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In Praise of Displacement

As I write this, it’s springtime in New England, and I’ve begun sailing out on Boston Harbor again, getting warmed up for the summer sailing season. As I’ve been doing so, I’ve been struck, not for the first time, by just how awesome it is being aboard a well-found sailboat. Not only that, I’ve been struck by just how awesome it is being aboard a well-found sailboat with a keel.

For better or worse, there’s something about sailors that all too often seems to pit one against the other with respect to the types of boats they sail. Among many multihull sailors, for example, it’s gospel that “if it’s not a cat, it’s a dog.” The biases of those who sail, design, build or just admire boats made of wood, from L. Francis Herreshoff of “frozen snot” fame on down, are equally well known. Personally, I have little interest in these kinds of arguments. If it’s a sailboat and it makes its crew happy, that’s good enough for me.

At the same time, I do feel it’s not inappropriate to briefly get up on my soapbox for the sake of displacement and good old-fashioned ballast: for hulls that go through the water, as opposed to skimming over it. For years now, sailboats that sit deep the water have been on the defensive. Displacement has become a dirty word. This is especially the case among the racing set. However, these same sentiments can also be found among daysailers and more than a few cruisers. Lightweight sells. To hear some people tell it, if your boat isn’t spooling out an arrow-straight wake astern, à la a 49er skiff or IMOCA 60, you’re somehow missing out or, worse yet, not really sailing.

Again, I honestly having nothing against those kinds of boats that emphasize speed. However, I think it’s equally important to not forget the joys of the way people sailed before the advent of carbon fiber. And I’m not just talking about “seakindliness” or “points of vanishing stability” here, design elements that remain highly valued among passagemakers. What I’m thinking of is more the motion of a displacement hull through the waves, the way it responds as the rig smoothly, predictably gives way before a breeze, the way you can feel—really feel—the way the boat is interacting with the wind and water through your hand on the tiller and the soles of feet.

Years ago I read an account of a veteran French sailor who said that while she enjoyed passagemaking in multihulls, she still preferred monohulls because of the way they “dance with the waves.” Again, I mean no disrespect for the multitude of other boat types out there. For all I know, there are legions of sailors who feel exactly the same way about their full-foiling monohulls, cats and tris.

For me, though, as much as I enjoy the latest tech, there’s nothing like the feeling of a displacement monohull “dancing” with the waves, mast and rigging heeling before a hat-full of the wind. Boatspeed and VMGs are obviously fine things. But at the end of the day, for me at least, a good old-fashioned displacement hull and keel are where it’s at. 

July 2021

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