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There’s more art than science when testing boats

2010 January 15
Today I am writing a new boat review. I have written a lot of these over the years, more than 100 I think. And although at times I struggle to find the right tone, the right adjectives, I always take the task seriously. You can't hastily knock off a review, you have to get it right, you owe that to the folks in the sailing business and you especially owe it to the readers. Laugh, or don't, you need to think in these terms or else go into the PR racket.

In October I spent a few days after the Annapolis show sailing four different boats to be reviewed in upcoming issues of Sailing, and I was once again struck by just how devoted builders are to putting out quality, innovative boats. I am convinced that that most sailboat builders see just one way out of the downturn, to build the best possible boats they can. I am not sure that makes economic sense but it is the ethos that drives this industry we all love. Don't get me wrong, this blog isn't an advertorial, or clandestinely sponsored by a sailboat manufacturer, it's based on almost three decades of observing the sailing industry come to terms with the sad fact that fewer and fewer people are interested in the product they sell. You can just hear them sitting around the conference table, "if we build an even better boat people will have to buy it."

Sailing, as a mainstream recreational pursuit, is certainly not growing, yet the industry continues to put out products that represent the latest advances in materials, construction and in many cases, design. Several boats at the show featured synthetic rigging, an idea that has gone from being talked about to reality quickly. Carbon fiber has become widespread in applications from hull laminations, to rudder posts, to spars. Performance boats, like Barry Carroll's Summit 35, have ingenious interiors that make the catch phrase, dual purpose, more than a catch phrase. From Forespar's Leisurefurl booms to Harken's brilliant new winch designs, the industry continues to develop products that make sailing easier, safer and ultimately more efficient. But will it matter? I don't know. I do know that sailing is more fun and more rewarding than ever before. Will it matter? You have to be an optimist to be a sailor.

"So how do you actually test a boat?" I hear this question frequently. Well, I am here to confess that it isn't scientific but it is relatively thorough. The editors, Greta and Erin, usually pick the boats to be reviewed and then photographer Bob Grieser arranges the schedule during the days immediately following the show. I inspect each boat at the show, usually on the last day when the crowds are thin. The next morning Grieser and I head out into the Bay on his 22-foot inflatable photo boat and find our first boat. Most boats are out sailing; waiting for journalists, conducting test sails, or just allowing the sales staff to blow off steam after an exhausting weekend. We spot our boat, Grieser maneuvers along side, I climb aboard, and the test begins.

We have to make the most of the conditions, logistics don't allow us to reschedule if there is no wind. The boats are here, we're here, that's it, you take what you conditions you get, just like a race, or a long cruise. Luckily this year the wind was fresh, we had four great sails.

I am always happy when the builder, designer, or other principals are aboard. I am able to get insights in person that would be tougher to glean later on the phone. We chat, we sail, and sometimes we do really put the boat through its paces. We've been a lot better lately when it comes to setting chutes, code zeroes, and any other sail that helps inform readers. And, let's be straight, popping the kite is fun, and makes for better pictures.

I typically spend a few hours aboard, steering, trimming, probing around. I look for small details, and I look at the big picture, does the boat work? We try to sail on every tack and I try to find out just whom the manufacturer envisions as his or her customer for the boat. Ultimately, I evaluate the boat based on what the builder is trying to achieve, not my own set off criteria. That's the key, I think, to boat testing – to understand what the builder was aiming for and to see if they hit the target.

On some boats I spend a fair bit of time below because an interior that's captivating at the dock is often uncomfortable under sail, even in modest Chesapeake seas. When I am satisfied, I signal to Grieser. He pulls along side, I pitch him my notebook and scramble back in the photo boat. We've been doing this dog and pony show for many years. In Miami, I work with my friend, photographer Walter Cooper, and it's the same process. One year, Grieser and I had some heroics in blustery San Francisco Bay after the Oakland show, as he somehow managed to bring a small whaler alongside several boats in 6-foot seas and I stumbled on and off.

I know that one of these years I am going to make a misstep and end up in the soup. That's going to be my sign that it will be time to bring some fresh blood into the boat review business. But until then, I will keep doing what has to be one of the best gigs afloat.