The Importance of Access

Broken Through-hull
Okay, that’s bad… Now, how tough is it going to be to work on?

Many do-it-yourself boat owners joke about “boat yoga”, which is the act of contorting oneself to try to work on otherwise inaccessible parts of the boat, but good access to everything is vital. It’s not the sort of feature that attracts crowds at a boat show, but there are few things more important on a serious cruising boat than easy access to every corner, every fastener, and every component of all the systems. The more a boat gets used, and the older it becomes, the more this holds true. The ideal would be some sort of access for every square inch of the inside of hull. Planning for access when designing and building something as complex as a cruising sailboat is is not always easy to do, but every hour spent ensuring that an actual human being can reach and work on everything inside that boat is time well spent.

I can’t count how many times a small task–one that should have been simple and easy to accomplish, like replacing a hose or a fastener–became a difficult slog simply because the components were difficult or impossible to access. I have spent many hours squeezing into cramped engine compartments, reaching into bilges or behind cabinetry, cursing glassed-in fasteners or hoses, and trying to pull wires through spaces that were never designed to be accessed once the factory had closed them up. As a boat ages, eventually every system and most every fastener will need to be serviced if one wants to keep that boat in good working order. If that boat sees a lot of ocean miles, all of the mechanical systems will need regular service, possibly under conditions that are less than ideal. For example, if a fuel filter can’t be accessed quickly enough it could easily mean serious damage, or even loss of the boat. That’s no exaggeration. It has happened many times.

Most of the time I spend on boat projects is spent dreaming up ways to actually be able to get to the part that I need to work on. The task might be simple–replace a y-valve, for instance, but the space too small to even allow me to see the mounting screws, let alone give me room to try to wrestle the stuck, old hoses off the piece before trying to get in there with a new one. What might take less than an hour with easy access to the part can easily turn into a long, frustrating battle.

Contessa 26 Cockpit engine access
Engine access on a Contessa 26 is mostly gained by taking up the cockpit floor. This can be a problem in rough weather!

Considerable time is spent maintaining a cruising boat if one wants to keep things in top condition, and occasionally major repairs to systems and structure are necessary. Easy access can make this work, if not a pleasure, then at least straightforward. Even simple maintenance tasks are complicated when access is poor. How many boat owners are ignoring things that they know need service simply because poor access make working on those things a burdensome task? Many seacocks, for instance, die prematurely because they are difficult to reach, so they don’t get opened and closed regularly. It used to take me more than an hour to change the impeller in the raw water pump of the engine on my old Contessa 26 because I had to take the entire water pump off in order to have enough room to pull the impeller. I had to remove the cockpit floor to change the oil. Needless to say, I didn’t check those things as often as I would have if the access had not been so demanding.

Engine fuel is filtered through oversized dual Racor system for dependability

The primary fuel filter for this engine can be reached through a cockpit locker. 

Good access is about more than making a job easy–there is a safety factor as well. I have already mentioned the importance of being able to quickly get to a primary fuel filter, but there are many other things that need at least reasonably good access even if they aren’t frequently serviced, such as the shaft packing. It doesn’t happen often, but neglected shaft packing has caused boats to sink. Through-hull fittings–even ones above the waterline–should be placed where they can be reached because hoses can crack, and through-hulls can fail. That easily-forgotten little drain fitting near the waterline might become a real problem if the hose breaks. Many chainplates–those very important parts of a sailboat that transfer all the rigging loads to the hull–are neglected until they fail, simply because they are located where they are difficult to inspect or replace.

If the hull is breached for whatever reason, the chances of being able to effect some sort of repair are greatly enhanced by simply being able to get to where the leak is. Even finding a leak can be troublesome on some boats. I once sailed on a boat that began taking on water from an unidentified source when we were almost 100 miles from the nearest all-weather inlet. By the time we made it into the harbor I was pumping every 30 minutes to keep the water below the floorboards. The boat had a structural grid fiberglassed into the hull. Water could flow under this, but there was no access to the space between the grid and the hull except through a small hole where the bilge pump was placed. Though I had spent hours searching, I couldn’t find the source of the leak until after we docked and a strong wind blew up a chop from astern. A locker drain in the swim platform had cracked between the locker and the hull, and I could only see it squirting water into the boat when the short waves from the harbor slammed forcefully under the counter. The clearance was too tight between the bottom of the locker and the inside of the hull to even reach my hand in from inside the boat, so I had to put some waterproof epoxy over the crack as a temporary measure and then wait to repair it from the outside after the boat was pulled out of the water.

Engine access. Alternator replacement
Repairing the systems is a fact of life on a cruising boat. It’s best if they’re easy to get to!

