Seas­cape 24 & 27 tested

Bowl­ing ef­fort­lessly down­wind at 15 knots sounds ap­peal­ing – but what are the com­pro­mises? David Hard­ing sails two Seas­capes to find out

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Is a plan­ing cruiser re­ally prac­ti­cal?

Let’s face it: fast is fun – or at least it is to most of us. Of course there’s great plea­sure to be had in pot­ter­ing gen­tly but, when you have a fist­ful of wind from abaft the beam and some waves to play with, who doesn’t en­joy see­ing what their boat can do?

For sailors in small, sin­gle-hulled cruis­ing yachts, ‘what the boat can do’ has tra­di­tion­ally been 7 or per­haps 8 knots if your luck and judge­ment are in and you get surf­ing down a few waves. On big­ger or racier boats on a good day, you might break into dou­ble fig­ures. Push­ing any harder would lead to a risk of broach­ing, break­ing some­thing or sim­ply dig­ging a hole in the wa­ter. The harder you push the deeper the hole, the greater the loads and the more un­sta­ble ev­ery­thing be­comes.

That’s the way things were for a long time. Now fast-for­ward to the present – or the very re­cent past in this case – specif­i­cally to a day a few weeks ago when your hum­ble scribe was test­ing a 26ft (8m) swing-keel per­for­mance cruiser in Ply­mouth. Noth­ing un­usual in that, you might think. But here’s the in­ter­est­ing part: I was helm­ing a boat that was do­ing 14 knots down­wind (and ca­pa­ble of a good deal more with­out break­ing sweat). There were five of us aboard, but three could have man­aged. Ev­ery­thing was re­laxed; we were sim­ply en­joy­ing a down­wind blast from Cawsand back to­wards QAB Ma­rina. There wasn’t a white knuckle in sight and the boat re­mained light and per­fectly un­der con­trol the whole time (in­clud­ing dur­ing sev­eral gybes).

This was in a wind that peaked at around 20 knots. Oh, and the wa­ter was more-or­less flat in­side the break­wa­ter, so we’re not talk­ing about brief mo­ments of surf­ing down the front of a wave: this was full-on plan­ing. Our GPS tracker showed that our best av­er­age over a dis­tance of 500m (550 yards) was 11.8 knots. That’s pretty well the same speed I clocked over the same dis­tance at Wey­mouth Speed Week in a pro­to­type ex­per­i­men­tal 11ft (3.35m) dinghy back in the '80s, and that was hard work.

The plane truth

To those fa­mil­iar with mod­ern sports­boats – Melges 24s, J/70s et al – this will sound pretty hum­drum. They might ar­gue that 14 knots is re­ally noth­ing to get ex­cited about. In some ways that’s true. We would have gone faster in more wind and, in any event, it’s not as though many of us haven’t seen speeds a good deal higher than 14 knots – even if they’re just peak surf­ing speeds – on a whole range of boats.

What’s re­mark­able, how­ever, is that this sort of full plan­ing per­for­mance is some­thing you can now en­joy in an eas­ily-han­dled per­for­mance cruiser. You don’t need both wind and waves to have fun any more; wind alone will do. It’s like sail­ing a dinghy, only eas­ier and with less risk of fall­ing over. With­out a doubt, the Seas­cape 27 I was sail­ing in Ply­mouth is among the most eas­ily-han­dled boats you could wish to meet. The same goes for her 24ft sis­ter, on which we clocked 12 knots in a lit­tle less wind ear­lier that af­ter­noon.

If you have tended to as­so­ciate plan­ing keel­boats with teams of mus­cu­lar, pro­fes­sional rac­ing sailors nar­rowly avoid­ing (or per­haps not avoid­ing) ma­jor wipe-outs through a com­bi­na­tion of skill, ex­pe­ri­ence and grunt – well, you’ll have been right. On the whole, full-on rac­ing sports­boats are de­mand­ing and un­for­giv­ing, and the big­ger they get the more grunt you need. See­ing the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Fast 40s ham­mer­ing down­wind is a spec­ta­cle – es­pe­cially if you’re rac­ing in close prox­im­ity to them – but some con­sider (with good rea­son) that these boats are noth­ing short of bru­tal to sail. I’m writing this hav­ing just re­turned from three windy days of rac­ing in the IRC na­tional cham­pi­onships, run jointly with the Fast 40 na­tion­als, where the 40s were in full flight

and many other plan­ing racer/cruis­ers were en­joy­ing high-speed down­wind legs as well.

The owner of the Seas­cape 27, who joined us for the test, pre­vi­ously owned a full-bore rac­ing sports­boat and has been struck by the for­giv­ing na­ture of the Seas­cape. As one of our crew chirpily com­mented as we hummed along at 12 knots on the 24, ‘if you were in a Melges 24 now you’d be on your side won­der­ing ‘what hap­pened?’’

The mes­sage here is sim­ple: today’s per­for­mance cruis­ers can be fast, fun and easy to sail. So how has this come about?

Well, it’s not all that new. Rac­ing keel­boats have been get­ting lighter and faster for decades. Just think how the J/24 shook up the rac­ing scene back in the late 1970s, leav­ing 35-foot­ers in her wake, and how, more re­cently, we’ve seen ev­ery­thing from the Mini Transats to the IMOCA 60s and Volvo 70s achiev­ing down­wind speeds that would have been hard to imag­ine only a few decades ago. Re­mem­ber Alex Thom­son’s 537 miles in 24 hours in the re­cent Vendée Globe? Some of this per­for­mance is due to cant­ing keels and now to foils too (if you man­age not to break them), but lighter, stronger struc­tures have much to do with it.

Rac­ing: im­prov­ing the breed?

It might be ar­gued that the needs of rac­ing sailors and cruis­ing sailors are dif­fer­ent, so de­vel­op­ments that make rac­ing boats faster don’t nec­es­sar­ily help cruis­ing folk. Then again, there’s cruis­ing and there’s cruis­ing: are you talk­ing about a boat for coast-hop­ping or for blue-wa­ter voy­ag­ing?

If it’s the for­mer – and for most peo­ple it is – then what’s been hap­pen­ing in rac­ing cir­cles will prob­a­bly have more of a bear­ing on the sort of boat you buy. Just think Pogo, who were among the first builders to in­tro­duce the min­i­mal­ist, light­weight plan­ing cruiser.

We have seen even main­stream cruis­ers chang­ing no­tice­ably over the past decade or so be­cause of rac­ing’s in­flu­ence. Hulls have be­come beamier aft, flat­ter and typ­i­cally chined at the sterns. Keels are deeper and of higher as­pect ra­tio, of­ten with bulbs at the bot­tom, and car­bon rigs are a more pop­u­lar op­tion than ever. Square-top or fat-head mains are a com­mon sight and asym­met­ric spin­nakers, set from retractable bowsprits, have al­most be­come the norm.

With many cruis­ing yachts this pro­duces no dra­matic ef­fects, or at least no dra­matic im­prove­ments. They just look more mod­ern and might go a bit faster down­wind. But then you get boats like the Seas­capes that re­ally do re­de­fine per­for­mance cruis­ing. I tested the Seas­cape 18 back in PBO Sum­mer 2011 and en­joyed her enor­mously. I didn’t man­age to jump aboard the 27 when she ap­peared in 2014 but, when an op­por­tu­nity arose re­cently to sail both the 27 and the brand-new 24, I needed no en­cour­ag­ing.

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