asymmetrical spinnakers can be flown. This concept originated with the Australian 18 skiffs, which are campaigned to the delight of spectators in Sydney Harbour. These fast skiffs plane on their aft sections. Spritboats don’t like to sail dead downwind, but fly on a broad reach at high speeds without the risk of accidentally gybing. There’s no pole, so controlled gybes are comparatively easy and can be handled by small crews.

In the U.S., several designers and builders—most notably J/Boats and Melges Performance Sailboats—jumped on the sportboat-with-a-sprit idea. The 34-foot, 6-inch J/105, introduced in 1992 now numbers more than 600 worldwide and is a hugely successful offshore one-design. So are the Melges 24 (1993), J/80 (1994), Ultimate 20 (1994), and Antrim 27 (1997).

Sprits were also adopted by the Open 50 and 60 classes, and a few designers, like Rodger Martin (who did all of solo sailor Mike Plant’s boats—Airco Distributor, Duracell, Coyote, and the rest), developed production versions of such boats that retained their twin rudders and wide, flat aft sections. Martin’s Quest 30 and 33 have displacement-length ratios in the low 100s and sail area-displacement ratios that are nearly off the charts for a medium-size keelboat—33 and 34, respectively. Martin’s larger Aerodyne series boasts the same sort of numbers. And nowhere are there spritboats more impressive than in the new Volvo Open 70 class. Governed by a box rule, in which designers have latitude to explore new ideas, these boats carry water ballast and/or canting keels and attain speeds well over 20 knots.

Spritboats gained recognition from the historically stodgy sailing establishment when Julian Bethwhite’s 49er was accepted as an Olympic class in 2000. Measuring 16 feet and weighing just 275 pounds, with 639 square feet of sail, this little skiff sails faster than the wind. Its two crew, carried on trapezes, must display considerable skill to sail the boat at its maximum potential.

In other small boats, extreme sailing got up on foils that generate sufficient lift to raise a hull out of the water. Presto! Boats like this have virtually no wetted surface area. The 22-foot Hobie Trifoiler, Wind rocket, Vanguard Vector, and International Moth are all prime examples.

Construction Innovations

None of these advances in performance would have been possible with the solid-fiberglass hulls of the 1960s. The necessarily thick laminates and internal hull stiffeners simply weighed too much. The introduction of lightweight cores, such as end-grain balsa, Airex, Klegecell, and Divinycell, coupled with high-performance resin systems and engineered reinforcement fabrics, now allow builders to create hulls with far lighter, stiffer panels. Consider, for example, the giant multihulls built by the French company Multiplast. Orange II’s 120-foot hull is made entirely of carbon fiber and epoxy prepregs. The carbon fabric is wetted out with a measured amount of resin at the factory and is then chilled to keep it from curing. The builder lays the pre-impregnated fabric into a hull mold and then wheels it into a long oven where it is cooked at a specific temperature for a specific amount of time. Orange II’s hull is a sandwich of two layers of carbon fiber, each just 0.8mm (0.03 inch) thick, with a Nomex honeycomb core. The oven takes six hours to heat to 120C (250F), one hour to cook, and another six hours to cool before the part is removed. The result is a massive 120-foot catamaran that weighs only 40,000 pounds.

Carbon fiber is prohibitively expensive for most boats, so E-glass (standard electrical-grade fiberglass) remains the most commonly used material, but by orienting fibers in specific directions and, often, by combining different types of fabric, it is possible to make a very strong, easy-to-handle product. Kevlar fibers (not the same type used in bulletproof vests) are also sometimes specified for use in high-impact areas such as the underwater portion of the stem.

One reason prepreg laminates are so effective is that the amount of resin used to wet out the fabric is precisely controlled. In a traditional hand layup, excess resin is rolled on to fully wet out and consolidate the fibers. High fiber-to-resin ratios of 70:30 or 65:35 are considered ideal, but the best that can be achieved with hand layup is 60:40, and it’s often less. Resin infusion and wet pregs are two other ways to achieve high fiber-to-resin ratios. The latter is labor intensive and therefore is used mostly in expensive boats, often with high-performance resins.

