Boats, Boats, Boats

My ears instantly ached.

I had to turn my face away from the wind and the driving salt spray. My eyes stung as I pressed a cold raw palm into them, trying to wipe away the crust that formed. There was a heavy fleece under my West Marine offshore jacket, but it was still so very cold. The biting wind numbed my cheekbones even though I crouched behind the helm. The anemometer was pegged at 37 knots; it was a gale and the barometer was dropping hard.

There was a burst of thunder as Caprica plunged off of a tall breaking wave and into a spindrift filled trough laced with white water. She lifted and drove into the next wave then accelerated up the growing face. I braced against my tether and the helm as the bow left the steepening face and went airborne. Again, the thunder sounded as the hull crashed into the next trough. I crawled forward through the cockpit, holding my breath and hiding from the suffocating spray. I braced behind the old dodger.

I pushed the companionway hatch open and embraced the burst of warm, humid air that turned my face flush. Alison was braced against a table, dozing. Eleanor laughed and squealed from a crouched position amidships. As Caprica descended the face of the next wave, Eleanor jumped straight up and magically floated in a moment of zero G. The thunder sounded as Caprica again crashed into the next wave. Eleanor shot forward laughing, anticipating the next zero G moment.

“We need to get the girl a helmet,” I said.

I felt the trickle of cold Atlantic dripping down the back of my neck. Alison opened an eye, nodded and shifted into a new nook.

“If it keeps building, we need to heave to and wait it out.” I looked up just as the lower rail shipped water and Caprica lifted out of a breaking trough.

Alison nodded. “Okay,” she said then stretched. “Let me know what you need.”

“I could use a cup of coffee. Just to warm up.”

Alison nodded and began moving to the stove, using the multitude of handholds built into the rich mahogany interior. I watched her move expertly across the cabin, as Caprica lifted and fell. Alison wedged herself against the backrest of our center seat and lit the burner. “Just a few minutes okay?” She looked up with a tired smile.

“So, what do you think?”

The coach roof popped under the salesman’s weight and I came out of the memory.

I was at the Annapolis Boat Show, standing on the bow of a brand new production sailboat that still smelled of fresh gel coat. I shook a shiver from my spine and turned to see a pastel-clad boat broker smiling at me with a perfect newsman smile. He sported a neat button-down boat logo shirt, Maui Jim sunglasses, the right kind of shoes and a 75 dollar haircut.

“It’s a Clorox bottle.”

The salesman’s perfect smile disappeared. “What?”

“It’s a Clorox bottle,” I repeated.

This was the first boat at the show we boarded and as I scanned the nearly hundred other vessels in the vicinity, many brands of common production boats looked similar with only minor differences between basic design elements and bulk purchased equipment. It was only slightly depressing to see where the manufacturing trends had veered.

I pointed to a simple yet critical piece of boom hardware. “Check that out,” I said to the broker. There was a heavy streak of corrosion between two essential fasteners. “This is brand new boat right off of the assembly line right?”

He nodded.

“There isn’t even bottom paint on the hull yet.” I pulled on the D ring portion of the fastener and winced as the deck was littered with snowflake-like patches of rust. “Then what’s up with this?”

The broker reached out and fondled the D ring. “Some corrosion is normal when you expose metal to salt water.” Then he looked at me and smiled.

It was clear to me that the metal used was low-grade stainless steel or even steel with a zinc coating. To make matters worse, the manufacturer cobbled together the hardware using dissimilar metals further enhancing the likelihood of corrosion. Much of this manufacturing process is a symptom of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Over the last 50 years, dozens of boat builders have come and gone. With lean budgets, high costs of production, significant competition and a market dependent upon the ability of the consumer to meet a price point (often more than $150,000 for essentially a luxury item) few builders can weather a financial crisis or the lack of accessible consumer credit. The magic words in the equation are price point and credit.

During and after the financial crisis, consumer faith was at an all-time low and few were willing to take the plunge into the new boat market. Many builders reduced their price point by lowering manufacturing cost; essentially moving towards high-efficiency prefab production methods with little waste. More importantly, many manufacturers began incorporating low-end synthetic materials and bulk purchasing of hardware that could be used on numerous different production models. During the transition to low-end synthetic materials, many builders were able to offer 40-foot boats for around $200,000.

