Volume—And Its Effects

We need an easy motion upwind

The first thing you notice about some of the latest generation yachts is freeboard—and plenty of it. This is especially true of sub-40 footers, but once again, it’s creeping up the size ladder. And it’s all about maximising headroom and internal volume, making the interior as habitable as possible for in-harbour living.

It’s also a reflection of the very shallow canoe body of the more recent boats, which, with their almost flat bilges have very little actual boat below the waterline. So in order to compensate, and to achieve standing headroom (throughout, if possible), the only way to go is up. And in the very latest boats, the coachroof is also spreading, leading to boats with narrow side decks, which are a pain in the neck to negotiate.

The boat we had was cavernous inside, with enormous space for people to move around, as a result of her high freeboard, wide coachroof, and beam drawn well aft. Fine for two weeks with six people living aboard and stopping off each night, but what are the implications for sailing performance and general boat handling?

Out On The Water

Well, when we left the mooring, we had the bottom end of F6 on the beam, for a quick scoot to a sheltered loch for the night. And it was quick, the boat going well, and not too much weather helm, but that was no surprise as we had three reefs in the main, and only half the genoa out. Another few knots and we’d have been deciding whether to drop the main or roll up the genoa. There was no question that we were running out of options in not an awful lot of wind, and I’ve no doubt that the high freeboard played a major part, allied to a shoal draft keel and shallow underbody.

At anchor that night we were in a sheltered but open roadstead where there was no sea running, but the wind (c. 20 knots) could still get to us. And so we encountered the next dubious benefit of high freeboard, as the boat hunted around constantly in the wind, like a dog looking for a lamppost, even though we were lying to a good piece of chain. I’m sure we’ve all noticed this in busy anchorages, where it can be a real nuisance, with boats swinging around in an entirely chaotic manner, with the usual bumps and arguments that go with it. But in a small, secure spot offering shelter but little room to swing it would be really worrying.

What Can Be Done?

Now I’ve seen various ways to try and reduce this—lying to two anchors being one of them, but that’s not always the best idea if everyone else around you is lying to one. You don’t swing so much, but they still do, and sooner or later they’ll make contact. Another idea is to hoist a storm jib up the backstay and sheet it home amidships. I watched a couple try this in Spain recently and the thing flogged away like mad—maybe they had it wrong, but it looked to me like it made matters worse. A few years ago a very experienced guy called Keith Stanley kindly showed me his custom made riding sail and sent me the dimensions of this simple V form sail. Having seen some video of him riding out a really stiff blow using it with very little sheering around, maybe it’s all in the execution (it usually is!). And someone recently told me about the idea of attaching a small drogue to the anchor chain where it would at all times be below surface level, and claimed it worked really well for them. We have a drogue of about the right size to try this, but so far we haven’t had enough wind to really give it a fair trial, but as and when we do we’ll let you know how we get on.

What About The Crew?

We didn’t have much opportunity to sail the boat in more than F5 for the rest of our time aboard, but on the one occasion we had a stiff beat, she did OK, although with some slamming against her flat bilges and a very lively motion it was hard to keep her in the groove. And with her wide stern lifting the rudder as she heeled hard in the gusts, the helmsman needed to be alert to keep her on her feet. Hard work for the crew over time, and not what you’d want on a long passage. And again I was left wondering ‘what next?’ if the wind got up. A friend who has delivered a lot of these boats shrugged and said ‘start the engine’.

High freeboard, light weight and a shallow underbody doesn’t necessarily make life easier under power, either, especially in crosswinds in today’s space constrained marinas, and it’s not uncommon to see even fairly small boats having bow thrusters installed these days—at great expense and additional complexity. And maybe marina living also affects modern design in that weekend cruisers want big volume in a short package owing to the extortionate cost of berthing (and its lack of availability) in many of the world’s busiest sailing areas.

