A lot of ink and a lot of breath is expended by the pundits on the topic of safety at sea, and we are no exception. Seminars and lectures are conducted all around the country that beat the safety drum. The Coast Guard and Power Squadrons publish pamphlets and run courses. And skippers spend their time and treasure equipping their boats with high-capacity bilge pumps, life rafts, and other emergency gear. All of this begs the question, what are we preparing for?
The answer is the failure of our boats at sea, either due to bad weather, collision or mechanical breakdowns. Sinking: In large part, that’s what we’ve all got in the backs of our minds. While incidents of cruising boats sinking at sea are few and far between, the need to be vigilant, prepared and self-sufficient out on the water means that we must be ready to face the problem should it ever arise. That being the case, one has to wonder why unsinkablity is not high on our lists when we set out to shop for offshore boats?
We don’t have the answer to that one. But we do have one word for those seeking an unsinkable production boat for coastal and offshore cruising: Etap. Founded in Belgium in 1970, Etap is a subsidiary of a larger company that manufactures composite, pre-formed building materials and, as such, has access to the latest developments in composite technology and techniques.
The concept that has driven Etap since its inception has been design and construction of modern cruising boats that are unsinkable and meet three strict criteria. First, when an Etap boat is holed and flooded, it must maintain freeboard equivalent to 3 percent of the hull’s LOA. In the case of the 38i model, that freeboard will be 13.68 inches. Second, even when completely flooded, the boat must be capable of being sailed efficiently enough to get home. Third, the flooded boat must have enough innate stability and flotation to right itself from a 90-degree knockdown with all crew on the leeward rail.
What does it take to meet these requirements? Several design and construction factors are involved, but the most notable is the use of double-skin construction that permits the builder to fill large voids with closed-cell polyurethane foam. The tradeoff here is the loss of usable storage space beneath the forward berth, behind the settees, and aft. On the 38i, 240 cubic feet of foam are installed between hull and hull liner and deck and deck liner.
To provide the righting moment necessary to bring the boat back from a 90-degree knockdown when flooded, the 7/8 Selden rig is made as light as possible, and the center of gravity has been designed as low as possible, given the constraints of moderate draft. The result is a stiff, modern hull with an efficient rig that will acquit itself in any cruising fleet, while maintaining its high level of safety.
Although Etap has mainly been a builder of smaller boats, their 38i has been a popular offshore model, and the 32i is also a capable small passagemaker. As used boats, these two will make good values. This year, Etap has launched the “s-series” with the 34s and the 39s, both of which advance the art and science of building unsinkable cruising boats into the 21st Century.
The philosophy of the company has been to adopt the best innovations in materials, design and manufacturing techniques. Unlike many production-line builders, each boat is built by a team or work cell that is responsible for building a specific boat from start to finish. It is a production method used by Saab and Volvo among automobile manufacturers, and it results in a finished product that caries the pride and craftsmanship of true modern shipwrights. Although built by hand, the actual production of the parts that go into each boat is highly automated and dependent upon modern CAD programs and automated laser-guided cutting tools that are similar in many ways to machines used in airplane construction.
The boats themselves are fabricated from four basic fiberglass parts: hull, hull inner liner, deck, and deck liner. As the hull and inner liner and the deck and its liner are joined, the voids are filled with blocks of polyurethane. Then, once joined, the remaining voids are filled with foam that is blown in. Because the foam expands radically as it is injected, the liners or inner skins are heavily braced during the process to prevent them from becoming deformed.
The advantage of adding foam insulation is more than providing flotation to the hull. The insulation adds to the overall strength of the structure in much the same way that foam or balsa coring adds to the panel strength of a cored laminate. Additionally, the foam in the hull and deck provides sound dampening and heat insulation, cutting down on noise while at sea and on condensation inside lockers when the ambient air temperature drops.
The hull and deck are joined with vertical flanges that are first bonded with polyester paste and then fastened mechanically with stainless-steel bolts. The aluminum rubbing strake along the hull deck joint is fastened integrally with the joint and acts both as a stiffener and protection for the joint.
It should be noted that even closed-cell foam tends to absorb moisture over time, which will add weight to the hull and decrease the flotation qualities of the foam. According to Etap, long- term tests have shown that the foam the company now uses will absorb a maximum of 5 percent of its volume. In the 38i, this represents about four gallons or 32 pounds of water.
The fin keels are bolted on externally and fastened in place with stainless-steel bolts and polyester bedding compound. The rudders are formed of foam-filled fiberglass with heavy steel posts. On the larger boats, the masts are stepped on deck, with compression loads being carried with a strut between the hull and keel.
The overall quality of construction in the Etap line is excellent and meets and often exceeds the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards that govern composite construction throughout the European Union.
