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Against the wind

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With his new powerboat design, world cruiser Steve Dashewcontinuesa lifelong pattern of challenging the status quo

With his new powerboat design, world cruiser Steve Dashewcontinuesa lifelong pattern of challenging the status quo

Steve Dashew found his sea legs early.

His dad, Stanley, says his son probably was conceived on a sailboat, and a picture of a boat — rather than Mickey Mouse — hung on the wall over the infant Dashew’s crib. By the age of 3 the boy’s nickname was Skip, and he was wearing a tiny captain’s cap and helping Dad deliver their newly acquired 48-foot ketch from Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes, where the elder Dashew owned a business machines dealership.

“That was the environment I was brought up in,” says Dashew, 64, author, world cruiser and designer of the Deerfoot, Sundeer and Beowulf series of passagemaking sailboats.

Dashew helped pioneer the genre of fast, light-displacement, narrow bluewater sailboats with stretched-out waterlines. His sailboats broke the beamy-is-better mold that ruled when he designed his first passagemaker 27 years ago. Now Dashew has broken the mold again with his “unsailboat” Wind Horse, a light, long, fast, 83-foot powerboat with a narrow beam (17 feet, 10 inches on deck) for the super-serious ocean voyager.

Again Dashew has resisted the beamy-is-better mantra so popular today in the design of oceangoing power yachts. It is a mantra that he says grew out of the practice of deriving recreational trawler designs from commercial fishing, which builds beamy boats to carry more fish, not to cruise. “It doesn’t make for the best sea boat,” he says.

Dashew believes that Wind Horse, his first FPB 83 (or Fast Passage Boat), could become a new paradigm for power passagemakers. Launched in May 2005 in New Zealand at Kelly Archer Boatbuilders, Wind Horse completed a 7,000-mile sea trial to California with Dashew and his wife, Linda, double-handing. The couple left Auckland in 10-foot quartering seas and winds gusting to 40 knots, and they motored into a stiff wind during most of the passage.

“The boat was very comfortable going uphill,” Dashew says. “There were only two days we would rather not have been on board.”

His 78-foot Beowulf was a 300-mile-a-day sailboat that cruised at 12 knots, could push 19, and once was clocked surfing down a wave at 32 knots. Dashew won’t tolerate mediocre performance, and he couldn’t see designing a powerboat that cruised more slowly than his last sailboat.

Wind Horse’s aluminum hull has a shape similar to that of his sailing yachts. On long passages the 83-footer averages 11 to 12 knots with her twin 150-hp John Deere diesels. Dashew says this speed is vital for steering clear of bad weather at sea — one of the linchpins of his philosophy of cruising safely — and the hull-engine combination is efficient, averaging 7.4 gallons of fuel burned per hour.

The yacht is capsize-resistant and self-righting, a design parameter that Dashew insisted on before he would cruise in a powerboat. The range of positive stability is 135 degrees, which means it can roll 135 degrees before it capsizes, and if it does capsize it should right itself. The pilothouse and windows are designed to weather a rollover.

The boat has a low center of gravity for stability, which in most powerboats would mean a fast roll period — that is, it would return to upright very quickly, making for uncomfortable cruising and a seasick crew. Dashew beats this with weight distribution that slows roll, and by putting living, sleeping and watchstanding areas near the pitch and roll axes, where motion is minimal. That, along with stabilizers and flopper-stoppers, gives an even more comfortable ride than Beowulf, he says.

Dashew says he is by temperament “risk-averse,” so Wind Horse is overbuilt. The hull aluminum is twice as thick as the Lloyds Special Services Rule requires, and Wind Horse has a double bottom and watertight bulkheads for collision protection. It also carries an emergency sail to push the boat at 2 or 3 knots if engines are disabled.

Outside the box

The boat is different, even radical — at least by today’s standards — and it has created a lot of buzz. With a price tag of $3.6 million to $4 million, it may be the ultimate passagemaker for that stratum of cruisers who can afford the price and are open to defying tradition.

