Choosing a Safe Sailboat

Finding the right boat for you and your family

5th February 2002.
By George Day

The choice of a boat in which to sail and cruise depends on many factors. Boats are in many ways emblems of ourselves. They reflect our sense of taste, our affluence, our experience and, most importantly, our plans for where and how we will sail.

It would be impossible to put down on paper much that would be helpful on the aesthetics of sailboats. No matter how long a person has been involved with boats and sailing, he is sure to have formed a clear idea of what looks sweet in a boat and what doesn’t. The old adage among yacht brokers and dealers advises those in the market for a new boat to only buy a boat you fall in love with. That’s sound advice, although there is no telling why one person will think a particular boat is a beauty while the next fellow will scoff at it.

The matter of affluence is even harder to nail. Some sailors, no matter the size of their bank balance, choose to sail in small pocket cruising boats, in trailer sailers or compact keel boats. Yet, next to him in the anchorage you will find another sailor, of modest means, who has sacrificed much to sail in a boat that stretches his ability to pay for it. One takes pride in his ability to enjoy sailing without suffering the slings and arrows of financial worry, the other takes pride in his ability to handle and maintain the object of his seafaring dreams.

Sailing should be fun and owning a boat is a large part of that fun. Choosing a boat that suits you and your family should place the notion of fun high on the list. That is why so many pundits advise those looking for new boats to buy a boat that does not strain the checkbook and therefore does not strain the home financial front. If the new boat is a drain on the checkbook, requiring many other sacrifices, then chances are good that those who are supposed to enjoy this object of beauty will come to resent it. It has happened before. It will happen again.

In the same contexts, however, choosing a tiny cruiser can have the same down side. If the checkbook looks great but the new boat can’t comfortably house the sailing crew for a wet weekend, then the boat won’t get the use originally planned for it. It’s always a compromise.

One assumption those in the market for a new cruising boat often mistakenly make is that the larger you go, the safer you will be. Size will affect both speed and sea keeping abilities, both of which are safety factors. But, there are many small cruising boats that have sailed long and competent voyages while their larger counterparts remained securely moored in the marina. If the small cruiser is well found and fitted out, and if it is sailed competently, it can offer its crew the world, although it will be a world without hot showers, ice cream and a large library.

When young Tania Aebi and her father Ernst went looking for a boat for her to take around the world on her solo circumnavigation, they sought a vessel that would look after Tania. The boat had to have a hull that was robust, would handle the sea easily, would be kind to the crew by self-steering easily and would ride out a gale hove to, if need be. Sails had to be of a size that could be managed by a 95-pound, 18-year-old girl. The anchor tackle had to be light enough to be retrieved without the aid of a windlass. The boat should have an inboard diesel, but should sail well enough to get Tania off a lee shore, or through a coral pass.

After inspecting dozens of boats, Ernst and Tania finally chose a boat that had a long, distinguished pedigree. The boat was a Contessa 26, built by J.J. Taylor in Canada. The design was based on Scandinavian Folkboats, which had long proved to be able and sea kindly. The fiberglass hull had a full keel, with the lead enclosed in the fiberglass. The large, rudder was hung on the trailing edge of the keel and on the little boat’s transom. Such a rudder is well protected when the boat is aground and is particularly good for affixing a self-steering gear. The rig was a simple, single-spreader masthead configuration, with sails small enough for Tania to handle them in just about any conditions.

The accommodations below were originally designed for a couple. For Tania, the space was ample for solo sailing. With fairly deep bilges and full ends forward and aft, there was plenty of storage room for the gear and supplies an offshore cruiser needed. And, just as important, there was enough space aboard for Tania to stow away the treasures she collected as she visited islands and countries around the world.

Varuna, as Tania named her Contessa 26, was the perfect pocket cruising boat for the voyage around the world. But, for most sailors, a 26-footer would be the bare minimum. Moreover, for most, a boat of that size would not offer the speed and the comfort to make offshore sailing a pleasure.

