Sailboat Design Evolution

After a 30 year absence, a veteran marine journalist returns to the US Sailboat Show and discovers the many changes in cruising boat design and construction.

June 10, 2020
X-Yachts 46
The X-Yachts 46 displays the wide beam, twin wheels and open transom that define many 2020 models. Jon Whittle

You know the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? As a judge for the 2020 Boat of the Year (BOTY) competition at this past fall’s US Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, I helped inspect and test-sail 22 brand-new current-model sailboats. And I came away thinking, Man, these aren’t the boats I grew up on. In the case of new boats, the saying is wrong: “Nothing stays the same.”

OK, sure, today’s boats still have masts and sails, and the monohulls still have keels. But comparing the Hinckley Bermuda 40, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and seaworthy boats of the 1960s, ’70s and even ’80s, with, say, the Beneteau First Yacht 53, which debuted at the show, is pretty much apples and oranges.

To get a better sense of what has happened to yacht design, boatbuilding and equipment over the past three, four or even six decades, let’s take a closer look.


Design Dilemmas

At the risk of oversimplification, since the fiberglass era began in the late 1940s and ’50s, the design of midsize and full-size yachts has transitioned from the Cruising Club of America rules, which favored all-around boats (racers had to have comfortable interiors) with moderate beam and long overhangs, to a succession of racing rules such as the IOR, IMS and IRC. All of them dictated proportions, and each required a measurer to determine its rating.

Beneteau First Yacht 53
Remember the days when you had to watch out from rolling your foot on a deck littered with running rigging? On boats such as the Beneteau First Yacht 53, those days are over. Jon Whittle

As frustration grew with each (no handicap rule is perfect), alternatives arose, such as the Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, which essentially based one’s handicap on past performance of the same boats in the same fleet. Also, one-design racing became more popular, which spread beyond identical small boats to full-size yachts, popularized in part by builders such as J/Boats and Carroll Marine. The ethos there was: Who cares about intricate rating rules? Let’s just go out and sail fast and have fun!

And that might best sum up the design briefs for the monohulls in this year’s BOTY competition: good all-around performance with comfortable, even luxurious accommodations. Gone are interiors that noted naval architect Robert Perry called “the boy’s cabin in the woods,” deeply influenced by stodgy British designers of the past century and their now-old-fashioned (though ­sea-friendly, one should note) concepts of a proper yacht, drawn and spec’d by the same guy who designed the hull, deck and rig. Today, dedicated European interior designers are specially commissioned to inject modernity, home fashion colors and textures, amenities, and more light—even dubiously large port lights in the topsides.

rigging led below deck
Now all the running rigging can be led below deck, through conduits leading from the mast to the cockpit winches and rope clutches, for easy handling. Jon Whittle

Overhangs, bow and stern, have virtually disappeared. Why? It seems largely a matter of style. Plus, the bonus of increased usable space below, not to mention a longer waterline length for a given length overall, which translates to more speed. Former naval architect for C&C Yachts and Hunter Marine, Rob Mazza, recalls that 19th-century pilot cutters and fishing schooners operating in offshore conditions generally had plumb bows, so in a sense, bow forms have come full circle.

Today’s boats are carrying their wide beam farther aft. Gone are the days of the cod’s head and mackerel tail. Wide, flat canoe bodies are decidedly fast off the wind, and might even surf, but they pay a comfort penalty upwind.

These boats have lighter displacement/length (D/L) ratios, which means flatter bottoms and less stowage and space for tanks. The Beneteau 53 has a D/L of 118, compared with the ­aforementioned Bermuda 40 of 373. Among entries in this year’s BOTY, the heaviest D/L belonged to the Elan Impression 45.1, with a D/L of 195. Recall that when Perry’s extremely popular Valiant 40 was introduced in 1975, the cruising establishment howled that its D/L of 267 was unsuitable for offshore sailing. My, how times have changed!


Perhaps more important, one must ask: “Have the requirements for a good, safe bluewater cruiser actually changed? Or are the majority of today’s production sailboats really best-suited for coastal cruising?”

The ramifications of lighter displacement don’t end there; designers must consider two types of stability: form and ultimate. As weight is taken out of the boat, beam is increased to improve form stability. And with tanks and machinery sometimes raised, ­ballast might have to be added and/or lowered to improve ultimate stability.

What else to do? Make the boat bigger all around, which also improves stability and stowage. Certainly the average cruising boat today is longer than those of the earlier decades, both wood and fiberglass. And the necessarily shallower bilges mean pumps must be in good shape and of adequate size. That’s not as immediate an issue with a deep or full keel boat with internal ballast and a deep sump; for instance, I couldn’t reach the bottom of the sump in our 1977 Pearson 365.

