A unique custom design for racing and fast voyaging

Sep 26, 2011

I once worked in a yacht design office. Towards the end of my career, a plurality of our clients seemed to want essentially the same kind of sailing yacht. These were either pilothouse or raised-saloon types, set up to be handled by as few as two people. I could understand the rationale for that deck configuration — the more you go to sea (and the older you get) the more you appreciate shelter. These were all beautiful cruisers, but seemed to be nearly identical boats.

Or to put it differently, if you’re to justify a new design costing lots of money, shouldn’t it be really unique?

I think so. And that’s why a boat like Isobel makes terrific sense!

Here are just a few ways Isobel is unique. First off, Isobel is built of wood. Although almost 69 feet in hull length, only half that length is used for accommodations. Her hull shape is totally unprecedented, being plumb-stemmed in the modern way, yet her aft sections and transom seem old-fashioned, or traditional. The sail plan sports a flat-topped mainsail and swept spreaders, with neither a backstay nor runners.

Too far outside the envelope?
Up until recently, when I watched Isobel perform at the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta against a hundred other classic wooden yachts, I wondered if a boat that was so far outside the “envelope” might be fantastic or a flop. I got my answer — the experiment was justified since that boat put on a show of speed and ease that nobody present will ever forget. The boat was speedy both upwind and down. I would estimate that she was doing a good 12 knots on that last beam-reach to the finish. (The true wind being around 10 knots.)

Isobel was designed by Bob Stephens and Paul Waring during the last days of their office being located in Brooklin, Maine. (They’ve now moved to downtown Belfast, Maine, a tributary or two closer to the mainstream.) In the conventional sense, one would credit Brooklin Boat Yard for construction. They built and outfitted the hull. But in order to quickly and efficiently complete the boat, many parts were jobbed-out to subcontractors. The boat is truly a hybrid, because the hull is wood while many of the add-on parts are very high-tech.

Some examples: The composite raised saloon house was molded by Kenway Composites, in Augusta, Maine, as was the the cockpit. Custom helm units and pedestals were fashioned by Aquidneck Custom Composites. The mainsheet arch was made by Composite Solutions, the rudder by New England Boatworks, the keel and tank-stub came from Mars Metal in Canada. Spars of carbon-fiber, along with running rigging and new airfoil carbon standing rigging are by Hall, and the carbon bowsprit is by GMT Composites. Many of the major bulkheads of this boat were constructed using Nida-Core honeycomb panels. These have the usual advantages of core, being both lightweight and stiff, but they also dampen noise and vibration tremendously as compared with plywood or even many foam cores.

Potent power plant
The main propulsion comes from a Steyr engine that was chosen partly because it was the most potent powerplant that is available in a sail drive configuration. The engine in this case was specifically engineered and detuned so as not to overwhelm the outdrive unit. This drive uses a three-bladed Max-Prop feathering prop. In use, the engine puts out 92 hp and drives the boat at a cruising speed of more than eight knots.

Many of the other necessary mechanical parts are attributed to Yachting Solutions. That outfit also did the electrical engineering and much of the electronics. The generator is a Mastervolt provided by Ocean Options.

This is a very lightweight hull for its length, and most of the speed and efficiency can be attributed to the extreme displacement/length ratio of around 89 (in comparison to other designs, the plain sail area/displacement ratio is up there at 29.5). In the effort towards weight savings, lithium-ion batteries were specified, an example of extreme expense invested towards extreme results. These batteries, and the inverters and battery chargers came from Victron Energy USA, located in Thomaston, Maine. One of the reasons for the generator and powerful batteries was to provide air conditioning, which is a Marine Air system from Ocean Options.

Some of the details of the interior needed to be specially fashioned in order to be attractive, functional, and lightweight. The stone countertops are honeycombed and are of local Deer Isle granite, provided by Freshwater Stone of Orland, Maine. There is a custom-made stainless sink, a product of Nautilus Marine Fabrication of Trenton, Maine. All the upholstery and canvas was sewn by Fortune, Inc.