Dave Gerr, a yacht designer and director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, gives the Wind Horse concept two thumbs up for ocean cruising.

“Long and slender is more fuel efficient,” says Gerr, designer of Ironheart, a 66-foot aluminum oceangoing power cruiser with a beam of only 11 feet. “It gives you higher potential speeds and is more seakindly.” And he says it’s true: A narrow boat can be designed so it’s not a roller.

But narrower boats aren’t as spacious as fatter ones. They have to be longer to deliver the space that a beamier boat does, and because they are longer they often have a higher price and cost more to haul and dock, he says. “When you add all this up, it’s harder to sell these larger, slender boats,” says Gerr. And then there is the weight of tradition. With its hull and superstructure unpainted for easy upkeep, Wind Horse looks more like a fast-attack military cruiser than a salty ocean voyager.

Bruce Kessler, who circumnavigated on a 70-foot Delta trawler yacht based on a Pacific seiner design and now lives aboard the 58-foot Steve Seaton-designed Northern Marine trawler yacht Spirit of Zopilote, counts himself a friend and admirer of Dashew’s — one who appreciates his ability to think analytically and creatively, and find new solutions to old problems. Kessler says that from everything he knows of the boat, Wind Horse is all it’s cracked up to be: fast, comfortable, safe, seakindly. “But my idea of a trawler is just the opposite: short and fat,” he says. Kessler does mostly coastal cruising now, and he doesn’t want to go fast. “And I don’t need 83 feet of boat for 50 feet of living space,” he says.

He’ll stick with short and fat, thank you.

Paradigm shifts almost always run into heavy oncoming traffic. “You go against the herd at your own peril,” says Dashew. But that has never deterred him. From childhood he has been a leader, not a follower, and often took the road less traveled.

His dad, who at 89 still tests his boat-handling skills at every birthday by sailing his 72-foot cutter downwind into its slip, tells of cruising with his 7-year-old son from the Great Lakes to their new home in California, and advising the boy to be more diplomatic working with hired crew. The Dashews were sailing their 70-foot schooner, Constellation, into the harbor at Cienfuegas, Cuba, at nightfall. Two crewmembers were on the bow throwing a lead line for depth readings. Young Dashew — on the bow, too — yelled back to his dad after one of the readings. “It’s time to anchor the boat,” he said, and told the crew to drop anchor. The boy was right, but his dad took him aside and told him he ought not to be telling crewmembers what to do because it was irritating them. To which Dashew answered, “But Dad, how do they expect to learn?”

Dashew won’t say it himself, but his family will: He was a sailing prodigy, always eager to learn and try new things. Constellation carried a rowing dinghy, and one day in the harbor at Maracaibo, Venezuela, the wind piped up and the 7-year-old decided to go sailing. He jury-rigged a sail on the dinghy, pointed it downwind, and headed for the far shore, only to find he couldn’t get back with the rig. A harbor launch had to tow him. It was part of the education of Steve Dashew.

College dropout

Dashew has always liked to go fast. He enjoys the adrenaline rush and the challenge of pushing the envelope. He was a drag racer in high school, and spent hours tinkering with hot rods. He also raced Thistle sailboats, a hot class of lightweight 17-foot planing dinghies that were exciting enough for him until he discovered catamarans. He was at a regatta in Newport Beach, Calif., when he witnessed one of catamaran designer Rudy Choy’s early, small production cats “absolutely clean the clock” of a Thistle upwind in light air. Dashew raced his Thistle across the harbor, chased the cat down, and asked its owner, “What do I have to do to get one of those things?” Soon, Dashew was racing a Wildcat.

He then started designing, building (in the garage), and racing his own catamarans. One of Dashew’s home-built designs, Beowulf V, a 32-footer from the late 1960s, was the first sailboat to break the 30-knot barrier, averaging 31.58 knots over a half-mile course.

