Friday, March 6, 2009

Built from the Drawings Up

Built from the Drawings Up.
Building a sailboat is not too different than building a house. Both need blueprints before they can properly be built. Naval architects are the equivalent of their home-designing namesake, as they design the boat from the keel up. WHile I promise not to bore you with details, over the years sailboats have evolved to become divided into (arguably) four different styles: racing sailboats (small to large), racer-cruisers, performance cruisers and, lastly, the ‘floating RV’.

Speaking about boats that are larger than thirty feet, for many years the sailboat manufacturers commissioned their naval architects to design boats that would 'do it all'. They tried to make performance boats that had great interior comfort, lots of storage space, an abundance of amenities for living aboard, etc., but they were also attempting to make these boats go fast. This method and mindset met with very limited success, as something was always missing from the boat and more often than not it was performance. When Beneteau began building sailboats, nearly all of their designs exhibited a performance-oriented spirit and personality. These characteristics won over the hearts of many true sailors without abandoning those sailors who also wanted the boat to have a lot of comfort and amenities.

Over the years, as their company evolved and grew in popularity, Beneteau began to build even larger boats that featured more and more of the lifestyle amenities that Europeans and Americans wanted. This is where Beneteau began to set themselves apart from their competition. Their competition mostly uses their own in-house architects to build each of their models. While using the same person to design boats is probably a cost-effective way of operating, there is very little differentiation among models if you have the same person designing each boat year after year.

What Beneteau started doing early on was to commission the world's best naval architects to begin designing their boats. Rather than continue on the same path that might lead to stale designs and stale products, they hired some of the best NA's the world had to offer. The designs and boats that resulted from this marriage exhibited all of the same performance aspects that had won earlier hearts, but the boat’s interior and amenities were now also elegant and impressive. There was a way to address both performance and style.

For as long as I have known of them, Beneteau’s designers and naval architects have always prided themselves on the fact that they build their boats from the drawings up, meaning that their first thought when designing and drawing the boat is for it to sail well, for its performance, stability, and safety to be the most important aspect of the boat that results from the drawings. Once this foundation is in place, the interior will be designed and the amenities selected.

Many manufacturers have gotten away from this very basic rule. I am not suggesting that Beneteau is the only manufacturer doing it this way (there are other brands that also use the world's best to build their boats, but they are significantly more costly). But Beneteau has earned much respect because they have never succumbed to the belief that performance and amenities are an either/or conversation, and they have produced a countless number of models to exhibit this as fact without ever producing a sailboat that resembles a floating RV.

What Beneteau also did in the mid-eighties was to create two different divisions: the Oceanis line of performance cruisers (in the USA it is now known as the Beneteau line), and the First line of racer-cruiser sailboats. The Beneteau line has remained true to the idea of a performance-oriented cruising boat and the many amenities that are available, while the First lineup appeals more to the segment of sailors whose preferences lean towards racing without giving up some of the more comfortable aspects that a boat can have. This was and is a fine line, as both series of boats are well-appointed. But the major differences are found mostly on deck, in the cockpit and hardware layout, and also in the sail plan.

Performance cruiser is a term that is used frequently in the sailing industry. It’s the kind of term that many sailboat manufacturers like to try to associate with their models, but the proof is in the polars, so to speak. Polars are the performance prediction tables that are created by the naval architect. It is a report generated by taking the boat’s design (hull shape, keel shape, keel weight, sail area, rudder depth, etc.) and mapping that data against the different variables of wind speed and wind direction. For instance, if I am sailing at 90 degrees off the wind and the windspeed is 15 knots, the Polars will tell me exactly how fast the boat will be moving if I have the sails trimmed properly. Polars are quite important to the racing and performance-oriented sailors, as they are the boat’s speedometer, tachometer and more, all rolled into one. Why this matters is that Beneteau has always generated performance polars for their cruising models. While they are generally boring-looking tables (and also a visualization chart, which I included), they offer very significant data for anyone who wants to know how a certain boat will perform. Polars also help an owner to maximize their boat's potential, as they can also act as a legitimate 'cheat sheet' for learning how to trim your sals for your boat's best performance.

As Beneteau dealers, we are proud to represent a brand that believes in and offers this information to their prospects and customers. What it says about their manufacturer is that they pay attention to every detail during the process of building each model whether it is a racing boat or a performance cruiser. There's that performance cruiser term again. But Beneteau has earned the right to use it, because it is true.