CRUISING BOAT EVOLUTION: The Golden Age of the Cruiser-Racer

Bolero under sail

Last we reveled in this topic we examined how early cruising boats sailed by more middle-class yachtsmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often working boats that had been repurposed. This marked the beginning of a trend in which the nexus of mainstream yachting shifted inexorably away from the upper crust of society, which mostly viewed yachting as a social activity, toward less affluent, more Corinthian sailors, who practiced it as a sport. Interestingly, one thing that helped precipitate and accelerate this was a growing interest on the part of small-boat cruising sailors in the sport of ocean racing.

This interest was largely created and then fueled by Tom Day and his evangelist magazine The Rudder. Ocean racing between large “gold-plated” yachts dated back as far as 1866, when a group of flamboyant American tycoons–James Gordon Bennett, Pierre Lorillard, and the brothers George and Franklin Osgood–pitted three vessels against each other in a spontaneous midwinter transatlantic gambit for an enormous wager of $90,000. Subsequent ocean races were occasionally held under similar circumstances, but what Day managed to do was transform ocean racing into an organized sport featuring much smaller boats.

Tom Day

Thomas Fleming Day–the man who thumbed his nose at the yachting establishment and almost singlehandedly created the modern sport of ocean racing

The first such long-distance race, sponsored by The Rudder in 1904, was contested by six boats, none with a waterline longer than 30 feet, on a course from Brooklyn, New York, to Marblehead, Massachusetts. In 1905 Day organized another such race, this time from Brooklyn to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and attracted 12 participants. The following year he ran the first race to Bermuda, which was contested by just three boats. Day not only conceived these events, he also participated in them, first in his diminutive Sea Bird, then aboard a larger 38-foot yawl, Tamerlane, in which he won the first Bermuda race. He also, of course, vociferously promoted this sort of competition in his magazine, presenting it as an “in-your-face” challenge to members of the upper-class yachting establishment, whom he described as “a lot of grey-headed, rum-soaked piazza scows… who spend their days swigging booze on the front stoop of a clubhouse.”

Day staged more Bermuda races in the years 1907 through 1910, then abandoned the effort in 1911 to take Sea Bird transatlantic (as noted in our last installment). Competition of this sort died out for several years, thanks largely to the advent of World War I, but was revived in 1923 by members of the fledgling Cruising Club of America (CCA), which assumed custody of the Bermuda Race the following year and has maintained it ever since.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the first Fastnet Race was organized in 1925 by members of the Royal Cruising Club who wished to emulate their adventurous American counterparts. What became known as the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) was formed during the awards dinner. In taking the torch from the controversial and incendiary Day, these more genteel organizations helped legitimize small-boat ocean racing in the eyes of the yachting establishment, yet did so without alienating less aristocratic enthusiasts–Day’s core constituents–who were entering the sport in ever-growing numbers.

This blending of the ethos of cruising and racing led to some serendipitous boat designs. One of the most successful American ocean-racing types immediately after World War I proved to be seamanlike schooners designed by men such as John Alden and William Hand. These boats were heavily constructed, moderately beamy, and of moderate to deep draft, with ballast both in their bilges and low in their keels. They also featured short to moderate overhangs and full keels with forefoots that were gently cut away. Their hull form is still considered by many to be one of the most beautiful ever conceived.

These “fisherman” schooners, as they were known, were nearly perfect dual-purpose vessels for their time–they had enough space below for comfortable accommodations, were heavy enough to feel safe and solid in a seaway, and were just fast enough to win races. They were the result of an interesting cross-pollination between yachts and working boats. The Grand Banks fishing schooners on which they were based had themselves been refined by yacht designers, including B.B. Crowninshield (a descendant of our famous proto-cruiser, George Crowninshield), who were commissioned to improve on older 19th-century fishing boat designs that had proved unseaworthy.