How to access the systems is always one of the first things on my mind when I inspect a boat. How easy is it to access the service points on the engine?  Is there somewhere, if not comfortable, then at least manageable to sit or lie when working on the engine? (This is something that needs to be doing regularly, so it’s worth taking the time to try it out rather than just looking in and thinking, “Well, it looks a little tight in there, but it’s probably not too bad…” I’ve thought that before, and then later found that I had to modify tools to fit those awkward places.) Can I easily reach all parts of the steering system? Are the important parts of the electrical system easy to reach for inspection and service? How difficult is it to inspect the bilge pumps? Tanks? Hoses? Can I follow the propane line from tank to stove and reach all the connections? If there is a cabin liner, can I still get to deck fasteners and backing plates? Can I get to the fasteners for the chainplates? Has provision been made for removing the engine? How about cleaning and repairing the tanks? Can the bulkhead tabbing and hull/deck joint be inspected? Centerboards and daggerboards can be difficult and expensive to service on any boat, though they are wonderful for reducing draft. The hinge pin and lifting mechanism on a centerboard will need attention eventually. There are many more things that could be put on this list, for sure.

Certain construction methods naturally leave better interior access than others. Fiberglass boats with individually glassed-in bulkheads, screwed or bolted cabinetry, and removable ceilings and overheads with no fixed liners are relatively easy to work on when it comes time to repair them, whereas boats that are built with full liners can be a nightmare when it comes time to service certain systems or fittings if the liner was not designed with adequate access points. A full fiberglass ceiling liner is easy to keep clean, but might mean cutting a lot of holes when the deck fittings begin to leak, for instance! Even a partial liner can be a problem. Here’s a common one I see:  showers built in such a way that the drain fittings and hose are not accessible.

Metal boats built with flat bar or plate stringers, rather than “T” shaped, allow one to reach all interior surfaces. Interior accommodations on steel boats are ideally demountable for interior inspection, painting and repair, as steel usually rusts from the inside out…

Wooden boats need good air circulation throughout their interiors to avoid rot, and should to be built so that all corners are accessible for cleaning and inspection.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen anchor locker
Idle Queen’s anchor locker access just didn’t cut it.

On my own boat, the Dreadnought 32 named Idle Queen, there is good access almost everywhere. This is something I was looking for specifically when I decided to buy her. Idle Queen was in need of a major refit when I found her, so I knew I would be inspecting and probably working in every nook and cranny. There were only a couple of square feet that I could not easily reach when I bought herjust the farthest forward part of the anchor locker. I can’t quite squeeze past the Sampson posts to reach the inside up there at the very point of the bow. Well, it came as no surprise to me that during her refit I had to get into that space in order to remove the fasteners that hold the gammon iron to the stem. After some reflection, (and some time spent trying to tape the nuts to my wrench, which was in turn taped to a boathook in an effort to start threading them onto their bolts without being able to get my hands in there), I ended up putting an inspection plate in the deck to replace the port chain pipe to solve the problem of how to access that small area. This change allows future access to the space as well as giving me a place to put an extra ventilator when in harbor. Whenever I work on something that didn’t have good access, I always try to allow for future service.

Idle Queen has a few unusual features that make her most-serviced systems easy to live with. She gives up a lot of interior space to her engine room, but that makes working on the engine a breeze. Changing the oil takes all of ten minutes, including cleanup. All of her tanks are placed far enough away from the hull that it is possible to get behind them, and every tank can be removed by unbolting the tie-downs. Pumps are placed where they are easily removed for service, and hoses and wiring run where they can be inspected and replaced if needed.  She has insulation throughout most of her hull, but holes have been cut to access fasteners. I can reach my hand into every corner of the bilge, even the deepest part, and I can physically climb into the lazarette. Hiding systems took a backseat to serviceability when they were installed. I actually appreciate Idle Queen’s utilitarian finish.

Easy access to most everything aboard Idle Queen has helped to keep the number of enjoyable hours spent aboard ahead of those spent contorted and frustrated at having to spend a lot of extra time doing something that is only difficult because it is problematic to reach. Of course, I still tend to underestimate how  many hours will go into my boat projects on Idle Queen, but at least it’s not often because I can’t figure out how to access what needs to be worked on…

Thoughts on Dreadnought 32 Performance

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen sailing Buzzard's Bay
Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen sailing Buzzard’s Bay

