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My picks for sailboats more award-worthy than a Jeep truck

2020 February 1

I read car magazines with interest and envy. 

Interest because, as a semi-reformed sports car buff, my clutch-foot still twitches when I read about high-performance automobiles. 

Envy because the magazines can get away with roundly criticizing, even ridiculing, carmakers’ latest efforts without being punished by disgruntled advertisers.

The January 2020 issue of Car and Driver featured magazine staff picks for the 10 best cars of the year. Snarky comments about vehicles that didn’t make the cut were included. 

About the unfortunately named Kia K900, one judge wrote, “Did somebody already make all the obvious jokes?” Another said this about the BMW Z4 convertible: “Beyond giving you a leathery tan, the Z4 offers no reason not to pick the Supra.” 

The editor quoted one of the magazine staff members declaring, “I swear I’ll quit if the Jeep Gladiator is a 10-Best winner.” (It turned out, it was a winner, an undeserved honor for an overweight, overlong, overpriced truck with primitive engineering and, also primitive, macho affectation, in the opinion of this volunteer critic.)

Life is different in the boating magazine world. Product criticism, even the mild variety, can cause angst and worse. In a way, this is understandable. 

Carmakers are billion-dollar companies whose marketers need lose no sleep over the carping of a few magazine critics, and if they do may decide to counter it with ads in the same publications that knocked their products.

In contrast, the sailing business, with a few exceptions such as the French megaproducers, is a world of small companies, often identified by strong personal engagement by owners, a labor-of-love ethic and tender sensibilities. Find fault with their boats and you might as well be picking on one of their kids. That world can be, let’s say, a bit quaint, but this family-owned magazine is content to be part of it.

When Bob Perry joined the SAILING crew, a signal moment in the magazine’s formative years that occurred an astonishing four decades ago, we told him: Pull no punches in your sailboat design critiques. That was us newspaper journalists turned magazine editors showing we were firmly in the thrall of the ethical-purity-immune-to-advertiser-pressure conceit.

Bob got right at it and gave our readers something no other magazine provided—informed and honest reviews of new boat designs. The informed part was easy for Bob as a yacht designer with a thorough knowledge of the art and science of his profession and some very successful designs to his credit even at an early stage of his career. The honest part came naturally. He just told it like it was. If that meant writing that a boat’s design characteristics suggested it was going to be a slug in light air, so be it.

In dealing with occasional yowls of protests from boatbuilders, the buck often went past advertising sales desks directly to mine, where it abruptly stopped. I got to meet some interesting folks in the sailing business and had some stimulating conversations, a few of which actually ended well. In any case, Bob’s reviews are easy to defend because they are fair comment made by a qualified critic with no agenda other than to enlighten sailors.

Bob has mellowed over his tenure at SAILING and his criticisms now come across as somewhat gentler in that they are often wrapped in wry observations. Still, his is the only voice in the American sailing magazine universe giving pro and con evaluations of sailboat designs.

Car magazines name the best cars and trucks of the year and some sailing magazines make a big deal out of bestowing “boat of the year” honors. We’ve never done anything like that at SAILING, but just to try it out I’m going to name the five best sailboat designs of the past year. Warning: This is wholly unscientific and subjective. I’m basing the honors on Bob Perry reviews, SAILING Boat Tests and my own prejudices. I haven’t sailed any of the boats I’m about to crown with glory.

Number 1 is the J/99. My choices are heavily weighted by aesthetics, and this 32-footer is by far the prettiest boat of 2019. Its low-freeboard hull is a handsome blend of a classic curving sheerline with the straight bow and transom emblematic of the modern racing-boat look. As a bonus, all of its measurables suggest it is a wickedly fast sailer. Perry opined: “It looks like a boat. It’s not goobered up with affected styling touches that usually just end up adding weight.”

Number 2 is another 32-foot sloop, but unlike the racy J/99 with its basic accommodations, Jeanneau’s Sun Odyssey 319 is a deluxe cruiser in a compact package. I’m not quite sure how they did it, but the designers managed to give this boat berths for six, two private cabins, a large galley and a rarity in modern small cruising boats—an actual navigation desk. All of this with cabin decor and pricing that are both attractive. SAILING’s boat tester added a final fillip—the boat is no slouch at sailing.

I choose the XP55 for number 3. This was easy because I have sentimental attachment to an increasingly rare breed—racer-cruisers. The Danish builder X-Yachts has proved with many of its boats, and especially with this 56-footer, that dual-purpose boats can still excel at both purposes. All of the XP55 models come with lavish below-deck accouterments, but high-performance options are available for racers, including a 10.5-foot deep keel. 

Four boats could have tied for the number 4 position, which I reserved for a large cruising boat. Boats by Hylas, Gunfleet, Swan and Beneteau, all highly praised in Perry reviews, are all deserving, but I choose the Beneteau First 53 for its dashing display of sexy French styling and the dashing performance predicted by its amazing 50-plus-foot waterline length, comparative light weight, tremendous rig and long sprit for downwind sails.

The fifth boat on my list is not meant to be a ringer; it just seems that way. The Ventura 2300 is a trailerable cruising sailboat that even in a favorable review Perry described as “a bit stubby.” I can forgive that because there’s a lot of stuff built into the boat for overnighting, including, besides berths, a head, drop-leaf table and a little galley. I’m not so sure about the suggested engine power—a 50-horsepower outboard—but the hull is meant to plane and I guess there’s nothing wrong with getting someplace fast when there’s no wind. I like it because it’s an answer to the enduring gripe that sailboats are too expensive for folks of moderate means. The Ventura can accommodate a small family in a modicum of comfort, has an adequate rig with 280 square feet of sail and costs about the same as a well-equipped Jeep truck.

There, I managed that without any snarky comments. But maybe I should mention here that while both the Beneteau 53 and the Swan 54 are worthy of number 3 seeding, you could buy two Beneteaus and fill their lockers with the best French Bordeaux you could find for the price of one Swan.