Yacht Design in the Twentieth
A Speech Given at Mystic Seaport
Daniel B. MacNaughton
I'm on the City Council of the Great City of Eastport, Maine, located "All the Way DownEast" on Moose Island in Passamaquoddy Bay. It's population is around 1200 souls, and it's a city because we say it is! Anyway, we're in the process of regulating Eastport's clam flats for the first time, and if being up here in front of you makes me a bit nervous I just have to tell myself that it's gotta be better than facing a room full of angry clam diggers!
Lucia and I are here on the strength of one great idea--the Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers, and let there be no mistake about it, that idea and the energy to make it fly come from Lucia Del Sol Knight--I am just the wordsmith and the boat fanatic whom she has chosen to put up with to do most of the writing the book will contain. I get to do this because of a lifelong love of boats and a passing knowledge of design. I hope I can put one word in front of another well enough to serve the material. For Lucia and I are the servants of this great idea, the ones responsible for enabling it to fulfill its potential, and we are having a good time doing it.
Lucia has already done a good job of talking about the book itself, and its genesis and its course over the next few months. I would like to share with you some thoughts about yacht design in general--just a few things which have occurred to me as I have worked on the project.
Enough time has passed since I was born into the sailing life that I begin to feel a sense of historical perspective from my own life and experience--not an entirely pleasant thing as I confront the absolute fact of middle age--and my work on the Encyclopedia is extending that perspective back into earlier days in a more unified and continuous way than I have felt before--I think the book will do the same for others. I've had the opportunity to examine the work of many designers with whom I was unfamiliar before, and I am now strongly of the opinion that there are many, many historic designs which deserve to be constructed today, and many which could form the basis for new designs taking advantage of one thing or another which we have learned since the originals were drawn. I have developed the opinion that we are mistaken if we think of 20th Century Yacht Design as a steady evolution from primitive older boats to sophisticated modern boats. To be sure there has been real, solid development on many fronts, but too many outside factors have intruded--too much turbulence has been introduced, to take such a simple view. Two World Wars which directly ate up many pleasure boats and ended or transformed the lives of so many yachtsmen, the Depression and other economic upheavals which made boating impossible for many and expensive for the rest, good economic times which introduced thousands of new people to the sport while at the same time diluting the knowledge pool, several changes in handicapping systems which rendered some boats obsolete and encouraged new types with the best of intentions but with varying success, the introduction of production fiberglass boatbuilding and mass marketing of boats, which nearly put an end to traditional design and construction, the remarkable phenomenon of the wooden boat revival, and now the impact of computers--we really need to study where we've been, because so much has been done and tried, and I don't think anyone really has a handle on it all.
We all have our prejudices, with regard to boats, and all prejudice thrives on a lack of information, especially a lack of understanding of history. Traditionalists would, I think, benefit from an understanding of how much earlier designers were limited by available technology--we might not frown so much on modernity if we knew how hard the designers of the past strove for lightweight, rigid structures, lighter, simpler rigs, better sail cloth and rigging--how they would have snapped up our carbon fiber and our Kevlar and our glue and known exactly what to do with them. And Modernists might do well to examine the incredible diversity of boat types which once existed--the way boats were once specialized for particular bays and specific owners--they might realize how ill-served they often are by "one size fits all" boats which, of marketing necessity, avoid any such specialization.
I've come to believe that we have passed two great turning points relating toYacht Design, in recent years, both of which have been under-recognized and I would like to put in my two cents to correct that omission.
The first is the publication of this book, Seaworthiness, by C.A. Marchaj. Written partly in an attempt to sort out the 1979 Fastnet Race disaster, it is an effort to scientifically determine what constitutes a seaworthy yacht, one that has the maximum chance of surviving an offshore gale. And what do you suppose it says? It says, and in my opinion scientifically proves, that those old fuddy-duddies of decades past were right, and what you want for optimum offshore safety is deep ballast, long keels, attached rudders, V-shaped sections, non-planing hull shapes, and guess what else? A fair amount of weight in the rig. And the lighter you make the displacement, the more careful you have to be to keep the ballast deep, and the beam narrow, like the pre-IOR light displacement boats which first started the light-displacement revolution. I think every yacht designer and every race organizer and every magazine design editor should read this book--This is progress!