When trying to compare the speed of different boats objectively, I like to use PHRF ratings to give a good idea of the actual performance differences involved. PHRF ratings are used to handicap all sorts of different sailboats so they can race together on the same course. They give a number which equates to seconds per mile, that is applied to a boat’s finishing time to determine overall performance in the race. If a boat has a lower number, it “gives” seconds to a boat with a higher number. Thus, a boat with a rating of 200 is expected to finish a one mile course 50 seconds faster than a boat rated 250. The lower-rated boat has to “give” 50 seconds to the higher-rated, slower boat when computing corrected times at the finish. So, if the boat rating 200 finishes the course 51 seconds ahead of the boat rating 250, it has won the race, but if it finishes, say, 48 seconds ahead, then it has lost on “corrected time”. The ratings are frequently adjusted to keep different boats on par. Racers are a competitive bunch, and this is a widely accepted system used for many different types of sailboat races, so I think it is a pretty good way to compare the speeds of different boats.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at a Westsail 32, which rates 222, or 222 seconds per mile slower on average than a boat that rates 0. How do some other designs compare? The Crealock 34, which is a design that is held in quite high regard by many cruising sailors, rates 201. That’s only 21 seconds per mile faster, on average… How about a Contessa 32, another classic design that has a reputation for being weatherly and fast in a wide range of conditions? The Contessa 32 rates 180, or 42 seconds/mile faster than the Westsail 32. Over a 100 mile course, with both boats racing, the Contessa would be expected to finish 70 minutes faster. Over a 2,000 mile course–a huge distance: 23.3 hours. That’s a 1 day difference on a 2,000 mile crossing between a boat that has a reputation for being a slug and one that was designed as a racer/cruiser has a reputation for being quite fast in all sorts of conditions. The only PHRF rating I can find for the Dreadnought 32 is listed in San Francisco. There are not enough Dreadnought 32’s racing on the east coast to give the design a rating. The Dreadnought 32 PHRF rating is 222–same as the Westsail 32.

The PHRF ratings provide the most accurate speed comparison when there is a mix of different points of sail. If the above example citing the Westsail 32 and Contessa 32 were sailed all upwind, I would expect the Contessa to easily out-sail the Westsail every time. However, if the passage were mostly reaching or running (fair winds), the differences will be smaller. Cruising sailors prefer to plan passages that take advantage of fair winds so the actual differences may be smaller than the ratings suggest when that is taken into account.

In races, the finishing time differences normally stretch out to more than in the example above because of differences in decisions made by the crew. A poorly sailed Contessa 32 could easily finish a 2,000 mile course more than a day behind one that was sailed by a top crew. A similar time difference is possible due to poor sails. A difference in the duration of a passage is as likely to be caused by local weather, a meander in an ocean current, crew decisions, boat condition (how clean the bottom is, especially), sails, etc., as the actual speed potential of the boat being sailed.

The PHRF list I use is available at: http://www.phrfne.org/page/handicapping/base_handicaps Not every boat in the world will be there, as there has to be enough of them being raced to get accurate rating data. Still, you can get a pretty good idea of the relative speeds of a lot of different boats in real-world conditions. The system is not perfect, and each boat design has conditions where it will often out-sail it’s rating, but this data has been gathered over many years of racing in varied conditions and is frequently updated when it becomes apparent that a particular boat design (or even a particular boat) has an unfair advantage due to rating.

I hope the above gives enough information to at least keep the actual speed differences in perspective. It is impossible to consider take every factor into account when trying to compare boats, but some details will make a big difference. If you’re sailing in small, very protected waters in mostly light winds, the differences between a very heavy boat and a lighter one will be exaggerated, for instance.

In real life, I have found that my Dreadnought 32 is surprisingly easy to drive on most points of sail at speeds that keep me happy (4-6.5 knots) with very little strain on the rigging. My running average speed over the last 2,000 miles is about 4 knots (per GPS log), but I have sailed the boat overly conservatively due to suspect rigging (which I am in the process of changing). That average includes a mix of offshore and ICW miles, many miles of me being lazy and not hauling out bigger sails on light-wind days, sailing reefed down when being conservative at night, and the like. It also includes motoring, where I run my boat slower than many people partly because I only have 15 hp in a 20,000 lb boat, and partly because I actually enjoy just tooling along slowly when under power… My average speed under power is a relaxed 4-4.5 knots, even though Idle Queen will power at 6.5 knots when needed.

If You Don’t Keep It Small, At Least Keep It Simple

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen
Idle Queen dockside.  This project is just beginning.

I frequently question my decision to move to the larger Idle Queen from my last boat, Sirocco.  After all, I am still very much enamored of Sirocco, and I have long been a proponent of smaller boats.

Not many people would consider Sirocco a complicated boat in her present configuration.  She has pressure fresh water and refrigeration, sure, but her windlass is manual and her compliment of electronics is adequate but simple.  Even so, she is more complicated than my “new” boat, Idle Queen, which has only a bare minimum of modern fittings aboard.  Idle Queen is missing many of the standard items found on modern sailboats, like roller furling, a winch for each jib sheet, and more.  She has only two seacocks below the waterline.  She is lightly powered, with her engine providing just over 1 horsepower for each ton of displacement.  The cabin sole is painted plywood instead of teak and holly.  Much of her paint comes from the hardware store.  These details aren’t very “yachty”, but they help offset the added expense of having a physically larger boat when it comes to maintaining and operating her.

