Sailing's Striking New Look
How the age-old sport has reinvented itself for a new generation
The diminished economy sent recreational sailing - and all of boating - into a nosedive a few years ago. But builders, designers, and sail makers wisely used the downturn to assess both the good and not-so-good about sailing and devise new ideas and technologies now driving a dramatic rebound in this age-old sport.
Here, some of the impressive ways sailing has reinvented itself to spark this resurgence. Maybe it's time you go nautical, whether you're an old salt who lost touch with this sport or an absolute landlubber looking for a healthy new family activity offshore.
JOY TO THE WORLD
In the Past: Traditionally, sailboats have been difficult to handle under power with their single engine and a keel that reduces maneuverability. Twin-engined powerboats could easily slip into cramped moorings, while spectators loved watching sailboat captains attempt to maneuver into a dock.
Now: Enter the joystick, computer controls embraced by kids who play video games. Similar controls now turn docking a sailboat into child's play. Beneteau has introduced its Dock & Go system while French sister company Jeanneau offers 360 Docking.
On both systems, which use a Yanmar diesel engine, the propeller is in a pod (much like an outboard motor lower unit) that rotates either 180 or 360 degrees under the hull, while a bow thruster operates like an underwater fan to push jets of water one way or the other. Linking the two via computer, the skipper can literally slide the sailboat sideways into a small space like iron filings to a magnet. All it takes is a finger-tip touch on the joystick and the boat can be spun in its own length, moved sideways, or even held in place against the dock while the crew sets the mooring lines.
"The most important thing to remember about using these systems is not to overthink docking," says Wayne Burdick of Beneteau America. "You need to divorce yourself from all those fears. Most people pick up the joystick system after an afternoon of practice."
In the Past: Being the primary and largest sail on most sailboats makes the mainsail the 900-pound gorilla: heavy, unwieldy, and, in a breeze, recalcitrant. Hoisting the mainsail in days past meant using lots of muscle to manhandle the sail up. Getting it down was even more of a struggle, as sailors stood precariously on the cabin trying to wrestle the sail into a furled shape that could be tied to the boom. Again, wind only added to the agonies.
Now: Credit the late Ted Hood, a sail maker and America's Cup skipper, with the idea of a mainsail that rolls up inside the mast like a vertical window shade. While the earliest iterations of this furling system were primitive and prone to jamming at the absolute worst times, today's versions, using high-tech roller bearings and exotic materials, have created a mainsail management system that removes the effort from this big sail. Some roll the sail up inside the mast, while others use the horizontal boom to accept the rolled sail. Either way, these have tamed the dreaded mainsail.
MORE ROLLING, ROLLING, ROLLING
In the Past: Next to the mainsail, raising and lowering the forward sail, called the jib, has been another big headache. Located at the end of a narrowing (and sometimes wet) foredeck, it could prove a handful to get down. Stir in wind, waves, and spray, and you had the recipe for a debacle.
Now: The roller concept came to the rescue again, but only in the past couple of years have the systems been perfected enough to become standard equipment on most sailboats larger than 30 feet. The sail literally rolls up on itself with the pull of a line from the security of the cockpit. Once the sail is tightly furled, a canvas strip on the outer edge protects it from sun and weather.
In the Past: Another former drawback to sailing: tacking, changing the sails from side to side, which always involved someone cranking on a winch to trim the sail to the new side. Tacking up a narrow channel could get old very quickly.
Now: On the new Blue Jacket 40, named Cruising World's 2014 Boat of the Year, the jib takes care of itself. The skipper can tack every minute and the crew never has to lift a finger, crank a winch, or even put down a beer.
The key is the Hoyt boom, a short, curved carbon-fiber pole that sprouts from the forward deck and, once set, allows the jib to tack without any trimming required. Other builders have tried "self-tending jibs" in the past, but they always involved tracks on the deck and complicated systems. This is a particularly simple solution.
In the Past: On a, let's say, 45-foot sailboat in a breeze, it would take at least one strong man (perhaps two) to crank in the jib using pure muscle-power on a winch. Then, when you would tack, you would have to do it all over again on the other side.
Now: Ten-year-old kids can do the same thing with no effort, thanks to electric winches. Pretty cool, huh? Electric or hydraulic winches were once found only on hundred-plus footers, but compact and powerful modern versions have become standard or optional on every sailboat offered today.