In my opinion the other great event of our time is the advent of the IMS handicapping system. From the earliest days of yacht racing, designers have struggled to beat the various handicapping rules. In many cases the success of a design office has been completely based on their ability to beat whatever rule was in place at the time, and sometimes when a loophole they were exploiting was closed, those offices closed. Every rule was an effort toward objectivity, but every rule ended up encouraging a certain type of boat, often an unhealthy one. And to make matters worse, cruising boats have always imitated contemporary racing boats because yachtsmen are victims of style-consciousness like everybody else, and racing boats are assumed to be fast, even when in reality they were only designed to be fast for their rating. But with the IMS we have finally broken the objectivity barrier that has eluded us for the entire prior history of yachting. The rule seems to do an excellent job of rating boats of all types in a fair manner, and this seems to be born out by the race results, in which we see Concordia Yawls and Hinkleys and other boats more typical of traditional offshore yacht types, winning races and doing well. Still I don't think the full implications of the IMS are well understood. When I see a boat billed as "an IMS racer" in the magazines it usually looks like an old IOR racer, smoothed up and moderated perhaps, but still basically expensive, uncomfortable, difficult to sail, and not well suited to offshore storm conditions. To me, an IMS racer would be something quite different. She would be designed to keep sailing in the worst possible conditions with the least strain on her crew, partly because this is inherently desirable and partly because there are races to be won when the competition has retired or ceased to function effectively. She would be comfortable and easy to sail with a small crew, again so as to keep her crew in good condition for racing and also so she will serve well as a family cruiser. She would be rigged and outfitted with minimal expense in sails and winches. She would be strong and beautiful with long-lived structure and hardware, because she need never become obsolete. Under IMS, such a boat is every bit as competitive as any other. Behold a new era--let's take good advantage of it and we will launch a Golden Age of yacht racing.
I'd like to talk a little about values, as they apply to yacht design. Basically any of the reasons which have drawn people to boats over the years are good reasons--I have no quarrel with any of them. But I do feel that some reasons are underemphasized today to the detriment of the sport, and this is reflected in our yacht designs. I was fortunate to have had a father who was both a yachtsman and an artist, and during our many wonderful days on the water he talked to me about what we saw, from a painter's perspective, pointing out the shapes and colors in the water and sky and the effects of light and fog and sea-mirages and perspective on the islands we passed by. He taught me to look beyond what I thought was there, to what was actually there--the remarkable colors and shapes the painter would have to put down on his canvas to duplicate the scene. In many ways he really enabled the eyes of my eyes to see.
Over the years since then we as a nation also became aware of ecological problems in our environment. In Penobscot Bay we were missing the Ospreys and Eagles and other creatures which had once lived there, and like many young people I felt a great fear that the natural world in which I had celebrated my youth might disappear. As I read more and learned more my fascination for nature only grew, and now sailing is all one thing for me--the sailing itself, the subtle beauty of the bays, and a deep love for the living things which populate them, all blended together. I would like to see more people seek and find these rewards from their way of life with boats, and with regard to design I guess to me it is an aesthetic thing--whatever materials they are made out of, I'd like our boats to relate more to their natural surroundings, to satisfy us with the way they look in a secluded cove instead of just dazzling us at the boat show. And I'd like to see us try to keep our boats as simple as possible.
One of the saddest things about modern yacht design is the near death of the small, able, elegant cruising boat. I think we have nearly succumbed to the idea that bigger is better, and even more unfortunate, the idea that smaller is worse. Bigger boats have hidden costs, just like added complexity. There are the obvious costs of purchase price and maintenance, which may cut heavily into sailing time as the owner has to work more hours to pay for them. There is the inconvenience of getting the larger boat underway and putting her to bed, and the possible need for crew, eliminating single-handed sailing. There is the added danger of taking the larger boat into small places, such that one may have to stop doing that. Nowadays larger boats tend to have complex systems and gear, which may require attention to operate, distracting one from the surroundings. What I am getting at is that size and complexity in cruising boats keeps us off the water, keeps us on the mooring, and keeps our eyes on our boats instead of the places we are in. The larger and more complicated our boats, the more insulated we are from our beautiful surroundings. I don't object to any size boats, or to any kind of gear. I just feel that many people would be better off if they remember the costs as well as the benefits of complexity, or of the bigger boat.
