CRUISING SAILBOAT EVOLUTION: Early Fiberglass Cruisers and the Westsail Cult

Cruising ketch

In our last thrilling episode in this series we discussed the classic cruiser-racers that dominated sailboat design through the early to middle part of the 20th century, including when the first production fiberglass boats appeared in the 1950s and ’60s. These boats were mostly built to the old CCA rule, which remained the primary rating rule in American sailboat racing until 1970, when it was supplanted by the International Offshore Rule. The IOR was promulgated to encourage international competition by resolving differences between the CCA rule (so called because it was created by the Cruising Club of America) and the Royal Ocean Racing Club‘s rating rule, which governed racing in Great Britain and Europe. Whereas the CCA rule had explicitly sought to encourage development of boats that could both cruise and race, the new IOR was more focused on performance, and as a result racing and cruising designs eventually started to diverge.

Early IOR boats were not radically different from boats conceived in the twilight years of the CCA rule. Indeed, some boats designed during the transition between the two rules, with rudders hung on skegs and swept-back fin keels that seemed like organic remnants of the full keels they supplanted, are among the most beautiful ever conceived. They were also capable, like the best CCA boats, of succeeding both as racers and cruisers. By the mid to late 1970s, however, everything had heated up. Fiberglass production was making boats more and more affordable, drawing larger numbers of people into the sport of sailing. Offshore racing was growing more popular and increasingly intense, with more events and more sailors competing in them.

Swan 40 drawing

The Swan 40, designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built from 1970-72, is a good example of an early IOR design that was both graceful and functional as a cruiser

Designers therefore were under more and more pressure to produce cutting-edge boats–not only so that keen racing sailors could win trophies with them, but also so that salespeople could tout winning records when marketing them. By the end of the decade, the typical IOR boat was a more specialized light-displacement racing machine with a narrow stub of a fin keel, a spade rudder situated perhaps a bit too far aft, flat bilges, a beamy midsection with exaggerated tumblehome, narrow pinched ends, a large sailplan with a narrow high-aspect mainsail, and a relatively high center of gravity that required lots of crew weight on the rail to keep the boat upright and sailing its best. Some of these features improved boat-speed, but the intent of others was solely to exploit loopholes in the rating rule. The result, in any event, was a type of boat that was faster than the old CCA cruiser-racers but not as comfortable or as seaworthy, as was dramatically demonstrated during the Fastnet Race of 1979, during which a strong gale sank five boats, capsized dozens of others, and took the lives of 15 sailors.

IOR downwind

One characteristic of IOR boats was that they tended to roll a lot when sailing downwind, due to their bulbous midsections and pinched ends, which led to some exciting broaches. The then-popular blooper, a free-flying downwind headsail flown alongside a spinnaker, also helped keep things interesting

IOR beam

This IOR racer, showing exaggerated midship beam, was appropriately named Tumblehome

IOR stern

And this boat sports a good example of an extreme IOR aft section

But even as fiberglass race boats were becoming more specialized and more cranky, there also appeared a new generation of specialized fiberglass cruising boats. It is tempting to infer a straight cause-and-effect relationship here, but in fact the two trends seem to have emerged simultaneously. Again, it was the immense increase in the size of the sailing market that was driving events. The mature industrial economy of the late 20th century had created more wealth for middle- and working-class families even as it lowered the costs of boat ownership through the efficiencies of fiberglass production. The concomitant increase in active sailors fed the ranks of both the cruising and racing communities and allowed both types of boat to flourish side by side.

As the Fastnet tragedy demonstrated, racing sailors were perfectly willing to let modern technology, their greed for speed, and the perversities of rating rules drive them toward the edge of the safety envelope. Dedicated cruising sailors, meanwhile, instinctively headed in the other direction. What most appealed to these people, production builders quickly learned, was the romance of sailing, and the best way to evoke this in a boat design, they also deduced, was to make it traditional-looking.

The “breakthrough” boat in this respect was the phenomenally successful California-built Westsail 32. Its design, cobbled together by Bill Crealock, was anything but innovative. Indeed, it was a direct rip-off of William Atkins’ fat double-ender Eric, which in turn had been directly based on Colin Archer’s old pilot and rescue boat, the Redningskoite, a concept that was then nearly a century old.

In its first incarnation as the Kendall 32, the Westsail was a complete failure. But then its mold was purchased at a bankruptcy auction by a young couple, Snider and Lynne Vick, who knew little about sailing and nothing about boatbuilding but saw the cruising dream incarnate in the boat’s design and had a vision of sharing that dream with the world. Their deft marketing of the boat, which they reintroduced as the Westsail 32 in 1972, strongly emphasized the romance of voyaging under sail (and the boat’s heavyweight indestructibility) and thereby struck a major chord not only with sailors, but with the public at large. By 1974 the boat was featured in Time magazine as something akin to a lifestyle phenomenon. By the end of the decade the Vicks had sold more than 800 hulls and had expanded their model line to include a 28-footer and a 42- and 43-footer.