“One of my problems is I get bored easily,” Dashew says. “I’m always trying to improve the breed.” He also admits to being an unrelenting perfectionist. He can’t sleep until every detail is tweaked. Dashew invested 7,000 hours designing and engineering Wind Horse, then tank-tested a model of the design before building it. When Dashew designs a boat, nothing is left to chance — or to the builder’s discretion.

“We’ve had a long relationship with all our yards,” he says. “It was always a real battle at the beginning, though, getting them to understand that what was on paper was the way it was going to be.”

Dashew never finished college. He majored in philosophy and history at the University of Missouri, but winters there were just a little too cold for a Southern California boy. He left there after a couple years, attended the University of Southern California, then gave up school to run a small boatyard for his dad that had been losing money. The formal education wasn’t wasted. Dashew says studying philosophy taught him always to ask fundamental questions before starting a project, and to challenge assumptions about the way things are done. Often there is a better way to do it, and that’s an opportunity. “I think that’s the way most entrepreneurs operate,” he says.

Dashew says he never designs a boat for the primary purpose of selling it. He designs first for what he and Linda want in a cruising boat — and then they go out and cruise with it. “Very few people in the end ever use their own products,” he says. “If they’d just go out in the Gulf Stream in November for 24 hours in their own boat, they’d build a totally different one. We always build a boat exactly the way we want it for ourselves, right down to the ground tackle.”

The Dashews have logged more than 250,000 miles together, including a circumnavigation. Dashew is an avid cruiser, yet clearly he also revels in the challenges of being an entrepreneur — the high energy, the creativity, the independence, the rewards. “He’s a good businessman,” says his daughter Elyse, who manages the Dashews’ publishing house. “He’s very smart, and he’s had a lot of successes.”

After bringing the boatyard back into the black, Dashew segued into designing and building an outboard-powered fiberglass water-skiing boat. He sold a few, but it wasn’t very profitable, so he found another way to use his new expertise in mold-making and fiberglass layup.

Still in his early 20s, Dashew hustled around the country selling executives of Fortune 500 companies — Sinclair, Texaco, Phillips Petroleum — on erecting enormous fiberglass figures outside their retail outlets to draw motorists’ attention. Dashew’s International Fiberglass turned out thousands of 20-foot-tall fiberglass muffler men, Paul Bunyans, Miss Uniroyals, chefs, cowboys, Indians, even dinosaurs as roadside attractions at gas stations, restaurants, tire outlets and muffler shops. Elyse Dashew says her father was just brash and audacious enough that he charmed the socks off boards of directors with his pitch for an order of “muffler men” to brand their product and draw customers off the street.

“It was actually a very lucrative business,” she says. Memories of those fiberglass figures — now part of 1960s and ’70s Americana — are preserved at www.roadsideamerica.com.

As demand for the “muffler men” tailed off, Dashew zigged again, this time into fabricating fiberglass forms and using them at the building site to make concrete slabs for high-rise construction. Dashew’s company developed its own techniques for installing concrete slabs, eventually obtaining 20 patents for fabrication and installation gear, and bringing to high-rise construction a process that would build in four days with 20 people what previously required 250 workers and two weeks.

Dashew says the building trades were doing things the way they’d always done them. “I asked people to explain why they were done that way,” he says. No one could, so he looked for a better way.

“My dad is very conservative and yet very free-thinking, both at the same time,” says Elyse Dashew. “He’s able to blaze his own trail. He’s able to think out of the box and live his own way, but he does it with a lot of research. He’s very methodical. That’s his approach to things, whether it’s building a house, investing money, dealing with a doctor.”

53 boats, 40,000 books

Dashew has blazed his own trail as a yacht designer. The old Cruising Club of America rule encouraged beamy racer/cruisers with truncated waterline lengths and big overhangs. Dashew decided to go the other direction. During their 1977-’83 circumnavigation, the Dashews chanced to sail on a radical-looking New Zealand-built cruiser, Innismara, which was 60 feet on the waterline with a 10-foot beam and virtually no overhangs.

