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
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.