Built for sail or sale?

What do the phrases ‘cruiser racer’, ‘performance cruiser’ or ‘blue water cruiser’ actually mean anymore?

Thirty years ago or thereabouts, sound cruising yachts won the big-name sailing events, the Sydney-Hobart, Fastnet and the Bermuda Race to name but three. Like the America’s Cup before them, these global races became the province of the wealthy. Tycoons began seeking out designers and yacht builders that would weigh the dice in their favour as they sought the laurels of victory.

Mainstream cruising yachts started morphing into go-faster hulls, a hybrid which influenced yacht manufacture and leading shipwrights away from hands-on artisanship to an automobile-style production line.

I clearly remember the day in 1981 when a fully finished Sadler 29, complete with bolt-on keel, was delivered to its owner by road transport to Dauntless Boatyard in Essex UK.

I had almost finished building my first yacht, a steel Endurance 35 called Courser.

I only had just the finishing touches to go after a two year vertical learning curve on how to build a sailing yacht to cross oceans.

Until then, aspiring yachtsmen had them built fully finished, if they had the means, whilst otherwise impoverished dreamers, like me, built them themselves alongside creeks and rivers, where they could be launched and sailed off to distant horizons.

The Sadler 29 was the first production style yacht I really noticed, although there were already a few bilge keeled Westerly yachts knocking around the estuaries and harbours on the south and east coasts of the UK.  The reason the Sadler 29 caught my attention was her very clear departure from the design of David Sadler’s iconic long keeled Contessa 32, a known and much respected blue water yacht. The gathered gaggle of would-be yacht builders and sailors shook their heads in dismissal of the very concept of having such a fundamental element of a sailing yacht structure, the keel, attached by only a few bolts.

Other brands of these first production yachts, which all sported the bolt-on keel, soon proliferated because essentially they were cheap. It doesn’t take an accountant to tell you if, instead of the complications of moulding an integral hull and keel (with an equally integral skeg to protect the rudder), you use a simpler shaped hull and bolt a steel keel onto it, then drop a single hole through the transom to hold a blade hung rudder, it’s going to be fundamentally cheaper.

Little did we know as we gazed upon this new type of yacht that they would completely change the marine yacht building industry beyond all our imaginations.

Over the following 10 to 20 years the iconic names that we knew and loved, began to disappear under the cost-cutting onslaught of their production rivals. Such names as Nicholson, Rival, Endurance, Bowman and Contessa itself, as well as many others disappeared. To a large extent, modern yacht production moved to France as companies like Beneteau and Jeanneau embraced ever-increasing mass production techniques, which ostensibly offered better value for money. Buyers started to focus much less on the seaworthiness of the boats they were considering and far more on how many berths could be accommodated in the vessel they could afford.

As more companies moved into the yacht building market and the leaders of that industry became bigger, they sought to achieve the sales targets that were needed to sustain their size and growth. They needed to capture bigger and bigger sectors of the sailing market so they announced a new yacht that bridged the gap between racing and cruising; the ‘cruiser racer’. If you aspired to win races but didn’t have enough cash for a pure-bred racing yacht, and if you wanted, also, to go off on holiday with the family, now there was a yacht for all purposes. Not only that but it was now within the financial reach of hundreds of thousands of would-be sailors.

Sailing as an industry went nuts, ten times more new yachts were launched every year and marinas were built all over the world to accommodate them. Sailing as a profession attracted the young and adventurous, while yacht brokers and builders sucked in erstwhile car salesmen to help meet the demand.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, other than the description, and the niggly detail that there is no such thing as a yacht for all purposes.

In the effort to achieve even greater market share, the production builders then sought to embrace not only the term ‘performance cruiser’ and ‘racer cruisers’, but also the heralded title ‘blue water yacht’. The Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) in Europe came under pressure from the burgeoning marine industry to provide a cover-all category, resulting in the meaningless and misleading Category A Ocean certification. I say misleading because to sport such an ocean-going badge the yacht needs only to sustain 4m waves and winds of Force 8. Force 8 is just 34 knots of wind! Ask any experienced ocean sailor if these are credible statistics to base a yacht on for sailing across oceans… I can already tell you what the answer will be.

