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Quest for an easy-handling rocketship leads to two boats

2016 November 1

While the First Mate (that would be my wife) leaned over the lifelines in a game struggle to hold the boat off the dock, I gunned the diesel to blast out of the slip through a strong sideways breeze and nasty ferry wake. As the boat cleared the last piling (cleared on the second bounce, that is), I heard a commotion behind me, looked back and saw the First Mate hanging from the dock by her fingertips shouting some words that I couldn’t make out but I assume were unprintable.

That’s not my favorite memory of couple-cruising on a big sailboat, but it came back on a recent visit to New York.

The New York Yacht Club Model Room was aglow and abuzz on a rainy night. Aglow with the celestial light that can only reflect from a melange of aged and polished wood walls and balconies, stained glass ceilings and exquisite models of America’s greatest sailing yachts. Abuzz with the talk among a crowd that nearly filled the vast room about the reason we were there.

The reason was the introduction of a new sailboat built by Nautor’s Swan called the ClubSwan 50. 

A good many of the assembled folks seemed to fit the profile of likely buyers of the high-performance 50-footer and had seen pictures of the exotic looking boat. Hence the buzz.

While we waited for Nautor chairman Leonardo Ferragamo to take the podium, the yachtsman on my left waxed enthused about the boat’s radical profile flaunting a reverse sheerline and even a reverse bow canted backward as its rises from the water under a formidable sprit. 

The NYYC member on my right interjected that the yacht “is priced right too.” He claimed he could purchase two of the ClubSwans for the price of one of the Hinckley Bermuda 50s he was considering buying. I checked later, and he was right, even though the Swan’s price is $1 million.

As expected, the boat’s performance features—hard-chine carbon hull with deep torpedo-bulb-on-a-strap keel, twin rudders and jumbo sailplan—were mentioned by speakers who included, besides Swan executives, North Sails chief Tom Whidden and Juan Whose-Name-Is-Unpronounceable (there is a reason Juan Kouyoumdjian is universally known as Juan K), who designed the boat. 

Not expected was the emphasis they all put on what they said was the boat’s ease of handling for daysailing and cruising with a small crew, even just the owner and his wife. Memories of shorthanded sailing misadventures on “easy handling” boats lit up.

The ClubSwan 50 spreads an expanse of sail so broad it sticks over the hull at both ends. The combination of the far-aft-stepped mast and long sprit yields a foretriangle that accommodates asymmetric spinnakers with more square-footage than a good-sized house. The mainsail, on a boom that extends past the transom, is enormous. I tried to imagine some of the couples I observed in the Model Room dealing with that on their cruise.

I pictured Dick and Jane bonding while furling their mighty square-topped main. What passes for sailcloth in today’s high-performance mainsails is a molded material that is approximately as flexible as Masonite. I’ve seen crews of burly sailors lined up along the boom wrestling with the stuff and ending up embarrassed by a shoddy mainsail flaking. It would take a strong marriage to survive this challenge as a couple.

The boat is set up nicely for asymmetrical spinnakers, and the cruising couple  shouldn’t have to deny themselves the fun of sailing with one of these marvelous downwind sails. But how to manage it? A spinnaker snuffer perhaps.

It happens I have firsthand experience with this shorthanded-sailing expedient. For a doublehanded race on a boat that had spinnakers nearly as big as the Swan’s, I got the brilliant idea of utilizing the snuffer hardware the boat came with. (This boat was also advertised as easy to handle by couples.)  

The plan was to fit the largest spinnaker with the snuffer. When it came time to jibe the monster kite, we would simply snuff it in the snuffer tube, swing the encased sail to the other side of the boat, unsnuff it and sail away. The plan failed disastrously because the snuffed spinnaker proved to be a fat, uncontrollable, 60-foot-long sausage that swung across the foredeck of the rolling boat threatening to knock any puny human being in its way overboard.

You can’t blame Swan for pitching the boat as a racer-cruiser. When you bring a million-dollar production-built sailboat to the market, it had better appeal to more than a few hard-core racers. Besides, Swan’s brand is all about elegance inside of a high-performance hull. So the new 50 has a sexy, discreetly plush interior that includes, of all racing-boat anomalies, a gorgeous forward stateroom featuring what looks like a queen-size bed.

To put it mildly, there’s a bit of a conflict here, since the racing sail inventory of a 50-footer would fill the better part of an intermodal shipping container. The front of the boat has to be empty to accommodate stacks of spinnakers and gennakers, staysails and jibs. Swan’s answer is to make the forward cabin furniture removable. I can’t tell you how this is done. Presumably the boat comes with detailed racing-to-cruising mode conversion instructions for DIY-minded owners.

Aspiring to the ideal of the racer-cruiser in an era when the racer part of that combination requires boats that are lightweight and overpowered is admirable but practically unattainable.

When it comes to dealing with this conundrum, I think the fellow I chatted with at the NYYC was on to something. Just buy two ClubSwan 50s, one stripped to racing mode, the other with the queen-size bed and other amenities, including a cut-down, soft, Dacron mainsail and a miniature asymmetric spinnaker. 

A snuffer would be optional.