Design drawing of the Alden schooner Mohawk

Competing with the fisherman schooners for dominance in early ocean races were a few New York 40 class boats. Designed and built by Nat Herreshoff as strict one-design racers pursuant to a commission from the New York Yacht Club, these boats were 59 feet long with 40-foot waterlines. Because the New York 40s were intended for inshore use, many shivered at the thought of their competing offshore in distance races. They were narrower and deeper than the schooners, much more lightly constructed, with much longer overhangs, and carried all their ballast as low as possible. They also featured the new gaff-less “Marconi” rig, so-called because it was the fruit of the same structural engineering that produced Marconi radio towers.

New York 40

A New York 40 under sail

Compromises between the two types soon appeared. First came the 59-foot schooner Nina, designed by Starling Burgess, which made a splash in 1928 by winning a transatlantic race to Spain and the Fastnet Race later that same summer. Nina carried a huge Marconi main aft and small staysails forward and was narrower, deeper, and lighter than the fisherman schooners, but less so than the New York 40s. (Tragically, you’ll recall, she disappeared at sea just last year, while on passage between New Zealand and Australia, and is now presumed lost.)

Nina was followed soon after by the famous 52-foot yawl Dorade, designed by a 20-year-old upstart named Olin Stephens, which in 1931 repeated Nina‘s feat of winning both a transatlantic race and the Fastnet in the same season. (She also is still sailing and, amazingly, won last year’s Transpac Race on corrected time.) Dorade and her immediate successor, another Stephens design called Stormy Weather, were the first truly modern ocean racers and featured inboard Marconi rigs with no bowsprits or long overhanging booms. These ultimately proved both more efficient and safer than the old gaff rig. With their improved rigs, narrower beam, longer overhangs, lighter construction, and deeper ballast these new boats were consistently faster and more weatherly than the more traditional fisherman schooners.

Nina under sail

The schooner Nina under sail

Dorade sailing

The yawl Dorade under sail in light conditions

Dorade profile

Dorade‘s profile and interior

Though the fisherman schooners were ultimately supplanted (by 1938 only seven of the 38 boats starting the Bermuda Race were schooners), the ideal of a boat that could be both successfully raced and comfortably cruised was not forsaken. Indeed, the CCA’s stated rationale for sponsoring ocean racing events (a practice some members strongly disavowed) was that it believed such races were an effective venue for developing “suitable” cruising boats. And there was a great deal of logic in this. Unlike inshore racing boats that are manned by their crews for only hours at a time in protected water, offshore racing boats must be inhabited by their crews for days on end in the open ocean. Hence the factors of comfort and safety–always of great interest to cruisers–should (theoretically, at least) be carefully considered and treated in any successful offshore racing design.

For many years this was the case. Through roughly half of the 20th century, from about 1920 until 1970, American cruiser-racers flourished as a type and no new design ever became so extreme as to totally eclipse its predecessors. The tendencies of yacht designers and ambitious racing sailors to ignore comfort and safety in their pursuit of trophies were held in check by the CCA rating rule (adopted in the mid-1930s), which incorporated boundaries on dimensional proportions that prevented dramatic exaggerations of form in any given boat.

The CCA rule, in effect, defined an ideal cruiser-racer and punished variations from the ideal that increased a boat’s speed while rewarding those that decreased it. This inhibited innovation, but the rule, often tweaked and amended, proved remarkably supple over time. It successfully accommodated a fundamental design advance–the advent of fin keels and separated rudders, which started becoming popular in 1963–and also accommodated a revolutionary change in the way boats were built–the advent of fiberglass construction in the late 1950s. Yet it was generous enough to older designs that boats from the 1920s and ’30s could still place well in top races on corrected time. Two examples are the schooner Nina, which won the Bermuda Race in 1963, and an old Alden fisherman schooner, Constellation (ex-La Reine), built in 1932, which twice took first place in Class A of the Transpac Race during the 1950s.

It was in the years following World War II that CCA cruiser-racers really came into their own. One of the most successful boats of the era–a fat, heavy, 38-foot centerboard yawl called Finisterre–leaned markedly toward the cruising side of the equation. Finisterre was designed by Olin Stephens in 1954 for Carleton Mitchell, an active sailor/author who wanted a relatively small shoal-draft boat packed with creature comforts, including heavy refrigeration and heating units and a large battery bank. The design’s core concept, that of a ballast keel with a centerboard descending from it, harkened back to the “compromise” designs that Edward Burgess had pioneered some 80 years earlier. With her board up, Finisterre drew just 3 feet, 11 inches (perfect for sailing the Bahamas, one of Mitchell’s favorite cruising grounds), and her wide beam (over 11 feet) and heavy displacement (over 22,000 pounds, much of it arrayed in the bilge as either house systems or bronze structural members supporting the centerboard trunk) gave her a smooth, easy motion in a seaway.