One of the unfortunate aspects of this situation is that we seem to have lost respect for our small cruising boats. So very many of our small production-built boats are not strong, they are not comfortable, they are not seaworthy, they are not long-lived, and they are not good looking. It's like everyone from the designer through the purchaser felt they were an inferior product, something to be traded in on a larger boat at the first opportunity. When I look at the work of pre-war British designers in particular, men like Albert Strange, Harrison Butler, and W. Maxwell Blake, I feel like I'm coming home. Here we have cruising boats that are way down in the 23-28' range in which every line connotes self-respect, ability, toughness, comfort, and even gentility. They were built to last because having a yacht built (and they were always "yachts" not "boats") was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, and that yacht was likely to be kept for a lifetime. In these little boats we might see paneled bulkheads, tufted berth cushions, leaded glass cabinets and the like, which of course would be expensive nowadays. But often one sees that there is no electrical system, no toilet, no sink, a single burner stove, kerosene lamps, maybe a small hand-start motor, and maybe not. And everyone should spend time with such a boat before they decide they are hopelessly primitive. On the contrary, they were great yachts, and for many owners represented a grand step up from the cruising canoe they had traveled in, until then.
A few contemporary designers are doing a lot to keep the concept of quality small yachts alive. Phil Bolger has done more than anyone to keep us thinking and to redefine small yacht concepts, Jay Benford has created a host of small cruising boats which take themselves seriously, and my brother Tom MacNaughton has designed a number of comfortable offshore-capable boats under 30'. We don't have to go back too far to find the work of L. Francis Herreshoff, and William and John Atkin, who drew a great many fine small cruising boats of many types.
With regard to the beauty and character of our boats, we are seeing some of the finest and most lovely boats ever built, being created today. But mostly just within the wooden boat sector, and I think that is unfortunate. I think this is partly due to our never having fully adjusted to the notion of light displacement, which is currently most common outside wooden boat circles. In my opinion, light displacement pioneers like Laurent Giles, Illingworth & Primrose, Cyrus Hamlin, Wm. Lapworth and Ben Seaborn were in the post-war era quickly coming to define good aesthetic themes for light displacement boats. Relatively lean, well-shaped hulls, ends which were short but had shapes full of character, sheerlines which might be straight or reversed, but which had carefully conceived impact, deck structures which showed hints of streamlining, all combined to produce designs which were of the new school, but had character and individuality. When the IOR rule came in, these boats became obsolete as racers, and the influence of the new rule essentially terminated the evolution of healthy light displacement boats until recent years when the search for positive aesthetic themes has started up again. There have been some recent aesthetic successes--I like the clean grace of Rod Johnstone's J designs, for instance--but the mainstream seems incomprehensibly ugly to me--why do boats need to look like electric razors or hand-held vacuum cleaners, or the Apollo lunar lander? Part of the problem seems to be the idea of a boat being a list of features, with that list constituting the concept, the design process, the marketing, and the reasons for the purchase of a particular boat by a consumer. There's nothing wrong with a list of features--obviously you have to have that. But when you design a boat, whatever her list of features, you also create a whole, a personality if you will, and that should take as much work in the design process as did simply fitting in all those features. Ignore this work and the personality is still created. At best the design will be bland--at worst it will be a kind of Frankenstein's monster, where the parts are all there, but they just don't relate to one another in a unified way.
We assemble here today in the midst of a great revolution in our field, which is, as one might expect, being wrought by the advent of computer design programs. I have taught myself the basic operations of one of the most respected programs, and have found it to be a horribly frustrating experience, but presumably the bugs are being quickly worked out and the manuals re-written. In any event these programs are quite exciting to use, since one can quickly create hulls and then modify them over and over again with ease, while the computer keeps a running tally of all the statistics and calculations, and a 3D image of the hull is always available for viewing. For an amateur such as myself it is quite fascinating and easy to visualize.
I expect we are going to see a revolution in steel boatbuilding, and indeed all custom boatbuilding. With the right software one's computer can now spit out a disc which can be taken to the steel provider, whose machinery can quickly, accurately, and economically cut every piece of steel for your design, such that they need only be welded together to create the structure. With steel already being the cheapest boatbuilding material, the savings in labor must make steel a highly competitive option. It seems like there should be a good market for kits, and one might also sell hulls which were tack-welded together for full welding at another site. I believe that plywood can be cut in a similar manner, with similar possibilities. The computer can also be used for patternmaking in round bilge construction and for other portions of the boat besides the hull, which raises an interesting possibility. If the costs of patternmaking can be reduced, and much labor saved in cutting out sheet materials, might we not be on the verge of a new era in custom boatbuilding? Why would we stay with enormously expensive molds which must be amortized and which restrict customers to an off the shelf product, when perhaps every boat can be a custom product?