Bali 5.4 catamaran
On many new yachts, like the Bali 5.4 catamaran, household appliances like a ­full-size fridge are not uncommon. Jon Whittle

And how do these wide, shallow, lighter boats handle under sail? Like a witch when cracked off the wind. We saw this trend beginning with shorthanded offshore racers like those of the BOC Challenge round-the-world race in the early 1980s. As CW executive editor Herb McCormick, who has some experience in these boats, says, “They’ll knock your teeth out upwind.” But route planning allows designers to minimize time upwind, and cruisers can too…if you have enough room and distance in front of you. Coastal sailors, on the other hand, will inevitably find even moderate displacement boats more comfortable as they punch into head seas trying to make port.

Bavaria C50
Nor are fixed bowsprits, for ground tackle and setting big reaching sails, like this one on the Bavaria C50. Jon Whittle

A wide beam carried aft permits a number of useful advantages: the possibility of a dinghy garage under the cockpit on larger boats; easy access to a swim platform and a launched dinghy; and twin helms, which are almost a necessity for good sightlines port and starboard. Of course, two of anything always costs twice as much as one.

Some multihulls now have reverse bows. This retro styling now looks space-age. Very cool. But not everyone is sold on them. Canadian designer Laurie McGowan wrote in a Professional BoatBuilder opinion piece, “I saw through the fog of faddishness and realized that reverse bows are designed to fail—that is, to cause vessels to plunge when lift is required.” Mazza ­concurs: “Modern multihulls often have ­reverse stems with negative reserve buoyancy, and those are boats that really can’t afford to bury their bows.”

X-Yachts 46
The integrated steel grid on the X-Yachts 46 sets a high bar for ­robust construction. Jon Whittle

McGowan also cites another designer critiquing reverse bows for being noticeably wet and requiring alternative ground-­tackle arrangements. The latter also is problematic on plumb bows, strongly suggesting a platform or sprit to keep the anchor away from the stem.

Rigging Redux

If there was a boat in Annapolis with double lower shrouds, single uppers, and spreaders ­perpendicular to the boat’s centerline, I must have missed it. I believe every boat we sailed had swept-back spreaders and single lowers. An early criticism of extreme swept-back spreaders, as seen on some B&R rigs installed on Hunter sailboats, was that they prevented fully winging out the mainsail. The counter argument was that so many average sailors never go dead downwind in any case, and broad reaching might get them to their destinations faster anyway—and with their lunch sandwiches still in their stomachs.

That issue aside, the current rigging configuration may allow for better mainsail shape. But as Mazza points out, it’s not necessarily simple: “By sweeping the spreaders, the ‘transverse’ rigging starts to add fore-and-aft support to the midsection of the mast as well, reducing the need for the forward lowers. However, spreader sweep really does complicate rig tuning, especially if you are using the fixed backstay to induce headstay tension. Swept spreaders do make it easier to sheet non-overlapping headsails, and do better support the top of the forestay on fractional rigs.”

Certainly, the days of 150 ­percent genoas are over, replaced by 100 percent jibs that fit ­perfectly in the foretriangle, often as a self-tacker.

Another notable piece of rigging the judges found common was some form of lazy jacks or mainsail containment, from traditional, multiple lines secured at the mast and boom; to the Dutchman system with monofilament run through cringles sewn into the sail like a window blind; to sailmaker solutions like the Doyle StackPak. This is good news for all sailors, especially those who sail shorthanded on larger boats.

Construction Codas

Improvements in tooling—that is, the making of molds—are easily evident in today’s boats, particularly with deck details, and in fairness. That’s because many of today’s tools are designed with computer software that is extraordinarily accurate, and that accuracy is transferred flawlessly to big five-axis routers that sculpt from giant blocks of foam the desired shape to within thousandths of an inch. Gone are the days of lofting lines on a plywood floor, taken from a table of offsets, and then building a male plug with wood planks and frames. I once owned a 1960s-era sailboat, built by a reputable company, where the centerline of the cockpit was 7 degrees off the centerline of the deck—and they were one piece!

Hanse 675
Hard Biminis are now seen not just on cats, but also on monohulls, ­including the Hanse 675. Jon Whittle

Additive processes, such as 3D printing, are quickly complementing subtractive processes like the milling described above. Already, a company in California has made a multipart mold for a 34-foot sailboat. Advantages include less waste materials.

Job training also has had an impact on the quality of fiberglass boats. There are now ­numerous schools across the country offering basic-skills training in composites that include spraying molds with gelcoat, lamination, and an introduction to vacuum bagging and infusion.

Catalina 545 dinghy garage
The dinghy garage like the Catalina 545’s is also becoming commonplace. Jon Whittle

The patent on SCRIMP—­perhaps the first widely employed infusion process—has long ago expired, but many builders have adopted it or a similar process whereby layers of fiberglass are placed in the mold dry along with a network of tubes that will carry resin under vacuum pressure to each area of the hull. After careful placement, the entire mold is covered with a bag, a vacuum is drawn by a pump, and lines to the pot of resin are opened. If done correctly, the result is a more uniform fiberglass part with a more controlled glass-to-resin ratio than is achievable with hand lay-up. And as a huge bonus, there are no volatile organic compounds released into the workplace, and no need for expensive exhaust fans and ductwork. OSHA likes that, and so do the workers.

