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Setting Sail with the Big Boys

With New Technology and New Money, Majestic Sailing Ships Are Back
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 2)

For the architect, designing a seaworthy vessel that is both safe and comfortable isn't simple. "The sea is an unforgiving environment," says Tripp. "Your first concern is structural, so that the boat won't capsize and so it'll stand up straight in a lot of breeze. Then you want to create an environment people can enjoy. Boats have to be self-sustaining for a long period. There's nothing so eerie or satisfying as sailing out of a harbor and knowing you're not going to see another port for 3,000 miles. The closest comparable experience is probably setting off to climb a mountain."

Whether you design and build, or purchase a used vessel, a great sailing cruiser requires a big up-front investment in time. Much of that time should be devoted to getting an education. Johnson had been sailing since he was a child, yet he still spent several weeks with a friend, Australian America's Cup racer Joe Cooper, learning about the state of the art in the nautical world and visiting boat shows. Johnson suggests sailing school for prospective skippers who do not have much prior sailing experience but want to learn. "It's better to have a mentor," he says. Then, he adds, buy a small boat like a Laser, which is just a sail, rudder and hull. "The physics are the same in a 90-foot boat as a Laser, but you can feel it on a Laser." He also suggests chartering boats for vacations to compare their feel and to experience living aboard and making long passages. But Johnson warns, "Make sure you charter boats that are smaller than the boat you're going to buy so you won't feel disappointed."

Then you'll have to decide what it will take to meet your personal needs in a sailboat. If you can restrain yourself, there are many ways of keeping costs in line. For instance, a production boat will cost half the price of a comparable custom job. You can take a semi-custom boat--that is, one with a production hull and other major components--and then design the interior and details to your specifications. Prices can be kept under $1.5 million, even for a 65-foot boat. Drop down to a 40-footer and you can order a gorgeously appointed boat from topflight yacht builders like Alden or Hinkley for around $500,000 to $600,000. If you go this route, the choices are enormous. For instance, the 1997 Sail Magazine Sailboat Buyer's Guide lists 159 different models at more than 40 feet.

But there's nothing like deciding that you want to be at the helm of the ship you've created. For that, you'll need to go the custom route. Once you have a sense of what your ambitions are for the boat--from crew size to likely destinations--choosing a naval architect is the first step in creating your dream. The architect will have the assignment of putting your dream on paper. The foundations laid at this point will directly affect what you experience at sea, so it's vital that you feel comfortable with this person. Some architects have a specialized style and approach. For instance, Maine-based architect Bruce King is known for designing antique-style wooden boats with modern systems. Others, such as the venerable firm of Sparkman & Stephens in New York City, can work in a range of forms.

Tripp was an obvious choice for Johnson. They had known each other since both were teens racing boats on the Great Lakes. "We had a friendly rivalry," recalls Tripp. It didn't hurt that Tripp is also one of the most recognized names in the trade, with wide experience designing cutting-edge race boats and luxurious cruising yachts.

For the Shaman, Johnson put Peter Wilson, who has overseen the design and construction of many large-scale yachts for Marine Construction Management in Newport, Rhode Island, in charge of project management. Green Marine in Lymington, England, constructed the high-tech hull and deck, which was then put on a cargo ship and transported to Derecktor Shipyards in New York. Derecktor manufactured or installed the rest, from the engine and electronics to the interior, rudder and rigging. "There were only a few yards in the world with the sophistication to build this boat," says Johnson. "You have to trust the culture to embrace your goals."

For Johnson, making sure his goals were met was a challenge. "I was hiring a lot of high-powered people with big egos," he says. "They want their thing, their signature on it. When conflicts arose, I let them fight it out, and then I made a decision."

Anyone who's spent a long time under sail knows that on a boat everything is a compromise. That's true even on a boat like the Shaman. The choices--or compromises--take place at every turn in the design process because, unlike a house, the architect cannot conjure space where none exists, and the laws of physics as expressed by sail and hull won't bend to the whims of the builder. Unlike a motor yacht, in which space is relatively easy to manipulate, every nook and cranny on a sailing cruiser must be put to use. It's easy to feel claustrophobic. Privacy is at a premium. Just like creating a great house, however, the launch of a superb yacht comes about through a meeting of minds--that of the owner, the builder and the designer.

There are as many potential variables in boat design as there are changes in the sea. The biggest of these are speed, cruising range, comfort and size, and the money you're willing to spend to improve each. If your goal is comfort and speed, as it was for Johnson, bigger is better. A bigger boat will be faster (many still unbroken speed records under sail date back to the mega-sailing ships of the early part of the century) and generally more stable. And, of course, there's the glory and romance of watching those giant sails leaning into the wind.

The process of creating a great sailing vessel should also be fun. Johnson visited Derecktor at least once a week while work on the Shaman progressed. "I enjoyed feeling the creation taking place," he says. "Custom work is just that. It's improvisational. They'd ask whether I liked something like this or like that."

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