Cracking the trawler code
Posted on 26 May 2010
Written by Peter Swanson
Displacement or planing? Single engine or twins? We help you sort through the many variables when choosing a trawler
He owned a big car dealership in the South, inherited from his dad. One day over bourbons, he imbibed the notion that he and his wife would sail off into the sunset on a big, fat trawler yacht, even though they had never owned a boat before.
Once planted, that romantic kernel grew like a tree whose every branch represented a different decision - so many decisions, so many ideas he never had to consider at the dealership.
At some point, amid discussions about accommodations, choices of interior wood, electronics, hiding places for guns and all the rest, he and his boatbuilder talked engines. The builder explained the significance of a full-displacement hull. The boatbuilder may even have mentioned the mathematical formula that determined the boat's maximum practical speed (1.34 times the square root of the waterline length). And the builder surely would have noted the boat's top speed - a little more than 9 knots. "And she wouldn't go any faster if you strapped rockets on her."
Two years later, after using this coastal cruiser for a season, the man felt cheated, humiliated. His fat trawler couldn't keep up with the svelte boats operated by his friends, the bosses from other successful enterprises. Rather than admit he had been unable to grasp the meaning of "9 knots" when he stroked a check for three quarters of a million dollars, he lashed out at the laws of physics instead: He had the boat repowered to harness 100 additional horses.
When his rocket strategy failed to achieve liftoff, the buyer sought revenge - after all, he believed he'd been cheated. He would put the boatbuilder out of business by winning a judgment against the small company in binding arbitration. He would make the builder pay not just for those new engines, but other ill-advised owner modifications and perceived defects in the vessel. Fortunately for the boatbuilder, the buyer had a lawyer who knew nothing about boats and, even worse, actually believed his client did.
The arbitrator was a retired judge. He quickly grasped the concept of full displacement as explained to him by the boatbuilder's naval architect. When the owner of the repowering shop was called as the boat owner's star witness against the builder, the shop owner cheerfully testified that the original engines had been the right size for the vessel all along. If a customer wanted bigger engines, he wasn't about to talk him out of it, as long as the result wasn't dangerous.
So much for the dealership boss and his day in court, sunk by his own witness.
Another wealthy man purchased a vessel from a builder known for its oceangoing powerboats. Two years later, angry and remorseful, this buyer sued the company alleging several counts of fraud, including the remarkable allegation that the boat's keel was too deep for cruising the Bahamas.
While a vessel drawing 6-1/2 feet is not as optimal as, say, a catamaran drawing 3 feet, nearly every Bahamian marina welcomes vessels that draw 6-1/2 feet or more, and 6-1/2 feet is copacetic at hundreds of Bahamian anchorages. Through the years, dozens of the builder's other boats have cruised the Bahamas happily, and megayachts roam Bahamian waters year-round.
A third buyer was bewitched by the lines of a New England lobster yacht with a top end of 10 knots at wide-open throttle. Repropping the boat, he confidently predicted, would add 5 or 6 knots to its speed. No, it won't, the dealer warned; surely the boat's long-established builder knows how to prop its own products. Inconvincible, the man bought the boat anyway, then engaged in a fruitless process of propping and repropping before finally admitting defeat. Unlike our first two buyers, he blamed no one but himself, but because of his need for speed he could never really love that boat, despite her noble profile.
Definition a moving target
Seat a group of boatbuilders around a table and they will trade stories like these until the beer runs out. With the possible exception of motorcycles, no purchase engages ego and emotion more than boat buying.
"A lot of times people pick the wrong wife because they've gone for the 'look' and not the person," says Reuben Trane, president of Island Pilot Yachts and former builder of the Florida Bay Coaster. "Quite frankly, picking boats can go the same way. You fall in love with a boat, then you buy it, then you figure out you've got the wrong bloody boat. I think we all know that these are emotional decisions."
There are no statistics about how many people buy wrong each year, but you have to wonder whether the track record is worse for people buying "trawlers." Each example above describes a man buying the wrong trawler yacht, and each boat was very different from the others.
As the accompanying Decision Tree and Pro/Con graphics prove, trawlers are tricky. They can be fast or slow, powered by a single or twins, carry deep or shoal draft, built of fiberglass or steel, cold-molded or stitch-and-glue. To muddy the waters further, power catamarans are often included in this category as well, since they appeal to the same baby boomer demographic of retirees and former sailors.
So ask yourself: what is a trawler? Try to limit your answer to a single sentence, as you could with canoe, sloop or center console. Now hold that thought and read on.
