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My boat is more miserable to sail on than yours—I win!

2015 June 1

When I started sailing in offshore races, all of the boats in the fleet were hyphenated. They were all racer-cruisers. This included the hottest new designs, even radical ones with exotic features such as (gulp) fin keels and spade rudders, competing in grand prix events like the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. 

This was a reflection of the quaint ethos of the era which held that boats that sail long distances offshore should, unlike around-the-buoys one-design racers, have at least basic accommodations for humans. A cabin with standing headroom, an enclosed head, a proper navigation station, a galley, decent berths, that sort of thing. 

For a gauge on how the sailing culture has changed, consider this: The new 100-foot Commanche, the shockingly gorgeous  black-and-red ocean racer you saw streaking across a two-page photo spread in SAILING a few issues back, does not have a head.

I’m not making this up. You can ask the designer, Guillaume Verdier. In fact, someone already has, and his answer was, “There’s no compromise on this boat, no interior fittings, no toilet.”

See what I mean? This mighty sailing vessel designed to cross oceans and spend days at sea racing to the likes of Tasmania or Bermuda is not equipped with civilization’s most necessary human hygiene device. I’m guessing that with the boat’s crew of 21 people aboard, making up for that omission requires a bucket brigade.

It’s safe to say the head was not excluded from the boat to cut costs. Billionaire owner Jim Clark spent $15 million to have Commanche built and is expected to spend $40 million to campaign it in its first year. Nor was it a matter of saving weight. Commanche is light for a 100-footer, but it still displaces about 75,000 pounds, too much for the designer’s precise displacement-to-sail-area ratio to be upset by the piddling weight of a head. Besides, there probably would have been room in the budget for a custom carbon fiber fixture weighing about as much as a winch handle.

What the austerity of today’s offshore racers is really about is bragging rights. The owner who brags “no compromise” and backs it up with the emptiest shell of an interior wins.

Among superyachts, Commanche may be the current winner of that competition, but it was defeated for line honors in its first yacht race that counted. It was beat to the finish of the Sydney-Hobart race by Wild Oats, an older 100-footer. That must have hurt. Wild Oats has a head.  

The austerity-bragging-rights race is not just for superyachts. It has influenced a whole generation of ocean racers, some as small as 35-feet, whose owners can proudly claim no compromise and prove it with testimony to the privations of life aboard from crewmembers.

I have a friend who sailed a Newport-Bermuda race in the wet, cold and bumpy upwind conditions typical of that event on a Carkeek 40, a dinghylike boat that owes its no-compromise cred to a belowdecks space that amounts to a black hole with crawling headroom. He counts it as one of the most miserable experiences of his life, at sea or on shore.

Despite all of that, I like these no-compromise boats—except for their spartan affectations. I admire the way they sail, the way they look and the high-tech way they’re built. They just need a little compromise. If I ran a hedge fund and had managed to stay out of jail, I would own one of them, say, in the 60-foot range. It would definitely have a head. Plus a functional galley and a comfy navigation alcove where I could play to my heart’s content with whiz-bang computer navigation stuff. And a lifting keel, so I could race with a 13-foot draft and still get into a cozy harbor on the trip home.

The funny thing is, with the technology available today, this should be the age of compromise, not of no compromise, in high-performance sailboats. Composites are so light you can have an actual head compartment, maybe one with a door, and other basic amenities and still sail fast enough to win races.

It’s not that there’s anything terrible about sailors putting up with some discomfort on long races. That’s part of being a gnarly sailor. But the no-compromise boats go so far beyond that they kill some of the enjoyment of sailing. Sure, the guys and girls onboard get a kick out of the thrills and spills of sailing these on-edge boats, but once the race is over, they can’t wait to get away from them.

In those hyphenated days of yore, racing crews often slept aboard after the finish. Then they stayed aboard to sail the boat home. This wasn’t so much out of a sense of duty. It was more about taking advantage of another opportunity to be out on the water on a sailboat. See, they loved sailing, not just racing.

Personally, to this day I rather enjoy being part of the delivery crew. But then, my boat, while racy enough, has a few compromises. The navigation station has a nice, soft cushion.

As for the no-compromise cult, I need to add an epilogue here. The Offshore Special Regulations for the category of races in which Commanche competes require a permanently installed head. So either Commanche is cheating or its designer got carried away with his no-compromise boasting. I’m betting it’s the latter. Somewhere in that great dark cave of an interior there’s a commode.