Electric and hydraulic
The yacht has twin helm positions with custom-made wooden steering wheels built by Brooklin Boat Yard. The steering gear is by Jefa, the vendor being PYI. The boat has a predominance of electric sail-handling assist rather than hydraulic. Almost all the deck gear, winches, roller-furling, etc., is by Harken. The latest thinking by the designers is to limit hydraulics to slow-moving gear like hydraulic rams, handling big loads over short distances. For Isobel that means hydraulics only for the boom vang, outhaul, mainsail Cunningham, and last but not least, the two little tilting floors in the cockpit behind the helms, giving the steersman the advantage of always driving as if on an even keel. The sails on this yacht are from Doyle.

That watchstander has at his advantage three touch-screen chartplotter/radar electronic units at each helm. All are from Raymarine.

In my several interviews with Stephens regarding this design, he went to great pains to explain the hull shape of this yacht, expressed through the lines plan. He claimed that various facets of the hull shape mimicked racing workboats of olden and modern times. But the tone of his discussion was, as I alluded, almost apologetic. I believe that he knew, from his own perusal of yachting history, that there have been a long list of boats that came along which looked entirely different and new. As example, I’ll point out the schooner-yacht America; and Madge, Shadow, Herreshoff’s Gloriana, Olin Stephens’ Dorade, Finisterre, and as good as any wrapup, Wallygator.

All of these deigns were considered radical at birth, and many were so outside the mainstream as to be considered ugly. That is…until they won, and won big. Looked at through the prism of long-term hindsight, each of these designs is now judged as exceptionally beautiful. Which proves the adage that beauty is as beauty does. I suppose I’ll stick my neck far out and include Isobel as the same kind of outlier…a benchmark boat. I predict that a hull shape like Isobel’s will go down in history as not only a game-changer, but ultimately as a new ideal in sailing beauty.

Narrow beam
Almost any other modern yacht, built to the same purpose, would exhibit a lot more beam than 15 feet. Stephens was willing to admit that this represented a bit of a risk. Although nowadays it is possible to get a very accurate gage as to righting moment, when you go as far towards the edge of conventional thinking as is done here, you stray into uncharted territory. The computer will assuredly give you an accurate indication of stability in terms of righting moment, but narrow hulls of the past have often exhibited unusual characteristics.

I think of Steve Dashew’s Deerfoot designs — the closest thing I can conjure up to compare with Isobel. They were stable enough, but upwind performance didn’t balance out as high, especially in comparison with downwind, where Deerfoots really shone. It might be fair to say that Dashew probably elevated big, shorthanded offshore sailboats to the highest standard. That is, until Isobel.

Martha Coolidge was employed for a little of the exterior styling and all of the interior design and decoration. Isobel combines the rather unusual mix of American maple and English brown oak for joiner work.  

No surprise, the layout of the accommodations is unconventional. The biggest sleeping cabin is right forward. There are two heads in the plan, but neither of them is en suite. The main head and shower is huge, with the most commodious shower stall I’ve seen. The two remaining sleeping cabins are very small and cozy. One has upper and lower berths and the other, amidships to port, is a crewmember’s nook.

Raised saloon pilothouse
The sanctum-sanctorum of this design has to be the raised saloon. It’s a stunner, made all the more stunning by the fact that you can sit there behind nearly bulletproof glass and take in the surroundings at sea and ashore, with an unencumbered view of the elongated fields of Teakdecking Systems, making for sure-footing, fore and aft.

I’ve raced and sailed with the owner of Isobel on three of his previous sailboats, all designed by Stephens, Waring and White. Thus I know, from him, that Isobel is intended more for alongshore cruising than ocean racing. Yet the racing potential of this boat is impossible to ignore. Nor in fact can one dismiss the possibilities of such a yacht in ocean crossing. Something would have to go seriously amiss in the trade winds for Isobel to fall short of 300-mile days.

I believe beauty is everything in yacht design. When first I saw the hull that was to be Isobel I had some qualms about it. Was it too narrow? Did the bow properly match and complement the stern? Now that I have seen this most-unusual boat perform, I judge her uniquely beautiful. There isn’t a higher complement I could pay Isobel, her involved owner and her designers and builders.

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Art Paine is a writer, delivery captain and sailor based in Bernard, Maine.

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