It started and ended on notes of uncertainty. When our Boat of the Year judging team commenced their work in mid-September at New York’s Larchmont Yacht Club aboard the X-Yachts X40, it was still unclear how many boats would be available to participate in the competition as the coronavirus raged on. And when the BOTY judges completed their work precisely seven weeks later in early November on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts on the Corsair 880 trimaran—three days after an unprecedented Election Day—the results of the presidential contest were still unknown. So, yes, uncertainty indeed.
In between, however, in the blue Atlantic off Newport, Rhode Island; on sunny Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland; in mostly perfect conditions outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and in the Gulf of Mexico near another Sunshine State sailing mecca, St. Petersburg, another 10 yachts underwent dockside inspections and sea trials, bringing the fleet of nominees for the 2021 Boat of the Year awards to a nice, even dozen. We came to see that collection of boats as a very determined dozen, all of which overcame considerable obstacles in this time of COVID-19 to not only get prepared for the event, but also to set sail with our panelists in a safe, responsible manner.
We tip our collective hats to each and every one, along with our considerable thanks for their superlative efforts. We at Cruising World were the lucky ones, for even though our fleet was almost precisely half of what it’s been in recent years, we enjoyed some of the best Boat of the Year sailing ever, across the board. And to test boats in a half-dozen venues, all of them classic sailing spots, was nothing less than a treat. The fact that we were blessed with near-perfect conditions for almost every test was icing on the cake.
As it turned out, despite the travel obstacles imposed by the pandemic, the only hard part, really, was choosing the winners. For 2021 especially, every determined entrant deserved a prize.
The Early Rounds
There were, by necessity, some significant changes to our Boat of the Year program for 2021. As mentioned, the judging became a road show that covered nearly 1,500 miles and a host of cities: Our usual routine is to conduct the entire contest in Annapolis during and after each fall’s US Sailboat Show, but when that event was canceled in early September, it was time to get creative, which led to a complicated series of flights, rental cars, hotels and Airbnbs.
Our judging panel for 2021 was also unusual. We’ve always employed an independent set of judges outside of the magazine’s staff, but in the midst of a pandemic, it seemed unwise, at best, to perhaps put colleagues from the marine industry in harm’s way—it’s that old adage in sailing: You wouldn’t ask someone else to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. Instead, this year, the panel was comprised of longtime BOTY judge Tim Murphy, CW’s editor Mark Pillsbury, and me, the executive editor of the magazine (I’ve coordinated the contest for many years and have an intimate understanding of how it works). Collectively, the three of us have written hundreds of boat reviews and sailed tens of thousands of miles, so, while not ideal from our historical perspective, if we wanted to press ahead, we felt that under the extremely strange circumstances it was the best possible solution.
One point we were unwilling to compromise on—unlike some of our competitors in the sailing press—was that it was imperative for every nominee to be tested, at sea, before any verdicts were rendered. Otherwise the entire exercise is little more than a popularity contest. If we couldn’t sail a boat, it wasn’t eligible for BOTY 2021. Period. Which is why we packed our sea bags and hit the highway.
And, oddly but happily enough, we were rewarded time and again.
It kicked off with a drive down I-95 and the Merritt Parkway from the magazine’s base in Newport, Rhode Island, to the hallowed lawn of the Larchmont Yacht Club, a longtime cathedral of yachting hard on Long Island Sound. One of the real benefits of our fresh approach for this year—along with the time to really inspect and tweak and enjoy the yachts, as opposed to the often-rushed clock-ticking reviews in Annapolis in a normal year—was to sail a few of the entrants with the actual owners of the new boats, which provided a real-world glimpse (as opposed to our often-theoretical ones) of how the vessels would actually be used and enjoyed.
Ryan and Mike Zupon (son and father, respectively) could not possibly have been better ambassadors to proudly show off their spanking-new X-Yachts X4<sup>0</sup>, Xenios. The X4<sup>0</sup> is an unabashed dual-purpose racer/cruiser, which is precisely how the Zupon family will use the boat. Ryan makes sails for UK Sailmakers and is planning on campaigning the boat in New England regattas, including the burgeoning doublehanded events on Long Island Sound; when she’s not racing, Mike, a recently retired financier, plans on coastal cruising with his wife aboard Xenios. They own a boat that will do both well.
For our sea trial, Ryan was joined by several colleagues from his loft (as well as Brian Petrie from Rodgers Yacht Sales and X-Yachts USA), which meant we were sailing with an all-star crew. And a good thing too, because our collective team—with the skyline of New York City on the horizon—took the opportunity to hoist, trim, and douse a sweet inventory of crisp new upwind and downwind sails from UK that lit up the boat. Exceedingly good times.
It must be mentioned that before leaving Larchmont, courtesy of Mike Zupon, in socially distanced mode we enjoyed the club’s signature cocktail, the Monte-Sano Cooler, so named for a former commodore, Vincent Monte-Sano. It’s a rum-based beverage featuring multiple shots of Mount Gay and Myers, topped off with club soda and a top-secret lemony concoction. We had but one, and it was a good thing, because it made the rush-hour traffic tolerable.
