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Old 07-05-2008
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Retrofitting a "weekend cruiser/racer" for offshore passagemaking

I had the opportunity last week to help deliver a Newport-Bermuda race boat back from Bermuda. The boat was a Bruce Farr designed Beneteau 44.7. We made the 600 plus nm trip in three days and 10 hours with one day's run of 212 nm and several watches where SOG averaged over 10 kts. To make speeds and daily runs of that order you need a well-designed hull & rig, an experienced skipper and a strong crew. On this trip we had all three working in our favor.

The trip went well, but we had a rough night approaching and then crossing in the Gulf Stream. At one point the boat made a lurch to leeward and one of our crew was launched across the main cabin. He arrested his fall when his head impacted the leeward cabinetry. A nasty bump resulted, but with a few Tylenol he was soon back on deck. The next morning we were overflown by a USCG helo with a C-130 in company heading north at max speed. I learned later that a crew member of a boat behind us had sustained a serious head injury in an accident below during their Gulf Stream crossing. My guess is that the two accidents may have had similar causes and the two experiences prompted me to take another look at how well the interior of boat I was on was designed. My conclusion was that while Farr and Beneteau did a great job on the hull and rig, they really missed the boat when it comes to crew comfort and safety below.

I know that many SailNetters who aspire to offshore sailing have or will buy production cruiser/racers in pursuit of their dreams. My guess is that the designers and builders of many of the production boats intended for the weekend / coastal cruising and club racing markets have made compromises in the interior layouts that can lead to accidents like those mentioned above. In my view modifications are needed to make these boats safer for offshore passagemaking. First and most obvious should be the intallation of secure handholds throughout the cabin. The boat I was on has a big, wide open main cabin but was almost totally lacking in good grip points. The fiddles on cabinets in the main cabin were a little over an inch high and the ones on the nav. station were less than a inch high -- hardly enough to get a good grip while moving about. What might have been adequate at 10 degrees of heel was totally inadequate at 30 degrees and above. The boat I was on would have benefitted greatly from double ceiling rails running through the main cabin and a single ceiling rail in the forecabin.

In addition to safety below, there is also the issue of crew comfort and here too some production boat designs may fall short. On the Beneteau 44.7 ventilation underway is a real issue. There are 4-5 hatches in the deck which probably work well while at anchor, but they are dogged tight when offshore in rough weather. Because there were no dorades on the 44.7, there was no way to effectively ventilate the boat during the trip north. While it's probably not as big a problem in temperate climates, anyone planning to sail south will find it will be a real issue. In such situations owners would be well advised to retrofit the interior with multiple cabin fans, especially in the galley and all sleeping areas.

Another thing I noticed about the 44.7 was that there were relatively few places where the crew could comfortably wedge themselves to get some rest. One thing prospective offshore sailors should look for in selecting a boat is where the crew rests while on or off duty above decks. A good test would be to get the boat at 25% of heel and then wander around looking for comfortable and safe places to sit. One shortcoming of the 44.7 is the width of the cockpit. While there's ample room for crew to work, the distance between the cockpit seats is such that you can't reach the leeward seat with your foot when seated to windward -- the result is you really can't brace yourself when seated to windward in the cockpit. A sudden increase in the heeling angle followed by a slip of your foot on the cockpit sole and you could be launched across the cockpit and over the leeward rail.

I could go on, but it might be interesting for others to contribute thoughs on retrofits to production boats that enhance crew safety and comfort while sailing offshore.
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