Once again, none of this mattered that much for what ‘our’ boat was designed for, and she met her design brief very well. But the ‘boat on steroids’ look is appearing across the spectrum of yacht design, including in boats sold as ocean cruisers, and I’m not at all sure that’s the direction we should be heading in, for many of the reasons I’ve outlined above. And that’s just the exterior…

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

21 comments… add one
  • Pete & Kareen Worrell Sep 9, 2011, 7:40 am

    Oh my gosh, can we identify these characteristics with a charter boat we had in the Hebrides last summer! It was a Bavaria 39, and with her light displacement, high freeboard, and very little of the vessel under the water, we swear her best point of sail was on an anchor!!! With her three cabins and two heads she has one more cabin than our Hood Pilothouse 51. Maybe that’s what people think will make them happy today…? A good friend always says “racing yachts should sit on top of the water, good cruising yachts should sit in it”. We agree!

    Pete & Kareen Worrell
    S/V Patience

    • Colin Speedie Sep 11, 2011, 9:55 am

      Hi Pete & Kareen

      Well that’s indeed the case – of course, on your boat, you need plenty of stowage space for all of the other things needed for proper living aboard – on a charter boat the space is simply for people. But if your horizons are limited, and so is your time, and you sail with lots of family or friends then a boat with lots of cabins starts to look more attractive – but in turn, less so for offshore.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • conny harlin Sep 10, 2011, 4:24 pm

    I totally agree!!! Sit in the water for smooth sailing in open water…my 35 footer weighs 8 metric tons…but rides the North Sea swells perfect.

    • Colin Speedie Sep 11, 2011, 9:57 am

      Hi Conny

      Comfort at sea = safety to me. If you can’t rest, you can’t play at the top of your game when it’s needed, usually at 3 am with the water tipping down your neck…

      Best wishes

      Colin

    • Martin Colberg Aug 6, 2017, 1:12 pm

      Same philosophy with us. We have a Najad 34S that weighs in at 8 tonnes with empty tanks. She isn’t the fastet boat on the water, but she is safe, handles well in rough seas and is just as steady as Johnny Cash picking the guitar 😉 I would sail a modern High freeboard boat if it was given to me!

  • Eric Schlesinger Sep 10, 2011, 11:06 pm

    Dear Collin,
    Thanks for a timely discussion. We have been looking at new and newish boats and wondering what was going on. They do look very inviting at anchor ( when not swinging like crazy, as our neighbor does on a Hanse 43). Thought we might be old fuddy duddies, well we are, but…our Gilllmer ketch rarely scares the bejeezus out of us.
    Looking forward to more info on the new designs.
    cheers, Eric and Sue
    S/V Star of India

    • Colin Speedie Sep 11, 2011, 10:00 am

      Hi Eric and Sue

      Please don’t get me wrong – there are modern designs that have successfully bridged the gap between traditional and ultra, usually by avoiding the extremes of either. My beef is simply that the ‘extremes’ don’t belong on boats portrayed as ‘ocean passagemakers’ or some other advertising jingle – and for a good evocation of how things are going, see Brendan’s timely response below.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Dick Stevenson Sep 11, 2011, 2:02 am

    Dear Colin et al,
    There is volume that sits on the water vs in the water, there is volume vs length and there is also how the volume is distributed. The distribution has important repercussions in seaworthiness. Distribution of volume determines what happens when going to windward in 15 knots and you get a bump to 20 knots. Happens all the time. The boats being talked about (wide beam carried well aft) generally will want to go bow down and round up. The form stability of the beamy stern will lift the rudder out of the water when heeling, undermining its efficiency when it is most needed. The helm will get a real workout. Good sea boats, on the other hand, will just heel over a little further, but will go over in more balanced fashion putting much less strain on the helm. The rudder will stay in the water allowing it to counteract the imbalance of the sails resultant from the wind increase.
    Make that a 25 knot gust with the wide beamed sterns being discussed and you have a boat that is borderline out of control, heeled over enough so the rudder is ventilating as the bow digs in and the stern kicks up and the helm is hard over to counter-react. (I suspect the recent trend in production cruiser/racers towards dual rudders is to solve this problem with the added risk of more exposure, less beef in construction, making the rudders more vulnerable to a stray log or something.) On a boat with lots of experienced crew ready at hand this can be fast and fun, well coordinated and safe for all. On a cruising boat, most often with 2 people on board and one on watch, this boat response to the gust can be dangerous. People get thrown as the boat heels and turns and the main needs to be dumped quickly to regain control so lines are running quickly and the boom is moving. At its worst the boat tacks itself.
    In pursuing your wish, Colin, to explore the parameters of a seaworthy vessel, it seems to me to be fairly easy to ask of naval architects to have some way of assessing how symmetrically a hull/rig will go over if hit from the side by wind. (I read fairly widely and I do not remember much written.) I suspect one wants a few degrees of rounding up (similar to wanting a bit of weather helm) but I would be curious what the figures actually are for various designs. More of us should be asking these questions of designers, builders, brokers, etc.
    Best to All, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, St Helliers, Jersey, The Channel Islands

