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Complicated sailing has its virtues, but not $45 million worth

2010 April 5
Talk about dodging a bullet. A design review that would have driven a small but highly motivated portion of our readers absolutely nuts almost got into this issue. I'll take credit for averting what could have been a fusillade of scolding letters to the editor by putting the kibosh on it. It was a narrow escape. I didn't have to yell, "Stop the presses!" (good thing because the presses are located 500 miles from SAILING headquarters). It was more like, "Yikes, hit the delete key!"

How could a design review be provocative? Easily-by featuring a sailboat that costs $45 million. That's right. Not $4.5 million, not $14.5 million. Forty-five million dollars!

We know from reader surveys that a sizable percentage of SAILING readers own rather big boats-not $45-million-big, but boats from 35 feet up. Yet a good many other readers are small-boat enthusiasts-emphasis on "enthusiasts." They're dedicated not just to the handy size of small boats, but to the ethic of simple sailing. They view the complexity that inevitably comes with larger boats as an intrusion into the purity of the sailing experience. And when they think we're giving too much attention to big, complicated boats, we hear about it.

Frankly, I don't think that's fair. We try to represent every kind of sailboat in our editorial mix and publish a special small-boat issue once a year. Still, perception is the new reality, or something like that. Publishing that $45-million design review would have been like tossing red meat to a pride of lions.

I'm still a little mystified about how a 183-foot megayacht got included in the designs sent to Bob Perry for review. Maybe someone in the office wanted to impress our three subscribers in Dubai. Anyway, when Bob got the plans, he did his duty and produced a mostly serious review of a design that includes a holding tank that, at 2,100 gallons, is bigger than the boats some of our readers own.

When I say "mostly" serious, I mean the review includes a good sprinkling of Bob's patented wry asides. "There are times on my 26-footer," he writes, "when I can't find my sunglasses. Of course, if I owned this boat I'd just have to alert the crew and put out the word, 'The boss needs his sunglasses.' I imagine that's how it works."

He notes that the boat has a fitness room and adds, "I'm having a wee struggle with that concept, but not to worry, the fitness room can be converted to another guest stateroom or screaming chamber."

Just so we don't disappoint anyone who might actually be interested in this sailboat (there is that Dubai readership to consider), I'll add a few details here. There are accommodations for eight guests in four staterooms as well as spacious staterooms for the 11-person crew and a separate crew dining area. ("Plenty of room for them to dine, relax and discuss the guests." Bob points out.) The owner's suite has his-and-her heads with bidets. The draft is 24 feet, 7 inches with the daggerboard down. "It's going to be a long swim to the beach," Bob says.

My own take on this boat is that in spite of all of its excesses, it's pedestrian. From its staid profile and conservative ketch rig, you'd think it had been designed 30 years ago. There is no way I would spend 45 million of my hard-earned dollars on it. This is not to say, though, that I don't like reading about boats I can't afford. I love studying the sailing yachts designers can imagine when the budget is north of seven digits, whether space-agey shapes with blunt ends or extravagant spin-offs of pointy, low-in-the-water historic designs.

Still, I know where simple-boat true believers are coming from in their conviction that too much mechanical and electrical stuff on a boat can get in the way of the natural rewards of sailing. Some of the best sailing memories I have were made on the simplest boat bigger than a dinghy that I ever owned.

I lucked into it. I wasn't looking for a boat and didn't have a lot of money to buy one, but when a classified was placed in SAILING offering a used Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 for sale, I had to take a look. It turned out the boat was owned by two fellows who were new to sailing and had seldom taken it out of its slip (both the head and the stove were still virginal) because they found they couldn't get along with each other on the water. They were ready to accept just about any offer to get rid of the boat and dissolve the partnership. I blessed the god of good timing and bought the boat before the ad was published.

As far as simplicity was concerned, this boat had it in spades. There was only one headsail (fitted with bronze hanks), no spinnaker gear or backstay adjuster, only two tiny chrome winches and no electronic instruments. The only option the owners had ordered was pedestal steering, ridiculous on a boat of this size, with a wheel smaller than the steering wheel on the Corvair Spyder convertible I was driving at the time.

Simple was good. Showing her S&S pedigree, the boat sailed beautifully without extra widgets and gizmos. The First Mate and I sailed it often and far, just for the heck of it or on cruises with our 3-year-old son. The sailing was so satisfying that even when the wind was on the nose or zephyr-light we rarely turned on the Atomic 30 auxiliary gasoline engine.

That was the first season. After that I set to work making the boat more complicated with a series of do-it-yourself projects that included adding wind, speed and depth instruments, a folding propeller, more and bigger winches, internal halyards, spinnaker gear and a mechanical backstay adjuster operated by a wheel that was almost as big as the steering wheel. You know what? The sailing got even better. All the tweaking and trimming that the complications made possible added to the satisfaction of getting the most out of a terrific design, not to mention helping to defeat boredom on long passages (let's face it, you can only look at the horizon and wax poetic about the glory of being at one with wind and wave, etc., etc., for so long).

On reflection, I've realized that I've been on a (successful) quest to own ever more complicated vessels ever since I bought that plain-Jane sailboat. I hope my friends and readers who live by the ethos of simple sailing will understand, but I like my sailing a little complicated.

Don't worry, we'll keep devoting plenty of space to small, simple boats, whose adherents can also take heart from evidence that our design reviewer empathizes with them. Bob ended the doomed review of that megacomplicated $45-million sailboat-ship with this dialogue:

"Where would you be having your dinner tonight, sir?"

"Make me a tunafish sandwich and I'll eat it in the Laser."