This post was inspired by a conversation with a sailing buddy.
To circumnavigate Earth on a small sailboat I must first start and then finish. To start all I need is a boat, any boat, and time. Completing the course, now, that’s a very different conversation. History is full of boats that completed serious feats of navigation but appeared, in hindsight, not fit for the course they completed. They were lucky. Planning for a circumnavigation I can’t put all my eggs in the lucky basket. I need to make choices that maximize my chances of completing the course. A key choice is the boat.
My buddy thought that a good old bluewater cruising boat would be the better choice, the one most likely to guarantee success. He was talking about boats like a Valiant 40, a Fast Passage 39, a Freya 39, a Fairweather Mariner 39. The rationale is that they have a reputation for being strong and sea-kindly. The reality is that the sailboat building industry has made significant progress over the past 30-40 years. The pinnacle of offshore sailing safety now can be seen in a Class 40 boat. However, because they’re seen as fast racing boats, and fast boats must be fragile, the perception seems to be that they are not as safe as good old boats.
Why a Class40?
Class40 boats are built to withstand storm conditions in the Bay of Biscay in November. Their construction is very strong and has numerous safety features directly incorporated in their design. The early generations boats were built for Category 0 racing. Some of the benefits of their construction include:
- Reserve buoyancy: the boat keeps floating a little longer when filled with water;
- Twin rudders: if one is lost there’s another one. They also provide much better control;
- Crashbox: if the boat hits something the damage may be contained to the crashbox;
- Watertight bulkheads, forward and aft: if a section of the boat is flooding these can be closed to prevent complete flooding of the boat;
- Very large righting moment, giving the boat lots of power to punch through waves, minimizing the risk of being rolled;
- Speed, which allows more chance to navigate around difficult weather patterns;
- Water ballasts: allowing more control of boat stability;
- Designed for short-handed handling, which keeps boat handling manoeuvers simple;
- Coachroof, to remain protected from oncoming waves;
- And that’s all that I have learned so far.
Good old bluewater boats
There are a few benefits to the good old boats, which I am very much considering:
- They can be sailed without electrical power, using a windvane, a sextant and paper charts. Not so for a Class40, which is power hungry, mainly because of the electrical auto-pilot needs. I don’t know of anyone who has tried to solve this on a Class40. The approach taken is always redundancy and repairability.
- Seakindliness: a Class40 is a fast boat that will power through waves and bang on the other side when sailing upwind, and downwind they can have unnatural jerky movements. All this can combine into an uncomfortable ride, which over time can be taxing on the skipper. A tired uncomfortable skipper can then make wrong decisions or spiral into depression, leading to the end of a dream. On the other hand, the thinking is that a good old boat is much more comfortable in a seaway. What I think is more real is that a Class40 is pushed hard to sail fast, but if it was depowered and sailed at the same speed as a good old boat, it would be close to as comfortable, not banging upwind, and with the auto-pilot on a lower setting not as jerky downwind.
- When it comes to appendages below the water, which are always at risk of hitting something and possibly creating major damage to the hull’s integrity, a Class40 boat has a very deep bulb keel. Although they are designed to be strong and withstand collisions, some of the good old boats may have a stronger keel setup. And they are less likely to hit something fast, because, well, they are slower than a Class40.
If we look at statistics in ocean races, the Golden Globe Race would be a good place to start. Unfortunately only very few boats finished the course, with most boats abandoning the race because of significant damage. On the other hand, in the Vendee Globe, most boats (45% if I look at the past 5 editions) abandon because of equipment failure. These are IMOCA 60, not the same as a Class40, but they do share a lot of the same design features.
In 2018 I spoke with the owner of a Pogo 12.50, very similar to a Class40. He had sailed from the French Polynesian Islands back to Panama, going upwind for 30 days. He said that at the end his boat “had not moved”; everything was still as new. The ride was not comfortable, but I do not think I recall anyone saying that sailing upwind for 30 days was comfortable. Isn’t there a saying that goes like this: “gentlemen do not sail to weather”?
In the final analysis, the main consideration is not the boat alone, but the combination of boat, boat preparation, and skipper. A poorly equipped Class40 doesn’t stand much of a chance. A good old boat that has not been refitted from the inside out doesn’t stand much of a chance either. And if the skipper cannot manage the boat in all conditions, then one should hope that the boat knows the way …
As for me, if had $400,000, I would buy a used Pogo 12.50 and equip it with simple systems with double redundancy and spare parts galore. If I had $250,000, I would buy a used Class40 and equip it just the same, but with used stuff. And if I had $150,000, then I wouldn’t know what to do. Oh wait!
Then what? This?