    • Colin Speedie Sep 11, 2011, 10:09 am

      Hi Dick

      Ah, the ‘nodding dog’ effect upwind – I remember it well. I totally agree with your analysis of over wide sterns, and yes, twin rudders seem to be the preferred way around this. But as you say, more risk, more complexity, and with these boats, you need a smart crew not only to get the best out of them, but to sail them in strong winds. They generally demand a high level of skill, and are not conducive to relaxing. Boats that you have to look after, if they are to look after you.

      And I agree that designers should (and almost certainly do) know what makes a sweet boat to steer and handle, but my concern is that designers only get to draw the boats that the yards think they can sell. And if that’s the modern idiom that you so accurately describe, then that’s it. If we want boats that are designed for longer spells at sea, we need to articulate what it is we need, and there will (hopefully) still be builders and designers who will oblige – and enjoy doing so.

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • Brendan Budd Sep 11, 2011, 8:24 am

    Hi Colin,

    Very interested to read these comments. Over the last ten years of doing deliveries I have noticed the trend for greater internal volume and racier underbodies even in highly regarded cruising marques. More than once have I been left with the motoring-only option, albeit with the least possible amount of main to hold the ship’s head up into the wind.

    My best sail this year was bringing Bellanti (sister to your Dufour 39 Forever Changes) back from Greece in March. We had plenty of heavy weather but with three good reefs in the main and a hanked on blade sail on the detachable inner forestay we were able to point much higher foot faster and stay more upright than many modern boats with inadequate reefing on the main and only a furling headsail.

    Other boats of that vintage (early 1980’s) have deeper forefoots, more underwater body and decent long fin keels. Internal volume is quite adequate for comfortable living at anchor or in a marina, but not so large as to be dangerous in a rough sea when easily reachable handholds are so essential.

    Best of all, they are relatively cheap to acquire, well built and still in reasonable cosmetic condition. You can buy one for less than the VAT on a new similarly sized premium cruising boat.

    Of course, this opinion is completely unbiased. Interestingly, I have a trip coming up in October on an Ovni 385 across the Med.

  • Colin Speedie Sep 11, 2011, 10:22 am

    Hi Brendan

    You’ve just written one of my future articles!

    I totally support your analysis regarding some of the older cruiser/racer designs – as you know, I’m a big fan myself. The boats of that era had higher ballast ratios, long fin attachments, seagoing galleys, seaberths and were strongly built to be pushed hard. And, yes, lots of space, but generally they were not extreme designs.

    Good examples can indeed be had at sensible prices, and if well maintained have lots of life left in them. Personally, I worry about spade rudders (having lost one), but equally there are many boats travelling long haul with them. But if you’re on a budget, these boats are a very good place to start, and already have many good features built in to them.

    But your point about your experience of modern design once again chimes with my own perception that the trend is not in favour of seagoing features – and that’s not necessarily what we want.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    • Jim Holden Sep 12, 2011, 12:24 am

      Hi Colin,

      Interesting post, and interesting comments from your readers as well. Thanks to you and to the others also.

