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Morris 36

2008 November 10

A sprightly daysailer with the good looks of an S&S pedigree

Sailors who have seen the film "Master and Commander" probably recall the tense scene seconds before battle erupts between two warships in thick fog. The boats are ghosting along under sail, but navigation is near impossible. It was conditions just like those off Bass Harbor, Maine, for a test sail of the new Morris 36. Despite late-August winds that initially refused to top 3 knots, the well-proportioned daysailer captured every bit of moving air, and when the sea breeze finally kicked in, it put on an impressive performance. Tom Morris, who as ambassador-at-large runs Morris Yachts with his son, Cuyler, the company president, claims the Sparkman & Stephens designed sloop can find wind even when there seemingly isn't any.

"Two knots and she'll still move," he said as we prepared to get under way at the rustic dock, part of the Morris Yachts property in Bass Harbor, adjacent to the Swan's Island Ferry and a few clicks from Acadia National Park.

Unlike most sailboats, preparing to set sail in the Morris 36 is a no-brainer, mostly because all lines lead aft to the cockpit, the headsail furls, and the main sail is stowed in a zippered bag mounted along the boom. It's a no-muss, no-fuss arrangement that's inherent in the overall Morris 36 design, where convenience and ease of handling are guiding principles. In addition to a trio of Lewmar rope clutches mounted on either side of the helm, a pair of self-tailing Harken winches and a self-tacking jib make for effortless sailing. In other words, you can step aboard, fire up the 21-horse, three-cylinder Yanmar diesel saildrive engine, hoist the main while standing at the helm, grab hold the jib furling line to deploy the headsail, and off you go.

With mooring lines and fenders stowed in the commodious cockpit compartments, the boat has a clean and tidy appearance. Bow and stern pulpits, stanchions and lifelines are noticeably absent, which could raise concern among families with small children. But not a line lay on the nonskid deck, and the only visible control is the single jib sheet, which runs from the clew to a small block, mounted on an aluminum track just forward of the 44-foot carbon-fiber mast.

After passing through the block, the jib sheet runs up the outside of the mast and back down inside, before traveling beneath the deck to one of the rope clutches near the helm. When it's time to come about, there's no reason for anyone seated in the enormous cockpit to move a muscle. No sound of clicking or whirring winches. The helmsman simply puts the wheel over and the jib sheet block slides along the track to the other side of the boat. Sailing upwind was never so easy.

Same goes for jibing, only in that case, the helmsman can reach for the rope clutch that controls the mainsheet and pull in a few feet of line to prevent the boom from crashing over.

"This boat is surprisingly fast. Not at all what you'd expect from a daysailer," said Morris, explaining how the boat's ability to cruise at a sustained 7 to 8 knots gives it a range that opens up more daysailing possibilities. "You aren't limited to going around the buoys in the harbor. You can actually go places."

And that's precisely what we did off the Maine coast, damn the fog. "Normally, on a day like this, most people wouldn't go sailing if it meant a lot of work," said the ambassador as we reached along the rocky shore. "But it doesn't take much to get this boat going."

As I sailed east, Morris kept an eye on the Tacktick depthsounder, which can be detached from the deckhouse and used as a handheld instrument, as can the wind and boat speed devices. The digital instruments are powered by photo-voltaic cells, so no wiring is required.

"Anytime you can eliminate wiring on a boat, you're one step ahead of the game," said Morris, recalling a presentation at the Camden Yacht Club during which he pulled a Tacktick instrument from his pocket and announced the wind speed blowing across the Morris 36 at the dock.

During our sail, he kept the instruments close by as patches of fog gave way to open expanses of sea, unveiling a few sailboats picking their way along the coast. Lobster boats growled nearby as their crews hauled traps. A workboat used to maintain moorings passed within spitting distance and the Swan's Island ferry blew its horn.

I tacked repeatedly, without effort, marveling at the smoothness of the self-tacking 100-percent jib, which, unlike most furling headsails, literally sweeps the deck because the furling drum is recessed. Changing direction to a reach, I released the mainsheet clutch, allowing enough line to pay out, then locked it down. Simple as that.

The yacht's big wooden wheel feels right, and best of all, the helmsman can stand behind the pedestal where the compass and Morse throttle controls are located without interference from crew or passengers. Few things are more annoying to a skipper than bodies encroaching on the helm station, but the cockpit layout reduces that likelihood.

The concept for the Morris 36 daysailer hails back to the 1930s, when some relatively large yachts were built specifically for that purpose-a romping afternoon at sea with plenty of room aboard for friends and family, and a big cockpit where everyone could soak up the sun and enjoy the breeze. According to Morris, the collaboration with Sparkman & Stephens was a matter of fortunate timing. Morris was hired to restore the S&S designed Poppy, a classic yacht built in Europe in 1965, and since renamed Stormy. Interest in the boat prompted S&S to draw a new design based on Stormy, which became the 36.

"We were looking to build a daysailer and, as it turned out, they'd been considering the same thing for a number of years," he said. "It was being in the right place at the right time."