And if we see a resurgence in custom boatbuilding, this will surely mean more work for more yacht designers, and a return to those wonderful days when a customer purchased not just a boat, but the unparalleled experience of participating directly in the fascinating process of her design and construction. What a shame so many today are missing this opportunity.
People are inclined to ask me if in the course of working on the Encyclopedia I have come up with any favorite designers, and of course I have a few. I'm a long-time admirer of Laurent Giles--he was superb at crossing back and forth across the bridge between tradition and modernity in design, and created excellent, good-looking sea boats in both light and heavy displacement. I love Albert Strange, Harrison Butler, and Maurice Griffiths for their wonderful little English cruising yachts, which proved one can have comfort, safety, and dignity in the very smallest vessels, and who had such love for the coast of the British Isles and the waters around. I tremendously admire Cyrus Hamlin and his one-time partner Farnham Butler for their work in the 50's in small light displacement cruising boats--the public never had time to get used to what they were doing before fiberglass largely put an end to it, but their 25' Amphibi-Con design gets my vote for the most practical coastal cruiser in her size range of the century--a masterpiece of construction, ergonomics, and modern aesthetics. I'm fascinated by Thomas Clapham, a friend and contemporary of Nathanael Herreshoff, who was an early advocate of sharpies and skimming-dish type boats for yachting purposes, and who may deserve credit as the earliest voice explaining the virtues of light displacement. There is L. Francis Herreshoff, whose boats I like and whose writing is in my opinion the best in the design field. There is Phil Bolger, who has done a great deal to shake the dust out of our sometimes-tradition-bound field. And then I do have one particular favorite, namely William Atkin. In doing research for a WoodenBoat article and a book on him (and to those involved and listening, I promise I really will get those projects done) I believe I have read nearly every word and viewed every design which he had published. He and his son John drew well over 800 designs during their overlapping careers, almost entirely without hired help. They worked in practically every type: offshore and inshore cruising yachts in power and sail, some large but mostly of modest size, countless small rowing, sailing and motor-powered boats, seabright skiffs in many variations, workboats, houseboats, One-Design racers, patrol boats and other military craft. It's a body of work which is staggering in it's breadth and depth. And the writing and drawings reveal that every single one of those boats captured its designer's imagination in some particular way. None of them is just a list of features that floats. There's something unique about each of them in the way the parts fit together as a whole--a little extra work which gave each boat a bit of personality all its own. But it goes way beyond that, for William Atkin was a prolific marine writer and editor, as well, and oh, the stuff he wrote. Some people found him a little confusing because he would spend a whole article explaining why a particular design was the best possible boat, and then turn right around and do the same for a totally different boat. But clearly he meant it every time, and what he really meant, I think, was that all competently designed boats are fascinating. They are all well suited to somebody's purposes, and in his writing he put those people aboard and put the boats in the waters they were suited for, and by the time he got done you wanted to be right there, too. And in a world which was changing all around him from the days of the one-man shop to our era of glitz and mass-marketing strategies, he wrote over and over again about honest boatbuilders and workmen, hardworking fishermen and good-hearted yachtsmen who were appparently all his close friends, and he talked about the waters they worked and sailed on, and the boats they used, and he talked about them with real, unselfconscious love. You can't miss it. Many of us have a tendency to be brisk and sophisticated and to want to advance our careers and impress people, and we don't want to risk being so simple and unabashed as to reveal what or who we really love. Let's take a cue from Billy Atkin and quit all that foolishness and remember why it is that we do this.
We are at the close of a century during which yachting exploded in popularity even as it's evolution was rendered somewhat chaotic by two world wars and the depression, followed by an era of development and growth which has been so rapid that our traditions have been diluted and much information lost or discarded even as we acquire rapid access to vast quantities of the information which is available. But that chaos seems to be settling down, and there are many fine people doing some very good work to cure whatever ills we still suffer. Lucia and I hope and believe that the Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers will be one important element of these good processes, and we are so excited to be working on it and to have the help of so many fine people.
If in the coming years we can all respect our past and learn from it, keep the peace, preserve our planet, and pay our bills, I think we will see the birth of an even greater century for yachting and yacht design. So let's upgrade our computers and sharpen our chisels--there's work to be done!
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