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Building an Ocean Racer

A vacuum pump under plastic wrap helps to ensure that the cold-molded Ocean Planet is as light and strong as possible.

Now that the Vendée Globe and its 27,000 miles of nonstop sailing are over, the lineup of finishers is notable for the dramatic triumphs, tribulations, gear-battering storms and fickle winds these sailors have endured. The view from this side of the Atlantic with its all-European roster leaves a bit of disappointment over whom to root for if you favor the home team. That is about to change, as one US skipper aims to make it to the 2004 edition of the event, racing in a number of high-profiled events leading up to it. In Schooner Creek Boatworks outside Portland, OR, an innovative cold-molded vessel nears launching, and under the sailing abilities of Bruce Schwab, it will likely be turning heads soon.

"Imagine the Olympics without the USA," says Schwab regarding the current state of single-handed ocean racing. "The objective for our team is to make this entry a testament to American sailing and engineering."

Schwab has been a professional rigger in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 17 years and garnered a string of impressive victories in shorthanded ocean racing. He was the overall winner of the 1996 San Francisco-to-Hawaii Singlehanded Transpac, and was also awarded the Arthur B. Hansen Award from US SAILING for his rescue of a fellow sailor in the 1998 Doublehanded Farallones Race. Teaming up with naval architect Tom Wylie and Portland boatbuilder Steve Rander, Schawb is spearheading a unique American-made Open 60 that his team hopes will put the US on the map in the arena of single-handed open-ocean racing.

Most Open 60s are rendered in carbon fiber, which is light and strong but expensive to work with. As with any sailing campaign, budgets play a big part in getting things off the drawing board and onto the water. Originally dubbed Made in America and since renamed Ocean Planet to reflect the environmental focus the group hopes to bring to classrooms around the world, Schwab’s team has taken a pragmatic approach in building a cold-molded Open 60. Using an innovative blend of several types of woods based on their structural properties along with composites, the end result is intended to be a boat that has been built for about half the cost of an all carbon fiber boat—and one that is light and strong enough to give the competition a serious run for the money. "What we are making here is an extremely fast, yet practical boat," says designer Tom Wylie. "This is not a wild, rule-twisted design. [Ocean Planet] will feature an easily driven, low-drag hull, equally ideal for shorthanded racing or ocean cruising for the average sailor."

The need for speed means the need for absolutely fair surfaces. Translation: countless hours of longboarding.
Cold-molding technology has been around for almost four decades. It uses thin strips of wood veneer over a male plug. These are laid up in layers, and impregnated with resin (usually epoxy) and vacuum bagged—a process in which the laminates are encased in plastic wrap and a vacuum pump sucks the air out, leaving the laminates as light and strong as possible.

At Schooner Creek Boat Works, boat-building guru Steve Rander and his construction team are on the final stretch of a wood/epoxy/carbon-Kevlar amalgam that should hit the water this month. After the keel is fitted, the boat will be subjected to an inversion test, in which the vessel will be turned upside down in the water via a crane to simulate how it would fair in a capsize.

Forget tank testing, the full blown and then some predecessor to Ocean Planet, the 70-foot Rage posted a strong showing on its way to Hawaii in the Transpac.
Rander has produced a number of vessels that have prompted  double takes by competitors. One of his creations, the 70-foot ultralight Rage, which was also designed by Wylie, was built in a mere 10 weeks during 1993. Rage went on to set the Pacific Cup course record twice, and is considered by Schwab to be the ‘mother’ of the boat currently under construction. Schwab co-skippered Rage in last year’s Pacific Cup, winning its division and coming close to beating Philippe Kahn’s turbo sled Pegasus boat-for-boat. That accomplishment in many ways illustrates the upset he is hoping for with Ocean Planet, taking line honors away from deep-pocketed campaigns and rock-star crews.

"They had way more sail area, an unmatchable budget, and an all-pro crew," said Schwab, "but we scared them pretty good. Rage is an awesome boat, a testament to Tom Wylie’s incredible intuition. If she ever had a budget, I think she could blow away all the other turbosleds—even Pyewacket."

Schwab is no stranger to the demands of single-handing, as demonstrated by this spinnaker takedown on Rumbleseat, which he sailed to victory in the 1996 Singlehanded Transpac Race.
"Don't let the wood fool you into thinking that this is a low-tech boat," continued Schwab of the foam-cored Ocean Planet, destined to face not only the harshest conditions in the world, but some of the best sailors, (and best-funded campaigns) to boot. "Kevlar and carbon are used along with the wood wherever the properties of the material are most appropriate. There are at least five different types of wood, each species selected for its particular density, weight, and strength: Western red cedar, aircraft Finn Birch ply, Sitka spruce, okume ply, and fir ply. With the carbon, Kevlar, e-glass, and epoxy, the end result will be an amazingly light and strong boat." While Rander is the master behind choosing the type of wood for the right application, he is no stranger to working with composites. Ocean Planet’s cockpit and cabin roof will be made from carbon fiber, as will the mast, rudder, and bowsprit. Carbon fiber stringers will also give the boat stiffness.

