10 Great Innovations in Modern Sailing

What 10 inventions have made modern sailing better than it was in the days of whale oil and caulk? Our sailing expert Zuzana Prockazka speaks out.

10th February 2013.
By Zuzana Prochazka

My colleague, power-boater Lenny Rudow, wrote a discussion-provoking article on 10 Great Inventions and Innovations in Modern Boating. He started with the concept of cup holders, which seemed strange until I thought about our latte-consuming culture and realized he might be right in his priorities. However, a different set of innovations have specifically and significantly changed sailing and cruising in the past few decades. Here are some that ensure we will never sail the same old way again.

sailboat innovations

Modern advances in hull, keel, and transom design can all be found in new sailboats like this Beneteau Oceanis 48.

1. Keel, Hull, and Transom Design
Gone are the days of integrated full keels and skeg-hung rudders. Bolt-on deep and shoal draft keels with bulbs and wings and deep spade rudders are what keep our sailboats upright and tracking these days. The results of this evolution have included the ability of the boat to turn in its own length, and the likelihood of backing in a straight line—which is a bit of a sailboat miracle.

Many production boats today have introduced hard chines with the beam carried well aft. These boats sail flatter because they lean and stabilize on that hard chine when heeling, which has made family outings a bit more comfortable. The beamy designs have also created large volumes below, which has changed the layout and accommodations and enhanced comfort. Leaps and bounds have been made in transom technology, as well, including the electric drop-down transom of the Beneteau Oceanis models and the full walk-through transom of the Sense series, where seats lift to open up an almost catamaran-like cockpit.

2. Building Materials and Techniques
In the 1960s fiberglass forever changed the world of boating; strength was attributed to heft, so inch and a half thick solid glass hulls were the norm. Now resin infusion and vacuum bagging, which were first used in France in the 1970s, have gained acceptance and are widely-used boat building methods. Vacuum bagging has a wet laminate cured under vacuum, which pulls out the excess resin and creates a  light and strong high fiber content laminate. Resin infusion is a variation of vacuum bagging in which the resin is infused into the dry laminate after the vacuum is created. Both methods produce clean and light fiberglass parts that are strong and require little fairing or sanding.

3. Sail and Rigging Materials
Modern materials have reached beyond hull construction to the rig and sails that power these new boats. Any serious race boat is likely to sport a suit of laminated sails which stretch less and delivery superior shape and therefore better performance. Because laminate sails tend to last only a couple years and suffer from mildew between the layers, cruisers still opt for more traditional sail cloth like Dacron, which is more UV resistant. Lightweight nylon spinnakers and gennakers are carried by both.

Huge advances have also been made in the lines used for running rigging. High-tech lines like Spectra and Dyneema are ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fibers that have a high strength to weight ratio, excellent abrasion and UV resistance, and reduced flex fatigue. They can manage thousands of pounds of load (good for sheets for large sails) and have little stretch or creep (excellent for halyards).

4. Pod Drive Maneuverability
Sleeker bottom shapes go a long way to helping modern boats maneuver, but for docking and other tight situations, nothing compares with advances in propulsion. The Dock ‘N Go introduced on a Sense 50 tied together a Saildrive and bow thruster to move that boat like a sailboat never had before. Sailors finally entered the world of power boating pod drives – hallelujah. Since then, Hunter, Jeanneau and others have introduced their own versions, which have helped take the fear out of unplanned sailboat landings.

gps satellites

Navigation will never be the same for sailors and powerboaters alike, thanks to modern GPS.

5. GPS
Here’s one innovation powerboaters and sailors share: GPS has been the single, most redefining element of modern boating. In 1998 the stalwart Naval Academy even removed celestial navigation from their syllabus, to the joy of all midshipmen. GPS is here to stay.

6. Sat Phones & Wi-fi
Navigation isn’t the only thing that has benefited from accessible satellites. Long-distance communications have opened up offshore racing and cruising and added safety and convenience. Sat phones from Iridium and Inmarsat are now under $1,000 and usage plans have become more affordable as well. These phones can also send email, so the days of world cruising and waiting until the next port to get in touch with family are just plain gone.

And let’s not forget the proliferation of widely-available, reliable and often free Wi-Fi. You can send email from most harbors around the world, which means bluewater cruising has become less daunting and more appealing to those who don’t want to drop out of society when sailing to distant horizons.

7.EPIRBs, GPIRBs, PLBs, and AIS
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and their sophisticated and GPS-enabled cousins, GPIRBs, are devices that can be manually or hydrostatically activated to send a message from a vessel in distress. A sinking boat in the middle of the ocean can now transmit its location on the 406MHz distress frequency via satellite to the nearest rescue coordination center. The individual equivalent of this is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which is worn by and registered to a person and assists in recovering a man overboard. PLBs (like ACR’s ResQLink) are about the size of a cell phone, don’t require a subscription service and operate on non-geostationary satellites or via Automatic Identification System (AIS) directly back to the ship that lost the person. Since 1982, rescue beacons have been instrumental in assisting over 28,000 people in 7,000 rescue situations.

8. Power Cells
Wet cell batteries have been the workhorse of the ship’s electrical system, but since they require regular maintenance they must be installed in accessible spaces—a premium on a sailboat. Other technologies that are now available include gel cell and lithium ion, but absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries are becoming the recreational boating standard as they are maintenance free, can be installed at odd angles, are shock and vibration resistant and to a degree, may be submerged. They also have a low self-discharge rate and do not emit noxious gasses. They are the ultimate in ‘set it and forget it’ power cell technology. Add today’s more potent solar panels into the mix, keep the banks topped off, and sailors can almost pretend they’re power-boaters – drunk with power.

9. Creature Comforts
Water makers were once dubbed the least-reliable piece of equipment aboard, but no longer. Refrigeration, electric heads, advanced stereos with satellite radio, and air conditioning have also evolved to become reliable and commonplace on modern sailboats. And let’s not forget the most important and least complaining crew member, the autopilot, which is today no longer a luxury but a must-have.

lehr outboard engines

Modern outboards just keep getting better and better. The latest development? An outboard engine that runs on propane - now you don't even need to haul gasoline.

10. Outboard Engines
Since its invention, the much-maligned outboard has been either the best friend or worst enemy of sailors everywhere. Notoriously unreliable, smelly, and polluting, the outboard has in recent years gotten a facelift. Gas outboards are now cleaner, quieter four-strokes, which no longer need to have oil and gas mixed by the operator so there are fewer opportunities for spills. Four-strokes are also lighter and smaller than when they were first introduced. If you have an aversion to carrying gas aboard a sailboat, check out the award-winning electric outboard options by Torqeedo or the propane-fueled version by Lehr. All these small engines are today more reliable and less likely to earn a nasty nickname.

This list of significant developments is just the tip of the iceberg, and a whole book could be written on sailing developments—but because sailing is changing every day, by the time that book was finished it would also be incomplete. If you have more ideas, share your thoughts in the comments section below. That way, the thought-provoking discussion can continue.

-Zuzana Prochazka


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About the author:

Zuzana Prochazka

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Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.
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