Hell-yes but not doggy-dog slow and what’s more does it really matter ?

If we accept the fact that our displacement sailing boats are slow, by which i mean limited by the physics of displacement speed then is that a problem and can we do anything about it ?.   I am going to argue that sometimes it is a problem : last years passage back from Brittanny being a good example but also argue that sometimes we can make things less bad by making small improvements to our boats along the lines of giving less of our ‘speed’ away un-necasarily.

A sailboat has a hard limit to its hull-speed and that is a function of its waterline length and a simple equation : the more waterline the more speed and that’s why many so called classic racing yachts from Dragons to the obnoxious J class have huge overhangs so that as they heel they increase their waterline length or why many working boats of the same era (and modern racing boats) have very cut-off ends so that the boat is almost all waterline length.   The liberty as an example only has 19 feet of waterline for its 22 ft 3 inch length so in my mind gives quite a lot away : if it was all waterline it would be a small but potentially useful bit faster through the water and that would certainly have helped me once last year and again this year.  Feel free by the way to look up the displacement speed equation and play around with the math.

My situation last year is that i had a slow outward passage downwind to France, then we cruised along the Brittanny coast mainly downwind again until our departure point at St Peter port in Gurensey.  I had of course hoped that normal south-westerly airflow would resume and prevail or at worst a westerly which would have given me a close reach back to Salcombe : what happened is that i got nearly the worst situation for the boat ie a north-westerly which became ‘brisk’ and very strong spring tides.  I did my best to stay to windward of my track but the little Liberty struggled a bit and then a lot , the boat just doesn’t have the waterline length or the sail carrying power so all of the larger cruisers and cruiser racers all came past me at their working hull speed and all disappeared over the horizon ahead.  The combination of difficult wind direction and strong tides made for an uncomfortable ride and necesitated me using the engine but even with that i made landfall somewhere down near start point and meant that i ran straight into a fierce adverse tide off the headland and then had a horrible and cold night-beat up to Salcombe.  Working the numbers later it would have only needed a few degrees ‘kinder’ course or a tiny bit more hull speed and we would have got into port some 4 or 5 hours of when we did….sometimes passages like that seem almost cruel !.   Of course some would argue that the boat isn’t an offshore boat anyway so why moan about it ? and i guess that the trade-off is that the boat does what it does very well but was never designed for what i am doing with it !.

But can we do anything about the speed problem ?….well yes we can quite often because its often a very small increase in performance or as i describe it a smaller loss of available performance that over a 100 mile passage can make an enormous difference : lets just play with an example .  Lets say that we make a hull speed in those conditions of 4 knots and we sail for 20 hours…thats pretty simple as we make 80 miles through the water, lets now make a little bit of effort with just a few things and make an almost insignificant increase in that , lets say now 4.2 knots …..well that works out to me as being 84 miles and that might have been the difference between making port and hitting a tidal gate. Is that small change achievable ? hell-yes and many if not most cruising sailors could easily achieve that.  How then ? and ‘oh really’ but seriously yes.

Its my observation that many cruising sailors sail with rough and speed sapping bottoms (ooh-er matron) because they can’t be bothered to prep their undersides properly before slapping on the antifoul and don’t be surprised when the guy with the silky smooth boat bottom slowly sails past : he simply has ever-so slightly less drag.  It goes without saying (i hope) that dragging a load of weed around is really slow.  Here is a little tale from my racing days when i used to look after a club level boat : the bloke that i sailed with regularly bought himself a new secondhand race boat, an OOD34 and when he got it the bottom had definitely had a few years of bad bottom painting, i had never done it but knew about sailing with ultra smooth bottoms from a lecture i had been to so set about with a stack of wet and dry paper and a polystyrene block….nasty filthy and tiring job that took me an entire weekend.  Other local racing boat owners came past making sarky comments : all except the local hard-man who sailed a Farr one tonner and he just walked past, noticed and nodded.  Strange but that year we had lots of light weather sailing and even more strangely we cleaned out the silver that year !.  Ok so it wasn’t all about the ass because we did also set the rig up properly and we actually trained on the boat for goodness sake but at the end of the year i for one got an invite to go and crew on the ‘hot’ 1 tonner.

Before i waffle-off about racing for the next few hours let me say that i gave up offshore racing many years ago when i got to the point where i realised that i didn’t like spending my time with the beer-swilling and over-testosteroned loud and shouty blokes that seem to make up the crews of many club racing boats every weekend : that or the blazer clad pedants arguing ad-infinitum about some minor rule infraction !.     I can almost feel a racing rant coming on so before i go postal let me also say that i benefit in my cruising boats from the many years that i spent preparing and sailing race yachts so i would like to make a brief argument here for the positive side of sailboat racing especially offshore.   The first point i will make is that most races are started whether boats chose to start or not and so those boats that do cross the start line for an entire season will normally experience all the ‘normal’ conditions of a year and that will include everything from ghosting conditions right up to heavy weather and those boats and their crews will get valuable experience actually sailing right across the spectrum of conditions and will try to get the best out of their boats actually sailing in all conditions.   Compare that to the many cruising yachts that will give up and motor the instant that wind is below say a force 2 or not even attempt to get out when its above a ‘5’….then when it does do either and the cruising boat owner say has to sail he isn’t prepared for it : go out deliberately just a few times even in sheltered water in tougher conditions and you will quickly find out how bad your big roller-reefing genoa is and how difficult to use your reef-lines are or how slackly the boat is stowed.

If we accept the idea that we can take a few ideas and practices from sailboat racing and apply them to our cruising boats then what are those practices ? well here are my 2 basic rules of application :

1. Sail with a clean and smooth bottom.                                                                                                      2.Set the rig up both in its standing state (rake, tension , bend etc) and so that sails go up and down easily and the halyards aren’t stretching like saggy knickers.                                                      3.Trim the boat so that it is sitting optimally on its waterline and without a lot of weight at either end, that might mean a considered re-stow such as getting heavy kit in the centre and low down.                                                                                                                                                          4.Practice and have fun moving the boat around under sail, for example try mooring to a buoy just under sail ie learn to sail the boat slowly and under control.                                                          5.Go out and sail in very light winds and then go out and sail in the kind of wind that would normally keep you at home….see what works and what doesn’t. Above all practice sailing.


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