The talents of Bruce Johnson and Greg Matzat, chief designer and chief naval architect, respectively, at Sparkman & Stephens, are evident in the boat's sailing abilities and clean, classic lines, replete with traditional overhangs. So far, the gamble has paid off. Morris Yachts kept Hull No. 1, while Hull No. 2, with its custom Leisure Furl in-boom mainsail furling system, was sold to a Canadian who plans to sail Lake Huron. No. 3 went to a buyer in Lake Tahoe. Hull No. 4 is bound for Newport Beach, California.

"The boats are going round to places we wouldn't have expected," said Morris, noting eight have been sold. "We're doing pretty well."

It's the daysailer thinking that influenced the spartan interior design, with port and starboard settees, a small galley with sink, refrigerator and modest Corian counter space. The DC refrigerator is difficult to reach and the lid is heavy, but modifications are planned. The head has a toilet and a sink but no shower, so overnighting means bringing along deodorant or at least a bucket.

Limited headroom in the saloon prevents six-footers from standing upright, unless they're directly below the companionway hatch. Inversely, the low cabintrunk allows the boat to maintain its sleek profile. Portals are fixed, but ventilation comes from two low-profile dorade vents, as well as the companionway and forward hatch. The teak companionway doors are removable. Plans are under way to install a solar-powered ventilator for the head. The sliding companionway hatch is safety glass, allowing plenty of light to flood the interior.

The V-berth is unfinished, offering additional sail storage, although Morris Yachts will transform the space into sleeping quarters as a custom option. A dinette table can also be included, but Morris says it isn't truly in keeping with the daysailer design. The interior cabin sole is teak and holly, the joinery done Herreshoff-style, with white bulkheads and gloss varnished mahogany trim. The effect is airy and elegant. Not a bad place to hang out if the weather turns sour.

But the Morris 36 is more about sailing than cabin amenities, as evidenced by the carbon fiber mast that steps to the keel. The fractional rig with swept-back spreaders accommodates a tall mast, making possible a sailplan that partners a small jib and, for driving power, a much larger main.

As Morris Yachts sales manager Eric Roos explained, "The fractional rig means we can use a smaller headsail and a bigger main, which makes for easier handling. With a fractional rig, the headstay doesn't go all the way to the masthead, so the headsail is pulled closer to the mast."

The North Sails package includes a jib and full-batten main, for a total sail area of 558 feet. A custom genniker package is also available. Jiffy reefing is standard, with one manual reef point sewn into the mainsail, although Roos doesn't recommend putting it in until the wind speed reaches 20 knots.

We didn't have to worry about that during our test sail, but we did get to witness the effectiveness of the lazyjacks, which guided the mainsail as we doused it. Surely the in-boom, mainsail furling system would have made it all the more effortless, but the North Sails mainsail bag merely needed to be zipped, far more enticing than dealing with numerous sail ties and hooking on a sail cover.

"One of the best things about this boat is that you really don't have to pay close attention to your sailing, but when you do, it really pays off. The daysailer is to Morris what the joystick is to Hinckley," said Roos, referring to Hinckley Yachts jet-drive powerboats that uses a joystick rather than a steering wheel. "The Morris 36 has opened doors to amateur sailors that would otherwise have been closed."

A spade rudder and fin keel with bulb are partly responsible for the Morris 36's prowess on the water. The boat draws 6 feet, 6 inches, but the shoal-draft model reduces that to 5 feet, 3 inches, with little loss in performance. The hull is a composite with vinylester throughout and Core-Cell core. Bulkheads are structural plywood.

Under sail, the sloop is balanced and stable, yet nimble enough to turn quickly and pick up speed like a horse in a barn fire.

"She sails upwind nicely. Even when there's no obvious sign of wind, she can still do 2 knots," Morris said. "Most people turn on the engine when the wind gets light, but this boat scoots right along."

With only 8 knots of wind we were cranking, the ensign blown out straight. I imagined what we looked like from shore-white boat with white sails against a white sky and fog-sort of like a polar bear in a snowstorm.

Back at the dock an hour later, checking the engine was a cinch. The companionway flips up, providing access to the diesel's primary fluid sticks and filters. The engine can also be accessed via the cockpit lockers. Had we run into trouble and needed to drop a hook, a Bruce 22-pound anchor is stowed in the chain locker. We also had 12 gallons of fuel and 20 gallons of water in the topped-off tanks.

Fog was again thickening as we ran the dock lines through the stainless steel chocks. I commented on the fog's persistence. Morris nodded and joked about this year's extended spring. "But we got out sailing," he said. "Let's face it. Most boats stay at the dock. People take them out for the day, or maybe they go cruising one week a year, if they're lucky. Or they dream about going on a cruise to somewhere, anywhere, but most never do. So why not a daysailer big enough for friends and family?"

It was hard to argue with that logic. Still, I wondered why a boat that comes ready to sail and is stocked with so much equipment had no swim ladder for when the kids want to take a plunge. And then I remembered where we were. Nobody of sound mind voluntarily goes for a swim in northern Maine.