At the other extreme is Steve and Linda Dashew’s new cruising boat Sundeer. Designed by the Dashews as their own ultimate offshore cruising boat, Sundeer follows in the wake of a decade of boat design and building the Deerfoot line of boats. The Dashews’s premise is to go long, lean and fast. Their Deerfoot boats are all over 60 feet, are of light displacement, shallow draft and carry very short rigs. Yet, because the boats are narrow on the waterline and have fair canoe shaped hulls, the boats slide very easily through the water. Sundeer at 67 feet, can be handled easily by two and will comfortably average 200 miles a day at sea. A complex boat, that would strain many sailor’s pocket books and exhaust their knowledge of onboard systems, Sundeer is for the Dashews a boat that is the culmination of their 170,000 miles of offshore sailing, of their boat building experience and of their own sailing preferences.

Somewhere in between Varuna and Sundeer most sailors will find the cruising boat that suits their wants, their needs and their financial and maintenance abilities. To make the right choice, it is important, first, to find a boat that you fall for like a ton of bricks — the boat should be a vision of beauty and function.

But, once you’ve found a boat — or several — that fill the first requirement, it is equally important to stand back and judge the boat as dispassionately as possible. To do so, you need to evaluate the overall design of the boat, its construction, and its detailing. A sailor looking for the right boat, the safe boat, must be somewhat schizophrenic: He must be a surveyor with a real twinkle in his eye.

Designed For Safety

The world of yacht design has gone through a major upheaval in the decade of the l980s. Following the disastrous Fastnet race of 1979, so well documented and analyzed by John Rousmaniere in his book Fastnet Force 10, many leading designers and sailors began to question the direction of design trends.

During that race, a Force 10 gale (48 to 55 knots) hit the fleet of 303 boats that was racing from the southern England, around Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland. From surveys taken by race organizers and from interviews performed by Rousmaniere in preparation for writing his book, some very disturbing statistics came to light.

It is estimated that at least 18 boats were rolled a full 360 degrees. Twenty four boats were abandoned, five sank and approximately 170 were rolled over until their masts hit the water. Also, it was reported that five boats became inverted — turned turtle — and remained upside down for periods between 30 seconds and five minutes. Lastly, and tragically, fifteen sailors lost their lives to drowning or hypothermia.

The Cruising Club of America, which was preparing to run their biennial Newport-Bermuda Race in the spring of 1980, took a hard look at the Fastnet race and began to study what could be done to prevent such a disaster from reoccurring.

The CCA’s Technical Committee joined forces with the Technical Committee of the Measurement Handicap System to see what caused the Fastnet disaster. Several experts in the field of yacht design and marine engineering became central players in a study that was to last for five years. Karl Kirkman, chairman of the Sailboat Committee of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, yacht designer Olin Stephens, Richard McCurdy, Chairman of the Safety At Sea Committee of the United States Yacht Racing Union, and Dan Strohmeier, who was a former president of SNAME, all undertook the various tasks of analyzing the design attributes, weather attributes and safety preparations. The primary focus of the study was to determine how and why so many boats capsized.

In 1985 a final report was issued by USYRU and SNAME’s Joint Committee on Safety From Capsizing. The 66-page document, which is available from the United States Yacht Racing Union (P.O. Box 209, Newport, Rhode Island 02840), details the research undertaken by the joint committee and offers several broad conclusions that help illuminate what is safe and what is not in hull and yacht design. While the focus of the work was primarily to assess the capabilities — the likelihood of capsize — on boats designed under the various racing rules, IOR, IMS and the old CCA rule, the conclusions should affect the way all sailors think about design.

The conclusions of the report, in brief, are:

  • Larger boats are less prone to capsize than smaller boats.
  • A dismasted sailboat is more likely to capsize than a boat carrying her full rig.
  • A boat has an inherent stability range, ie. an angle of heel past which it will capsize. That stability range can be calculated from the boat’s lines and specifications.
  • Some modern boats, which have been designed to the IOR, or are designed to be particularly beamy, may remain inverted following a capsize. Boats with a stability range under 120 degrees may remain inverted for as long as two minutes.
  • Boats lying sideways to a sea, particularly light, beamy vessels, are more likely to capsize than boats that are held bow to the sea or stern to the sea. It follows, then, that boats that are sailed actively in gale conditions and breaking seas are more likely to avoid capsize than those left to lie untended, beam to the seas.