However, sloppy processes and glasswork can still be found on some new boats. Surveyor Jonathan Klopman—who is based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, but has inspected dozens, if not hundreds, of boats damaged by hurricanes in the Caribbean—tells me that he is appalled by some of the shoddy work he sees, such as balsa cores not vacuum-bagged to the fiberglass skins, resulting in delamination. But overall, I ­believe workmanship has improved, which is evident when you look behind backrests, inside lockers and into bilges, where the tidiness of glasswork (or lack thereof) is often exposed. Mechanical and electrical systems also have improved, in part due to the promulgation of standards by the American Boat & Yacht Council, and informal enforcement by insurance companies and surveyors.

Dufour 390
Most production builders now offer drop-down transoms with terrific swim/boarding platforms, like the Dufour 390’s. Jon Whittle

We all know stainless steel isn’t entirely stainless, and that penetrations in the deck are potentially troublesome; allowing moisture to enter a core material, such as end-grain balsa, can have serious consequences. The core and fiberglass skins must be properly bonded and the kerfs not filled with resin. Beginning in the mid-1990s, some builders such as TPI, which built the early Lagoon cruising catamarans, began using structural adhesives, like Plexus, to bond the hull/deck joint rather than using dozens of metal fasteners. These methacrylate resins are now commonly used for this application and others. Klopman says it basically should be considered a permanent bond, that the two parts, in effect, become one. If you think a through-bolted hull/deck joint makes more sense because one could theoretically separate them for repairs, consider how likely that would ever be: not highly.


Wide transoms spawned an unexpected bonus; besides the possibility of a dinghy “garage” under the cockpit on larger boats, swim platforms are also possible. In more than one BOTY yacht, the aft end of the cockpit rotated down hydraulically to form the swim platform—pretty slick.

Teak decks are still around, despite their spurning for many years by owners who didn’t want the upkeep. In the 1960s and ’70s, they were considered a sign of a classy boat but fell from favor for a variety of reasons: maintenance, weight and threat of damaging the deck core (the bung sealant wears out and water travels down the fastener through the top fiberglass skin into the core). Specialty companies that supply builders, like Teakdecking Systems in Florida, use epoxy resin to bond their product to decks rather than metal fasteners. And the BOTY judges saw several synthetic faux-teak products that are difficult to distinguish from real teak—the Esthec installed on the Bavaria C50 being one example.

Elan Impression 45.1
It’s no fun trying to light the grill mounted on the stern pulpit in big breeze. Now you don’t have to. This nifty arrangement on the Elan Impression 45.1is stashed below the seat locker aft of the helm. Jon Whittle
Grill on deck
It’s out of the wind when whipping up dinner, and out of the way when it’s time to fold things up and go sailing. Jon Whittle

LPG tanks no longer have to be strapped to a stanchion or mounted in a deck box because decks now often incorporate molded lockers specifically designed for one or two tanks of a given size. To meet ABYC standards, they drain overboard. In tandem with these lockers, some boats also have placements or mounts for barbecues that are located out of the wind, obviating the common and exposed stern-rail mount.

Low-voltage LED lights are replacing incandescent bulbs in nearly all applications; ­improvements in technology have increased brightness (lumens), so some even meet requirements for the range of navigation lights. Advances in battery technology translate to longer life, and depending on type, faster charging. And networked digital switching systems for DC-power ­distribution also are becoming more common.

Last, I was surprised at how many expensive yachts exhibited at Annapolis had nearly the least-expensive toilets one can buy. Considering the grief caused by small joker valves and poorly sealed hand pumps, one would think builders might install ­systems that incorporate higher-quality parts or vacuum ­flushing, and eliminate the minimal hosing that famously permeate odors.

Dan Spurr is an author, editor and cruising sailor who has served on the staffs of Cruising World, Practical Sailor and Professional Boatbuilder. His many books include Heart of Glass, a history of fiberglass boatbuilding and boatbuilders.

Other Design Observations

Here are a few other (surprising) items gleaned from several days of walking the docks and sailing the latest models:

  • Multihulls have gained acceptance, though many ­production models are aimed more at the charter trade than private ownership for solitary cruising. You’d have to have been into boats back in the ’60s and ’70s to remember how skeptical and alarmist the sailing establishment was of two- and three-hull boats: “They’ll capsize and then you’ll drown.” That myth has been roundly debunked. Back then, the only fiberglass-­production multihulls were from Europe, many from Prout, which exported a few to the US. There are still plenty of European builders, particularly from France, but South Africa is now a major player in the catamaran market.
  • The French builders now own the world market, which of course includes the US. Other than Catalina, few US ­builders are making a similar impact. In terms of volume, Groupe Beneteau is the largest builder in the world, and they’ve expanded way beyond sailboats into powerboats, runabouts and trawlers.
  • Prices seem to have outpaced inflation, perhaps because, like with automobiles, where everyone wants air conditioning, electric windows and automatic transmissions, today’s boats incorporate as standard equipment items that used to be optional. Think hot- and cold-pressure water, pedestal-wheel steering, and full suites of sailing instruments and autopilots.

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