The increasing division between racing and daysailing sailboats

by John MacBeath Watkins

The evolution of planing sailboats has favored the fast over the pleasant, at least in development classes.

Here, for example, is an interpretation of current trends in planing sailboats:

Hull A. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

This represents a 17-foot racing dinghy with minimal initial stability, a high prismatic coefficient (.58) and hiking wings. The waterline beam is about 2 feet 9 inches, the beam of the hull is about 3 feet, and the beam of the hiking wings is about 8 feet. The entrance angle is less than 9 degrees. It would carry about 200 square feet of sail, have a crew of two, both using trapezes to increase their righting moment, and it would have a reefing bowsprit for an asymmetric spinnaker. Everything, the hull, the rig, even the hiking racks, would be built with carbon fiber so that its scant displacement can support two highly skilled sailors.

And they'd better be highly skilled, because although fast, the boat will be nearly impossible to sail. It is designed to have the least possible resistance going to windward in waves, thus the narrow hull. The theory is that modern planing sailboats are fastest sailed flat, so there's no point in making them stable, because the crew will sail them so flat the center of buoyancy has no opportunity to move to leeward.

The type can be used without the trapezes or the jib and spinnaker. In fact, it started with the Moth class. The last of the non-foiling Moths looked quite like this, but were 11 feet long with a waterline beam of about one foot. I've heard of an Australian Moth champion starting 5 minutes behind the legendary Flying Dutchman class and finishing the race having overtaken all but the leaders of that class.

The down side is that almost no one can sail a boat like this. It looks like the central hull of a trimaran, and has about as much stability.

There is a more moderate approach in hiking classes that do not allow hiking racks. Consider this boat, about 16 feet long, 3 1/2 feet wide on the waterline, and just under 6 feet wide at the deck:

Hull B. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

This is quite moderate compared to a modern Merlin Rocket, which would have a beam at the deck of about 7 feet and a waterline beam of less than 3 feet. The entrance angle is a little over 10 degrees, and it has the same U-shaped sections forward as its narrower cousin, flattening aft to help it plane. The flare allows the boat to gain some stability before it reaches the point where capsize is inevitable, but this is still based on the idea that stability should be minimized to reduce the drag of the hull. It's just the same set of priorities applied to a boat that more people could successfully sail around a race course.

Compare this to the older planing types.

The first type to plane regularly during races seems to have been the sharpie, as rigged for racing in the 1870s:

Sharpie hull. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

These flat-bottomed workboats, with the moderate rig usually carried, had a useful amount of stability for getting to and from the oyster beds, and for tonging for the oysters while there. With the truly frightening rigs they carried on race days, they carried ten men on springboards to stabilize them, and more than 1,000 square feet of sail to windward, more reaching and running. The boat would have been about 35 feet long and 7 feet wide, and the unballasted hull would have been light, probably less than 3,000 lb.

The second type known to have regularly achieved planing speeds when racing under sail were scows, with a flattish arc bottom and a bluff bow, relying on the small angle of between the rise of the bottom to the bow for their entry angle:

Scow hull. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

These boats have very stable hulls that extend the maximum beam farther forward than a sharp-bowed skiff hull. Scows are sailed heeled to windward, and fairly flat reaching in a strong breeze. As a result, they are useful daysailers, which can be sailed in a relaxed manner when not racing. When racing, the hulls have a minimal deflection angle at the forward part of the hull, so the crew doesn't have to move aft when the boat is planing. This is true of both the scows and sharpies, even more modern sharpies like the Lightning class. Now consider the type Uffa Fox introduced with Avenger in 1928:

Uffa Fox-type hull. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

This type is deeply Veed forward. This allowed these boats to be fast in choppy conditions that hit the scow bows and impaired their progress to windward. The deep Vee forward produces too great a deflection angle for planing, which means that in planing conditions, the crew must move aft. The type was more stable than the U-sectioned boats that preceded it in the International 14 class and similar classes. To sail it fast, you needed to sail it flat, but the inherent stability of the type made it forgiving. They are fastest sailed flat, but if you failed to sail them flat, they simply became less efficient. You could capsize them, but not as easily as the modern types.

The same year Avenger came out in England, Ted Geary designed a planing dinghy for the Seattle Yacht Club. That design, originally called the Flattie and now called the Geary 18, had a sharp bow and sharpie-type construction, but the bow was well clear of the waterline and the hull was clearly a scow type. The class added more sail area and a trapeze as time went on, but no spinnaker. They have a faster Portsmouth Yardstick rating than the Jet 14, which combines a 1950s-era International 14 hull with a Snipe rig, with a spinnaker added, but no trapeze.

All of these older types were planing racing boats that could be used for daysailing. Few classes made this as explicit as the Lightning class, which sent a design brief to Olin Stephens asking for a boat sailors could take their families out in, but also occasionally race.