      It seems that the pressure on builders to produce what people *think* they want has become immense, and I perceive signs of panic and confusion among a good many builders, and in their briefs to their designers. It is not clear how or when the re-set button on this will get pushed, but it is clear in my view that even (especially?) the “best” builders/producers of offshore boats are at risk of confusing where their market is, stretching themselves too thin — and then getting left out in the cold. I include even people like Hallberg Rassy, Malo, Oyster and Contest in this category (in varying degrees), among others.

      Look at the Swedish builders as an example. I would guess that one of the core underlying reasons why Najad went bust was that they lost their way — turn left, turn right, nobody knows what you are any more, and suddenly they abandon you. If as a prospective buyer you wanted the old-style Najad, you might in the end have bought an HR (but maybe not the newest ones). If you wanted a new-style Najad, you might well have ended up buying an X-cruising instead. Maybe you wanted something in between, that still works and still shows some clarity — then maybe you bought a Malo. Or maybe not. But why buy a Najad when neither you nor they knew any longer where they stood? And now of course you can’t buy one anyway.

      As former owners of a Malo 38 and a Najad 400, our family now sail an Oyster 56. My wife and I and the three children all agree that we like (love) our particular flavour of Oyster — and we also agree that the Najad was our least loved boat to date. Why? Precisely because she had just a touch (a fairly subtle touch, but evident) of the tendencies that your post describes — certainly more than either the Malo 38 or Oyster 56. She was no high/light/shallow Hanse or other similar, but she was no classic HR either. Sitting side-by-side with an HR on land, it all made sense, with the underwater sections telling two very different stories.

      Our Najad was overall a fine boat, just not quite right for us. She did show us where our preferences and design limits lay, and she taught us that we needed to look beyond the brand, and make our own very specific and independent judgments on each design. Most of even the top cruising marques these days are “in transition” and are producing boats that reflect quite a broad range of design compromises — and some of them just seem a bit lost.

      Let’s hope that we do not see more Najad-type failures among quality producers before things get back to center!

      Cheers,
      Jim Holden
      s/v Momotaro

  • Colin Speedie Sep 12, 2011, 2:37 pm

    Hi Jim

    Thanks very much for a well argued comment, that I think sheds some light on the current state of play, backed up by your own personal experience.

    It sometimes seems as if builders want to get away from the very things that made them unique and distinctive in the marketplace. And, as the old saying goes, in trying to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no-one at all. You’re by no means the only person who has commented that one of the perceived failings at Najad was that their boats became more like all others, instead of developing their own well-liked brand of cruising boat – others looking on might take note.

    There is an argument out there that the market for ‘proper’ cruising boats is shrinking as fewer people decide to take off for years, forcing yards to diversify to attract a new audience. Yet the top yards (Oyster amongst them) don’t seem to suffer. And (at least some) niche builders seem to be doing well, despite the financial downturn, by producing boats that are designed to cross oceans. I’m also told that second hand prices for well-kept ocean cruisers are holding up well, certainly in comparison with more generic craft.

    And I think that that trend is likely to be maintained, and it will be the yards that sustain the values that made them in the first place that will maintain the loyalty of their existing customer base – and gather new adherents.

    Best wishes

    Colin

  • Ed Sep 13, 2011, 12:02 pm

    I went for a test drive in a Volkswagen Golf yesterday. Do you know, it was a HOPELESS pick-up truck??!?!? The back was closed in – rather than being open as with most pick ups, it was tiny and I doubt it would take a decent load of bricks, the carpet lining the boot would get scuffed very quickly, and having seating for four shows that the designer TOTALLY misunderstood the requirements for a decent pick up truck.

    I was struck by the thought that it looks a lot more like a hatchback than a pick up. Perhaps it’s not a pick up truck?

    To berate modern coastal cruising boats as being badly designed for offshore, long distance cruising is fatuous. As has been shown, they’re perfectly capable of trade wind downwind passages, but I doubt that anyone but a fool thinks they’re suitable for tough conditions. And you know what? Most of the time nowdays, if faced with 30kts+, most people with such boats just stay in the marina.