Resin infusion with low-cost polyester resin is the more popular option. Here, special fiberglass fabrics are placed in the hull mold along with a lot of small hoses through which resin can be transferred. In most systems, everything is sealed in a clear plastic bag, and a vacuum is drawn to pull the resin through the feed lines and into the fabric. (Alternative methods may pump the resin into the dry stack of reinforcements.) Not only is the amount of resin in the layup carefully controlled, but all harmful vapors are contained so workers need not wear respirators or protective paper suits, as they never come into contact with the resin. One well-known system, called SCRIMP, was patented by Bill Seemann in 1991.

Where low weight and high performance are paramount, hulls are stiffened with longitudinal and athwartship foam beams that are glassed over and tabbed to the hull. Mainstream production boats usually have some sort of pan or molded grid that incorporates the cabin sole, berth flats, and perhaps the galley and nav station. These grids are set into the hull with a polyester putty or some other adhesive at key contact points. Ideally, bulkheads are tabbed not only to the hull but to the deck as well, but this is not possible when a fiberglass overhead liner prevents contact with the deck.

Stiffness is important because a stiffer hull doesn’t work as much, nor will it bend when tension is applied to the rig. Backstay adjusters are so powerful they can use the mast as a fulcrum to pull the bow and stern up and make a banana of a hull, but a taut forestay is critical to sail shape and the ability to point high and sail fast upwind, so a rigid hull is a huge advantage. Modern boatbuilding materials and techniques can produce hulls that are superior in this way to anything ever built in previous decades.

During the ’90s there were also important innovations in low-tech boatbuilding materials—namely, rotomolded and thermoformed plastics, such as polyethylene and ABS, the same stuff gas cans and children’s toys are made of. Garry Hoyt’s rotomolded Escape line of sailboats was a bold effort aimed at creating a dead-simple boat in which beginners could learn to sail with virtually no coaching. A color-coded dial by the mast indicates which way, given the wind direction, the sail must be trimmed and the helm turned. Other popular rotomolded polyethylene boats include the Hobie Bravo, Getaway, and Wave.


During the first few decades of the Age of Fiberglass, boatbuilding was pretty much limited to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, with a few builders in Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan) and a small number in Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere.

The list today is much broader. As the standard of living in Taiwan rose, so did the cost of building boats there. Since the economic revolution in China, many operations have moved across the Formosa Strait, where Taiwanese builders can take advantage of low labor rates on the mainland. In the early 21st century, it seems China is destined to be the world’s industrial giant, boats included. The learning curve for the Chinese has been steep, and quality has been inconsistent. But as foreign experts are brought in, and local staffs are trained, that’s changing rapidly.

The potent combination of less costly labor and a workforce with developing skill sets is also emerging in Eastern European countries like Slovenia (Elan Marine), Poland (Ted Hood has done a few projects there), and Croatia (Salona Yachts). Other European countries are exporting boats in increasing numbers from companies like Bavaria, Dehler, and Hanse in Germany; Finngulf, Siltala Yachts (Nauticat), and Nautor in Finland; Mal, Najad, and Hallberg-Rassy in Sweden; and Northwind in Spain. Boatbuilding is also growing in countries like Russia, which are not usually associated with composite construction. Today sailboat production is an industry securely planted on every continent and has been truly globalized. It is not unusual to build a composite boat in, say, Argentina, to the design of a French naval architect, using software developed in the United Kingdom, with reinforcements from China, resins from the U.S., portlights from Italy, pumps from Ireland, an engine from Japan, and instruments from the Netherlands. Distribution networks are in place; the only remaining question is when, if ever, the U.S. will go metric.

Old and New

Despite all these terrific advances in design and construction, it is heartening to leaf through the pages of SAIL’s annual Sailboat Buyers Guide and see how many of the classic pre-WWII designs are still in production—boats like the Rhodes Bantam, Snipe, Rhodes 19, Flying Scot, and Lightning. You don’t have to be a hard-muscled 20-something to enjoy an afternoon on a Sunfish or a Laser. At a time when so many builders are abandoning small boats for more profitable larger models, it is commendable that Catalina Yachts still offers six daysailers under 20 feet. That’s investing in the future of your company and, more important, in the future of sailing.

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