East Germany would seem an unlikely provenance for a luxury sailboat, but the surprising Vilm 116 is built in Lauterbach, on the Baltic island of Rügen, once veiled behind the Iron Curtain. Proximity to the recreational markets on the Baltic’s democratic shores and a potential stream of hard currency made a venture into capitalist products tempting even to the Soviets, so Bootsbau Rügen, a yard with 19th-century roots as a builder of fishing boats, converted early to fiberglass and added yachts to its output.
Since it came from Germany, I should have expected to find an example of Germanic thoroughness once I was on board the Vilm 116 on its mooring in Annapolis harbor. It’s beautifully made, and it’s invested with the kind of detail usually found only on custom yachts. But along with the many great facets of the boat’s design were some features that look like oversights when compared with cruising-boat design as it’s practiced on the edges of the great oceans. All of these points could be addressed and probably at the source, given that the builder is willing to accommodate customers’ whims in the interior layout and obviously takes great pride in its product.
My first impression was of a handsome and attractive, if slightly retro, look. In fact, many aspects of the Vilm 116 suggest that its designers are behind the curve compared with their contemporaries in the series-production genre. That’s not a bad thing. By observing from a distance, they can perhaps avoid some of the more faddish design detours made by the market leaders.
Although the architect, Georg Nissen, has designed Admiral’s Cuppers, there’s no raceboat reference in the Vilm profile. He has made a strict differentiation between boats that sail around the buoys and those that sail around the capes. Neither is this a "performance cruiser." Its builders promote it as a 90/90 motorsailer, by which they mean it offers 90 percent of the performance of both a motorsailer and a sailboat. Its appearance supports that notion. The fairly steep bow and undramatic transom are reminiscent of some center-cockpit cruising boats of the late 1960s, as is the hard dodger. Seen in plan view, the hull shows a little less beam than today’s fashion, and though carried somewhat aft, it’s again not as extreme. The boat’s well-mannered handling would bear out the wisdom of this conservative approach. The center cockpit is quite far aft, balancing the superstructure shapes nicely and allowing the galley and head to be placed plumb in the middle of the boat. It deprives the aft cabin of space for a second head, but the way I envision the Vilm 116 being used, that’s no handicap.
The cockpit itself is two-thirds covered by the hard dodger, and a detachable canvas enclosure keeps the elements from intruding into the rest of it, making it another "room" in all but the worst weather. Bench seats either side are long enough to sleep on, and there’s lots of flat surface forward of the steering station to mount instruments or spread out a chart. The boat we tested had a pedestal-mounted helm seat. Visibility from it is great, but it might feel precarious at 20 degrees of heel in a seaway. The builder would probably entertain other arrangements. Forward-opening hatches in the hard top let in air and light and permit a view of the mainsail and masthead. Wolfgang Deitrich of International Yachting Center, importer of the Vilm, noted that putting clear panels in the canvas roof would improve the view aloft.
No passageway connects the cabins, so the boat doesn’t have the wedding-cake profile imposed by need for walk-through headroom. The cockpit sole is relatively low, and the space beneath it is devoted to machinery. Huge bins under both cockpit benches not only keep stuff handy but also place it low and close to the center of the boat. A big cockpit-sole hatch opens to expose the entire engine space. Not only is there elbow room around all the machinery; there’s also room for effective sound deadening, and under-way decibel readings on this boat were among the lowest of the entire 2002 Boat of the Year fleet. Heading out from the mooring, it was comforting to feel that muffled drone underfoot, rather than the edgier vibration often felt on boats of this size. It comes from a 50-horsepower Volvo Penta engine connected to conventional running gear by an Aquadrive flexible coupling.
The Living Is Easy
The arrangement plan looks austere by today’s benchmarks, almost as though the draftsman dispensed with his curves once he’d completed the hull. Which is as it should be. Save for the rounded corners to soften contact with human flesh, boat furniture is most practical when it’s made up of straight lines and flat surfaces. And this boat, in the view of the BOTY judges, is blessed with some of the most comfortable seating and sea berths they saw this year.
Access to the aft cabin is through a forward-facing hatch in the cockpit. I discovered the shortcomings of these many years ago on a 1,000-mile slog in Morgan OI 41 hull number 6. Every dollop of spray coming over the bow that missed the helmsman homed right in on that hatch. The hard dodger will keep out some of the spray, and the canvas cockpit enclosure a good deal more, but then the cockpit becomes a little claustrophobic for the wind-in-the-hair sailor. If you’re doing it right and not sailing to windward, this criticism is moot, as it is also if you’re a little late heading down Chesapeake Bay in a chilly fall. And in almost any conditions, the aft cabin is a cozy place to spend the off-watch hours.
The galley is another fine place to be, even in a seaway, located as it is right over the center of gravity of the boat and in the zone of least motion. Its double sinks close to centerline should drain even when the boat’s heeled, and the U configuration, if furnished with a galley harness for starboard tack, would be tenable in most conditions.