On an Italian-built Wallycento, the skipper and I took the boat out by ourselves and once outside the harbor, the skipper went below for a nap. Where once I would have needed a dozen burly crew members, I hoisted the sails by touching a button, trimmed them with another, and had a lovely afternoon single-handing this massive yacht with its 150-foot mast and nearly 7,000 square feet of sail. Ah, the joy of electric winches.
Neil Harvey of Harken Yacht Equipment, one of the leading manufacturers of electric winches, is sold on powered winches. Though he's an ocean-racing sailor of considerable repute and has cranked more winches than he can remember, he notes, "Give me an electric winch anytime. I've done more than my share of cranking, and if I never have to pick up another winch handle, well, I'm OK. There's something so satisfying about just touching a button to trim sails effortlessly."
In the Past: Sailboats have traditionally been uncomfortable, particularly in the cockpit where you spend most of your time. You'd bang knees, sit on hard seats with square-edged backrests, and you had to be a dedicated sailor to put up with it. If you wanted to go swimming at anchor, you had to climb over the rail and go down a wobbly ladder.
Now: On the new Hunter 40, the first offering from the recently acquired and newly named Marlow-Hunter Yachts, the cockpit is pure luxury, with comfortable, ergonomically designed seats and a folding table down the cockpit's center for munchies, drinks, or alfresco dining.
An optional fiberglass hardtop above the cockpit not only provides sun protection but also lighting and stereo speakers. How decadent is that?
The Hunter 40, by the way, also takes advantage of the previously mentioned roller furling jib, and gives you the option of the in-mast roller mainsail and electric winches. Ahhhhh ...
On the Beneteau Oceanis 41, there are also twin wheels and the cockpit's rear folds down, creating a teak swim platform for easy access to the water.
In the Past: Before, sailors could count on cramped cabins with thin vinyl cushions on narrow bunks, toilets barely better than an oak bucket, and drizzly handheld shower nozzles.
Now: Frankly, if you haven't been inside a sailboat in a decade, you've got some surprises coming your way: suedes and leathers, granite counters, solid teak planking underfoot, and nary a trace of icky Formica.
Those cramped little bunks? Gone. In their place, expect queen-sized berths with mattresses as good as (or even better than) your ones at home.
Claustrophobic little head compartments with a toilet you have to pump and a handheld nozzle for showering (and getting everything wet)? Naaah. Think full-sized stall showers with seats, electric-flushing toilets, and perhaps even a vanity for m'lady to put on her eyeliner.
You can't call it the owner's cabin on the Jeanneau 41DS - it's more of an owner's suite: a large bed, stitched leather seating on each side, plenty of light, and fresh air on a 41-footer! Even if you don't want to leave the dock, this is the perfect pied-à-terre for
a weekend getaway.
LOVE ME TENDER
In the Past: Sailors use their tender to get to and from shore when they're anchored but, frankly, these small dinghies have been a pain in the stern. You can tow them, but that's difficult in harbors. You can hoist them on deck, but then you can't see anything.
Now: Designers of the new MarineMax 484 catamaran solved the problem neatly with a pair of hinged arms just behind the cockpit. The dinghy nests under these arms until, at the touch of a button, the arms lower electrically to launch the dinghy. Retrieving the dinghy is just as easy: Another button raises the dinghy effortlessly. Even better, a stern platform can also be lowered as a semisubmerged beach for swimming and watersports.
On larger yachts, such as the German-built Hanse 575, a dinghy "garage" has been created in the stern. Open the door, use an electric winch to pull the dinghy into place, close the door and, voilà! No more dinghy problems.
In the Past: Remember those smelly alcohol stoves that could barely heat water, let alone make coffee or even warm a can of Dinty Moore beef stew? Those are the olden days.
Now: Take the Catalina 445 from one of the U.S.'s largest sailboat builders. Designer Gerry Douglas knows what sailors want: the amenities of their home ashore.
In the 445, cooks will find a three-burner stove with an oven powerful enough to bake bread, a refrigerator-freezer (plus space for an optional second freezer) to store enough food for a cruise, and a microwave oven if you need popcorn for the movies on the flat-screen TV. Want a convection oven? Just a check on the option list handles it.