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Forgotten in the quest for speed: reverence for seakindliness

2009 December 1
Members of my family had the bittersweet experience on a recent weekend of emptying out our late parents' house. Rafts of memories were released by the things we found, many of which were sailing mementoes. There were photos by the hundreds, logbooks, half models, a navy blue yachting hat, the old-fashioned kind featuring an anchor device in the front with a yacht club pin in its center, that showed all of the character that decades of wear could impart, including spots of copper-red bottom paint. The most remarkable find, though, was a trophy for first place in a sailboat race in the 1960s. It was remarkable because I never imagined the boat whose name was engraved on the cup could actually win a race.

The boat, a Pearson-built Rhodes 41 yawl, was pretty if you didn't let your eye linger too long on the coachhouse, which was a too-high and too-white expanse of fiberglass. The swooping sheerline, long overhangs and elegant counter stern were the epitome of sailboat aesthetics of the era. Under the water she had what was then considered the right stuff-a full keel with internal ballast and attached rudder and classic wineglass sections. But there was nothing pretty or right about her performance. She was, in a word, slow, even by the forgiving standards of the times. When forced to go fast, she complained.

In one race when I was a crewmember, the breeze came on strong from astern and we piled on sail-spinnaker, spinnaker staysail, mainsail, mizzen spinnaker and mizzen-and pushed the boat to what were for her extreme speeds, 9 or 10 knots. She didn't like it one bit. Pulling a quarter wave the size of a minor tsunami, she protested by rolling gunwale to gunwale, literally, wetting first one rail and then the other. That idiosyncrasy, dramatic though it was, was the least of her problems. We finished with the dregs of the fleet. That was a long time ago, but it must have been a searing experience for me, because it sent me on a determined quest to sail fast boats.

I'm still on that mission, but I've begun to understand that something has been missing from the quest-a proper reverence for seakindly sailboats.

Readers who get into my story in this issue about sailing on a square-rigger will come across an observation about the comfortable motion of the vessel in a challenging seaway. The waves on the Mediterranean were steep, and hard-edged and I know from experience that their effect on a modern high-performance sailboat would have been brutal. The word seakindly essentially describes a boat's ability to be in harmony with the sea, to get along with it instead of fighting it. Today's high-performance sailboats, with nearly flat bottoms, hard turns on their bilges, ultra-light hulls with heavy ballast attached at the bottom of long keel arms that function like an upside down metronome do not get along with a sea; they fight it. The price paid for their speed is a motion that is twitchy and unpredictable at best, outright dangerous at worst.

The sheer size of the four-masted bark I wrote about had something to do with her sedate ride, of course, but her captain credited the excellence of her design, dating to 1930. He compared it to a square-rigger of similar size but more modern design that he occasionally commands. In the conditions we were experiencing, he said, an epidemic of passenger mal de mer would be expected on that not-so seakindly vessel.

You could say that a proper reverence for seakindliness is what distinguished the career of Bill Crealock, who died in September at the age of 89. He designed sailboats that got along with the sea. He once wrote that his design ideas were developed in "the school of open waters." He said he "wanted speed, as we all do to some extent, but only if it could be achieved without the handling problems which beset many boats."

The best known of his boats expressing that philosophy was the Crealock 37, a bluewater cruiser designed in the 1970s and later marketed as the Pacific Seacraft 37. There is no official tally that I know of, but there's a good probability this boat has crossed oceans more often than any other production design. That was the fundamental reason for its existence. Owners love the boat for its ability to be manageable in heavy weather while providing a steady ride that does not wear down those aboard for the often extended duration of foul weather. With narrow beam, long keel, separated skeg-mounted rudder and easy-going lines, she is, above all, seakindly. That attribute is further developed by a canoe stern, a handsome touch that serves an important purpose. "The true canoe stern," Crealock wrote, "is a potential bow, for when the weather is truly bad, it is the stern that will bear most of its venom."

Crealock was sensitive to the seakindliness imperative because he was an ocean-voyaging sailor before he was a yacht designer. In 1952, he and three young friends bought an ancient cutter to, as Crealock put it, "study the behavior of boats at sea." Their voyage covered thousands of miles, including many along the coast of Africa, and resulted in Crealock's book Vagabonding Under Sail. Later he wrote about sailing in the South Pacific in a book titled Cloud of Islands. I recommend them both as classics of the cruising adventure genre. Born in Westcliff-on-Sea, England, Crealock sailed a small sailboat to America, where he stayed, and in Southern California became a successful and much respected yacht designer.

A half model of the Pacific Seacraft 37 is enshrined in the American Sailboat Hall of Fame, one of only about two dozen to receive the honor. It's an honor that is meant for builders of production boats, but when, as chairman of the Hall of Fame selection committee, I announced the induction of the Crealock 37 at a ceremony in 2002, I made clear this was as much a tribute to a designer of seaworthy and seakindly boats as to the builder.

Speaking of awards, that mysterious trophy we found was presented by unanimous family vote to my sister Micca (former editor of this magazine) in recognition of her ability to resist seasickness during a stormy passage on the boat named on the cup. The event was quite unpleasant at the time long ago but is now a cherished part of family sailing lore. The seasickness that afflicted others resulted from the ferocity of the frontal passage we were caught in (today we would see it coming on the computer screen but then it came out of nowhere), which brought a gale and instantly mountainous seas, not some deficiency of the boat. I did some hurling and furling myself, the latter in taking down the mainsail. After that we sailed under jib and jigger (mizzen) as comfortable as could be under the circumstances, like a buoyant gull resting on the sea. And so I can say something good about that boat: When you didn't push too hard, she was seakindly.

But I still don't have any idea how she managed to win a race.