Westsail 32 sailing

The Westsail 32 certainly looked romantic and was very popular, but it was also heavy, slow, and wet. Some sailors today derisively refer to them as “Wetsnails”

Westsail 32 drawing

A simple Westsail design drawing. Thanks primarily to the boat’s great success, many cruisers were for years biased in favor of fat double-ended full-keel designs

The Westsail’s cult status had a profound effect on the design of fiberglass cruising boats. For years afterward, builders who wanted to be sure of tapping into the cruising zeitgeist felt compelled to produce heavyweight full-keeled double-enders that mimicked the look and feel of this iconic boat. Some were direct variations, most notably the Ingrid and Alajuela 38 (circa 1973), which were also designed by William Atkin. Like the Westsail, such boats were heavy, carried simple outboard transom-hung rudders controlled with large tillers, and featured hulls with very full forefoots.

Other designs were more derivative and somewhat more sophisticated, with canoe sterns (to retain the double-ended look), inboard rudders controlled with wheels, and hulls with slightly cut-away forefoots. Many of these boats were built in Taiwan, where lavish teak joinery and deck-work, which always helps to evoke a traditional mood (and increase weight), could be economically executed. Examples of such designs include the Baba 30 (designed by Robert Perry circa 1978), the highly popular Tayana 37 (Robert Perry, circa 1979), and several models offered by builder Hans Christian.

Other builders, however, sought to refine and modernize the Westsail template and soon produced much more sophisticated designs. These also sported canoe sterns, but were lighter and narrower and had taller sailplans, flatter bilges, and more cut-away underbodies with generously sized fin keels and separated rudders. Significant examples include the Valiant 40 (another Robert Perry design, circa 1973), the Fast Passage 39 (William Garden, circa 1976), and several boats produced by Pacific Seacraft that were designed by the original perpetrator himself, Bill Crealock.

Valiant 40 drawing

The Valiant 40, often hailed as the first “performance cruiser,” represented an early attempt to produce a significantly faster double-ended cruising boat

The old double-ended Redningskoite was not, however, the only archetype available to builders who wanted to market traditional-looking cruising boats. Another significant type was seen in certain heavy full-keel designs, most with ketch rigs, with traditional features like clipper bows, bowsprits, wide wineglass transoms, and carved wooden taffrails and bow-boards. The first of these, the Cheoy Lee Clipper 36 (circa 1969), actually predated the Westsail by a few years. Imitators included the Hardin Sea Wolf 31 (circa 1973), the Fuji 35 (circa 1974), and the Vagabond 47 (circa 1978). Unlike the Westsail, which was in fact simply an old design recast in fiberglass, these were contemporary designs, yet were conservative and derivative in nature. The larger examples did feature a new concept, the center cockpit, which quickly became popular with cruising sailors because it opened up space belowdeck for an aft stateroom.

Vagabond 47 sailing

A Vagabond 47 under sail. Like the Westsail, it seemed salty and romantic

Vagabond 47 drawing

The Vagabond 47 in profile. Like the Westsail, it was also heavy and slow, with a long full keel

There were also several early fiberglass boats marketed strictly as cruisers that did not explicitly evoke or mimic traditional designs. One good example was the Allied Seawind 30, a small ketch designed by Thomas Gilmer that was introduced in 1962. In its hull form and rig the Seawind had much in common with the more affected “clipper ketches” that followed in its wake. It was relatively heavy with a full keel, generous beam, and a conservatively sized split rig that supposedly made sailhandling easier, as each sail needing handling was smaller in area.

Though not particularly fast, the Seawind was (and is) eminently seaworthy, as was demonstrated by an early enthusiast, Alan Eddy, who took one around the world singlehanded during the years 1963 through 1969, thus earning the Seawind the distinction of being the first fiberglass boat to complete a circumnavigation. In its first iteration, the Seawind had a simple outboard rudder, but the Seawind II, introduced in 1975, had an inboard rudder and was lengthened by two feet to create more interior space.

In 1972 the Allied Boat Company also introduced two larger ketch-rigged cruisers in the same vein—the Princess (36 feet) and the Mistress (39 feet). Other builders, notably Irwin, Morgan, and Gulfstar, introduced similar cruising ketches during the 1970s, the larger examples of which, again, tended to feature center cockpits. Some of these boats, including some of the faux-traditional models just mentioned, hewed away from the tried and true full-keel hull form, but never too far. Larger Irwin ketches, for example, often carried centerboards and had slightly cut-away underbodies with separate rudders.