For our second boat, the HH 50 catamaran, the commute was far easier, in our home waters of Narragansett Bay. Harry and Tyffanee Fugate’s 50-footer was in Newport for warranty work, after a rather abrupt grounding—daggerboard meets sandbank—during their shakedown sailing on Chesapeake Bay. We were picked up by dinghy at Newport Shipyard by HH’s skipper/warranty pro Rogan Van Gruisen and ferried out to the cat, which was anchored nearby; one of the interesting selling points about purchasing an HH, we believe, is that it comes with a sharp sailor like Rogan to help ensure a smooth ascent up the learning curve on the decidedly high-tech yacht.
Like the Lupons in Larchmont, Harry and Tyff personified the target audience for their new cat: in this case, a fit and active duo who plan on sailing as a couple with occasional family and friends. The boat’s name—Off Piste—was a nod to their love of skiing in the Rockies. Interestingly, the boat was Harry’s first large yacht, though he’d spent plenty of time sailing dinghies and beach cats over the years. Tyff, however, was an admitted novice, though it was hard to tell: She was clearly a quick learner. (As an aside, in a 2020 tale if ever there was one, the pair shared some harrowing stories about their own family’s firsthand COVID experiences, though both were clearly hale and hearty sailors).
It was a light-air day off Newport, rarely topping 6 or 8 knots. But Off Piste acquitted herself well. It’s funny, but oftentimes you learn more about a sailboat in the zephyrs—after all, any boat will move in a blow—than you do when it’s honking. When it came to lovely sails, we were now 2-for-2.
And little did we know at the time, but we’d already sailed a pair of our winning boats.
The more-or-less deserted airports in New England, from which we caught flights to BWI Airport near Annapolis, were the first real evidence that this was not a typical boat-show-season October. None of us had flown in months, but Southwest Airlines proved safe and efficient, and we were soon set up in a pleasant Airbnb in Eastport. Hitting the bars and eateries downtown would not be on the 2021 BOTY agenda.
But, crazily, some memorable sailing would be.
First, we had a very enjoyable mission to address. Now joined by our stellar BOTY photographer, Jon Whittle, we picked up our photo boat, a powerful 21-foot-5-inch PA 600 RIB from Highfield Boats USA, and took off for a pleasant buzz around the Annapolis area with our driver for the week, CW contributor and former Washington Post outdoors and sailing writer, Angus Phillips, who knows the Chesapeake like the back of this hand. “Ango” buzzed us out to Thomas Point Light for a judge’s pic, and then we repaired to the open-air seating at Mike’s Crab House for a pile of fresh crabs that could not be beat. Soon several of Angus’ musician friends arrived, and we strolled down the dock for an impromptu outdoor concert on the flybridge of their Carver powerboat. It was the first time several of us had listened to live music in months, which made it all the better. To cap off our little outing, we buzzed past none other than Jimmy Buffett, rolling into town with his own small fleet of sail and power craft, on our return back to the marina.
Then it was time to get back to work.
Annapolis is home to Beneteau USA, so it was natural to kick things off with a brand well-known to American sailors (and, of course, sailing writers). The company launched two new models for 2021: the Oceanis 40.1 and the Oceanis Yacht 54. It was fun and instructional to inspect both almost simultaneously because they couldn’t have been more different.
It was darn near impossible to ping any demerits on the Beneteau Oceanis 40.1, perhaps the most versatile all-around sailboat we tested all week, one that could be set up to the aspirations of any owner, whether they be racing, long-range cruising, or coastal forays and living aboard. We sailed her in a building sea breeze on a stellar fall afternoon, and she performed very well.
But, it must be said, we were even more impressed by the innovative, long-legged Beneteau Oceanis Yacht 54, for multiple reasons. The most stunning thing about the boat is the fact that we’d seen it before…albeit in a quite different form. The new 54-footer employs the same hull as a boat the company launched last year: the First Yacht 53, a performance cruiser with the emphasis on performance that we all felt was a radical departure from the French builder’s usual fare. The OY 54 marks a return to the firm’s more-traditional offerings but is vastly different, almost astonishingly so. There was no way we couldn’t recognize this truly evolutionary design.
The Excess 11 was up next—one of two Excess cats nominated for 2021 (we’d see her larger sistership, the Excess 15, in Florida)—and it’s safe to say we were anxious to see the direction in which the fledgling brand was headed, as it was launched only a year ago. We’ll save our deeper analysis (see “Little Big Cat,” page 70) for later in this article. (Spoiler alert: We were bloody blown away.)
The cool sailing continued soon after slipping the dock lines and heading out into the Chesapeake aboard the Dufour 530, currently the largest boat in the longtime French boatyard’s fleet…but not for long because a 64-footer is soon to follow. One thing about the Dufours, one or more of which we’ve sailed in our BOTY contest every year for several years: No matter the size, they always, consistently haul the mail under sail. The 530 kept the streak running.
