We got into a ritual pretty early, and by the end of the week, we had it down pat. Each morning, our four Boat of the Year judges would gobble down breakfast, layer up in their foul-weather gear, and convene on the private dock adjacent to our comfortable, rented home on secluded Lake Ogleton, just south of Annapolis, Maryland. There we'd board our chase boat-an all-black Ribcraft 7.8 powered by a single four-stroke Honda 225-horsepower outboard-and moments later, we'd be flying over lumpy Chesapeake Bay at close to 50 mph, en route to a full day of sailing.
Photographer Billy Black, who rises early and always beat us off the dock by a good hour or more, would certainly have enjoyed something other than our steady diet of bleak skies and flat light. But our judges at Boat Camp-which is what I came to call our eight days of dockside and on-the-water testing last October for the 12th edition of our annual Boat of the Year contest-were happy campers nonetheless. For beneath that leaden ceiling we had wind, glorious wind, in absolute abundance. Combine that with plenty of brand-new sails to hoist aboard a veritable fleet of state-of-the-art cruising boats, and you have the ingredients to make any true sailor very happy.
A quick word about our 25-foot-7-inch Ribcraft (www.ribcraftusa.com), which was expertly operated for the sailing portion of our trials by the company's very capable Tripp St. Clair. There's no way we could've arrived for our respective appointments in any better style, even if we did at times more closely resemble a boatload of Navy SEALs or a waterborne SWAT team than the boat reviewers, editors, and judges we actually were. This Ribcraft was loaded, with a full suite of electronics, an onboard intercom system, carbon-fiber H2 suspension seats, underwater lights, and more. We boarded one European entry whose manufacturer's representative greeted us with very wide eyes. "You guys on that boat have kind of scared me," he said. To which BOTY judge Ed Sherman, without missing a beat, deadpanned, "You have every right to be very frightened."
In all seriousness, though, our BOTY program is the biggest, most comprehensive project we undertake each year, and we're very proud of it. Other sailing magazines have tried similar enterprises and abandoned them, and you know what? I don't blame them a bit--our intense version of Boat Camp is a lot of fun, but it's also bloody hard work. This year we started off with 42 entered boats and had them whittled down to 26 nominees in seven classes before the judges arrived in Annapolis to begin their assessments. From there, each boat was scrutinized dockside and under sail. When the day's sailing was done, we'd spend hours discussing the boats and their relative merits, both on their own and in relation to the entire fleet. Each judge filled up his or her own personal notebooks, and the transcript of the recorded deliberation numbers over 100 typed, double-spaced pages and 28,000 words. Whew.
As always, the independent judging panel's decisions were its own, and I think this year the members made several intriguing--and in some cases, surprising--choices. When all was said and done, our senior judge, Bill Lee, nominated the Ribcraft 7.8 as his personal pick for Boat of the Year. I think he was kidding, but maybe not. In any event, for the real list of the top new boats for 2006, please follow this link to our BOTY wrap-up, "Crunching the Numbers."