Telstar: Back to the Future
Tony Smith answers the dip in the Dow with a complete makeover of his 30-year-old Telstar trimaran and the return of a very cost-effective cruiser.
The Telstar 28 is a new trimaran with a history that reaches back several decades. The first of Tony Smith’s original Telstar 26s hit the water in England in the early 1970s, and after he’d launched more than 300 boats, there was little question about the success of the pocket-size cruiser/racer. He’d moved the operation to Maryland by 1981, when a fire destroyed his plant, including all of the Telstar molds. Over the next 20 years, Smith developed a new multihull design and put Performance Cruising Inc. on the map as the builder of the popular Gemini line of comfortable cruising catamarans.
Smith’s family-run boatbuilding operation—managed by his wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law—is located on Back Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. Their streamlined business plan features a factory-direct sales approach, and their multihulls are fitted out and launched right next to the shop in which they’re built. Visitors to Performance Cruising see barrels of resin neatly lined up next to the most landward shop door and new boats exiting out the door nearest the water, waiting to be launched. As shoreside real estate in the United States has grown so expensive, this direct continuity between a boatbuilder and the sea has become endangered. Here, the builder can easily step from the shop floor to sea-trial a boat that’s under development; the craftsmen who built the boat can see it after it’s been launched; customers can return straight to the factory for refits.
Spreading its wings, the Telstar 28 flies across Chesapeake Bay on a shakedown.
Today, Performance Cruising is launching a new breed of Telstar, and Tony Smith, ever the innovative designer/builder, has made a trailerable tri that can fold its wings and fly to windward on the highway, then cruise comfortably at some new sailing destination.
The ingenuity behind the 2003 Telstar 28 starts with the way the outer hulls, or amas, swing on a rotary-pivot joint that converts 18 feet of sailing beam into an 8.5-foot dimension that fits comfortably in slips and highway lanes. Best of all, in the transformation, the amas tuck in next to the hull in a functional hydrodynamic alignment that makes powering a fast, seakindly alternative. In addition, the boat’s overall length remains unchanged, even after the outer hulls have rotated into narrow-beam trim, and the vessel can safely remain in this configuration for as long as desired. Because all the rigging is attached to the main hull, there’s no need to fiddle with shrouds as the amas are quickly and easily folded inward. The side deck attached inboard of each ama provides usable space that’s easy to walk on and great for lounging at anchor or while under way.
Every boatbuilder looks for a market niche in which his or her product thrives; until recently, Performance Cruising’s effort on behalf of its comfortable cruising Gemini catamarans was focused on middle-aged couples interested in a safe, stable platform that offers virtually all the comforts of home. By contrast, the design and marketing philosophy behind the new Telstar is much more about sailing performance, functional and spartan accommodations, and a return to cost-effective cruising. The management team at Performance Cruising recognized that the all-up cost of boat ownership includes more than the boat’s sticker price. Annual add-ons raise the operating cost, and they, combined with tighter economic times, have convinced Smith that the market was ready for a shoal-draft cruiser that can be stored in the driveway. As he says, "You can tuck the Telstar 28 away in the backyard for the winter or drive south on I-95 for more sailing and sunshine." This versatility lessens the impact of slip and storage fees; at the same time, it greatly expands the range of potential landfalls.
That was the big idea. When it came to the boatbuilding, the new design needed a new structure, one different from the Gemini line that Smith & Co. had been building for two decades. Weight is a crucial factor in both performance and trailerability; the conventional solid-laminate hand-layup process used for the Gemini line would have tipped the Telstar scales into the overweight realm. The engineering team (Tony and his son, Neil) recognized that while sandwich construction and better resin control would help to shed pounds from the final boat, it also would require a new set of building skills.
When I first visited Performance Cruising early last spring, Telstar main hulls were being built in a hand-layup process using ATC Core-Cell foam, a top-of-the-line core material; plans were in place to change to closed-bag vacuum infusion, which, in addition to the structural advantages, releases less volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere.