We were very much looking forward to the next nominee on our docket: the all-electric Arcona 435, freshly delivered across the Atlantic from the yard in Sweden where she was built and launched. The consistent breeze we’d enjoyed all week truly cranked in, topping out in the high teens, and gave us all the opportunity to practice our reefing skills (not once, with a single reef, but twice, with a deep double!) in extremely sporty conditions.
For our final Annapolis boat, we made our way to the Port Annapolis Marina and the offices of brokerage firm S&J Yachts, which represents the British builder of Southerly Yachts in the US. Quick aside: On that Saturday morning, S&J, with several other local brokers, was holding a small but busy and very socially distanced “boat show” showcasing their lines of new and used boats. Perhaps amazingly, brokers far and wide are reporting banner, record-setting years for selling sailboats, not something one might’ve expected in a pandemic. It made us all ponder what the future of traditional boat shows—and how sailors and brokers buy and sell yachts—truly holds.
Back in the moment, we had less-weighty matters to address. On the Southerly 480, we once again encountered an extremely pleased owner, Mike McClellan, who graciously hosted us aboard his substantial vessel, Flying Scotchman (which he deftly extricated from an extremely tight slip with the welcome assistance of bow and stern thrusters). The primary feature of the 480 is its variable swing keel, something Mike said was a useful feature gunkholing in and out of shallow Chesapeake harbors.
We confess: During many a past BOTY competition, we’ve been skunked for breeze—as in zippo, nada, nothing—on more than one occasion. Not this year. And while we all missed the festivities, and catching up with friends and colleagues, at the annual boat show in Annapolis, we have to admit—our half-dozen great sails were a fine consolation prize.
The Sunshine State
Fort Lauderdale considers itself “the yachting capital of the world” (take that Newport and Annapolis!), and when winding through its countless marinas, canals and waterways (not to mention under its myriad bridges), it’s hard to argue the point.
We launched our Florida tests with a yacht we suspected would be decidedly special—the all-oceans Hylas 60—and immediately had our suspicions confirmed. As with the HH 50, when you purchase a new Hylas, you also receive the assistance of a company rep to help tutor you through the considerable technical information that’s required to digest and understand when owning such a systems-rich, powerful yacht. With Hylas, that vastly experienced sailor is Christian Pschorr, who guided us through a series of squalls on a sensational sail that dampened our foulies but not our enthusiasm. We can—and will—go on and on about this true bluewater classic.
Though we missed the boat shows this year, we still managed to catch up with some of our favorite marine-industry veterans, including Fred Signat, of Lagoon and Excess, and Eric Macklin, now with Excess dealer Denison Yacht Sales, for the test sail aboard the Excess 15. It was a fine boat and another zippy sail, but from a competitive standpoint, the 15 ultimately had one small issue that in our eyes proved difficult, even insurmountable, as we detail in the pages ahead: its precocious little sister.
From Fort Lauderdale we piled into our rental car for a round trip to St. Petersburg via Alligator Alley that we’ll not soon forget for the lightning, thunder and whiteout monsoonlike rains. But the cross-state trip proved more than worthwhile because it gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate the Island Packet 439.
A morning trip to the factory in Largo was a stroll down Memory Lane for all three of us judges, who’d all visited the place many years earlier. It’s now owned and run by the husband-and-wife team of Darrell and Leslie Allen, former dealers of the brand, who are now shepherding it into a new era. On a couple of busy acres, they’re making some magic, with many craftsmen who’ve been building IPs for decades. The side trip to the plant was interesting and informative, but the afternoon sail on the Gulf of Mexico was even better. In fact, it was a game-winner.
Unfortunately, dicey weather and scheduling snafus conspired to cancel our chance to sail one final Florida boat, the Seawind 1600, a rangy cat built in Vietnam. Our figurative clock had struck midnight. Due to the extenuating circumstances, she’s automatically nominated for next year’s contest.
The next morning, after flying back to New England, we all took COVID-19 tests, and within 48-hours all received our negative results. Whew.
The final sail of the contest took place a couple of days after the literally stormy Election Day for which it was scheduled forced a change to later in the week. But our streak of good luck—and stellar sailing—continued when we finally made our way to Buzzards Bay to rendezvous with yet another old mate, Bob Gleason of the Multihull Source, to sail a smartly conceived folding trimaran, the Corsair 880. Gleason is a helluva sailor; he had plenty of toys to play with in the form of a full quiver of reaching and running sails; and the little tri put on quite a show in the usual staunch local sea breeze. It was the perfect, windy way to wrap up the proceedings, and the 880 certainly won us over.
Our final deliberations for 2021 were certainly different, in that our numbers were down by half, and for the most part, we couldn’t categorize the fleet across the board according to size and purpose as we would in a normal year (though we did have enough nominees for solid Performance Cruiser and Full-Size Cruiser classes). Instead, for the most part, we chose to award excellence, as we’ve outlined in the pages ahead.
We thank each and every boat that participated in the 2021 Boat of the Year contest for all their extraordinary efforts, and because of them, we’re grateful to have had the chance to run the competition in a safe, fulfilling manner. Yes, BOTY was definitely atypical this time around. But in some ways, astoundingly enough, it was better.
Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.