Jim Leishman is vice president of Pacific Asian Enterprises, builder of Nordhavn yachts. Leishman says his boats should be the standard - a trawler is a powerboat with a full-displacement, ballasted hull that is economical enough and with enough range to make long ocean passages. His gospel is the book "Voyaging Under Power" by the late Robert Beebe, who crossed oceans in his motoryacht Passagemaker. By this definition, recreational trawlers would all be ruggedly built seagoing vessels, such as Nordhavns and other slow boats from such builders as Kadey-Krogen, Selene, Willard, Monk and Malahide.
The iconic brand
Unfortunately for Leishman, the "purity" of this vision was changed in the popular imagination years before he and his partners created the Nordhavn brand in the late 1980s. The boating public had already come to associate Grand Banks with the notion of trawler, thanks to the Singapore builder's effective marketing, adherence to a traditional look and, of course, tradition of producing quality boats.
Grand Banks is one of the most successful boatbuilders, having sold more than 1,500 GB 42s between 1965 and 2005. In the early days, buyers were trawler folk, content to steam along close to shore at 10 knots. But by the go-go '80s, Grand Banks was attracting buyers with a need for speed.
Boat speed is largely a function of hull design and horsepower, and Grand Banks focused on the latter as it began installing ever-more-powerful engines. The "sweet spot" for these big-power 42s was a 12-knot cruise, but because of their semidisplacement hull, performance at the higher end meant having to push a lot of water out of the way, an inefficient proposition.
Five years ago, Grand Banks started working the other half of the speed equation. The company engaged naval architects at Sparkman & Stephens to design the first Grand Banks with a modified-vee hull - the 44 Heritage Europa. Adopting a planing hull was a leap forward in performance without sacrificing the brand's traditional aesthetics above the waterline.
"A good part of our design process is driven by input from owners and other consumers," says David Hensel, director of brand and marketing for Grand Banks. "In developing a new concept for a faster trawler-style yacht, it was quite apparent that 'more speed' was a key demand among current GB buyers. We could have simply continued to put bigger engines into our existing models, but clearly that would have led to performance issues, which was unacceptable. So with the 44EU [now 47EU] we developed an entirely new vessel with a modified-vee design that lived up to our performance standards at higher speeds - and still handled very well and cruised efficiently at semidisplacement speeds."
Hensel continues: "That was very important because our consumer research showed a desire for higher-speed capability but not necessarily for continuous high-speed cruising. The same was true in the development of the Zeus-powered 41EU."
Would everyone consider these models to be trawlers? "Certainly there's a good deal of continuity with our older models and with the trawler category in general," says Hensel. "But at the end of the day, it's the combination of features and performance that matters, not the label."
Today, Grand Banks continues to refer to its 20-knot-plus Heritage series as trawlers. Slow, fast and faster - no matter how much the boats changed, GBs continue to be trawlers.
John Wooldridge, editor in chief of PassageMaker, agrees that the magazine helped define the ever-evolving notion of a trawler. Flip through PassageMaker, and you will find slow boats along with many fast boats, including perhaps the fastest trawler of them all. While it boasts economical cruising at 8 knots, the Island Pilot 435 has a top speed of 28 knots. You will also find coverage of power cats, such as the Leopards and Maine Cat P47.
Putting aside the syntax debate, most trawlers (with the exception of catamarans) share one common denominator in the imagination of the boating public. Regardless of their hull shape below the water, most trawlers have a whiff of workboat from the boot stripe up. Some evoke the look of early 20th century fishing boats, some look like shrimpers, some resemble tugboats, complete with faux smokestacks. Trane's Island Pilot looks like a pilot boat. The Nordhavn 62 and the new 63 look like miniature freighters.
Marine industry people interviewed for this article agree that nowadays "trawler" is a look. Otherwise, as Nordhavn's Leishman quips, what's to stop a zoomie Euro-styled Silverton from being another fast trawler? A trawler's styling is never Euro, at least in this writer's opinion, even if it's built in Europe by the likes of Beneteau.
Stick to the mission
Ben Wilde has been selling Nordic Tugs from his Wilde Yacht Sales dealership in Essex, Conn., since 2000. (His line has recently expanded to include the trailerable Ranger Tug.) Nordic Tugs are moderately fast coastal cruisers with semidisplacement hulls. No one likes to turn away a sale, but Wilde says he sometimes finds himself advising a prospective buyer to look elsewhere for a better fit.