Now, virtually every yacht over 30ft gets an Cat A Ocean pass, regardless of whether its keel is bolted on, its blade hung rudder design relies on it never hitting anything (or grounding), and its 5/6mm hull thickness means that when you go to windward the vibration from the slamming will shake your fillings out and the lockers in the fore-cabin all fly open.

What was really disappointing was that the quality brands, with names that we readily associate with blue water sailing, denigrated their hard-earned brand reputation in an effort to maintain their market share against the onslaught from the production boat builders. They too have lowered their build cost to achieve the questionable title ‘performance blue water cruiser’, so now even these brands have bolt-on keels, twin blade rudders and plumb bows as they chase the same higher volume market.

Perhaps at this point, I should define what is understood by the term blue water sailing.

It could, of course, simply mean that you are sailing twenty miles out from land, where the sea is blue, not grey or khaki coloured. Perhaps that’s the definition that the yacht building brands I’m thinking of, and that the old salts I talk to now dismiss, are utilizing? To me, it means out there on your own, hundreds or thousands of miles from any support or rescue that can reasonably be relied upon or factored into a coherent plan. A place where, if the vessel or crew are not up to the task of getting back to civilisation when the proverbial s**t hits the fan, the price the sea may claim from the yacht and it’s crew can be very high.

That level of autonomy scares a lot of people who are used to the help, guidance, control and restrictions their governments impose on their daily life, but that’s the very freedom and independence that blue water people want.

The reality is you can’t have it both ways. You can, and should, start off on easy passages with good support. Once you have learned everything you need to know about your vessel and yourself, then you can spread your wings, set your sails and go where your heart takes you.

As you do venture further and further outside the comfort zone, you must have a vessel that won’t fall apart or sink, whatever is thrown at you.

So, let’s come back to the proper definition of a blue water yacht:

  1. She has to be bombproof. Meaning, when you hit something or accidentally take the ground, you won’t need to be calling the emergency services, because, guess what, they are almost certainly too far away to help.
  2. She must be easy to sail with one person on watch. Short-handed sailing is tiring, and won’t work if you have to call the crew on deck to reef a sail, tack, or set or furl sails.
  3. She must have a comfortable motion and not be ‘on her ear’ when you need to go up wind. We can all endure three or four hours of bashing upwind, but three or four days of it is hard as hell.
  4. The engine and all the yacht’s systems must have their own dedicated space and all the equipment must have easy access for repair, service and daily monitoring checks whilst at sea (see image above).
  5. The main systems and controls have to have multiple levels of redundancy. Everything will eventually break, whatever the salesmen tell us, and the owner must sit and think ‘if this or that breaks, what’s the plan?’. If you have a boat, you have a list, or several.
  6. She has to have lots of storage space. This can’t be achieved in a design that is developed to cram in as many berths as possible. It’s not a holiday charter hire or a boat that you will be on for a couple of weeks at the most. You’ll be living on this boat for weeks, months or years at a time, so your first question can’t be how many berths is it? I tell every owner; “don’t ask us to design your boat for people that won’t come”. So, here’s the bombshell… four people is the maximum you want on a 50ft boat for any extended period of time, six on a 58. Yes, I know the production boats at the boat show have eight berths in a 50 footer but it’s not the same animal. In most blue water cruisers, irrespective of size, normally one or two owners sail and live on her and, if they are lucky, two family members or good friends come out for a holiday now and then. Bear in mind the further you go away from home the fewer people will come.       
  7. She must be loved. The sea will find every chink in the yacht’s armour, so the yacht and all her equipment must be clean, serviced and rigorously checked.


These are the principles a blue water yacht needs to be based on. How these principles are achieved comes down to the designer and builder and the experience they collectively have of this type of sailing. You can’t learn how to design and build a proper blue water yacht from sitting behind a desk alone, you to have been out there and have lived it too.

Next time you go to a boat show, if you’re after a proper blue water yacht, don’t bother going up the steps to check out the layout and furnishings, or listen to the salesman’s assurances about the boat’s ability. Look first at the underwater profile, if it doesn’t have an integral keel that cannot come off and a full skeg rudder, she should be off the list.

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