Finisterre drawing

Design drawing of Finisterre

Finisterre sailing

Finisterre under sail

Mitchell cruised Finisterre much more than he raced her (his own estimate was 10-to-1, mileage-wise, in favor of cruising), but when he did race her, he did extremely well. His crowning achievement was three straight wins in the Bermuda Race (1956, 1958, and 1960), one of the few records in all of sport that seems truly unassailable to this day. It has been argued that this success, at least initially, was a function of Finisterre‘s very low rating under the CCA rule (“almost too good to be true,” Olin Stephens once described it). Mitchell’s ability as a sailor was also an important factor. He was known for preparing his boats meticulously prior to a race and for driving them without mercy once across a starting line. But several of the many keel/centerboard boats that followed in Finisterre‘s wake, including fiberglass boats, likewise did well on the race course, even after the CCA adjusted its method of quantifying a boat’s ballast to obviate the rating advantage that Finisterre had enjoyed early in her career.

Pearson Invicta

The 37-foot Pearson Invicta, the first fiberglass boat to win the Bermuda Race (1964)

Of course, many boats that raced successfully under the CCA rule in the postwar years were not as cruising-oriented as Finisterre. Most had less beam, less weight, and deeper keels and were more evenly poised between their dual functions. Several heavily favored the racer side of the equation and featured spartan accommodations. For decades, however, all variations under the CCA rule, from Finisterre, to the most racing-oriented designs, shared a distinctive hull form featuring a full keel with a slightly cut-away forefoot, an attached rudder, and moderately long overhangs forward and aft. Dimensions could be tweaked and weight could be increased or decreased and spatially distributed to favor cruising or racing, but the range of variation was limited. On the whole, considered today, the form was oriented much more toward cruising than racing.

All this changed in 1963 when C. William Lapworth designed the fin-keeled Cal 40 for Jensen Marine, a California-based fiberglass production boatbuilder. The Cal 40 was not the first boat to sport a fin keel and a separated rudder. Nat Herreshoff had designed and built such a boat, Dilemma, in 1891, having borrowed the idea of a fin keel from a boat built in Michigan 10 years earlier. Dilemma and her sisters, precisely because they were radically fast, were banned by the rating rules then in effect, though the concept of the fin keel survived in much smaller boats, most notably the 22-foot one-design Star class skiff, which first appeared in 1911 and is still actively raced today.

Cal 40 drawing

Design drawing of the Cal 40

Cal 40 sailing

A Cal 40 under sail. They surf much more readily than classic CCA boats

But the Cal 40 was the first boat of any size built in the 20th century to sport a fin keel and as such represented a significant breakthrough. With its relatively light displacement, short overhangs, flat bilges, and radically cut-away underbody, the Cal 40 had an unfavorable rating under the CCA rule (indeed, Lapworth more or less ignored the rule when conceiving the boat), but still was fast enough to perform well in races. It won the Transpac Race three years in a row (1965 – 67), the 1966 Southern Ocean Racing Circuit (SORC), and the 1966 Bermuda Race (in which five of the top 15 boats were Cal 40s). The Cal 40 did not kill the CCA rule (Bill Lapworth in fact later argued the rule should be retained), but it did put an end to any notion that a full-keel boat could be a cutting-edge racer.

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3 Responses
  1. Y-M T

    Having lived almost 50 years of professional yacht design, I can say this is a good rendition of what happened about earlier years of Yachting on this side of the Atlantic.

  2. John Brooks

    The 1960s fiberglass boats – largely based on CCA rule designs – resulted in the most affordable generation of cruising boats ever. Some of these boats will be sailing at 100 years, after a refit of course. Who knew at the time?

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