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On Sailboats

A one-design tour of sailing

A one-design tour of sailing

Sunday afternoon this spring at Strictly Sail Pacific: After thumbing through a stack of boat brochures that repeat the same sales pitch by touting performance, balance, stability, forgiveness, responsiveness, ease of handling, etc., I had to stifle yawns and change scenery. I stumbled upon an old friend, the venerable Nordic Folkboat. Ancient by design but beautifully executed as a new vessel, with flag blue hull and teak decks and immaculate joinery, this was just the place to rest my weary bones.

It was pure enjoyment because there was nothing to buy, no mailing list to join and no stickers to be had. Her owner exhibited the boat to make people aware of the local fleet, which turns 50 this year. Cognizant of the boat’s history and facts, I volunteered to hold down the fort for a while to give the owner and his wife a break and to hear how the crowd received it. As expected, this little yacht with a faux lapstrake hull (fiberglass imitation), varnished spars and reverse transom spoke for herself.

Older folks recognized the 25-footer immediately because they have seen others around or sailed Folkboats when they were the biggest one-design fleet on San FranciscoBay. Younger or less-involved attendees approved of the classic lines and handy proportions that don’t resemble a condo with a mast. Kids were all over it, from the V-berth to the sculpted teak bench that slides in and out from under the aft deck. Seeing the deep cockpit, parents stopped worrying about their offspring falling overboard or tripping over lines. “Wow, someone sailed around the world in that?” Yup. Single-handed. “Try that on a Melges 24, son,” one dad lectured.

And that was the cue that bridged the gap between this antiquity and today’s planing sportboats. Though not new (launched in 1992), the Melges 24 remains a landmark design and an example of high-tech that has trickled down to a production sailboat. True or not, the Melges 24 still is cited as an inspiration for much that pops out of the molds today. And from my comfortable corner in the cockpit, I used lulls in visitor traffic to observe some of the younger “Melges cousins,” like the Swiss-built Esse 850 (LOA: 28 feet), the French Open 5.70 (20 feet), and the Canadian-built Rocket 22 (22 feet). Even though hull shapes are distinctly different and the number of crew needed to sail them to potential typically is smaller (two or three vs. four or five on the Melges), the relation in concept is undeniable.

That day, the Finot-designed Open 5.70 and the Rocket 22 — a Don Martin design based on a hull shape developed 25 years ago by Gary Mull — went for a spin to give potential customers a taste of 21st-century sailing performance. Flying asymmetrical spinnakers, both boats cut long swaths as they reached back and forth across the Oakland Estuary, easily hitting double-digit speeds. Déjà vu Melges? You bet.

And here is more evidence: Both are trailerable and ramp-launchable, with lifting keels. Both are light and sporty with gigantic sail plans that produce SA/D ratios above 30. Both are endowed with plumb bows, open transoms, long waterlines, retractable bowsprits, carbon fiber parts and gigantic asymmetrical downwind sails. The Open 5.70 also features a catamaranesque rotating wing mast, square-top main and twin rudders. But that’s the French. They do stuff like that because they love sailing and dig fast boats.

What everyone digs is that strength is in numbers, and the success of a sportboat depends on a strong class organization, both nationally and internationally. And that goes hand-in-hand with the manufacturer building a network of competent dealers and distributors, perhaps even production facilities in other countries to better serve strategic markets and dodge the fluctuations in currency exchange rates. Incidentally, a healthy class also paves the way to Olympic honors, but as the Hobie 16, Etchells 22, Snipe and Lightning have proven, life can be quite good without the five interlocked rings.

The Melges 24 continues to serve as a conceptual benchmark for performance keelboats, and it is established as an international class with more than 700 boats built during its first 14 years. That works out to an average of 50 boats per year. In early May 60 Melges 24s converged on Santa Cruz, Calif., for the 10th class world championship.

As impressive as that is, the king of numbers among production sportboats remains the J/24, with 5,500 built over 30 years (roughly 183 boats per year), which is reason for J/Boats president Jeff Johnstone to be proud.

“There are 60-plus fleets in the States, and class racing [takes place] in over 20 countries,” he says, trying to pinpoint reasons why the J/24 continues to thrive despite an increasingly crowded marketplace. Aside from a professionally run class association, Johnstone credits the fact that many old boats still have life, as evidenced by the 2004 Worlds, which saw a boat from 1979 at the top.

“It’s very affordable to get into the class and to race competitively,” he says. “This means a much greater mix of young and old.”

That sentiment was echoed in a letter in the May 3 edition of the online sailing newsletter Scuttlebutt: “The more I hear about the J/24 class,” wrote a reader, “the more I realize how it has become an easily accessible keelboat one-design fleet.”

Accessible and resilient. Like the gently rocking Nordic Folkboat under my feet, the J/24 has seen many smart and exciting boats come and go. Boats that were faster, roomier, better balanced, more stable, more forgiving, more responsive, easier to handle. But surprisingly, performance, usability and high-tech don’t seem to matter as much as people do, because there are still a great many sailors who remain devoted to old battle wagons. They love and sail vintage designs, perhaps because it doesn’t take a billionaire’s purse to be competitive and because older and newer (meaning boats and humans) still can play on a level field. Besides, old boats also breed interesting company.

As spectacular as it is to watch the latest generation of high-octane sportboats fly around the race course, and as interesting as it is to follow the incremental refinements of design, one must wonder how long it will take these new rockets to assemble 50 or 60 boats at any starting line. Since its class’s beginnings in 2003, more than 200 Open 5.70s have hit the water (about a dozen of them in the United States, where distribution started in 2006), while only 14 Rocket 22s have come on line since production started in 2004. But math can’t gloss over the fact that most new boats won’t enjoy the success of a Laser, a Hobie, a Melges or a J. That’s because the sport of sailing enjoys only slow, if any, growth in most places. Making it tougher still is the trend to slice a shrinking cake into more but smaller pieces that become more alike the more they try to be different.

Apropos different: The history of these “legacy boats” shows an impressive range of places and circumstances that can spark the genesis of a successful class. The Folkboat started as an amalgamation of 58 different Scandinavian designs in 1942 — while World War II raged — the J/24 grew from a garage project in Connecticut in the mid-1970s, and the Melges 24 flowed from the rash of developments surrounding the America’s Cup in 1992. In other words, successful boats must be right for their times. And the times they are a changin’.