Monday, November 2, 2009

Boat Tests - Notes From A Sailing Life

Today I am writing a new boat review.  I have written a lot of these over the years, more than 100 I think. And although at times I struggle to find the right tone, the right adjectives, I always take the task seriously.  You can’t hastily knock off a review, you have to get it right, you owe that to the folks in the sailing business.  Last month I spent a few days after the Annapolis show sailing four different boats to be reviewed in upcoming issues of Sailing, and I was once again struck by just how devoted builders are to putting out quality, innovative boats.  I am convinced that that most sailboat builders see just one way out of the downturn, to build the best possible boats they can.  I am not sure that makes economic sense but it is the ethos that drives this industry we all love. Don’t get me wrong, this blog isn’t an advertorial, or clandestinely sponsored by a sailboat manufacturer, it’s based on almost three decades of observing the sailing industry come to terms with the sad fact that fewer and fewer people are interested in the product they sell. 


Sailing, as a mainstream recreational pursuit, is certainly not growing, yet the industry continues to put out products that represent the latest advances in materials, construction and in many cases, design.  Several boats at the show featured synthetic rigging, an idea that has gone from being talked about to reality quickly.  Carbon fiber has become widespread in applications from hull laminations, to rudder posts, to spars. Performance boats, like Barry Carroll’s Summit 35, have ingenious interiors that make the catch phrase, dual purpose, more than a catch phrase.  From Forespar’s Leisurefurl booms to Harken’s brilliant new winch designs, the industry continues to develop products that make sailing easier, safer and ultimately more efficient.  But will it matter?  I don’t know. I do know that sailing is more fun and more rewarding than ever before.  


“So how do you actually test a boat?”  I hear this question frequently.  Well, I am here to confess that it isn’t scientific but it is thorough.   The editors, Greta and Erin usually pick the boats to be reviewed and then photographer Bob Greiser arranges the schedule during the days immediately following the show.  I inspect each boat at the show, usually on the last day when the crowds are thin.   The next morning Greiser and I head out into the Bay on his 22’ inflatable photo boat and find our first boat.  Most boats are out sailing; waiting for journalists, conducting test sails, or just allowing the sales staff to blow off steam after an exhausting weekend.  We spot our boat, Greiser maneuvers along side, I climb aboard, and the test begins. 


We have to make the most of the conditions, logistics don’t allow for us to reschedule if there is no wind. Luckily this year the wind was fresh, we had four great sails.  I am always happy when the builder, designer, or other principals are aboard. I am able to get insights in person that would be tougher to glean later on the phone.  We chat, we sail, and do really put the boat through its paces.  We’ve been a lot better lately of setting chutes, code zeroes, and any other sail that helps inform readers.  And, let’s be straight, popping the kite is fun, and makes for better pictures.  I typically spend a few hours aboard, steering, trimming, probing around.  We try to sail on every tack and I try to find out just who the manufacturer envisions as his or her customer for the boat.  Ultimately, I evaluate a boat based on what the builder is trying to achieve, not my own set off criteria. That’s the key, I think, to boat testing – to understand what the builder was trying to do and to see how well they did it. 


When I am satisfied, I signal to Greiser. He pulls along side, I pitch him my notebook and scramble back in the photo boat.  We’ve been doing this dog and pony show for many years.  In Miami, I work with my friend, photographer Walter Cooper, and it’s the same process.  One year, Greiser and I had some heroics in blustery San Francisco Bay after the Oakland show, as he somehow managed to bring a small whaler alongside several boats in 6’ seas and I stumbled on and off. 


I know that one of these years I am going to make a misstep and end up in the soup. That’s going to be my sign that it will be time to bring some fresh blood into the boat review business. But until then, I will keep doing what has to be one of the best gigs afloat. 



1 comment:

  1. Hi John,
    I've long admired your writing - have to think there is a good novel somewhere there as well.

    Don't know how you manage the boat test writing game. Just got back from the Seattle boat show, and the best sailboat, heads and shoulders above everything else, was a ten year old Waterline 46 (steel, 1 per year custom from Vancouver Island.) The best smaller sailboat (40'Northstar) was built in the old mold of the Nordic 40 that has been sitting out in the rain for 20 years. Must be hard for someone with all your sea miles to find something nice to say about the floating condos that are the only style of sailboat you can buy now days.

    Fair winds