I explained why I am moving to a larger boat in a previous post (see here).  The additional room aboard the larger boat will allow me to carry everything I need for more expended trips away from yachting centers.  Wonderful.  The big challenge, though, is that my budget for maintaining this boat is no larger than what I had before.  If anything, it is smaller because of the money that I spent this winter having a car in this area.  Cars will keep you poor.  I plan to make up the difference by not complicating Idle Queen one bit more than necessary.

So, specifically, how am I planning on closing the budget gap?  For starters, I am going to live with the unique interior of Idle Queen as she is for a while.  Harry Heckel Jr., the original owner, built a custom arrangement down below that is far from the traditional small sailboat layout.  One of the first things that I wanted to do with Idle Queen was to change the layout to one with parallel settees in the main saloon instead of the dinette that is currently onboard.  I can eliminate a huge expense and time-sink by just keeping the arrangement the same for now.  I’ll be losing some storage space, but the current arrangement has worked for two circumnavigations so far.

The tanks on Idle Queen almost all need replacing.  The two exceptions are a little 10-gallon fuel tank, and one polyethylene water tank.  The current plan is to make up the difference with portable tankage.  For water, I will carry as many 3-4 liter water bottles as I need.  I have been doing this for quite some time now, beginning when I discovered that the fiberglass water tank on my Contessa 26 was unusable for potable water.  I bought 20 gallons of drinking water in bottles at a cost of about $20, and have had 20 gallons of cleanable, portable, re-usable water tankage ever since.  I used the same bottles on Sirocco to supplement the tankage onboard, and I see no reason to abandon the system now.  I can empty the bottles into the small gravity tank that supplies the galley faucet to produce running water.  On the diesel tankage side, the little diesel engine on Idle Queen will run for about 30-40 hours on the currently usable 10-gallon tank.  I plan to build secure below-decks storage for an additional 20 gallons of diesel tankage in the form of 5-gallon jerry cans.  If I need more tankage, I can always expand the storage scheme.

For lighting, I know that there are many sailors who, in the name of simplicity, have stayed with kerosene lanterns.  Some have even kept their boats free of any installed electrical system.  My current plan is not quite as low-tech.  LED lighting has finally come down enough in cost for me to decide to use LED lights for the main cabin lighting solution aboard Idle Queen.  There will be a minimum of wiring involved, and it will all be accessible.  I will keep the current fluorescent fixtures until they cease to function before spending money on new fixtures, and I will probably end up assembling my own lighting fixtures rather than spending on the ridiculously overpriced marine lights currently available.  A few years ago, I compared the cost of changing Sirocco over to all LED lighting versus just buying enough solar panels to run the incandescent lights that she already had.  It was much cheaper to just buy more solar generating capacity.  Now the cost of LEDs have come down enough to make them an attractive option.  I already have 50 watts of solar panels on Idle Queen.  My goal is to keep my daily consumption under what they can supply.  I will keep a couple of kerosene lanterns around just in case lightning takes out the electrical system…  Backup systems are important.

There are a few other items that I will be going without that make it onto the “must have” list for many cruisers:  items like refrigeration; roller furling; a bimini; an autopilot (IQ does have a windvane); and so forth.  If I can pick those items up for little money along the way (or better yet–free!), then it’s not like I am opposed to having them.  I just need to keep reminding myself that the most important things to take care of on the boat are keeping the hull sound and the running gear strong and functional.  Almost everything else is just budget-eating, boat-cluttering stuff that can probably be lived without.

A Little More Freeboard

Contessa 26 sailing upwind
Life on a Contessa 26 is always close to the water.

One of the things that I miss about my Contessa 26 is being able to easily reach over the side and put my hands in the water.  I can reach the water from the deck of Idle Queen, but it is a bit of a stretch, and I have to put an uncomfortable amount of my body over the side of the boat, so I don’t do it.  Instead, I use a bucket attached to a line to haul water to the deck of Idle Queen.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen
Idle Queen.

Besides making washing things over the side a little less convenient, there are other disadvantages to all that extra freeboard–like sluggish windward performance; more hassle getting out of the dinghy; and handling issues when the wind gets up.  No matter how you look at it, anything that increases windage is a bad thing, and more freeboard increases windage in a big way.  This has been known to designers for a long time, and is part of the reason why many old-school sailboats were so low to the water.  When Sirocco had to ride out the remnants of hurricane Irene on an exposed mooring, she sat quietly despite the whipping gusts largely thanks to the fact that she sat so low in the water.

