By George Day
Island Packet 420: Across the Stream
Island packet 420: Blue Water Sailing tests the latest Bob Johnson design
The Gulf Stream off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras is a legendary piece of water. In the spring of 2000, four well-found yachts got into trouble out there in lousy weather, forcing crews to call for assistance — three of these crews actually abandoned ship!
So when we headed out into the Atlantic from Salt Pond’s Marina near Norfolk, Va., a few weeks later, it was with just a hint of trepidation. The fleet we sailed with was the Bermuda High Rally, an event created and organized by Ed Kurowski of Gratitude Yacht Sales in Rock Hall, Md. All 11 boats that set out that evening were Island Packets, and most of the crews were sailing offshore for the first time.
Participants had enjoyed a thorough weather briefing on the departure day from Dane and Jennifer Clark, and we all had the waypoints of favorable Gulf Stream eddies noted on our charts and loaded into our GPSs. As it turned out, making those waypoints with sheets eased was going to be a bit more difficult than we imagined.
As we cleared the land, leaving the lights of Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach behind, the wind filled in at a steady 15 knots from the south. Our course to the first Gulf Stream waypoint was southeast, putting us hard on the wind. With genoa and main rolled all the way out, our Island Packet 420 put her shoulder down and forged ahead at a steady seven knots. By dawn of the first day, the fleet was already scattered. We noted but two sails visible on the horizon — both to leeward, which meant that our fellow passagemakers were having a harder time than we fetching the first favorable mark.
The 420 we sailed aboard belonged to cardiologist Joel Krackow. This was his first offshore trip and his face clearly expressed the name painted on the boat’s transom — So Excited! The vessel and its new sails were right out of the box, fitted out for long-haul voyaging and living aboard. No doubt the canvas, shapely and firm, accounted for some of our windward superiority. But added to that we were sailing the latest evolutionary hull design to come from Island Packet’s president and chief designer Bob Johnson. The updated tweaking of Johnson’s familiar cutaway Full Foil Keel shape and hull form seemed to be making a real difference in the performance characteristics of the new boat.
By evening of the first day, it was becoming clear that we were not going to fetch the favorable eddy under sail alone, so we cranked up the engine and motorsailed under a flat main and strapped staysail toward the waypoint. The strategy worked. By midnight, we had made the eddy and were able to crack off to cross the Stream at more or less right angles. The wind was now up to a steady 22 with gusts to 30. We carried the full main and staysail as we close-reached through the confused and cresting Gulf Stream seas at a steady eight knots, occasionally hitting mid-to-high nines as we kept our watchful eyes on the speedo. And that was through the water. Over the bottom with the aid of our southerly push we were doing happy 11s and 12s.
Through all of this, the autopilot did the lion’s share of steering — no mean feat in wind over 20 and waves running in every direction but ours. The boat’s motion was deliberate and easy, with no sudden lurches or surprising stops and starts; it was the ride you would expect from a moderate-displacement, full-keel boat being sailed fast enough to make the best use of the hull’s natural form stability and power through the waves.
By dawn of the second day, we were into azure blue water and sailing in the southern reaches of the Stream; the air and sea were warm, flying fish soared in the wave troughs and the sun was shining. The boat had come through our bouncy night just fine. Nothing had broken or come adrift, which meant the crew had done well also. Now we were cruising, with three days ahead of us to devote to eating our way through the mountain of stores that Joel and Ed had provisioned for the passage.
For more than 20 years, Bob Johnson has been designing and building boats his own way and to his own meticulous standards. No slave to fashion, Johnson started out with a full-keel, broad-transom 26-footer that proved to be a great little cruiser with the seakeeping manners of a much larger boat. One of our favorite Johnson designs here at BWS is the popular IP 29 — again, a small boat with big-boat manners and well-established legacy of deepwater miles in her wake (see John Schnoering’s write-up of his transatlantic passage aboard the IP 29 Celtic Joy in BWS January 2000).
As the line of Island Packets expanded and new models were brought to market, the basic concept behind the boats — moderate displacement, long cruising keel and simple cutter rig — remained constant. But the execution has been refined.
The 420 is the latest developmental step in the IP line. As noted, the boat utilizes the Full Foil Keel thinking that Johnson has brought to bear in so many of his past designs. By configuring the long keel as a hydrodynamic foil more refined than a simple slab-sided section, the part is intended to develop lift as speed through the water increases, not unlike a modern-day fin. A low-aspect foil such as this won’t have the forceful, competitive lift of a high-aspect foil (deep draft, short chord fore and aft), but it has a measure of lift nonetheless and does provide dramatically better directional stability than a fin. The net benefit is a hull design boasting less than five feet of draft (4’6″ in the shoal option), able to be laid up as a one-piece molding, with an easy and forgiving motion in a seaway.