There’s no stall shower in the head, but there’s plenty of elbow room, and the standard curtain should keep the water contained. For a boat of this size, I think the designer got the stall-or-not-to-stall answer right by devoting most of the space to the places most crew spend most of their time.
A couple would have lots of living space on this boat. The forward cabin has a large V-berth plus a couple of small hanging lockers. There’s not much room for milling about even with the between-berth filler removed, but it’s a perfectly adequate sleeping cabin. There’s lots of milling-about room in the saloon, which could comfortably seat six for dinner. Four lingering guests can flop two in the saloon and two aft, all in single berths. In fact, between the aft cabin and the saloon, the Vilm 116 boasts four sea berths. To those, add in star-gazing weather the cockpit seats.
Between the aft-cabin settees is an extending chart table and storage unit that pulls out from the aft bulkhead. This lends itself for use as an office desk for the liveaboard or even for the workaboard. Most important, the cabin offers a private space, a rare and valuable bonus on a boat of this size. Tuck the table away, and the cabin can serve as a separate lounge or as sleeping quarters for visitors. Another hanging locker takes up overflow from forward and more storage is available behind and beneath the seats. Opening ports let into the coachroof-side deadlights provide ventilation.
Fine woodworking is everywhere in the Vilm, and not just where it’s visible but also behind the perfectly matched veneer fronts and solid stiles of the cabinets. On the boat we tested, the rich mahogany and forest-green upholstery created a cozy ambience belowdecks. The boat breathes through an elaborate arrangement of openings discreetly let into all the cabinets to allow air to circulate in and behind the joiner work. Storage under the saloon settees is in drawers, with access also provided via lift-out openings under the cushions. Every floorboard lifts out for access to the bilge, even where it’s too shallow to use as storage space.
Setting the mainsail entails going to the mast, which suits me fine. By terminating the halyards and reefing lines there, you avoid the tangle of tails that clutters so many cockpits and often tumbles wetly into the cabin. Also, the protection offered by the hard top would be compromised if it were penetrated so the lines could be run aft. Grabrails on the roof and inboard shrouds make getting to and from the mast a snap. However, once there, the footing’s not so secure because the builder didn’t put nonskid on the coachroof but fitted wooden strakes on the smooth gelcoat surface. A molded pattern or applied nonskid like ABS would make a big difference there, and on top of the hard top, too. Mast pulpits would enhance security when reefing, and a step on the mast would make attaching the halyard easier. Otherwise, the mainsail, with its full-length battens and Elvström Zippack, is easy to set and stow. The jib, on its furler, sets from the cockpit.
We hoisted the main, unfurled the jib, and set off out of Annapolis harbor, close reaching on starboard tack in 12 to 15 knots of puffy southeasterly. In the higher gusts, the Vilm seemed on the edge of wanting to be reefed. Still, she nudged her way smoothly through the Chesapeake chop and tacked cleanly, and it was only when sailing well off the wind that her 90-percent sailboat performance became apparent. An asymmetric spinnaker would make up for any deficiencies in light air.
The jib-sheet winches are on the forward end of the aft house and the mainsheet winch in the center, so they’re reasonably convenient and the tails don’t get in the way. The mainsheet conflicts a little with the aft end of the canvas dodger extension and, in the words of a design guru of mine, "Needs a coat of looking at." The jibsheet was led from the track aft to a loose block shackled to a padeye on the toerail cap, then 180 degrees to the winch, making a perfect slingshot in the event of a breakage. A backup Spectra lashing would improve peace of mind.
It took a while to get used to the hydraulic steering as it gave little feedback from the rudder. This was really the only feature that made me feel I was aboard a motorsailer. Wolfgang reckons the wheel, which was small, could be 6 inches greater in diameter without obstructing the companionway. I feel that hydraulics take much of the joy out of steering and would explore fitting a cable or a Whitlock torque-tube system.
Under power, the boat handled obediently when I brought her up to the mooring buoy, a maneuver that is often accompanied by apprehension the first time around.
As for daily berthing maneuvers, the Vilm 116 is well set up with a sturdy-looking anchor roller, a deep chain locker, and a chain capstan mounted to the side, so the chain doesn’t impede opening the lid. Hefty mooring cleats are mounted atop the teak toerail cap forward, aft, and midships.
It’s no surprise that this boat sailed off with the award for Best Production Cruiser Over $200,000 in the 2002 Boat of the Year contest. Its combination of sound construction to Germanischer Lloyds, fine craftsmanship, and a wealth of details scored high. It certainly fulfils the avowed design objectives of the builder, and will satisfy a great many cruising sailors, in particular those who wish to extend their cruising season in, say, the Pacific Northwest or Down East, regions with similar climates to that in its birthplace. It certainly has liveaboard potential. Where there are reservations, apart from those already mentioned, they have to do with its offshore potential. The voluminous cockpit has only two drains, and the hatch to the aft cabin would be vulnerable if a really big wave decided to pay it a visit. With these concerns addressed, and they can be, the Vilm 116 has the basics for a fine passagemaker.
Jeremy McGeary ia a CW associate editor.