During a subsequent visit to the factory last August, I watched Neil and his knowledgeable laminating crew use a vacuum bag to draw resin into the fabric and core material already carefully aligned in an ama mold. Once the resin had permeated all of the fabric and begun to accumulate in an overdraw tank, the workers shut off the flow and let the weight of the atmosphere evenly squeeze excess resin out through pinholes in a layer of peel-ply film. Vacuum techniques permit builders to create a composite structure with very low void content and an increased strength-to-weight ratio.
One of the biggest challenges for any multihull builder is finishing raw fiberglass edges aesthetically and cost-effectively while also keeping weight low. Whereas a monohull has just a single sheer line (with its attendant need for a toerail, bulwark cap, or other means of finishing off the interface between hull and deck), a trimaran has three times as much rail area to finish.
The Telstar’s ingenious foldaway feature adds still more parts that exhibit a raw fiberglass edge. One approach—the one the Smiths adopted—is not to hide the edges at all; rather, they employ good tooling and laminating techniques to produce clean edges straight from the mold.
Central to the Telstar’s design brief is the demand that she perform well under sail. That’s not to say this boat is a thoroughbred intended solely for racing-oriented sailors. On the contrary, she’s a cruiser that simply won’t be left in the dust during weekend club races or on the annual point-to-point distance race. More important, in my view, is the ease with which a shorthanded crew can coax this boat into action. In 5 to 7 knots of true wind, the boat hustles right along under working sail, and if the easily set asymmetric is hoisted, she takes on a turbocharged feel. Her light displacement shows up in quick acceleration under sail; that attribute also means that pinching when approaching chop or a powerboat wake will likely stop her dead in her tracks. The smooth, even feel of the helm is just right for tiller steering, and a simple tiller-connected external autopilot would be an inexpensive self-steering solution.
The mainsail is fully battened, and the overlapping jib furls smoothly on a Furlex headfoil system. The deck-stepped double-spreader rig with roller-furling gear means you’ll need a crane or spar hoist to step and unstep the mast, but it’s a performance compromise that’s worth the extra complication. I like the simple multipart, end-boom mainsheet arrangement that’s attached to a useful pin-stop traveler just aft of the rudderstock. Another big plus is the ease with which the genoa sheets are handled on two self-tailing winches mounted on the cabin house. Even with a relatively small genoa, the boat accelerates quickly; when we lowered the centerboard, she climbed to weather as well as many monohull cruisers.
I first sailed the boat in light, fluky conditions, and while we were making progress with the working sail plan, adding the easily handled narrow-shouldered asymmetric really heated things up, resulting in a fun-filled 6-knot beam reach in a true wind that wasn’t much greater.
There’s good seating in the cockpit, with ample visibility for the helmsman. The tiller has a nice feel; a monohull sailor feels very much at home driving this tri. It probably has something to do with riding in a lean center hull that’s actually in the water rather than being perched over the water on the bridgedeck of a cat. I could also feel how the buoyancy of the leeward ama delivered a righting force that I normally associated with the effect of gravity on a lead keel. Perhaps not lugging along all the lead makes sense after all.
Set for Speed
Under power, multihulls really come into their own. Their lean hulls and light displacement are easily driven by fairly small power plants. The Telstar 28 has been tested with 9.9- and 40-horsepower conventional-drive outboards, and thanks to the innovative lifting pod, the engine can be easily hauled clear of the water when the boat is under sail.
When the power is on, so is the speed. Even the smaller engine drives the hull at more than 6 knots. The 40-horsepower option delivers 13 or 14 knots. At press time, Tony Smith had ordered a 70-horsepower jet-drive outboard, a third engine option that he hoped would offer 20-knot capability—significantly altering the weekend passagemaker’s cruising range.
Belowdecks, a simple, utilitarian layout works for weekending and even summer-vacation adventures for those with a camping mindset. Alternative arrangement plans include comfortable berths for two or four, a small galley, a nav station, and a head forward. The boat’s just right for such summer shoal-draft venues as Long Island’s Peconic Bay or Great South Bay. Or put her on the trailer and head to Georgian Bay or Puget Sound. In the fall, try the Chesapeake. In winter, explore Florida Bay or the Sea of Cortez. The Telstar 28 would be an excellent boat for any of these cruising grounds.
Ralph Naranjo is Cruising World’s technical editor.