The issue of whether or not a boat will capsize, and when and how it might suffer such a fate, is a key point for any sailor contemplating safe extended coastal or offshore cruising. By analyzing a boat’s stability range, you can get a very good reading on how the boat will handle a gale at sea and how best to plan you own gale tactics. The Joint Committee sought a simple way for boat owners to arrive at a usable measurement of their boat’s stability range.

The best approach is to have your boat measured by an IMS measurer. From the measurements, the USYR measurement team can then calculate the boat’s stability range. The USYRU has a record of many production boats already measured, so it may be possible to purchase the IMS information, containing the stability information from the Union.

Another approach is to use the simple Capsize Screening Formula, derived by the committee for use by average sailors who do not have access to IMS measurements and do not own a boat already on the USYRU’s list. The formula, which assumes that the vessel in question is of a fairly standard type and of a size suitable for offshore sailing, gives a general guide to a boat’s stability. The number played out by the formula is the result of comparing the boat’s beam with its displacement, for excessive beam has been shown to contribute to a lack of ultimate stability, while displacement can be a determining factor in improving stability. The formula is as follows:

Capsize Screening # = Boat’s Max. Beam (feet) / Cube Root (Gross Displacement / 64)

In English: Take the boat’s gross displacement (in pounds), divide it by 64 and then take the cube root of the quotient. Now, take that cube root and divide it into the boat’s maximum beam (in feet). The resulting Capsize screening number should be 2 or less. In general, if the number is over 2, the boat fails the screen. If the number is under 2, the boat passes.

Using the Capsize Screening Formula, you will be able to get a quick idea of a boat’s stability. However, you will want to explore the boat’s full capsize characteristics before you decide to purchase it and set off sailing in open waters.

Assessing a boat’s stability range will give you a good idea of how the boat will behave in the worst conditions. But, when looking at a boat’s design with safety in mind, it is essential to evaluate both the hull design in general and specifically.

The trend to light, fast hulls that has dominated cruising and racing boats since the late 1960s, has provided sailors with boats that offer a high level of performance and ample accommodations. The evolution of hull design from full keels with keel-hung rudders has been a function of building materials and engineering as much as it has been due to innovation on the part of designers. In the 1880s Nathaneal Herreshoff, the Wizard of Bristol, developed what may be the first small sailing vessel with a fin keel and spade rudder. He discovered that the performance of such a hull configuration outperformed every other design option of the time. Yet, a split keel and rudder did not find its way into wide use until the advent of fiberglass materials and the engineering made possible by the material.

Traditional boats of today, boats with full keels, keel-hung rudders and their propellers in an aperture, are descendants of working craft from a hundred years ago. The design is noted for its sea kindliness, it’s ability to carry heavy loads, and its slow and deliberate motion through the water. The design type evolved at a time when all boats were built of wood. The simple engineering dictates of constructing a seaworthy sailing vessel in wood led designers and builders to craft the full-keel designs we know today. In fact, the reason Nathaneal Herreshoff’s early fin keeler did not lead to similar designs in larger, ocean going vessels was simply because the materials required to make such a vessel strong, seaworthy and safe did not exist at the time.

Yet, small boat design quickly followed Herrshoff’s lead. The Star boat, the 110 and 210 and other one-designs have long distinguished histories. All three are fin-keelers with spade rudders. But it was not until the l960s that larger boats, ocean sailing boats, could be engineered safely using the split design type. William Lapworth’s Cal 40, designed in the early 1960s, led the way by acquitting itself as a very fast sailing boat around the buoys, a winner of offshore races and, importantly, a safe and sea kindly vessel. The design of the Cal 40 was made possible by the extraordinary strength and forming abilities of fiberglass construction. The material permitted imaginative designers to seek new ways to make sailboats go fast, and new ways to combine speed and comfort.

The concepts behind the split keel and rudder design type gained even more notoriety and popularity when Olin Stephens created the successful America’s Cup defender Intrepid. Unlike her competitors in that season, Intrepid had a stubby fin keel, a bustle under the after quarters and had her rudder mounted at the end of the bustle well aft. Intrepid was unbeatable. The success of the Cal 40 and of Intrepid opened many designer’s and builder’s eyes to the performance advantages of the fin keel, spade rudder design type. It was not long after that such designs became the standard, both among modern cruising boats and the racing fleet.