Atkin Ben Bow Sirocco
Sirocco charging down Long Island Sound.

I have heard it said that higher-freeboard boats are drier, but that isn’t necessarily true, especially if you are interested in actually staying dry.  Once the wind gets over about 20 knots, it will drive spray a long distance into the air–much higher than the deck on just about any small boat.  There are other aspects of the hull design that make a bigger difference in how much spray gets thrown about, like the amount of flare; sharpness of entry; and whether there is a significant rubrail or not.  Closehauled in 15-20 knots of wind, Idle Queen takes more spray across the deck than the much lower Sirocco.  Dodgers, windscreens, or other shelters are more effective at providing a place on deck to stay out of wind-driven spray.  People these days seem less interested in putting on their “oilies” and toughing it out…

It is amazing to me how just a foot of extra freeboard on similarly-sized boats like Sirocco and Idle Queen can make such a huge difference in how they handle and how they feel.  The loads on dock lines and moorings are much higher on Idle Queen; windward performance is not nearly as good (though this has much to do with other differences in the hull shapes); and even the motion while seated on deck is less comfortable.  That’s right–being higher in the boat amplifies the effects of motion.  Try climbing the mast at sea if you really want to feel this effect.  (Disclaimer:  Only go aloft at sea if you can do so safely!)

A boat that is excessively low to the water will have the decks frequently washed over by waves, so there is definitely the potential to take the low-freeboard idea too far.  My point is that once past a moderate amount of freeboard, the returns paid in dryness will diminish just as quickly as the negatives, like sailing around at anchor, will pile up.

Besides, boats that are low and lean just look sexier.

 

How I Became a Full-Keel Convert–Part Two

A full keel has either an unbroken convex curve or straight line all the way from the stem to the stern of the boat. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel.
Sirocco showing off what she normally has hidden under the water.

 

A year on the Contessa 26 was enough to convince me that I wanted a bit more boat.  I was enjoying the minimalism, but the Contessa was a little too small for long-term living aboard, at least for me and all of the tools that I normally carry.  I started casually looking around and found a William Atkin-designed “Ben Bow” named Sirocco.  She was sturdy, reasonably roomy, and had a lean, low profile that I just couldn’t resist.  She also had a full keel with a rather deep forefoot. This was the boat that finally sold me on full-keel boats.

At first I was a little apprehensive about how she would handle, but that fear was soon put to rest as I discovered how wonderfully predictable she was and what a joy to sail.  True, she didn’t turn as tightly as a fin-keel boat, but the penalty in turning radius was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  Also, I had not anticipated how her full keel, outboard rudder, and low freeboard up forward would combine to eliminate the tendency that so many other boats have for their bow blow away from the wind in an instant when stopped.  Docking in a crosswind was now a much more controlled evolution.  The same with singlehanded anchoring.  Unless it was blowing a gale, I had plenty of time to stroll up the wide side decks and release the anchor after reaching my desired spot without the boat taking off across the wind.  Backing was also improved over the cutaway-keel design, with the long keel making it easier to keep the boat tracking straight when desired.

There were other benefits not related to handling at low speeds and close quarters that were pleasant surprises.  Tracking when under sail at sea was superb, and I could balance the boat to sail herself in most conditions, but I had expected that to be true.  One thing that I had not considered was how the deep bilges, outboard rudder, and near-vertical sternpost combined to put the propeller in a location where I could reach it from the dinghy.  What luxury to be able to keep the prop clean without having to dive under the boat!  I suspect that I may have also been able to unwrap a line from the relative comfort of the dinghy, but I never picked up a line in the prop in all the miles that I sailed in Sirocco, probably thanks to the protection offered by her keel.  Finally, and probably only due in part to the design of her keel, Sirocco was one of the most comfortable boats that I have ever taken to sea.  Even though I am normally somewhat prone to seasickness when I first put to sea, I was never once seasick aboard Sirocco.  That comfortable motion was a tremendously endearing characteristic of hers, but I have to also give credit to her other design attributes, including short overhangs, moderately slack bilges, relatively heavy displacement, moderate beam, etc., as contributing factors in that department.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen out of the water for maintenance
Idle Queen out of the water for maintenance

Now that I am moving up to another boat, I again chose a full-keel design in the Dreadnought 32, Idle Queen.  I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy the benefits of being able to inspect and reach the prop from my dinghy; having a boat that tracks well in a variety of conditions; not worrying about picking up lines and weed on the rudder and propeller; and having the option to comfortably dry out on a grid or beach if I ever need to.  The full keel design has much to recommend it when choosing an underbody for a cruising sailboat.  