The next transitions in the boat building industry included a shift towards simplicity in rigging designs, a focus on outside living spaces and the Ikea-style Euro apartment interior; all with the focus of attracting consumers and reducing the cost of materials while maintaining a consistent price point.

As you board most new boats, you are welcomed by a spacious and shallow cockpit flanked by dual steering wheels and divided by a center folding table that often includes a built-in cooler. Some of the larger boats even have built-in grilling stations on the stern. Even with five or six people loitering in the standard production boat cockpit, there is now room to maneuver around the two engaged in conversation, the solitary dreamer at the helm and the beauty lounging across several seats calling down into the saloon for a refill on her white zin. A few of the boats even have a cockpit seat that folds down into expansive lounge chairs for the melanoma inclined.

There’s are major sacrifices with these changes.

The tradeoff for a large living room is functionality underway: the safety of high cockpit coaming that acts as bulwarks, hard attachment points for tethers, and throttle control that is reachable. Moving on deck forward toward the bow, we noticed that many production boats no longer incorporated the primary traveler: a significant piece of equipment found on the majority of production boats since the term “production boat” became a thing. The traveler is a track, pulley and car system that is used to manipulate the huge mainsail while under load. Instead, what we discovered is that designers moved towards a simple series of ropes with guides known as fairleads. This in itself represents a radical design shift making big bets on the chafe resistance and strengths of high-end synthetic lines attached to a single point of failure.

Additionally, we noticed that many boats moved away from the standard jib path to that of the self-tacking design that incorporates a track and traveler across the deck just forward of the mast. Many boats, including our own Caprica, use the roller furling headsail as the primary working sail. It is a strong design that is versatile and ideal for any number of conditions. The self-tacking headsail substantially reduces the size of the headsail and removed the versatility of a proven design to simply simplify line handling when underway. The track forward of the mast, and control line path, also eliminate dinghy storage on deck; a substantial concession for sailors that intend to sail to places.

Even more troubling is that the forward chain lockers across numerous brands are substantially reduced from the older generation. Caprica, a no-frills 43-foot sailboat, carries 380 pounds of chain and another 110 pounds of anchors forward. Many 40 to 45-foot boats that we viewed would be hard pressed to manage half of that weight forward. Feeling the new boat rock hard port and starboard, as a few people on deck shuffled forward, brought the understanding of just how lightweight this new production boat was and that the engineers had to sacrifice ground tackle storage for an expansive forward berth below; thus they eliminated much of the chain locker all together to prevent overloading.

Several pieces of the puzzle came together.

I thought back to Cuttyhunk Island and a common chartered production sailboat. We sat in our cockpit watching three men on the bow of a 42-foot sailboat attempting to fasten a thick mooring line to a delicate deck cleat. As they moved across the forward deck, the water line below the bow roller plunged and half a foot of rudder lifted into the air. I frowned and said “Clorox bottle.”

Standing on the standard boat show boat special bow and facing the stern, the width of the new boats was expansive and the idea of a flight deck immediately sunk in. These boats were a far cry from the early to even mid 90’s models with narrow beams, small dark interiors, kindly sea motion, occasional canoe stern, and real upwind ability.

Instead, what we saw this year was the plush version of a shrunken IMOCA 60 (aka Open 60). The Open 60 is a monohull that is at the technological tip of the spear and is built for extreme speeds on a single serving use platform purpose-built for ocean racing. They carry an extraordinarily wide beam aft, twin rudders, a nearly flat hull and vertical bow making the Open 60 a downwind racing machine.

Almost all new production boats include a hard chine in the hull which serves to allow the boat to become the wide, flat downwind machine. The chine creates an extraordinary amount of volume down below, converting small dark interiors into expansive floorplans reminiscent of tiny smart homes or apartments.

Dark teak or mahogany interiors have been replaced with chic laminates, fabric dressings or films, genuine floor space and numerous hatches or port lights that flood the interiors with an incredible amount of light. The effect of the finely coordinated upholstery, window treatments, and laminate coverings create the illusion of a high-end living space lit by nature. This represents the final shift in the boat building industry that recognizes that the upper-middle-class sailing family is more likely to enjoy a few weekends underway and an equal amount of time entertaining at a pier rather than taking a few years off of the world for a life-altering soul quenching voyage to distant shores.