The natural properties of wood are very different than composite materials. In the bow, for example, the cold-molded wood laminate is foam cored and reinforced with Kevlar. Wood absorbs energy differently than composites do. In the event of a collision with a floating object, the hope is that at the exact microsecond of contact, the energy will be dissipated through the wood area of the hull structure leaving it intact. The foam core also allows for better insulation, important in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean.

Ocean Planet is scheduled to splash down in early April, with test sails scheduled for later in the spring. 
The less-is-more philosophy behind Ocean Planet emphasizes a narrow beam and a modest sail plan, which stand in stark contrast to the wide, powerful Open 60s that have characteristically  been at the head of the pack in events like Around Alone and the Vendée Globe. The boat is much more narrow, and at 12 feet, six inches (for a comparison, Michel Desjoyeaux’s PRB was nearly 18 feet wide) is designed to perform better upwind than its competitors. The boat will also have less sail area than the current breed of Open 60s, but the hope is that the more manageable loads will keep costly sail-handling snafus and gear-breaking wipeouts to a minimum, and produce a safer boat along the way. Another notable exception to the rule in Open 60 designs is Ellen MacArthur's Kingfisher. Its success in the Europe 1 New Man STAR and the Vendée Globe is encouraging, says Schwab, because that boat's design philosophy in many ways mirrors the Ocean Planet approach with an emphasis on managable sail plans. "We are not striving to be the absolute fastest boat in any particular conditions, but we should have no weak spots to overcome," explains Schwab. "Our emphasis is to be very strong in light air at all angles, strong upwind in breeze with pointing ability, and very controllable in heavy running."

Ocean Planet will carry a 6,700-pound solid lead bulb attached to a steel blade for a total of  8,500 pounds of keel weight. The designed draft is14 feet, nine inches. The bulb itself presents one of the tradeoffs the team is faced with. Solid lead is less dense than the tungsten-lead bulbs that keep many of the latest Open 60s upright, and thus has to be larger, making for increased drag. "There may be a chance to change that down the road, but first we’ll have to get out and win a few races. It takes years to bring a boat like this up to its full potential. If we were working with an unlimited budget, we might do some things differently," continued Schwab, "but the important thing is to have a boat." Ocean Planet will be able to carry 4,900 pounds of water ballast per side, and under the right conditions, says its skipper, it should top out at a heart-stopping 30 knots on the speedo.

Throughout the project, Schwab has been busy researching boats and securing funding. He and his ‘spy camera’ were on hand to examine the boats competing in the Jacques Vabres, Euro1 New One Man STAR, and the Vendée Globe for ideas on sail plans, sail-handling gear, furlers, rigging, solar panels and more. On the homestretch, the winner of this year’s Vendée Michel Desjoyeaux said that 80 percent of the race is won in the preparation stages and Schwab seems to have taken that to heart.

Show Me the Money

The majority of Ocean Planet's funding so far has come through private donors, and according to Schwab, if there’s a culprit anywhere in the absence of American entries in races like the Vendée, it falls to the marketing departments of corporations dotting this prosperous land and their reluctance to head out on a limb."It’s time for corporations to take us seriously; we can provide more exposure bang for the buck than anything else. If it works in Europe, it should work here," says Schwab who is hoping to raise the million dollars his team needs to race this summer.

Your company's name could go here, and thanks in large part to the Internet, its message could reach untold audiences around the globe.

One doesn't have to look too far to see the merits of his point. Consider the phenomenon of Ellen MacArthur and her second-place finish in the Vendée. Two-and-a-half years ago, Kingfisher was one of only two companies that bothered to answer one of the 2,500 letters that Ellen MacArthur sent out in her appeal for financial backing. She was just 20 at the time and largely inexperienced, but in a 10-minute conversation with the powers that be at the retail group Kingfisher, she convinced them that she was worth a $4 million investment. "Ellen MacArthur's success has surpassed all expectations," said Jonathan Miller, head of PR at Kingfisher. "She's given fantastic brand awareness for our company, which we could only have dreamed of at the outset."

Some of the sponsors in this year’s Vendée included washing machines manufacturers, retail stores, insurance, insulation manufacturers, all and more which exist on this side of the pond. And while the pool of sailors in this country may not compare well proportionally to those in Europe, sailors aren’t the only target audience. That would fall to those intrigued, captivated, and inspired by sailors and their adventures, and these are found in countless numbers the world over. For the latest look at Ocean Planet, check out

Suggested Reading:

The Making of a True Master Mariner by Dan Dickison

A New Global Champion by SailNet

Vendee Globe Speed Machines by Brian Hancock

Buying Guide: Traveler Systems

Mark Matthews is offline  
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