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Considering Design Diversity

As a member of the SAIL Best Boats judging panel, I get to test sail a lot of the industry’s cutting-edge designs. From the latest production foiler to enormous yachts that are so tricked out a couple alone can handle them, the innovation each year is astounding. However, the newest ideas aren’t the only compelling topics in boat design. In fact, I often find the oldest ideas just as interesting, maybe even more so.

Sailing’s rich lineage can be followed back for millennia, and the diversity of design inspired by different environments has always fascinated me. The traditional dhow of Kenya, for example, is worlds apart from Norway’s nordland or Peru’s balsa. In India, the odam had wooden hulls that were sewn together before the advent of metal fasteners. The Inuit people lived too far north to have regular access to wood, so they built their umiaks from animal skins. In Zanzibar, the Swahili fishermen in the shallow Zanzibar Channel needed a boat that was stable with minimal draft, which gave rise to the outriggers on their ngalawas.

These ancient designs tell the stories of their people and the challenges their environments presented them with. And while none of them would best the Maxi-tri Edmond de Rothschild in a race around the world, they exhibit a level of tailored expertise almost unimaginable to the modern sailor. That’s what makes the Pacific Voyaging Society (see Pacific Voyages, p.22) and its contemporaries such exciting ventures. Even though the designs and materials aren’t entirely traditional, the desire to honor and reconnect with the past (not to mention campaign for a better future) is poignant and universally compelling. As for those seafaring communities with unbroken lines leading straight back to their ancestors, the idea of ancient wisdom guiding modern sailors is nothing short of enchanting.

In my mind, diversity—of both people and ideas—is as essential to the future of sailing as it was to the past. I, for one, love to see super-specialized, purpose-built boats that are really good at what they do, no matter how much they differ from what we’re used to. No designer will ever draw up “the ideal boat.” There are too many different sailors with too many different needs for any kind of one-size-fits-all solution, and good design responds to the needs of sailors. Which begs the question, if all these societies throughout history have been reflected in their boats, what stories do ours tell about us? 

December 2021

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