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.
While sailboat builders and buyers are interested in displacement in terms of weight, naval architects view it as volume; they’re creating three-dimensional shapes. When working in feet, to get a displacement in pounds, they multiply cubic feet by 64, the density in pounds per cubic foot of seawater. (Freshwater boats displace more volume because the density of fresh water is only 62.4.) The D/L ratio is therefore a measure of immersed volume per unit of length—how tubby the hull is below the waterline.
According to conventional wisdom and empirical studies, the lower the D/L, the higher the performance potential. This is mainly due to wavemaking resistance being lower for slender hulls than for tubby hulls.
In the D/L formula, displacement in pounds is divided by 2,240 to convert it to tons to bring the values to manageable numbers, so D/L is displacement in tons divided by .01LWL (in feet) cubed.
In a spreadsheet, the formula would be D/(2240*(.01L)^3), where D is the displacement in pounds and L is LWL in feet.
In the early days of fiberglass boats, the Cruising Club of America rule was the principal dictator of boat shapes. Because it was a waterline rule, designers kept waterlines short to keep ratings low and relied on long stern overhangs immersing to add “sailing length” when the boats heeled. Carbon fiber was available only to NASA, and boats had full interiors, so “light displacement” wasn’t really in the cards. A D/L of 300 was considered dashing, even risky. Many still-popular designs from the 1970s and 1980s have D/Ls as high as 400; see the Bounty II.
Fast-forward 40 years. Boats now have plumb bows and plumb sterns and waterlines almost as long as their LOAs—there are no rating penalties on a cruising boat. The boats’ weights haven’t changed much because, although builders try to save weight to save cost, the boats are so much bigger. The hull and deck surface areas are greater, and all that extra internal volume can be filled with furniture. The effect on D/L ratios has been drastic—just look at the table. A D/L ratio above 200 today describes a heffalump.
But do these lower D/Ls actually buy you any more speed? Yes and no.
Yes: Because speed is proportional to the square root of the waterline length. Today’s 40-footer has a much longer waterline than yesterday’s and ought to sail as fast as yesterday’s 50-footer. It might also benefit from reduced resistance due to a smaller cross-sectional area, but it also might have greater wetted-surface drag due to the longer immersed length. When sailing downwind in waves, though, the lower-D/L boat will surf more readily.
No: Because, as we saw above, the power-to-weight ratios (SA/D) of modern boats aren’t effectively any higher, and certainly aren’t in the realm that would allow our cruising sailboats to climb out of the displacement zone and plane. In most conditions, the lower-D/L boat is still trapped in its wave.
In the days of the IOR, a D/L of 250 was still pretty racy; see the 1978 Catalina 38. Today, even a D/L as low as 150 doesn’t make a boat a speedster if it can’t carry the sail area to make it so. To compete at a level with a Volvo 70, look for a D/L of about 40 and an SA/D of 65.