Allied Seawind sailing

The Allied Seawind, the first plastic boat to circle the world

One builder, Garry Hoyt, founder of Freedom Yachts, was not at all afraid of trying new ideas. His Freedom 40, first introduced as a prototype in 1977, showed just how different a cruising boat could be. It featured a radical unstayed “cat-ketch” rig that had a self-tacking main and mizzen on wishbone booms with no headsails. The hull form, however, deliberately conceived by Hoyt as a “retro” challenge to the “fad” of fin-keeled IOR hulls, featured a full shoal-draft keel with a deep centerboard descending from it. The deck layout included a massive center cockpit (though an aft cockpit version was also available).

Freedom 40 sailing

The Freedom 40 under sail. Note the traditional wooden wheel and aft “quarterdeck”

Freedom 40 drawing

The Freedom 40 in profile

Originally the unstayed masts on the Freedom 40, and on other Freedom models introduced by Hoyt, were aluminum, but in 1980 he switched to carbon-fiber masts, a prescient innovation that anticipated by several years a shift to carbon spars in race boats. A few other builders later followed Hoyt’s lead and marketed cruising boats with unstayed rigs, most notably Hinterhoeller, a Canadian company, whose Nonsuch boats featured one big sail on a single unstayed mast with a wishbone boom. The hulls of the several Nonsuch models combined a beamy footprint with relatively light displacement and a modern underbody that featured flat bilges, fin keels, and separated spade rudders. Like Hoyt’s Freedoms, however, the Nonsuchs were modern designs that evoked a traditional aesthetic. The Freedom, with its long keel, huge transom, and big outboard rudder, seemed vaguely reminiscent of 18th century squareriggers, and the beamy Nonsuch, with its boxy house and mast right forward, seemed to be descended from the old New England catboat.

Nonsuch sailing

A Nonsuch under sail

Most importantly, because they were built in fiberglass, all of the boats we’ve discussed here, and many others that are similar, as well as even older CCA designs that were also built in glass, are still afloat and are still being cruised today. True, most of them are not as fast or weatherly as more contemporary boats, but most are also considerably less expensive to buy and many well maintained examples can be found on the brokerage market. Indeed, this is a fact that plagues builders of new boats today, but also helps to keep the cruising dream alive for sailors with modest budgets: old fiberglass boats never die, they just keep getting cheaper.

If you found this post useful and/or interesting, be sure to check out its predecessors in this series:

The Golden Age of the Cruiser-Racer

From Work Boats to Yachts

The Emergence of “Alternative” Cruising

Early Trends in Yacht Design

Cleopatra’s Barge

Related Posts

7 Responses
  1. Kevin

    Cruising boat evolution…truly one of my favorite topics! When I asked Perry about his early double-enders like the V40, he quickly admitted the canoe stern was about marketing and “It was just assumed that offshore cruising boats had to be double enders and rather than buck that trend I decided to go with it and at the same time add my own twist to the shape to try and improve the performance of the double ender.” The marketing works because I’m a sucker for a canoe stern, regardless of the “benefit”.

  2. Charlie

    @Kevin: I have to admit I’ve always thought canoe sterns were particularly attractive, and I think Bob’s always been pretty frank about his double-enders. Your site is looking great!

  3. Tom Young

    I’ve enjoyed this series. It’s been done before, but yours has new ideas. Don’t end it! Why not take a shot at where the sailboat industry is going?

    Nobody seems to know that, or they don’t want to talk about it.

    10 years ago, they scoffed at the Daysailers(some still do), but this ‘genre’ of boat design appears to be here to stay. Even though daysailers are nothing new, this new crop are an odd hairpin turn in an industry that just a few years before was turning out boats with interiors that today, might fit in Dwell Magazine(restyled a bit…).

    Currently, sailing appears to be on the return in all boats(I’m a dangerously optimistic person). The emphasis, of something, has shifted, even in big boats.

    Are we in a design blip or are sailors changing? What’s driving design, sailing or cruising?

    What’s next?

    Thanks for a great series and website.

  4. Charlie

    @Tom: Very glad you’re enjoying this series, and yes, I plan to get into what’s going on now in future episodes. We’re just about done with this historic stuff. Also, at the risk of sounding self-serving, if you like this stuff you should check out my book. Lots of the same covering all aspects of cruising boat design and outfitting.

  5. DT

    I was an intern with Halsey Herreshoff in 1975 when he was working up initial lines for the original Freedom 40. It was based on his grandfather’s series of Coquina half models IIRC.

  6. ben

    Which book?

    I just bought the ebook of the modern cruising yacht but maybe you mean your current book?
    I guess both:)

    I would be interested in the minutia of the development of cruising systems or the convenience items on the boats of the fiberglass boat era.
    I have been thinking that when I get a minute I was going to go the library and look at old magazines to piece together the narrative.

    Considering you lived it, I thought I would ask.

  7. Charles Doane

    @ben: The book I reference earlier in this comment string is my first one: The Modern Cruising Sailboat. But I wouldn’t mind if you got the second one too. ; )

Leave a Reply



Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Facebook Pagelike Widget


Google Ads