 

How I became a Full-Keel Convert–Part One

 

BenBow-3
A line drawing of Sirocco, a true full-keel boat. Sirocco is a “Ben Bow” designed by William Atkin. 

Over the years that I have been sailing, I have logged miles on a number of different craft from an International Sabot up to a steel schooner of about 200 gross tons.  Most of my time has been in small, shoal-draft centerboard sailboats up to about 20 feet long; racing keelboat designs like the J-29; and the few cruising sailboats that I have owned over the years.  I benefitted from spending time in a broad variety of different sailboats by getting a taste of how different types of boats perform in various conditions.  This has given me the opportunity to compare the merits of the different classes of boats.

Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.
Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.

When I was younger, I craved performance.  I wanted nothing more than to just go as fast as possible on the water.  My desire for speed eventually led me to become a windsurfing enthusiast, but that is a whole other story.  During my high-school and college years I spent a lot of time in International, and then Collegiate 420’s, a two-person dinghy.  I thought they were slow and longed to spend time in a more performance-oriented dinghy, even though the 420’s could easily plane and give a good ride when the whitecaps showed up.  When I started sailing keelboats, it was mostly the smaller J-boats (24’s and 29’s, mostly), but there was time spent on numerous other designs.  I loved the taste of performance multi-hull sailing that I experienced as fill-in crew aboard a Nacra 6.0.  The boats that I sailed in my teens and twenties were mostly well-regarded classes that taught me what a fun, responsive boat felt like.  They sailed well in a wide variety of conditions with good speed and few bad habits.  There is a reason that the one-design dinghies and keelboats that I sailed in were such popular designs–they were good all-round boats.

Picture of a boat with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.
Picture of an Alberg-designed Cape Dory with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.

When I finally had enough money to consider buying my own sailboat I began to consider all aspects of its use.  I couldn’t really justify spending a ton of money on a boat that was only good for racing.  By this time my sights were fixed on the far horizon rather than outright speed.  I wanted to explore the world from the deck of my own sailboat, so I decided to look for a reliable design that could take me anywhere I wanted to go.  What I ended up with was a Pearson Vanguard–a 32-foot racer/cruiser designed to the old Cruising Club of America rating rule.

Buying the Vanguard was a huge step for me in many ways.  It was the first “big” boat that I had ever owned, it was my first home on the water, and it allowed me my first significant experience with something other than a centerboard or fin keel design.

Pearson Vanguard Side Drawing
Side-view of the Pearson Vanguard, showing the cut-away in the forward part of the keel.

The Vanguard has a “cutaway” keel with the rudder attached to the trailing edge.  Looking at the profile of the boat, there is a lot of area that has been cut away, or hollowed out, making the deep part of the keel start a long way back from the bow.  This is done in an effort to reduce the amount of boat in contact with the water, or wetted surface, to make the boat faster when the wind is light.  This design achieves its intended goal of reducing wetted surface, but pays the price of introducing a couple of undesirable handling characteristics.  The one that I remember most is how the bow would blow downwind when trying to maneuver at low speed.  The high bow and long forward overhang on the Vanguard would catch the wind, turning the boat broadside to the wind very quickly.  There was no underwater surface to counteract this tendency, and the rudder was way under the boat at the end of the shortened keel. This reduced the rudder’s effectiveness by giving it a shorter lever arm for turning the boat.  Fin-keel boats don’t have a surface underwater up forward to stop the bow from blowing away from the wind either, but their rudders are placed farther back on the boat, which gives a stronger turning force and allows better control in low speed situations (especially in reverse) compared to the cutaway-keel boat.

On the positive side, I really came to appreciate some of the good qualities of the cutaway keel on the Vanguard.  The keel on the Vanguard is molded with the boat as one unit.  The shape transitions smoothly from the hull to the keel, which prevents the front part of the keel from loading up with seaweed when sailing–a real plus when there is a lot of weed in the water!  The shape of the keel also helps reduce shock loads in some grounding situations, such as when running onto a sloped sandbar.  Not having a long fin keel sticking out of the boat also reduces structural loads when running aground–in particular eliminating the point-loading at the trailing edge of the fin keel that can cause it to push up into the hull and cause a lot of damage.  Having the rudder attached to the trailing edge of the keel helps prevent seaweed, lobster and crab pot floats, and other fishing gear from getting trapped on the rudder. The keel shields the propeller as well.  I never once had a pot or fishing line caught on my Vanguard, though I often sailed in waters thick with fishing gear.  Besides making my life easier, fishermen don’t exactly appreciate having yachtsmen cut their floats from props and rudders, either…

A cutaway-keel boat tracks better than a fin-keel boat.  The Vanguard didn’t need constant, minute attention to the helm.  I could count on her to track well if I needed to adjust a sheet or otherwise divert my attention for a moment.  This is a great characteristic to have in a cruising boat.  I could balance the boat and let her sail herself for a while if I needed to go forward to attend something or use the head.  I have had some luck locking the helm down on a fin-keel boat to keep them going straight for a short while, but this technique is not as effective as when used on a cutaway-keel boat or a full-keel boat.

