BOATS BY COUNTRY – USA
Eight years ago, I wrote a piece about the factors that influence how sailors in the EU and the USA choose their boat for bluewater sailing.
Obviously sailing boats generally are designed and built to meet the requirements of all kinds of different purchaser groups. Equally obviously, what people who intend to live on board long term and travel long distances as safely as possible need bears little resemblance to what people planning on a bit of coastal sailing or a foray into the charter business need. This goes for everything from the choice of materials and underwater configuration to comfort below deck. Everyone needs sleep and not every boat that provides a comfortable bunk in harbour will be equally comfortable and peaceful to sleep on at sea. Far from it, in fact.
My focus this time is on the influence of available information sources for sailors, whose preferences and priorities crystallise over time in a way that narrows their choice down to a particular boat or type of boat. What I would particularly like to understand is the criteria sailors apply when deciding what boat to buy: what is it in the end that convinces them one factor is more important than another? There is obviously something interesting going on here because sailors from different countries reach strikingly different answers to what is essentially the same question – with significant implications for comfort and safety at sea. Why, for example, do sailors in the EU end up making such different choices to their counterparts in the US cruising community?
Decades in the marine industry have done nothing to dilute my amazement – bewilderment even – at the massive divergence of opinion along geographical lines. The fundamental requirements, such as robust construction (material strength and thickness, use of appropriate reinforcement in key areas etc.), practical hull shapes and keel forms, rudder design (especially rudder design) and so on – the basics of safety and comfort at sea in other words – are surely the same for all sailors dreaming of the open ocean whatever their point of embarkation..
The market in the EU is a fast-moving one in which sales are supported by press announcements and (puff pieces masquerading as) product tests that reinforce the message the many interested parties involved need to put across. Yachts are developed, manufactured, promoted and eventually sold with the aim of ticking as many boxes as possible in relation to a profile of requirements set out in the specification – a specification, I can reveal, that does not necessarily revolve around safety and suitability for bluewater use.
My past musings in the Boats by Country series have investigated the situation in Germany, the Netherlands and France to identify the main national peculiarities.
The fundamental design features from my point of view are quickly explained:
Keel: long or short, lifting keel with or without internal ballast Keel attachment: bearing surface against hull, number of bolts x area Rudder: keel-hung, with or without skeg, number and spacing of bearings,
Engine: fixed shaft or saildrive
Visit any boat show and there can be no doubt which way designers have been moving on these various points over the last few decades. This is not the place to venture into the labyrinth of different deck and interior configurations; suffice it to say that the best way to create value out of mass-produced sailing boats has been to outsource peripherals like keel, rudder and engine system to specialist suppliers who can quickly provide modular units for easy installation on an industrial scale.
I am not convinced that what makes good economic sense from the manufacturer’s perspective also necessarily makes sense from the point of view of suitability for long-term use on the high seas: too many of the components concerned can become safety-critical far from land, with the result that any weakness spells trouble in spades. After all, a broken or lost rudder, as the media are increasingly picking up on, more often than not results in the boat having to be abandoned. Keel loss – with fatal consequences – is by no means unheard of either. Insurance companies have apparently already added checks on keel mountings to their list of requirements.
How opinions are formed among sailors in general is an interesting question but what we really need to understand in this case is how a certain set of views and priorities emerges within a particular cruising community. What factors guide purchasing decisions? Where and how are the seeds of the ideas that come to dominate the opinion-forming process sown?
First of all, it has to be said that on the whole sailors are no fools and tend to be rather sensitive about being steered: any attempt to influence their opinions requires considerable finesse and people striking the wrong note can easily find themselves on very thin ice.
THE MARKETING PILLARS
SEGELMAGAZINE – PROMOTIONS – BOATSHOWS
The effectiveness of the cosy relationship that exists between the big yards and the sailing press is beyond question: the magazines have a readership thirsty for information and pages to fill with reports and reviews, the yards have a story to tell and an advertising budget sufficient to help the magazines keep the wolf from the door. Gain a magazine recommendation as “suitable for bluewater use” and you have a valuable mark of quality – perhaps even a unique selling point – to wield in your marketing material. Whether smart sailors take it all at face value is a different matter of course. The intertwined interests of yards, brokers and the media are no secret and it doesn’t take an enormous about of insight to realise that what passes for a test sail very often involves only the barest minimum of actual testing. A delicate balancing act indeed!
It seems only logical that the wide range of first-hand information available from sources like experienced long-distance sailors would have a considerable influence on bluewater boat-purchasing decisions. In the absence of such resources, marketing, magazine ads and seminars probably assume a greater role. The internet hosts an owners’ association – often with an allied forum – for virtually all the established classes and designs and these sites, which provide an opportunity to find out what actual owners and users think, are a wonderful point of reference in the decision-making process. It is noticeable that the established sailing publications seem to play a much weightier role in the yacht marketing food chain in the EU than they do in the USA. On our side of the Pond we are quite used to magazines driving trends, selecting yachts of the year, endorsing boats from the past as “modern classics” and playing up the suitability of particular vessels for the bluewater life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se provided that all sides have the same priorities, but my impression is that what the journalists and reporters consider to be important has gradually changed over the years in a way that doesn’t necessarily serve the sailor’s best interests. When did speed potential become a key factor for long-distance cruising, for example? The ability to go a bit faster always comes in handy sooner or later, but the rigs and hull forms that deliver speed also dictate compromises in other areas important for bluewater use. One German couple on the Windpilot customer list has personal experience of long-distance cruising with several prominent options and their opinions are as clear as they are well-founded.
I am always struck by how much more popular traditional designs are with bluewater sailors in the US than with their counterparts over here. This must, I think, reflect the influence of the numerous highly experienced US-based sailors who put their expertise down in writing and share it in self-published books. This real knowledge from real people is invaluable and appears to have left a clear mark on the large bluewater cruising community in the USA. Almost all of these sailors are also active members of theSSCAa lively and dedicated organisation that understands how to make sailors’ experiences accessible to a large community. Phyllis Nickel and John Harries, who have been running the hugely diverse and informative Attainable Adventure Cruisingwebsite for years (as well as turning out countless books), have also become a very popular source of information and advice for the international cruising community. The peerless online resource they have created provides a lively forum for discussion and debate across a huge range of topics too, with some subjects attracting hundreds of comments from participants who include a host of veteran offshore sailors with just about unrivalled knowledge in all specialist areas. John Harries moderates the forums with a knowledgeable eye and a distinctly relaxed tone. There is a small charge for membership – which I think is more than reasonable for advice of this calibre.
My database covering all of the yacht designs ever produced on a significant scale, which I have been building for decades, now includes almost 4,000 different boats from around the world. Looking down the list of models especially popular in the USA (some of which have acquired almost legendary status over there), I am struck by how many of them are completely unknown here in Germany. Interestingly, many of these stateside favourites have been keeping serious bluewater sailors happy for years and have plenty of life left in them despite having been out of production for a long time. Many of these boats, which give the impression of having been built for eternity, were produced in the shipyards of Taiwan, where manufacturer HYLASstill operates.
I am sure it is no coincidence that the people behind the HANSE and BAVARIA lines chose brand names that would immediately bring to mind traditional German virtues among sailors in the USA. Competition from their boats, developed and built in the EU using the latest industrial production methods, has helped to drive a number of US yards to the wall, especially in the 1990s. And yet the fleet of robust older generation yachts still seems to be pretty much as big as ever. That, at least, is my impression as someone who is very frequently called on to supply transom ornamentation for boats of this genre.
See below for photos of some of the long-running favourites in the US market.
Hamburg 21.06.2020 Peter Foerthmann