    The market has demanded that coastal cruisers focus on comfort in the marina, rather than outright sailing performance. If you want to buy a new boat suitable for long distance cruising, there’s plenty of choice. Mystery yachts, Vancover yachts, Rustlers, the cruising line from X boats, Halberg Rasseys, Amels, Jonmeri, Malo, Regina, etc etc etc….

    • John Sep 14, 2011, 8:35 pm

      Hi Ed,

      First off, please note that we try to maintain a civil tone in all of our comments at this site and we don’t take to sarcasm much. I will let it go this time, but another comment with that tone will be deleted.

      Second, you have a very good point that there are some good offshore boats around. But the problem is that the builders of many boats that are not suitable to go offshore still promote them as such. Further, a boat with the unsuitable characteristics that Colin has been writing about can get into trouble due to those characteristics on a short coastal passage, just as easily as on a trans-Atlantic. For example, it happens all the time on the short hop from Florida to the Bahamas.

  • Chuck Sep 20, 2011, 9:31 pm

    High freeboard just isn’t for a cavernous interior. Nothing increases ultimate stability faster than FREEBOARD. This may seem a little counter-intuitive, but it’s true. In terms of ultimate righting moment from a roll over, every inch of freeboard is worth 3 inches of additional keel depth. If you study it, work the numbers out on comparative models, you will find this true. Because of this, I am very fond of high freeboard along with a powerfull hull shape and a big rig. Shallower bilges give less rocker, and a fraction of the hobby-horsing a traditional hull has. It is these truths that make boats like the OVNIs perform better than one would think at first sight.

  • Jay Mar 25, 2014, 1:28 pm

    I know this is an older post but I wanted to offer a suggestion to the hunting characteristics of boats at anchor in high winds. While I was in college I worked for a Master Mariner during the summers in Southern California. He was truly a Ship’s Master having owned his own trading schooner in the North Sea for 12 years. We were on a cruise to the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbra in a Farr 38. We were at anchor with 30 knot winds gusting to more than 35 knots. The boat was hunting badly. He suggested that we anchor stern to the wind. When we did so the boat calmed right down and we had a very peaceful evening. I have repeated this many times in the situation that you describe here and it has worked perfectly every time. As we discuss boat design (and in a perfect world we could all afford the best cruising boat available) it is our responsibility to understand that there are many ways to approach an issue. And a new boat isn’t always the most practical.

    • John Mar 25, 2014, 3:32 pm

      Hi Jay,

      I think anchoring stern to in that situation is a great idea. Don Jordan, very smart scientist and inventor or the Jordan Series Drogue did some good science on why anchoring from the stern made a lot of sense, particularly for boats that have a lot of issues with sailing at anchor.

  • Stephen Lewinton Oct 29, 2017, 7:14 pm

    Colin

    Enjoyed these posts but as an inexperienced sailor the situation you outline is challenging. I have chartered a number of different production boats and felt they were uncomfortable in swell but have few comparators and limited experience. As we consider acquiring a boat to do predominantly coastal cruising, what metrics/ratios best determine seaworthiness of a particular yacht design?

    Articles were really helpful and gave me lots to think about.

    Thanks

    Stephen

    • John Oct 30, 2017, 8:20 am

      Hi Stephen,

      Colin may not answer, please see comment guidelines #3 so you are stuck with me.

      It’s not really practical to provide a few numbers to filter good yachts from bad because prospective buyers needs are so different and also what makes a good boat is more complex and nuanced than that.

      I would suggest reading our How to Buy a Cruising Boat Online Book and then buy and read Dave Gerr’s The Nature of Boats. Gerr will both give you some metrics and also explain how to use them as well as much other useful information.

      And finaly, when you get to the point of actually selecting a boat, you may want to consider hiring Colin to advise.

  • Stephen Lewinton Nov 1, 2017, 7:24 pm

    John

    Thanks for coming back and have ordered the Gerr book you recommended. I had already read the really good on line book on buying a boat. The ‘need’ versus ‘want’ list was thought provoking and helpful.

    In my question, I was trying clarify how to best assess likely motion at sea in a swell when looking at different boats? Understand that this may also be complex but can see from the articles that it is a key factor for a good boat.

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