The 420 rig makes use of the latest in sail-handling technology. On the boat we sailed to Bermuda, we flew an in-mast roller furling main that worked easily and without a hitch, even on the bumpy stretch of road in the Stream. The genoa or yankee is fitted on a roller-furling system forward, while the staysail is set up just aft with a roller furler combined with the new Hoyt jib boom. BWS has sailed countless miles with staysails set free-flying and captured on booms. The new Hoyt jib boom is a huge improvement, allowing you to adjust the shape of the sail for wind strength and wind angle like never before. As we charged along at eight-plus knots on the second night out, we noted how well the staysail set and how much added power it gave us.
The chain plates for the mainmast are positioned all the way outboard, and at first the requisite spreader width seemed atypically wide for a modern oceangoing 42-footer. But advantages of such wide shroud vectors include increased support of the mast with reduced rig compression, and of course uncluttered side decks. The downside of outboard shrouds is the resultant wide genoa sheeting angle. But sailing upwind in moderate conditions, we noted that the 420 sails smartly 45 degrees off true wind — closer to the wind than we would have guessed without seeing it for ourselves.
Island Packets are pure cruising boats, so the design of the deck and accommodations plan is aimed at safety and ease of handling foremost, and comfort a close second. The cockpit is deep and the seat backs high enough to provide both good back support and protection from deck wash. In the Stream, we took breaking waves on the foredeck regularly and occasionally got caught by a sneaky broadside number that covered us in spray. But our seats remained dry, and under the large canvas dodger it was possible to remain on deck without full foul-weather gear. The side decks are wide and unobstructed. With low bulwarks at the hull-deck joint, security on deck is enhanced while dropped tools and clevis pins stay on the boat instead of bouncing directly into the drink.
This vessel is intended to be taken off the beaten track, so anchor systems are set up to be easy for one person to use. The anchor well is split into two compartments; two anchors and complete rodes can be in place and ready to use at all times. The anchors sit on rollers on either side of the short bowsprit. Extending the anchor rollers on the sprit allows the anchors to be kept out of the way of sails and sheets; the sprit arrangement also keeps the tackle — all chain on one — away from the bow and the gelcoat. To our way of thinking, the ability to set and/or retrieve two anchors at a moment’s notice is a safety feature that surely offsets the detrimental effect of extra weight in the bow; and of course during long passages offshore between landfalls, all or some of that ground tackle can be relegated to stowage in the bilge.
Looking at the numbers, the 420′s non-dimensional ratios show a boat moderate in all respects. The Ballast/Displacement (B/D) ratio of 40% is about right for a shoal-draft cruiser, indicating a vessel that is well proportioned and stiff in a blow. The Displacement/Length (D/L) ratio of 257 is right in the middle of the range where the benefits of weight for comfort cross the benefits of lightness for hustle. At 257, the boat is designed to give her crew an easy ride with reasonable speed potential. Lastly, the Sail Area/Displacement (SA/D) ratio of 18 indicates that the boat carries enough sail to keep moving in lighter breezes, though not so much as to require reefing as soon as your hat blows off. Certainly our positive Gulf Stream experience with a full main and staysail in 22-30 knots of wind speaks to this.
All designs are a compromise to a certain extent, yet in the 420, as in so many of the other Island Packets, Bob Johnson has managed to stay remarkably true to his concept of a comfortable, handy cruiser, easy for a couple to sail.
There’s nothing like a falling off a wave at nine knots in the middle of the night to give a you an idea of how well a boat is put together. The crunch at the end of the fall can make bulkheads creak, cabinets fall open, head modules flex, chain plates groan and engine mounts shift. Do it all night, as we did in the Gulf Stream aboard So Excited, and the test takes on some reliability. This is particularly true of a brand-new boat on a shakedown cruise.
The short report is this: Everything worked as intended, nothing broke, no water infiltrated strange places, nothing groaned or shifted.
The longer report has to start with the notion that we expected to have some breakage on the way to Bermuda. The boat was brand-new, and it had been fitted out recently with an extensive array of systems. It usually takes two or three good shake-ups before any boat and its systems settle down and work consistently as intended — this is generally true whether you spend $100,000 or $1 million on the boat.
