Balance 442 Performance-cruiser Design

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A look at the thinking that went into the new Balance 442 performance-cruiser

A sketch of the Balance 442’s cockpit: note how the two possible positions of the boat’s Versa-Helm are shown to starboard

A sketch of the Balance 442’s cockpit: note how the two possible positions of the boat’s Versa-Helm are shown to starboard

To say there’s a lot that goes into creating an all-new boat has got to be one of the world’s great understatements. And the job only becomes exponentially harder when boats get smaller, rather than larger—a point that is lost on many—as every inch of space must be used precisely.

To gain some insight into the nuts and bolts of the process, we reached out to the folks at Balance Catamarans to ask them some questions about their new 442. Currently under construction down in South Africa (where Balance has been building its boats since its founding in 2013) the boat will be the smallest of a line of performance catamarans that includes a 76-footer as its flagship and a very popular 52ft model, and carries on the company’s tradition of combining comfort afloat with not just boatspeed, but also safe and fast passagemaking.

First and foremost, according to Balance Technical Director, Andrew Hodgdon, whenever a boatbuilding company sets out to create a new design, it’s important to remember the end goal is to sell boats, which in turn means carefully gauging the market. In Balance’s case, Hodgdon says, this meant sticking with what has proven so successful for Balance already—designing performance catamarans specifically targeted to live-aboard adventure sailors, not charterers. It also meant listening to owners, attendees at boat shows and other contacts made in the course of doing business—a process that resulted in the realization that there is a demand for boats similar to the company’s larger models, only with a smaller platform and lower price point.

A rendering of the new Balance 442 under sail

A rendering of the new Balance 442 under sail

This in turn resulted in the decision to have Balance designers Phillip Berman (also the company president) and Anton Du Toit basically downsize what they had already created for the company’s 48ft Balance 482 directly to the new 44-footer. Which is not to say the resulting process was in any way a simpler one. Just the opposite. You can’t simply scale up and down or “zoom out,” as it were, on an existing design. It takes hard work to ensure everything comes together as it should, from underwing clearances to rig size and payload capacity. As is inevitably the case in any project truly worth doing, the devil in the details.

“When we decided to do a smaller model in the Balance range, we had to consider several important factors,” Hodgdon says with regard to the first few steps of the 442 design process. “The first was obviously whether there was a market for a smaller model. My personal preference was also to offer a cat just under 45ft because there aren’t currently any production builders offering a daggerboard equipped performance-oriented liveaboard cat of that size. We could corner the market on a certain segment of buyers—those who dream of having a fast cat that actually sails well to windward, but can also be easily managed singlehanded by a retired couple and is comfortable enough to live on full-time.”

Another early challenge was ensuring the new boat hit the right price point—again with an eye toward arriving at what the company sees the sailing public asking for—something Balance was able to achieve by going with a more standardized layout and construction schedule, as compared with its larger semi-custom models, and making the switch from the epoxy construction found in those same larger models to vinylester.

“The best way we could reduce the cost of our smaller boats was to reduce the number of man-hours that go into each individual build,” Hodgdon says. “The disadvantage of a vinylester construction,” he adds, “is that it is proportionally a bit heavier and more susceptible to flexing. However, we were able to solve these potential downsides by employing carbon fiber in all the boat’s structural and load-bearing areas. The end result is a structurally stiff catamaran that maintains an adequate power-to-weight ratio to achieve our desired level of sailing performance.”

From there, the next step was the rig. “Once we’ve agreed upon the basic design and construction of a new model, we move on to properly powering that design” Hodgdon says. “The rig size is determined by several factors of the hull design, including displacement, buoyancy, beam, LWL, etc. These factors are used to calculate the righting moment of various sailplans, and we then select our rig size accordingly.”

According to Hodgdon, another important goal of rig design is creating a sailplan that is capable of delivering sufficient power to allow the boat to meet a set of desired performance characteristics but still be manageable and safe for the crew—which in this case meant a rig that could be easily managed shorthanded. “On the Balance 442, that amounted to a 66.5ft air draft with 1,466ft2 of sail area with the screecher set,” he says. “It should also be noted that on the Balance 442 we offer an ICW-friendly rig that comes in at 63.5ft of air draft with a very roachy, square top head.”

After that comes the boat’s systems and interior arrangements, perhaps the most delicate and complicated part of all. “To be honest, the interior design and deck layout of a new design is constantly being tweaked until its final construction is complete,” Hodgdon says. “We start the process by working our way through an initial layout that will be used for our product launch advertising and renders. This is a very in-depth process that usually takes place in Anton Du Toit’s Cape Town office as we all gather around a large computer screen showing CAD drawings of the boat.”

Again, this part of the design process involved a great deal more aboard the 442 than just “zooming” in or out with respect to what had already been created aboard the 482. According to Hodgdon, the design team played around with everything from the placement of cabinetry, lockers and heads to moving around the table in the saloon and shifting around the companionway in an effort to find the best placement in relation to the daggerboards.

“It becomes a game to see who can come up with the best idea for saving a few inches here or an extra centimeter there,” Hodgdon says. “Believe it or not, we actually get out a tape measure. We rearrange Anton’s office furniture so that we can simulate the space in a hallway or through a doorway. We stand on a chair to determine the height of a shelf or locker. We stack books to see the clearance of a step. No detail can be overlooked or disregarded.”

Further along in the process, Hodgdon says, the team also created a series of full-size plywood mockups of the boat’s various interior components to ensure they get as real a sense as possible of how exactly the different components and the spaces between them will feel and function in the real world.

“If something isn’t right, we modify these plywood mockups as many times as necessary to get the design just right before we commit to building the composite tooling,” he says, describing the thoroughness of the process.

As an example, if this kind of careful placement and sizing, he cites the Balance 442’s Versa-Helm wheel, an arrangement that is unique to Balance and allows owners to swing the steering wheel up to sit overlooking the hardtop or swing it down to sit below in a protected helm position during rough weather.

“The goal is obviously to further improve on the functionality of our signature pivoting helm. The redesign went through several phases of mockup, modifications and improvements before we settled on a specific layout. We tested the placement with people from 7ft to 5ft tall to make sure it works for everyone. We have to be sure that any commitment will work comfortably for a wide range of operators,” Hodgdon says of the team’s work in this area of the boat. “As Phil Berman often likes to remind me, ‘A great design is the culmination of a thousand small decisions.’”

Food for thought the next time you’re out on passage aboard a Balance catamaran or any other sailing vessel. Bottom line: the fact that things are working as they should, whether on the hook or off soundings, is no accident—and boatbuilders Hodgdon, Berman and Du Toit wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Ed Note: For more on the 442 and the Balance line, go to balancecatamarans.com

MHS Winter 2021

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