“That’s when the light bulb went off,” Dashew says.

“As the sails were sheeted home, the boat accelerated like a rocket,” he writes in his account of that sail in his Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia. “Within the blink of an eye we were hitting a steady 10 to 11 knots. The boat was easy to steer, the sails were a dream to handle, there was little tendency to round up in puffs, and as we’d hit the wake of a passing launch or ship the bow would slice through with hardly a quiver.”

It was that experience that Dashew aimed for with his Deerfoot series in 1978, and subsequent Sundeer and Beowulf designs. Aside from a “balanced” (read: narrower) hull shape, the Deerfoots carried a swim platform — unheard of then — mainly to assist in man-overboard situations. The Deerfoots were 200-mile-a-day boats, the Sundeers 230 miles, Beowulf 300 miles. Dashew kept tweaking the designs, getting the details better and better. The Sundeer introduced full-roach mainsails, powerful and easy to reef. All his boats were built with fore and aft watertight bulkheads and extra-heavy scantlings, and could be steered easily with an autopilot and crewed by a couple. The 78-foot Beowulf, in Dashew’s view, was the “perfect cruising boat,” the one he had been aiming for from the beginning. A boat that would do 16 knots in 22 knots of wind, it broke a number of speed records: the Caribbean 1500, Guadeloupe to Antigua, Marquesas to California.

Dashew Offshore has built 53 boats over 27 years. Beowulf Publishing Inc. — the couple’s own publishing house — has printed six books based on their vast cruising experiences, from the 1,232-page Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia to less weighty, though still authoritative, volumes on weather, seamanship, storm tactics, circumnavigating, and boat buying. Steve and Linda Dashew are partners in Offshore, and all their books bear both their names. (Visit the Dashews’ Web site, www.setsail.com , for more information on their books and boats.)

“Linda and I work as a team,” Dashew says. If Steve Dashew is the creative and sometimes manic genius behind their yacht designs and publishing endeavors, then Linda is the grounding influence that helps ensure that a project makes sense and stays on course. In the throes of a major project, Dashew may work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, surfacing only for dinner.

“When it comes to the technical engineering aspects of the process, that’s my dad’s department,” Elyse Dashew says. “Other than that, my mom is a full partner in every other aspect of their lives, including writing, editing, running the business, and maintaining and operating the boat. And when it comes to running the galley, there’s no partnership. My mom’s in charge there.”

Dashew agrees.

Linda Dashew keeps house and office running while he’s absorbed in writing or designing, but he says every book and every boat design is a collaboration between the two of them. Designing a boat requires thousands of decisions involving trade-offs. “The trade-offs are a result of our joint experience,” he says. “We talk about everything.” Steve is a speed junky and loves to sail. Linda likes a boat that is livable. They each leave their mark on a Dashew design.

Dashew estimates they have sold 40,000 books over the years. Rigorously analytical, he writes most of the chapters. Linda Dashew edits them, checks facts and leavens Dashew’s probing analyses with colorful detail and stories. The couple self-publishes now, having discovered long ago that even a very successful marine title barely breaks even when it’s in the hands of a professional publisher.

The road to powerboats

Steve and Linda Dashew’s courtship, marriage and chemistry as sailing companions is a great love story. Linda Dashew, an Idaho girl working in Salt Lake City as an English teacher, visited her sister and brother-in-law in Southern California Labor Day weekend 1965. The couple — friends of the Dashews — took Linda with them on a sail to Catalina Island aboard Stanley Dashew’s 58-foot catamaran, Hukamakani. Steve Dashew came along and towed his 16-foot Shark racing catamaran behind the big cat.

Linda had never sailed before. She’d never even seen the ocean until she was 16 years old. Steve took her daysailing on the cat several times during the weekend, and she had a blast. He invited her to sail back on the little cat after the weekend was over, but her sister and future mother-in-law wouldn’t hear of it. He sailed back with a male crewmember, beat Hukamakani to the dock, and when the big cat sailed in Dashew was there at dockside in blue blazer — silk handkerchief in his breast pocket — to catch the lines.