Living spaces have been pushed to the edge.

With so much living space pushed towards the hull, it’s eliminated necessary storage and hard mounting surfaces for additional equipment. Designers have traded utility and function for wide seats, wide slick laminate floors, and an interior built for hosting rather than life underway or even basic comfort in a rolling anchorage. Forward, we were surprised to see full, and even queen sized beds in most boats. Most interiors were void of solid handholds, high counter edges, and galleys that could be used while underway.

Inside one popular 45-foot production boat, Alison and I stood in the galley as a trio of women systematically opened and closed all drawers around us. Alison and I were discussing the feasibility of making coffee in the galley underway, which seemed impossible. We were also disenchanted by the lack of food storage, equipment storage or any storage what so ever. A recent retiree entered our conversation in defense of the brand then pulled out a small drawer. “There’s lots of storage in here,” she blurted.

“We put two months of food on our boat for four people, plus gear and spares for just about everything.” I paused and leveled my gaze towards her. “You can’t do that in this boat unless you strap rubber made totes to everything.”

Her husband nodded in agreement as we excused ourselves from the suddenly silent yacht and a salesman sunk into an aft bunk.

Gear tents!

We then moved through the crowds and down a swarming floating dock to the gear tents. There is a point in your life that you find high-efficiency 12-volt refrigerators, big blue sewing machines and solar charge controllers to be a point of fantasy. These are the topics of conversation among boating friends and you get a pat on the back with a hearty congratulations when you take the plunge. To the liveaboard world, this type of equipment is akin to the new car smell. We wondered around tents, spoke to vendors, and we asked tough questions that were met with genuine expertise. A collection of pamphlets and contact material filled our bag, while we remembered next year’s budget spreadsheet. What could we eliminate to pay for the Gucci gadgets that would make us independent of terra firma? How do we just sail away?

We pushed on through the crowds and ended up stumbling into a tent that held one of the greatest boating periodicals ever published, Good Old Boat: a magazine built for hands-on sailors; for people that enjoy working on their boat as much as sailing. The Good Old Boat magazine has taught me many valuable lessons that weren’t in any how-to books. So many times, I’ve read an article in Good Old Boat, and have been inspired by the brilliant simplicity of a modification or an install that was a total game changer.

In the booth, we chatted with a person who was deeply knowledgeable about sailing and who was inquisitive about our plans and adventures. I proudly announced that we had a Facebook page and were in the process of transitioning to a blog. I made sure to make the point that we didn’t just live at the dock and that we really sailed. She was all smiles and asked what our page was called. I cheered up, tired from a day of navigating crowds and negotiating with vendors. “All Aboard S/V Caprica!” I said.

Again, she smiled. “We have a page too,” she said nonchalantly, “Sailing Totem.”

I swallowed, and my voice hit an extra octave. “You are Sailing Totem?” I paused as my mind recalled the hundreds of pictures and posts of theirs that I have perused. “You are Sailing Totem!”

We were in the presence of a sailing rock star!

She smiled again and nodded. “Yeah.”

I met a sailing rock star. To be clear: Sailing Totem is what I want to be when I grow up.

I’m not even sure what I said after the moment she revealed her superstar status to me, but I came to over a plate of pot roast hash at McGarvey’s, our favorite Annapolis restaurant. We were with framily and a few new residents to the Republic of G Dock. Alison shared that we’ve met so many people that have become incredibly important to us, through boats and sailing. Many of the most important people we have in our lives came to us by way of the water. She spoke about finding out first boat S/V Somewhere and how we’ve changed, boat-wise: in what we now notice, what we see, and what we need.

After getting a night-time tour of the Naval Academy, heading back south to St. Mary’s, and then picking up our sleeping boat girl, we opened the main hatch on Caprica and a slight waft of that morning’s pancake breakfast filtered up. We climbed into our dark mahogany interior and slid Eleanor into her rack. The boat didn’t move and the only Clorex bottle was under the sink.

Being home was good.

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