These are European boats, hence the interior layouts and general styling has a decidedly Euro flavor. Bulkheads and furniture are fabricated from pale beech or birch plywood panels. Doors tend to be plainly made, without elaborate trim, and often will be oval in shape. Countertops are all Corian, while galley and head sinks are bowl-shaped stainless-steel pressings. The new 39s has teak decks as standard equipment, but the rest of the line is spec’d with two-tone non-skid gelcoat.
The interiors of these boats will seem slightly tight by U.S. standards, but are functional and comfortable. In the smaller boats, privacy has been sacrificed for added berths and storage. In the new 39s, the overall layout and style is much more attuned to the American desire for large private cabins fore and aft.
Fractional rigs have been more popular in Europe than in the United States, although that trend has shifted in the past few years as more builders follow the lead of J Boats and builders from the European side of the pond. The obvious advantage of a 7/8 rig is the reduced size of the headsail, which can be trimmed more easily than a larger genoa. The tradeoff here is the increased height of the mast and the greater sail area in the mainsail, which can be a handful to manage in heavy weather. Yet, on balance, the 7/8 rig has to be considered one of the best options for shorthanded crews and offshore sailors.
The mast’s rigging and furling systems are supplied by Selden, which manufacturers Furlex roller-furling systems. Based in Sweden, the high-quality Selden products fit neatly with the design and styling requirements of the Etap line.
The New 39s
The new Etap 39s, which was introduced at the Amsterdam show, advances the company’s reach into the blue water market. Although we have not been on the boat, nor had a chance to sail it, we like what we see in the drawings and specifications lists, and we think the boat merits consideration as a world-about cruiser — in no small part because it is unsinkable.
The overall design is more generic in look than its smaller sisters, having a standard reverse-curve cabin profile over a straight sheer. The stern has a reverse transom with a cutout for a platform and steps. Although this stern design makes it difficult to mount a windvane, the platform is convenient for swimming or boarding from a dinghy.
Below the water, the boat is thoroughly modern, with a high-aspect spade rudder, very much in line with rudders being drawn by Finot and Farr. The keel is a high-aspect fin, slightly swept aft and bearing a lead bulb at its bottom. This is both the fastest and most stable combination currently in favor among yacht designs, and it should enable the boat to sail efficiently to windward and track well in following seas.
The boat is remarkably light for its size and general cruising design, carrying a displacement of only 14,300 pounds (unloaded) with ballast in the keel of 4,500 pounds. The Ballast/Displacement Ratio of 31 percent is moderate, yet given the overall parameters of the hull design, enough to make the boat stiff and weatherly.
Below decks, the standard layout calls for a tri-cabin design, with double cabins fore and aft and a large saloon amidships. At the foot of the companionway ladder, the head is to port where it can double as a wet locker, and the large chart table is to starboard. The galley is an in-line configuration with the dinette opposite to starboard. This is not a great seagoing design. The cook will have to strap himself in place with a galley belt in most weather conditions, plus the galley is far from the cockpit.
The after cabin will be the master stateroom, and it will be both comfortable and secure as a sea cabin when on passage. There appears to be adequate storage, although the drawings do not show drawers or locker space. The forward guest cabin is large enough to be a master cabin if the owner so desires, and it has two hanging lockers and storage lockers over the berth. A good touch is the wash basin to port. Sensibly, the boat has only one head, so a second wash basin forward will make life in the forward cabin more convenient.
The Etap 39s is an impressive design that should be an excellent boat for offshore sailing and cruising. Although it lacks the storage space of many boats in its size range, it does many other things well and should not be dismissed simply because of that drawback. In fact, for those looking for a boat in this size range and performance range, the 39s should be considered a top contender.
The base price for the boat is 5,288,000 Belgian Francs, which translates roughly into $155,000, with a very complete list of standard equipment.
Etap does not at present have representation in North America, so those who may be tempted by the attractive European styling, good sailing characteristics, unique unsinkability, and great price of the boats will have to go to Europe to see a new model. Despite that obvious drawback, we consider the new 39s a very interesting new player in the blue water market, and we would think it a real plus given the time to be able to pick up a new boat in Europe, cruise Northern Europe for a summer, and then sail it home to North America via the Caribbean, where’s we’d have to spend the winter. Those on a more real-world schedule could have the boat shipped across the pond for about what it would costs to actually sail it across.
Is an unsinkable boat the answer to offshore safety? No. Safety depends much more on the skipper and crew than on the boat in which they are sailing, and that, no doubt, is why most of the boats being sailed all over the world have negative buoyancy and excellent safety records. Yet given the option, knowing that the boat in which you are venturing offshore will not sink underneath you has to be incredibly comforting.