Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone was at the helm of his latest creation, the Nigel Irens-designed Gunboat 55, when a 30-knot squall with blinding sideways rain raked Chesapeake Bay during our BOTY sea trials. It was, in a word, surreal. Outside, as the powerful catamaran ripped along under full main and screacher, topping off at over 20 knots of boat speed, the horizon was a blur. Yet in the enclosed main cabin — with its centered wheel, its adjacent suite of winches and sail controls just forward of the steering pedestal, and its full 360-degree visibility — not only was it dry and cozy, it was serene.
Great swaths of watery real estate were gobbled up in a flash. You actually had to look twice, or a third time, at the integrated B&G wind and speed instruments to fully grasp the forces in play. With regard to the space/time continuum, sailing this Gunboat put one in an altered state.
OK, in the puffs Peter did lean hard on the helm to keep the apparent wind aft and the screaming cat tamed (though the windward hull, on occasion, did lift clear of the chop). Pushing the boat hard, at all times an experienced hand was on the mainsheet and traveler, ready to depower the boat at a moment’s notice. Yet despite the storm, in our warm and comfortable pod, foul-weather gear wasn’t required. In fact, Peter was barefoot.
“This,” he said, “is [freaking] awesome.”
Yes, we agreed, it was.
For 2015, the three-boat Multihull division consisted of a trio of interesting catamarans, though in many ways they couldn’t have been more different from one another. In size and price, the Gunboat 55, the inaugural offering from the company’s new plant in Wanchese, North Carolina, was in a league of its own. At 50 feet, the Saba 50, from the popular French builder Fountaine-Pajot, was a boat that could appeal to private owners as well as charter fleets. And veteran catamaran sailor, builder and broker Phil Berman’s Balance 451, the first model from a new enterprise he’s launched in China, was a dedicated live-aboard blue-water cruiser.
Given the breadth of choices, this wasn’t a particularly easy class for the judges to sort out. “Each of these boats serves different purposes,” said judge Tim Murphy.
Of the Balance 451, Murphy continued: “Throughout his career, Phil has been gathering ideas about what makes the best sort of performance catamaran for cruisers. He used the word ‘balance’ for the name because he was looking for the balance between sailing performance and comfort aboard. He designed this boat in reaction to the mass of cats that go into the charter market but leave the real cruising sailor behind. He offers this boat with daggerboards instead of keels, though you can get both if you really want them. But the daggerboards are a statement: They should give you better balance and better performance.”
The Saba 50, designed by the design consortium of Berret-Racoupeau, is a multitiered vessel with a smart and efficient sail-handling station, abundant lounging areas (including a sensational “sun porch” on the upper deck) and several optional accommodation plans. A company rep said the first batch of orders was split “50-50” between charter operations and private ownership. “This is one of those boats where there are a lot of different spaces and I actually found myself delighted by them all [when under sail],” said Murphy. “It’s lively,” added judge Mark Schrader after a test sail in which the boat recorded better than 10 knots of speed in 14 knots of wind. “They wanted to keep weight down and performance up, yet they’ve still got a beautiful galley that could be a commercial kitchen. Fabulous!”
In other years, either the Balance or the Saba might’ve made its way to the winner’s circle.
But for 2015, the Gunboat 55 would not be denied. And that’s saying something, given that the price tag, which is north of $2 million, would make it prohibitively expensive for consideration in most year’s BOTY contests. “It’s for 1 percent of the 1 percent,” said judge Ed Sherman. However, the Gunboat was so innovative, so well executed, and so damn cool that the judging panelists were unanimous in their praise and selection. And hey, we can all dream, right?
“The Gunboat 55 is the first of what looks poised possibly to be a long run of this design,” said Murphy. “I was really stunned — I guess that’s the word — with how many things I felt they got right. The construction is infused carbon fiber and West System epoxy, it’s stiff and light, all top notch. The helm and workstation, all inside the main cabin — not outside as with previous Gunboats — is a marvel of design and engineering.”
Murphy noted it is the most expensive boat in the competition, but said that we’ve had previous Gunboats in BOTY that were also expensive but didn’t win their class because they weren’t of the same caliber. “This one they’ve really gotten right,” he said.
“The systems are sophisticated,” said Mark Schrader. “There’s an applied focus. It’s for a serious sailor.”
“I love the Gunboat,” concluded Sherman. “It’s a high-tech product that’s assembled beautifully, with great attention to detail and high-quality equipment. No, it’s not for everybody. But I feel it’s a good example of what American craftsmanship can be. I really believe that.”