There is little argument today that the split keel and rudder configuration produces boats faster than configurations of the more traditional type. If speed is the first prerequisite in a boat, then lightness, minimum wetted surface and a spade rudder/fin keel design is the way to go. Yet, for those who will be sailing in conditions other than pure drag racing around the buoys there are other considerations that must go into the selection of the right boat. The sailor who is contemplating sailing long distances along a coast or making offshore passages must look for design qualities that enhance seaworthiness, stability, the ability to carry the loads of gear, water and fuel and the ability to be handled by a small — often two-person — crew, as well as speed through the water.

The lessons learned from the 1979 Fastnet cast a pall over the design evolutions of the IOR. The work done by the Joint Committee on Safety From Capsizing is a monument to the thought that has gone into yacht design during the 1980s. The outcome has been a consensus among the leaders in naval architecture, in race organization and among the leading boat builders. At the beginning of the 1990s, sailors looking for suitable, safe boats in which to go to sea inherit the benefit of all the thought and work that has taken place. New boats coming into the market are being conceived to be stable in bad weather, to be sea kindly and to be rigged for short-handed sailing. Safety, although not heralded by boat builder’s promotion or by the sailors, is the big winner. And, as the IOR slowly fades away, to be replaced by the IMS, sailors around the world will find ever increasingly that boats brought to them by designers and builders conform to the latest and best thinking in the safety at sea category.

Constructed For Safety

The world of sailing — both racing and cruising — experienced an explosion in the late 1960s and 1970s. That explosion continues today, although the flash has become muted by time. During those two decades, a vast number of boats were brought to the market to serve the fast-growing ranks of new sailors. The pace of design and construction was furious. And, as the explosion took place, no single regulating body was able to step forth and assign standards for boats that would set minimum levels — minimum scantlings — that would ensure safe, seaworthy construction.

Yet, it is the construction of our boats, the very integrity of the hulls in which we sail, that separates us from the cold waves, from the deep water and from a survival situation. And, in hull construction, there are several basics a prospective sailor and boat owner should look for to satisfy himself that he and his crew will set out in a boat built suitably to the type of sailing ahead.

Insurance and Verification

Lloyds of London has for years been the largest broker of marine insurance for both commercial and private vessels. As an insurer, Lloyds developed a set of standards for commercial shipping that were used worldwide by naval architects and shipbuilders. In the same fashion, Lloyds also developed a set of standards for the construction of pleasure yachts, yachts which it would also insure.

The highest Lloyd’s certification for a yacht is called Lloyd’s A1. Such a certification means that the hull and deck of a yacht have been built to the Lloyd’s highest standards, and that a Lloyd’s surveyor or inspector has been present at critical juncture of the building process. While Lloyd’s has other levels of certification, the only one seen in yacht construction is A1. For obvious reasons, no boat builder would built to or advertise the fact that he was building boats to a lesser standard.

While the Lloyd’s standards have proven useful for the consumer, the standards also have suffered from random use and from missing the major technological developments in fiberglass construction. Most builders of pleasure sailing craft do not register with Lloyds, nor do they adhere strictly to Lloyd’s standards. This is largely because the builders of modern, production and custom sailing boats are years ahead of the Lloyd’s standards in the development and understanding of composite, fiberglass construction techniques.

For example, it was only in l986, in the year preceding the Australian defense of the America’s Cup, that Lloyd’s sanctioned the use of coring materials in a fiberglass hull. This addition and modification to the construction standards was brought about by the New Zealand challenger group, and designers Bruce Farr and Ron Holland, who worked closely with Lloyds to develop truly modern standards for hull construction. All America’s Cup yachts, at the time, had to be built to Lloyd’s standards. All, in that generation, were built of aluminum. But, the New Zealanders, leading the world in fiberglass construction technology, saw an advantage in building their challenger in composite materials. Kiwi Magic, as the New Zealand 12-Meter was known, proved herself to be extremely fast. Only the experience and wiles of Dennis Conner, sailing the aluminum Stars & Stripes, stopped the “plastic fantastic” 12-meter from New Zealand from taking the Cup away from the Australians.

Today, Lloyd’s offers builders, designers, and boat owners conservative standards for boat construction. A boat that meets the A1 certification will, by definition, be built like a brick privy. Such a craft is the type you may want if you are meandering about coral atolls or heading off to areas where you are liable to find brash ice floating across you anchorage.