Perhaps we were lucky. But I think not. The 420 is well put together in the context of offshore sailing, harboring construction techniques and materials that Johnson and his team at IP have been refining for 20 years. The solid laminate hull is laid up with tri-axial cloth under pressure to guarantee high strength-to-weight ratios. Ballast in the keel is internal and enclosed, sealing the keel and creating a second bottom in the hull. The interior furniture sits on an interior floor pan, while bulkheads are tabbed to the hull and deck. The deck is cored with Polycore — a proprietary micro-balloon filling that provides the panel stiffness and insulation needed in the deck without the potential problems associated with balsa and plywood-cored decks. IP is the only builder BWS knows of using this type of core system, so we can not report on its efficacy on the basis of any other sources. However, IP is so sure of the system that it offers a 10-year warranty against deck degradation. A similar 10-year warranty is provided against osmosis in the hull.
The boat’s chain plates, as noted above, are outboard and fixed to the hull with a belt-and-suspender system of double welds, embedded in fiberglass and reinforced with uni-directional glass and bi-axial glass run fan-like well down into the nether regions of the hull. It’s a proven, time-tested Island Packet system.
Engine mounts, mast step (on the keel), 12-volt wiring system (all number coded!), and steering systems show the same attention to detail as the hull-deck joint and chain-plate systems. As we crawled around the bilge of the boat while on the way to Bermuda, the tidiness and thoroughness of the construction process wasevident. And after three days at sea, the bilge was dry, too.
When talking about cruising boats, the word “performance” invariably stirs up that loaded question: What do we really mean by it? Straight-line speed? Tacking angles? Fuel and freshwater capacity? Heavy weather ability?
In a cruising boat intended to be a vehicle for a couple or family to explore the world, near and far, all of that and more enter the final equation, although in varying degrees. The IP 420 is strong in the straight-on cruising realm of sailing: large tanks, comfortable motion, easy to sail alone or as a couple, durable, forgiving in rough seas, a great galley and a trustworthy design concept. During our trip to Bermuda, then afterwards, living aboard for a few days at the St. George’s Dinghy Club, the 420 proved to be comfortable and fitted out judiciously for extended cruising.
In the performance realm, it is worth noting that this boat has the ability to undertake offshore passages at relatively high average speeds. We made the trip to Bermuda in three days, 16 hours, at an average speed over the bottom of 7.3 knots. Not bad at all. Admittedly, we picked up a push in the Gulf Stream — but factoring that out we still averaged seven knots. In the trade winds or in the westerlies of the Forties, the 420 should be able to average 160 miles a day with occasional bursts of 180 or more.
In light airs, we’d maintain that the boat needs to add some sail area for downwind work. As we approached Bermuda, the wind began to die. We hoisted the cruising chute — from Joel’s old boat — but it was too small to be of much use and we were too close on the wind to fly it effectively. The right sail for the job would have been a loose-luff reacher or a flat-cut cruising chute with enough sail area to drive the hull. As it was, we cranked up the 75-h.p. Yanmar and motored into Bermuda at a pleasant six knots.
One of the satisfying things about the IP 420 — and the rest of the Island Packet line, for that matter — is that the boats are pure cruising craft, not designed to be all things to all people. Given that simple and clear focus, the boats execute the important fundamentals extremely well. We’ve seen IPs all over the world, from the Eastern Med to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. With their full keels, attached rudders and protected propeller apertures, the boats are suited to real self-sufficiency. Ample tankage gives these boats range, while simple sailing systems make them safe and convenient for couples sailing on their own. After 650 miles, among the only items on our list of recommendations for the boat, aside from additional light-air canvas, was the unobtrusive “chart table needs fiddles.”
Island Packet owners are extremely loyal to their boats and to the brand, often moving up from one model to the next. This loyalty is perhaps the best testament to the quality of the boats and the builder behind them. For living aboard, shallow-water cruising or passages offshore, the IP 420 will serve her owners well and for a long, long time to come.
|Draft (std)||5’0″||1.5 m|
|Draft (shoal)||4’6″||1.4 m|
|Disp||30,000 lbs.||13,160 kgs|
|Ballast||12,000 lbs.||5443 kgs|
|Sail Area||1088 sq. ft.||101 sq.m|
|Water||250 gals.||946 ltr|
|Fuel||160 gals.||606 ltr|
|Auxiliary||75-h.p. Yanmar diesel|
Island Packet Yachts
1979 Wild Acres Rd.
Largo, FL 33771
Phone (727) 535-6431
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