He recalls asking a man at a boat show why he looked so happy. The conversation went something like this.
"I bought a boat," the man said.
"What did you get?" asked Wilde.
He gave the name of a trawler with limited bluewater credentials.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I want to do every island in the Caribbean and then I'm going to go through the Panama Canal, and I'm going out to Hawaii."
"You're not going to like me for this, but you bought the wrong boat," said Wilde. "Did you really tell the salesman what you were going to do with this boat?"
Lou Codega is a naval architect with a wide range of powerboats in his portfolio, including the Great Harbour line of full-displacement coastal cruisers. Codega, Trane and others interviewed for this article suggested that every boat-buying project begin with a mission statement, like the one atop the Decision Tree accompanying this article.
"Make a list of how you're going to use the boat," Codega says. "List your typical trips. Here's what I want to do: I want to leave on a Friday, go out and come back on a Monday. That might be one scenario. The other is that I have a week off from work and I want to take off, travel so much distance and run six hours a day. ... Then you can prioritize that list. Here's what I am going to do a lot, so that's important to me. Crossing the Atlantic? I'd like to think about it, but it's probably not going to happen."
Codega continues: "Once you have what you want to do and how you want to do it, then you can say these are the boat characteristics I need to make that happen. How much speed and range, accommodations and all that. Think what you want to do first, then think about the boat to do it in. To some extent that takes the what-a-good-looking-boat thing out of the process. It gets rid of the knee-jerk buying."
John Love, a Soundings contributing writer from Norwalk, Conn., is a retired ship operator who likes to cruise coastal New England slowly, burning as little fuel as possible. Slow-speed economy was so important to Love that he ordered his Grand Banks 42 with a single 420-hp diesel, rather than the standard twin-screw configuration.
"People really questioned my sanity when I went for a single engine," he says.
What does Love say to the boat buyers who want to go a little faster, whether it be Nordic Tug fast, Grand Banks faster or Island Pilot very fast? "The key for the trawler person is to think of proper engine operation at the low end, not the high end," he says. "If you are truly interested in a trawler - or let's call it the trawler lifestyle - you're going to be operating much more in the low end than the high end."
And with that we have the contemporary definition of trawler: a recreational vessel reminiscent of a workboat above the waterline, which appeals to buyers wanting to cruise at slow speeds at least part of the time.
For a buyer starting out with a blank slate, like the car dealer at the beginning of this story, the logical way to decide on a boat is through a matrix or Decision Tree that begins with a mission statement. The Decision Tree here is a suggestion of how to proceed. However you organize the buying process, it should be assembled with basic reality checks or "points of personal insight."
Our car dealer bought the wrong boat, not just because he failed to fully grasp the science behind his vessel, but because he lacked personal insight. He should have known he wasn't a slow-boat guy, for one thing. For another, arriving last at the marina meant his friends in faster boats had arrived before him and would be waiting to enjoy the spectacle of boating newbie blundering around trying to dock such a big boat.
Nordic Tugs dealer Wilde says too many people buy boats that are too big, so they never leave the dock. "They're too intimidated to use them, so they never take them out," he says. "Eventually they sell the boat and get out of boating, and we all lose."
The late cruising guide author "Skipper Bob" Reib used to advise prospective trawler buyers to choose the smallest boat on which they can cruise comfortably, not the biggest boat they can afford. If you accept the adage that people have the most fun on the smallest boats they ever owned, you might also accept, conversely, that people have the least fun on their biggest boats.
Another point to consider was addressed superbly by George Sass Sr. in the December 2009 issue of Soundings. The advice in his "The Case for the Simple Life" is particularly poignant for anyone who plans to cruise away from home waters for long periods of time. Unless you are the type of person who enjoys fiddling with mechanical and electrical systems at the expense of seeing the world, insist that your boatbuilder keep it simple. In general, the more electricity needed for daily life on board and under way, the more complicated the systems need to be.
Finally, so much of what has been written about boat buying here and elsewhere assumes everyone has the money for a new purchase. One would hope that most of us would rather be on the water on a boat that is merely good, instead of confined to shore for want of cash with the formula for that perfect boat locked in our imaginations. Maybe the best advice of all is to buy the best trawler you can afford and learn to love her for what she is.
Peter Swanson, a regular contributor to Soundings, is former communications director for Mirage Manufacturing, builder of Great Harbour trawlers. He covered the Nordhavn Around the World voyage for PassageMaker magazine and the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally for Yachting.
See related stories:
- Understanding the math
- Stabilized or not?
This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.