These are the types of vessel that led to the great age of dinghy sailing from the 1950s through the 1970s. We now see the best racing sailboats as something unsuitable for taking the family sailing in. The older classes are still suitable for use as daysailers and as racing boats.  To some extent, the older one-design classes have mitigated the effect of trends toward a division between daysailers and racing boats, but some have allowed costs to skyrocket.

The Optimist Pram, the most popular sailboat in the world, no longer allows homebuilt boats, and allows carbon fiber spars.

Now, I've built a 9' 6" dinghy for less than $500 in materials that will easily out-perform the 7'9" Optimist, but I can't buy an Optimist new for less than $3,000, and can easily spend $4,500 for one with carbon spars and a boat cover.

The problem for one-design classes is that the most avid racers are likely to be the most active participants in running the class, and they will want to be allowed to use the latest go-fast items. It's easy for a class to become as expensive as the latest racing designs without matching their performance.

We are likely to continue to see a division between daysailers and racing boats as time goes on and the older designs are left behind. The classes trying to continue to provide a more stable boat, such as the JY 15, tend to be those which are aimed at youth sailing programs, not at families. There are still companies providing kit boats, but these tend not to be the sort of racer-daysailer that kit boats tended to be in the 1960s. Chesapeake Light Craft, one of the more successful kit providers currently, produces not one racing dinghy class.

Not everyone likes to race, but it would be nice if people could experience the handling of a nice planing dinghy without either getting a boat that is difficult to sail, or one that harks back to the 1930s.

Let's see where the logic of this situation takes us. We want a dinghy that is stable enough to that most sailors can handle it. We want enough carrying capacity for a mom, a dad, and a child. Current practice says that it should have a narrow entry, U-shaped sections forward, a flat area aft of the mast and ahead of the transom on which to plane, and enough flare that the crew gets some extra leverage for hiking, but not so much that it's difficult to get on and off it from a dock.

I'd also like to see simple construction so that the home builder can make it out of plywood without a huge amount of skill.

So, it's going to be either V-bottomed or flat bottomed. Let's explore both options.

The V-bottomed boat will be simplest. You can't have U-shaped sections with a V or a flat-bottomed shape, but you can touch some of the points that describe a U:

Hull C. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins
This boat is 14' by 5', able to carry about 400 lb., and has an entry angle that is narrow by the standard of most V-bottomed boats, but not by the standard of modern racing monohulls. It has substantial rocker forward, allowing the V sections to have plenty of volume for the amount of beam forward. You'd want to build it with a watertight deck above the waterline, so that it could be recovered easily after a capsize, but not deck the upper part of the hull to keep weight down and keep the cockpit roomy. Perhaps some pool noodles or pipe insulation on the top of the sides would provide some comfort while hiking, and some buoyancy to help the crew get back aboard after a capsize.

Now consider a more forgiving flat-bottomed design.

Hull D. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins

I'm showing this one in color to make its waterlines easier to read. This is a more stable, forgiving boat, because of the second chine above the waterline. It will plane more easily because it has a lower deflection angle and straighter run. I've had to use a transom bow to get the bilge panels to develop without excessive stress, and the entrance angle is twice that of the first hull we considered in this post, the narrow one with hiking racks that would be impossible for most people to sail.

Finally, let's consider an even more stable and forgiving boat:

Hull E. Illustration by John MacBeath Watkins
This boat, with a waterline beam of about 4 feet on a length of 14 feet, would be the pleasantest and most stable daysailer of these three. It has the narrowest entry angle, and would likely throw the least spray. However, the wider waterline beam would make it slightly slower to weather in a chop than hull C. I've attempted a faceted version of hull B, but without the extremely narrow waterline or the extreme flare to the topsides.

These exercises are intended to give an idea of the sort of compromises needed to produce something that incorporates what we've learned about hull shapes without forgetting what we've learned about what makes a boat a practical daysailer.

Doubtless there are people better qualified than me trying to solve the riddle of making a practical daysailer with good performance, and some of the older designs are still quite popular, for good reasons. Some classes, like the El Toro and the Windmill, still support the home builder. And demographic patters, such as the trend toward more people living in cities, make it difficult to find space to build or keep a boat of any sort. But the separation between racing and daysailing boats continues apace, and it doesn't seem like the best way to promote the sport.


  1. I'd like your opinion on the International 110. It's plywood, easily built and the class is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in popularity.

    1. I like the 110. It sails great, and I even like the purposeful look of them. The only kick I have is that they are a bit cramped. This, and their lack of stability when sailing without the trapeze, makes them an imperfect daysailer, but a wonderful racing boat.

      I personally like trapezing more than hiking, so that's a plus if I'm crewing on one.


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