How Sailboats Measure Up
Design ratios tell a story, but to get the real picture about a vessel, sail area, displacement, and ballast deserve a longer look.
Sail Area/Displacement (SA/D)
An automobile buff seeking a high-performance ride looks for a high power-to-weight ratio and compares the horsepower/curb-weight ratios of different cars.
For a sailboat, the SA/D provides the same metric. The horsepower comes from the wind on the sails and is proportional to the sail area; a boat’s weight is its displacement (in pounds, kilograms, or tons).
Initially, the SA/D only really gives a measure of potential acceleration rates (in case any physicists are reading this), but since displacement is a key factor in the resistance a boat encounters when moving through the water, SA/D also has a bearing on potential maximum speed.
The traditional calculation for SA/D compares sail area in square feet to displacement in cubic feet. In the formula, displacement in pounds is divided by 64 (the density of seawater) to obtain cubic feet, which are in turn converted to square feet to make the ratio unit-free.
On a spreadsheet, the formula would be S/(D/64)^(2/3).
Nominally, the higher the SA/D, the more lively the boat’s sailing performance. The vessel will accelerate more quickly and have the potential for higher speed.
But to be able to compare boats with any degree of precision (or fairness), we have to use similar numbers. The displacement must be in the same condition, either light ship (nothing on board) or fully loaded, and the sail-area measurement must reflect the normal working sail plan. Racing boats have measurement certificates from which these numbers can be reliably extracted. The specifications provided in cruising-boat brochures might not be consistent between builders, but we have to assume they are.
Boats measured in the 1970s and the 1980s for racing under the International Offshore Rule for the most part had SA/Ds between 16 and 17, based on the sum of the mainsail triangle (M = P*E/2) and 100-percent foretriangle area (100%FT = I*J/2). The measurement system favored small mainsails and large headsails, and since designers of cruising boats stuck close to the IOR sail plan, the IOR value for SA/D became the yardstick. An SA/D above 17 said “fast boat,” and anything below 16 said “slow boat.”
After the IOR fell out of favor, cruising-boat design drifted away from raceboat design, and sail plans began to change. Today, many boats are designed with large mainsails and small jibs, and most builders publish a “total sail area” number that includes the standard jib (often as small as 105 percent) and the roach in the mainsail (which is significantly greater on modern boats with full-battened mainsails than on IOR boats).
These builder-supplied numbers are more readily comparable against competing models, but using them in the SA/D formula makes the boats look “faster” than older models. This is a false comparison, because the sail area used for the older boats doesn’t include the extra area in, say, a 150-percent genoa.
The table “Sailboats by the Numbers” (see page 79) illustrates this. It shows SA/Ds calculated for a selection of modern boats and boats from past eras, all about the same length, using different numbers for sail area. For each model, it shows five SA/Ds. SA/D 1 is calculated using the sail area provided by the builder. SA/D 2 is calculated using M (P*E/2) and 100% FT (I*J/2). SA/D 3 is calculated using M + 105% jib. SA/D 4 is calculated using M + 135% jib. SA/D 5 is calculated using M + 150% jib. The only SA/D that includes mainsail roach is SA/D 1.
Let’s look at some examples. The 1997 Beneteau Oceanis 411 has a published sail area of 697 square feet on a displacement of 17,196 pounds. That gives an SA/D 1 of 16.7 (the same as SA/D 2), which for decades was considered very respectable for a cruising boat.
In 2012, the current Beneteau Oceanis 41 has a published sail area of 902 square feet (453 mainsail + 449 jib) and a published displacement of 18,624 pounds, to give an SA/D 1 of 20.5. Wow! Super-high performance! But this is for the standard sail area, with the 449-square-foot jib (just about 100% FT and typical of the trend today toward smaller jibs that tack easily). Plug in the calculation using I, J, P, and E and SA/D 2 drops to 18.9 because it doesn’t include mainsail roach, which is about 16 percent of the total published mainsail area.
Go back to the 1997 model, tack on a standard-for-the-day 135-percent genoa, and the SA/D 4 becomes 20.7. (If we added in mainsail roach, typically about 11 percent of base mainsail area before full-battened sails, we’d have 21.4.) The 1997 boat has essentially the same horsepower as the 2012 model.
Looking at current models from other builders, the SA/Ds based on published numbers hover around 20, suggesting that designers agree on the horsepower a cruising sailboat needs to generate adequate performance to windward without frightening anyone.
The two boats in our chart that don’t at first appear to fit this model are the Hunter 39 and the Catalina 385, but they’re not really so far apart.
The Hunter’s SA/D 2 is 16.1. Its standard jib is 110 percent (327 square feet), and the rest of the published sail area is in the mainsail—664 square feet, of which 37 percent is roach!
Catalina is a little more traditional in its thinking. If you add the standard 135-percent genoa, the SA/D becomes 21.2—right in the ballpark. (It’s still there at 19.7 with a 120-percent genoa.)
The table shows that, for boats targeted at the “performance cruising” market, the SA/D numbers using actual sail area lie consistently around the 20 mark. To go above that number, you have to be able to fly that sail area without reefing as soon as the wind ripples the surface. To do that, you have to elevate stability—with broad beam, lightweight (i.e., expensive) construction, deep bulb keels, and fewer creature comforts.