Overall, the cutaway-keel Vanguard was a surprisingly enjoyable boat.  I didn’t feel too handicapped by the speed penalty that I paid for the extra wetted surface of the cutaway full keel.  She still had good speed even in light airs, and offered a more comfortable motion than most fin-keel boats that I have been on.  The comfort was due in part to her keel design, but also because the Vanguard was heavier, deeper, lower in freeboard, and had a more moderate beam than the other cruising sailboats that I had experienced.  I don’t want to contribute to the myth that there aren’t any comfortable fin-keel boats out there!  Those boats do exist. They are just more difficult to find (it’s not fashionable to build relatively narrow boats with easy bilge sections these days) and still won’t offer the other advantages of a keel with an attached rudder, like weed-shedding, or a rudder that doesn’t rely solely on the stock for attachment to the boat…

Contessa 26
The Contessa 26 has a cutaway keel, but it is much longer than the one on the Vanguard–closer to a full keel.

When I went searching for a small, versatile cruiser a few years ago I settled on the Contessa 26.  This design is based on an older design than the Vanguard, and has a much longer cutaway keel.  It is getting pretty close to a full keel, but still has a concave shape to the forward end.  The longer keel eliminated some of the poor handling  characteristics of the more dramatically cut-away keel on the Vanguard.  Having a longer keel gave the rudder a longer lever arm and actually improved steering, even though there was a much longer keel to drag through tight turns.  She tracked like a dream and worked very well with her self-steering gear in all conditions.  I loved sailing this boat.  The Contessa 26 design was close enough to a proper, old-school full-keel boat that it seemed only a small leap to go all the way to a full-keel the next time that I went boat shopping…

Continue reading Part Two here. 

Sailing out of season

Passport 40 wave
Pushing north under power on Pamlico Sound in winter.  The boat is a Passport 40.

I just returned to Oriental, NC, after helping to move a boat north to Annapolis, MD for a friend.  It is still a little bit early in the season to be heading north, and the crew was chilled by the biting north wind that slowed our progress.  Still, it was a successful trip made without any unpleasant surprises.

One of the most memorable aspects of that short (just under 360 miles in 4 days) trip was that it was marked by almost constant headwinds.  Our progress was slowed to speeds frequently below 4 knots, and to less than one knot for one short, but painfully slow stretch even though the boat’s powerful diesel engine was working hard enough to have pushed us at over 6 knots had we been in calm seas.  To have frequent northerlies at this time of year is to be expected, and we certainly had our share.

The same trip could likely have been made with warm winds at our backs in just another month or two, but then the anchorages and marinas would be crowded with others out enjoying the spring breezes.  In my own cruising life, uncrowded waterways and anchorages are among the reasons that can make cruising out of season an attractive venture.

I am often content to travel out of season and take my lumps.  It’s not even really necessary to get beaten up too badly by the weather.  This most recent trip was made through the contrary winds of winter in order to adhere to a schedule, but free of the push to be at our destination as soon as possible it could have been an easy trip even though it was still winter.  The beautiful days don’t come as frequently when cruising out of season, but for one who is willing to wait, there are still plenty of fair winds to be had even though the temperatures may be chilly.  One may enjoy the truly exquisite days when they do arrive with the additional satisfaction of having had to endure a little discomfort to “earn” them, and the uncrowded anchorage at day’s end or voyage’s end is shared only with the hardier of nature’s creatures.

Window dressing

Painted prop
Spray-painted prop recently spotted in a boatyard

The owner of this propeller has his boat on the hard and is doing some work himself.  Many of the other boats in this yard have propellers that have been cleaned and even polished to a nice, bright bronze.  I saw this boat when it first arrived, and it had obviously been neglected for some time.  The prop was covered in barnacles.  It seems that the owner looked around; saw the bright wheels (propellers) on the boats around him, and formulated a plan to make his look like the others.  That plan obviously involved a can of shiny, metallic-colored spray paint.  If you click on the picture above, you can see the spray paint overspray on the shaft.  Well, that is a quick way to get a shiny propeller, but I don’t think the spray paint is going to hold up well underwater.  It also seems that he is missing the point of cleaning up the propeller–to get better motoring efficiency.  Or, could it be that this guy knows something I don’t?

