S2 7.9

2010 May 12
This trailerable racer-cruiser is popular with one-design and PHRF racers

After a decade in the cruising boat business, S2 decided to enter the racing market. The first model was the trailerable racer-cruiser S2 7.9. The boat was a big success and continues to compete in the marketplace and on the race course against the J/24, Olson 25, Merit 25 and other boats of its era.

The boat was designed by Scott Graham and Eric Schlageter, principals of Chicago-based G&S naval architecture firm. The 7.9 was originally marketed as the Grand Slam, but later the name was dropped and it became the 7.9. It was built from 1982 through 1987, and again in 1990 through 1994. In total, 546 boats were built.

Interestingly, the 7.9 continued to be built in the 1990s after S2 had closed its doors, at least its sailboat building doors. The S2 facility was retasked for Tiara yachts, building high-quality powerboats. S2 had its roots in the powerboat world-the owner of S2, Leon Slikkers, started and then sold Slickcraft, a powerboat builder, and then later started S2 as a way around a non-compete agreement that kept him out of the powerboat market.

First impressions
All the S2 models have a very fresh look to them, most of the boats are 20-plus years old but always look just a few years old to me. Clean, conservative lines tend to do that. The boat has a traditional deck layout with a low-profile cabintrunk. The cabintrunk has two fixed and one opening portlight per side, with a large companionway and deck hatch up top. The boats have a large, long cockpit with an outboard rudder and tiller.

The 7.9 name refers to the LOA of 7.9 meters, translating to 25 feet, 11 inches. The waterline length is 21 feet, 8 inches, with a maximum beam of 9 feet. The boat draws 5 feet with the keel down, but will float in a skinny 13 inches with everything up. This shallow draft is a major feature of the boat, especially for those looking for a "big boat" for "skinny water."

Below the waterline, the 7.9 has a vertically lifting keel and a kick-up rudder. A very small number of boats were built with fixed keels. The lifting-keel boats have 1,750 pounds of ballast, 1,150 in the hull and another 600 in the keel itself, for a total displacement of roughly 4,250 pounds. The fixed-keel model displaces 200 fewer pounds; all the ballast is in the keel, and since it is placed lower in the boat, a bit less is required.

The 7.9 is very trailerable and many racers take advantage of this, hitting many regattas around the country. At 9 feet wide, the boat is technically too wide to trailer without a permit, but no owners have reported any difficulties. The rig is fairly simple and can be setup by hand with two or three people. Reports are that the boat can go from trailer to race course in just a few hours. Many owners have developed bracing systems to allow the rig to be raised by just one or two people with the aid of a deck winch.

The boats are fractionally rigged, with a fractional spinnaker. Sail area is 329 square feet, and it is agreed that the boats are properly canvassed.

The S2 build quality is excellent, the boats have held up very well. Even though they were built as racers, they were built very stoutly. Aside from rebedding and repairing damage from groundings, the boats have been pretty bulletproof.

The hull and decks are balsa cored to keep them light and stiff. The hull-to-deck joint is a little lacking, but has held up well. It consists of inward facing flanges secured with adhesive and the toerail fasteners. A majority of the boats were laid up with polyester resin, but the last 200 boats or so were built with modified epoxy resin. This is largely a point of trivia, there is no perceivable difference in the boats.

What to look for
Of the 546 boats built, 121 were inboard powered, and a good number of those have already been converted to outboards. The opinion of the racers that I spoke with was that you want an outboard boat to be competitive. The inboard boats have a little better rating, but they don't appear to sail to it. A true outboard boat is more desirable than a converted inboard.

Many 7.9s have been raced and fully upgraded. If you intend to race, starting with an upgraded boat may save some time and money.

"A lot of boats have made equipment upgrades from original equipment through the years that fall within class rules," said Mark Adriansen, a 7.9 crewmember and North Sails representative in the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area. Updated travelers, backstay kickers/adjustment systems, removal of genoa sheet footblocks, solid boom-supporting vang, board-raising tackle, high-tech cordage and worn-out halyard stoppers, lower lifelines to support hiking efforts, mast-mounted spinnaker halyard cleat, are all good things to look for."

There are a few troublesome spots to look out for on the 7.9. The physics of the vertically lifting keel tends to cause damage to both the keel and the trunk in the event of a hard grounding. There is just nowhere for the keel to pivot. The boat has a deck-stepped mast, and the step and supporting structure should be carefully examined. Finally, the starboard chainplate has a tendency to slip loose. This can be inspected in the head compartment and is easily remedied should there be a problem.

The build quality of S2 is excellent, but with any balsa-cored boat, it is important to look for delamination. A wet, or delaminated hull/deck should not sway the decision to buy a particular boat, but this should be reflected in the price.
On deck
The 7.9 has a nice cockpit that is designed for sailing. The traveler is placed across the cockpit seats directly in front of the helmsman. This placement is great for sail control but does eat up some space. The cockpit is set up for singlehanding. The mainsheet, jib sheets and traveler are right at the helmsman's finger tips. The halyards are led aft to stoppers on the cabintop.

Cabintop winches handle aft-led halyards as well as spinnaker control lines. Nicely sized primary winches sit atop the cockpit coaming. Those same coamings hold the adjustable jib lead tracks and cars.
The boats came with a "pinch" type adjustable forked backstay, but many owners have converted to a cascade purchase Spectra backstay with a flicker to clear the roach of the mainsail. Active racers have added lower lifelines to allow the crew to more easily hike out.

Down below
As expected the interior of the 7.9 is a simple traditional layout. Two long settees flank the companion way, with a simple galley forward to port and small head to starboard. Forward, there is a V-berth. The interior is usable as a weekender, or to escape the rain between the races. The 7.9 was designed as a small one-design racer and the interior reflects
this purpose.

The 7.9 was offered with either a 7.5-horsepower BMW diesel inboard or set up for an outboard. In addition, a few boats came with an inboard Yanmar diesel. The outboard option was far more popular, the cost was much lower and the boats performed better. In later years a good number of inboard boats were converted to outboard versions. An 8-horsepower outboard seems to do a good job pushing the boat along.
Done properly this change required a ballast reconfiguration. The inboard boats have 200 pounds less ballast and the outboard version placed the ballast a bit farther forward.

I spoke with Jeff Bonvallet, owner of Dash, a 1994 model, hull No. 539, one of the last built. He races the boat extensively on Lake Michigan and trailers it around the country to different regattas. He is fleet captain of S2 7.9 Fleet 22, a fleet of 10 boats sailing out of Windjammers Sailing Club near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

"It is a great boat, somewhat tender and very responsive," Bonvallet said. "It is particularly good for our area as 'thin' water is an issue. With the board and rudder up we only need 13 inches of water. The boat handles very well in a blow but it really excels in light air. Beating is its strong point, any race with a long beat gives us a very good chance to place. The boat seems to race up to her PHRF rating and I have been very successful in several PHRF races around Green Bay."

The S2 7.9 is a nicely designed, well-built one-design racer that can be cruised on short trips. The class organization, www.sail79s.org, is large, active and engaging. You can find spirited but approachable racing in many parts of the country.

"We're a crew of old, amateur guys and are competitive with younger crews at the national level," said Adriansen, capturing the racing spirit nicely. "The boat levels the playing field so anyone can be competitive."

S2 7.9
LOA 25'11"
LWL 21'8"
Beam 9'
Maximum Draft 5'
Minimum Draft 1'2"
4,250 lbs.
Sail Area
329 sq. ft.