“He wanted to make an impression on me,” she recalls.

And he did. Dashew, a top-ranked Shark sailor, invited her back for Thanksgiving to crew on his boat, the first Beowulf, in a regatta. “He told me if we won, he’d give me the trophy,” she says. They finished second that day. She continued to crew for him whenever she could, and at the next Shark nationals the pair took the winner’s trophy.

“As it turned out I was a good crew, a quick study, a quick tacker,” she says. “That was my introduction to sailing.”

The two married, and as Steve’s construction business took off the Dashews — now parents of two girls, Elyse and Sarah — bought a home in Santa Monica overlooking MalibuBeach. “We were in our mid-30s and had this beautiful house and two beautiful little babies,” says Linda Dashew. She expected to raise the girls in that house and host their weddings there. But her husband was burning out on the construction business.

“It was not a fun business,” she says. “It was kind of a war zone.”

He was away from home a lot, flying cross-country, fighting with unions over work rules. “The business got too big,” Dashew says, with as many as 500 workers on the payroll at times. “I wasn’t building things anymore. I was managing people, which I didn’t like.”

On one plane trip home, Dashew picked up an in-flight magazine and read a story about people who had opted out of the rat race and changed their lifestyle. “The story said everybody talks about doing it, but very few people actually change because they’re afraid of change,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Oh God, that’s me.’ ”

He came home determined to talk with his wife about selling the house and business and taking nine months to cruise the Pacific. After that, they’d return and start a new business. “How was I going to sell her on this?” he asks. “We had this house we loved. Elyse was starting school. How was I going to tell her, ‘Let’s sell the house and go’? ”

Linda Dashew remembers that conversation well. “I looked into his eyes and knew this was important to him,” she says. “I didn’t want him to get to old age and not be able to follow this dream. I couldn’t live with that. So I said, ‘OK. Why don’t we do it?’ ”

Dashew was stunned. Linda wasn’t sure what she was getting into, but their course was set. They sold the house and business, bought a stoutly built Columbia 50 racer/cruiser, and set out on a nine-month Pacific voyage that became a six-year circumnavigation. It was during their stopover in New Zealand that they had the chance to sail on Innismara. They decided they wanted a boat like it for themselves, so they designed one. And before they could build their own, Steve’s dad and a friend asked him to build one for each of them. The Dashews were in the boat business, though that had been the furthest thing from their minds when they left California. “We never planned to sell boats,” he says.

Today the Dashews are powerboaters, an accommodation to their arrival as senior citizens. “When you get our age, you ask, ‘Do I really want to be working this hard on a sailboat?’ ” says Linda Dashew. Their answer is, “No.”

The couple, now living in Tucson, Ariz., spend a lot of time in the United States to be with their grandchildren but still plan some cruising on Wind Horse in the “higher latitudes” — the British Isles, Scandinavia maybe — “places where there is ice on the water.” Meanwhile Steve Dashew continues to pump up on adrenaline. He has taken up gliding, and has nailed 20 speed and distance records piloting a light, fast, carbon fiber-Kevlar glider that soars on a 60-foot span of wings. “It gives the highest buzz-to-dollar ratio of any sport,” he says.

Friend and fellow circumnavigator Kessler describes the Dashews as two of the most knowledgeable and experienced ocean cruisers in the world today. Neither is a member of the Cruising Club of America, and Dashew says he has never been asked to join. “But then I have never asked to be asked either,” he says. Kessler, a recent inductee, says his membership in the prestigious club was itself controversial because he’s a powerboater. He has floated the idea of membership for the Dashews with some in the CCA, where at least a few still view the ardent advocate of “long and narrow” as a firebrand. Kessler wants to press for their membership because of their contributions to cruising.

“I’m going to be 70 in a couple of months, and I still believe that new ideas change the world and everything should move on,” Kessler says.

Steve Dashew would shout a hearty “Amen!” to that.