However, the sailor who is interested in the leading edge of hull and deck construction will find that the builders are still ahead of the insurers when it comes to fabricating sophisticated, cored composite structures.

An American organization that has filled the need to create sound, basic standards for yacht construction is the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). The ABS, based in New York, has long been a world leader in the commercial field and a rival of Lloyds for authority among shipbuilders and commercial surveyors. Only recently, under the auspices of the U.S. Naval Academy’s need for new sail training sloops, has the ABS come to grips with the issue of standardizing hull specifications for modern sailing yachts.

The first commercial, production sailing boat to be built with the ABS plaque on its bulkhead is the new Annapolis 44, built by Tillotson-Pearson in Rhode Island. The 44-foot sloop, designed by James McCurdy, is a moderate displacement fin keeler that rates satisfactorily under the IMS, has a solid offshore rig, a pleasant cockpit that will protect the crew from the weather, and a level of construction and detailing that would make any offshore sailor feel comfortable. Premiering in l989, the Annapolis 44 set a standard for American-built boats and led the ABS into the world of yacht design, yacht specifications and construction.

Whether a boat is built to Lloyd’s or ABS standards is entirely at the discression of the builder. For quite some time, selective owners who have sought not only the best in their boat but the best in their insurance, have had their vessels built to Lloyd’s A1 standards. In the early 1990s, many of those boat buyers and those building custom boats, will use the new ABS standards instead. In fact, the ABS standards may lead the way as they have been written by experts who understand the fast changing world of composite, cored fiberglass construction.

Although there is no single governing body offering final standards and a seal of approval for modern production sailboats, the American Boat And Yacht Council (ABYC), a volunteer organization that writes exacting specification for boat systems and construction details. The ABYC offers yacht designers and boat builders sound, fundamental standards on wiring and electrical configurations, plumbing, engine installations, exhaust systems, hull-to-deck-joint details and much more.

Following ABYC standards is not compulsory for any boat manufacturer, but most use the ABYC standards as a matter of course. The reasons most follow the ABYC lead are simple: standardization greatly simplifies the commissioning process for boat dealers; standardization offers designers and builders a constant and effective method for analyzing costs in construction; and, finally, adhering to the ABYC standards offers some protection from liability claims against a product.

None of the organizations that minister standards to the recreational boating field have the authority to enforce their standards. There are many boats available on the market built in the absence of either Lloyd’s inspectors, or ABS inspectors, or without the guidance of the ABYC standards. If you are seriously considering taking your boat and family and crew offshore, then you owe it to yourself and to those who sail with you to inquire into the standards used in the construction of your boat. And, while you may make a decision on a suitable vessel on it merits other than the standards to which it was built, it would be wise to check with your insurance agent prior to purchasing a vessel to see if your judgment of quality and value adds up to a vessel that is also insurable.

In hull and deck construction there are some fundamental qualities that mark the difference between a boat designed for safe sailing and a boat that has not been so designed. The following list of questions may be of assistance when assessing a boat for safe sailing and extended cruising.

The Keel:

  • Is the keel made of lead? If so, and if it is fastened to the exterior of the hull, have the keel bolts been well positioned and secured in the lead structure?
  • Is the keel Iron? If so, is rust present? Is the keel-hull joint showing separation due to a build-up of rust? Has the iron keel been etched with acid to prevent rust and then coated with an epoxy coating to prohibit further oxidization?
  • Is the keel a fin? Is the hull robustly reinforced at the keel-hull joint? Do keel bolts pass through strengthening stringers? Are the keel bolts accessible for tightening? Is the keel bedded in a suitable compound, such as 3M’s 5200?
  • Does the keel have wings? Are they cast integrally, or are they bolted into place?
  • Is the keel encased in the fiberglass hull? Is the hull well protected from grounding damage? Is the ballast secured in place with fiberglass or some other permanent composite construction?
  • Is there a centerboard in the keel? Can the centerboard be serviced without destroying the keel? Is the centerboard cavity or trunk completely watertight? Does the centerboard have stoppers to keep it from banging against the keel in sloppy weather? Will the centerboard float? Will it bend, preventing raising it, in bad weather?
  • Is the rudder attached to the keel? Is the heel fitting robust? Are the pintles and gudgeons bolted to the keel, or are they glassed in place? Is the propeller in an aperture? Is the aperture large enough for a larger propeller?