I don’t plan on any of this sort of window dressing for Idle Queen–no shiny bits intended only for show.  She’s going to be rough and ready…  Maybe more towards “rough”…

Lessons Learned-Overhangs

Pearson Vanguard Merry Way
Here I am on my first floating home.  Note the graceful stern.

My first cruising keelboat, a very experienced Pearson Vanguard named Merry Way, played a big part in shaping my current opinions about what traits are truly desirable in a cruising sailboat.  Merry Way wasn’t exactly the boat that I had wanted at the time, but she was the best boat that I could afford.  As it turns out, to this day she was the most expensive boat that I have ever owned.  Where to spend my cruising funds was one of the things that she taught me–an important lesson, as these days I don’t have nearly the money I did when I was working full-time as an engineer (as I was when I bought Merry Way).

Here are the some of the important particulars of the Pearson Vanguard:

LOA-32′ 6″    LWL-22′ 4″    Beam-9′ 3″    Draft-4′ 6″   Displacement-12,000 lbs (actual weight; brochure lists 10,300 lbs)    Sail area-437 sq ft.    

Sailors spend a lot of time looking at those numbers for different boats and comparing the numbers from one boat to another.  They give a pretty good overall feel for the size, heft, and power of a boat.  

In this case, one of the things that can be seen in the numbers is that the Vanguard has long overhangs–the difference between the LOA (Length OverAll) and the LWL (Length WaterLine).  The Vanguard’s overhangs are over 10′, or almost a full one-third of her overall length.  That’s a lot of boat hanging in space above the waterline just looking pretty (and I admit that it felt great to be told how beautiful my boat was by passers-by!).  When it comes to a cruising sailboat, however, all of that overhang is mostly just wasted length.  It is true that the stern wave will come up under the counter (stern overhang) of a boat like this to increase its apparent waterline when it is moving, allowing a higher top-end speed for the boat, but that be achieved more effectively by just getting rid of the overhang and actually lengthening the waterline by design.  The long overhangs were put there mostly to help the boat achieve a favorable rating under an old racing rule. 

 The characteristics that caused me to grow to dislike the long overhangs of the Vanguard affected everything from the maintenance to the sailing, and even the habitability of the boat.  The first thing that I noticed on my trip home was that the long overhangs contributed to “hobby horsing”–where the boat tends to pitch when traveling into a sea.  Rather than just riding up and over the waves, the bow would first soar up into the air, and then then plunge down in the troughs, adding an uncomfortable element to the already uncomfortable exercise of trying to sail or motor upwind.  The excess pitching slowed the boat, prolonging the agony of having to endure adverse conditions.  Merry Way often behaved like a rocking chair, with the bow continuing to rise and fall even after a wave had passed.  The pitching was made worse by having cruising gear such as anchors and solar panels near the ends of the boat, but storing gear near the ends is necessary on a cruising boat.  I tried to put only light objects there, but even a few pounds contributed to the problem.  

Maintaining the boat was more difficult because of the overhangs.  Keeping the hull clean in the area where the stern overhung the water required feats of acrobatics.  That area needed frequent cleaning because of water splashing under there which caused algae to grow on the topsides.  I spent hours hanging upside-down from my legs while I reached way under the back of the boat to scrub off weed and grime.  I tried doing it from the dinghy, but couldn’t reach all of the hull.  I tried a brush on a stick from the dock, but the long lever arm reduced my scrubbing pressure to almost nothing.  It was easy to clean when the boat was out of the water, but that only happened once per year.  Hanging over the rail was the most effective method of cleaning that area of the hull, but I always ended up with bruises for days afterwards from draping my body over the edge of the boat.  

I have heard others complain about the noise made when wavelets slapped under the counter, but I didn’t mind them.  Every once in a while, though, a big wake or an ocean wave would get under there with a solid thump that was impossible to ignore.

The overall effect of having a boat with long overhangs in a cruising boat is to cause the boat to become apparently smaller.  The ends would optimally be kept empty to avoid hobby horsing, but that isn’t practical.  Waterline length is reduced–even if the stern wave comes up under the counter, the bow still has unused overhang not contributing to waterline length.  This reduces the speed potential of the boat, as the longer the waterline length of a boat, the faster it can move through the water (we’re talking about displacement boats here that don’t get up on the surface of the water and plane).  Basically, the Vanguard is functionally similar to a heavy 25-28′ boat.

This isn’t all meant to sound overly negative.  I lived with the quirks of the Vanguard for a few years and sailed many enjoyable miles on that boat.  The sweeping overhangs paired with the beautiful sheer drawn by Phil Rhodes are beautiful to look at, and that is worth something.  The Pearson Vanguard is a pretty good sailing boat if she is kept light, especially in the ends.  It is still a reliable, old-school racer/cruiser design that can be pressed into more serious cruising service, if one is willing to accept the tradeoffs.