The Rudder:

  • Is the rudder separate from the keel? Does it have a skeg to prevent collision damage? Is there a suitable heel fitting for the skeg-hung rudder?
  • Is the rudder a spade rudder? Is it balanced? Is the rudder post robust and of a material that will not deteriorate such as stainless steel. Are metal strengthening plates welded to the rudder post inside the rudder? Is the through-hull for the rudder post heavily built and sealed with a water-tight stuffing box or another suitable arrangement?
  • Is the rudder attached to the keel? Are the pintles and gudgeons fabricated of suitable noncorrosive materials and then bonded electrically to the hull bonding system? Is the rudder fitted with a heel fitting that is robust? Can it be removed if it is necessary to repair the rudder? Can the propeller shaft be removed without taking off the rudder?

The Hull:

  • Is the hull fiberglass? Has it been laid up to ABS or Lloyd’s standards? Has the laminate been built by hand or was the laminate created with a chopper gun? Was the hull allowed to cure in the mold until the resin had fully kicked? Is the resin resistant to osmotic blistering, such as vinylester or epoxy resins? Has a barrier cost of resin been applied below the waterline? Has uni-directional or other strengthening glass-fibers been used in stress areas, such as at the chain plates? Does the hull have stringers running fore and aft to strengthen the glass laminate? Are core samples taken while through-hulls were being installed available for inspection?
  • Is the hull a cored composite construction? Is the coring material of a type approved by ABS or Lloyds? Has the coring material been fared and filled with epoxy putty prior to coating with glass laminate? Are areas of stress, such as at the hull-keel attachment or at chain plates, cored with solid materials and reinforced? Are core samples of the hull available for inspection?
  • Is the hull fabricated of steel or aluminum? Has the metal been coated to prevent corrosion? Have zincs been provided to ward off electrolysis? Is the entire hull and engineering bonded adequately and is there a way to ground the hull easily? Have compatible bottom paints been chosen to prevent galvanic corrosion? Are through-hulls and sea cocks of a material compatible with the hull material? Are dissimilar metals, such as steel and bronze, well insulated for each other by a nonconductive material?
  • Is the hull unsinkable? Have water tight compartments been built in integrally? Can sizable sections of the boat be closed off with water tight doors?

The Thru-Hull Fittings:

  • How many through-hulls does the boat have? How many are below the waterline? Are the through-hulls of high quality materials such as bronze or delrin? Can all through-hulls be closed quickly and easily with strong, well greased sea cocks? Have sea cocks been bonded electrically to the hull bonding system to prevent galvanic corrosion? Are the through-hulls of a cast metal? Have they been inspected for flaws or cracks?
  • Are all through-hull attached to appropriate sea cocks? Are those sea cocks approved by ABS or Lloyds? Are there any unsuitable steel gate-valves fitted ? Are the sea cocks operable? Are wood plugs fitted at each sea cock to plug the through-hull should the sea cock break?

The Hull-Deck Joint?

  • In a fiberglass hull, has a wide flange been provided for mating the hull with the deck molding? Is that flange horizontal or vertical? How has the joint been bonded together? Has a strong, flexible adhesive bedding compound, such as 3M’s 5200 been used? Has the deck been bolted to the hull at no more than six inch intervals? Are the bolts stainless steel and large? Is the toe rail an integral part of the hull-deck joint? Has a sturdy backing plate been provided for all bolts in the joint?
  • In a fiberglass hull, has the hull-deck joint been fiberglassed together with resin and glass? Has the fliberglassing been done on both the inside and outside of the joint to prevent water from seeping into the joint? Is the toe rail bolted through the joint? If so, is it well bedded and bolted down with stainless-steel bolts of an appropriate size and with appropriate backing plates?

The Deck, Cockpit And Cabin Top:

  • Does the whole deck area have an open and workable arrangement? Are the decks formed with a non-skid pattern or covered with a material such as Tread Master? Will water run off the decks quickly? Are there any built-in tripping spots on deck? Does the deck have applied teak on it? If so, is the teak fastened securely to the deck below and bedded in an appropriate bedding compound? Can water migrate beneath the teak? Have all d

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