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Beat the 'Nalu' and You Win the Race
Ezra Bowen
January 20, 1958
That's the claim of Designer Lapworth (left) as West Coast sailors prepare for the Acapulco race
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January 20, 1958

Beat The 'nalu' And You Win The Race

That's the claim of Designer Lapworth (left) as West Coast sailors prepare for the Acapulco race

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A lot of unkind things have been said about Peter Grant's Nalu II, shown at right rushing past Diamond Head at the finish of the last Honolulu Race. Because of her high topsides, which have helped her to a comfortable handicap under the complex statutes of yacht racing, she has been called an indelicate rule beater. Because of her high center of gravity and light hull that lacks driving power, she has been called a dog to windward in a heavy blow. For the same reason of light displacement, and the quick motion that results from it, she has been called a poor sleeping boat. And most of all, because of the reverse curve or sheer of her deckline, because of her flush deck, i.e., cabin top that extends all the way out to the gunwales, and because of her outward sloping transom, she has been called ugly as sin.

That's what some people have said. But the important thing to say about Nalu this week when she lines up for the Acapulco race alongside 37 of the finest yachts on the West Coast is that Nalu will probably win the race. And if she doesn't actually win, she is almost sure to chase the winner right down to the wire and scare him half to death before she is through.

"Beat the Nalu," says Bill Lapworth, "and you generally win the race." Lapworth might well be prejudiced in Nalu's favor, since he designed the boat, but the record bears him out. Last summer, Legend beat Nalu to Honolulu by 3 hours on corrected time and won the race. Two years ago, Eventide got to Acapulco 22 hours and 31 minutes ahead of Nalu and won the race. In the 1954 Bermuda race, her only major effort on the East Coast, Nalu took second in Class C. And in the 1955 Honolulu, she slipped a notch but still proved her point by finishing third. So much for her racing capabilities. As for the nasty things people say about her, that is the way traditionalists are likely to talk about light-displacement boats.

A traditionalist in yacht design is somebody who favors fat, tough centerboarders like the typical Sparkman & Stephens yawl, Figaro III (see diagram), and the Escapade (above), designed by Philip L. Rhodes. Or he likes them deep in the keel, narrow in the beam, with a front silhouette like a wine glass—Dorade, for example, the sensation of the '30s. All these boats have long records of fine racing performance, particularly on the East Coast, the bastion of U.S. yachting tradition.

There is some sound nautical reasoning behind these traditions. A boat like Dorade sails beautifully on all points of the wind. Her type sails so well, however, that the racing rules have handicapped it out of first place in practically every important salt-water race in the past half-dozen years. Furthermore, a deep-keel boat is likely to spend a discouraging amount of time getting stuck and unstuck on the bottoms of shallow eastern harbors. For the above reasons, and also because cruising and racing in the East involve a lot of rugged beating to windward, where broad beam and heavy timbers keep a boat up and driving, the centerboard yawls have come to be the predominant type.

In California, things are different. Most of the big races are a combination of a short- or a light-windward leg and a long slide down the wind. Under these conditions, there is nothing like Nalu.

By definition, all light-displacement boats weigh less—Nalu, a 46-footer, weighs 22,300. So does Finisterre (SI, June 18, 1956), but she is 7 feet shorter. They have less bulk below the waterline, less mass to push through the water. Therefore, they start quickly, responding to the slightest puff of wind. This is just as well on the Acapulco race, since on the last 678 miles light puffs are what you get.

The lack of heft and high center of gravity does indeed hurt going to windward in heavy weather, but in California sailing there aren't that many slugging matches. Going to leeward in a fresh breeze, however, Nalu really flies. And here again she is perfectly suited to the Acapulco race, since the usual wind from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas is dead astern at 15 knots (see map). Under these conditions, Nalu's light hull climbs up on the long Pacific rollers and races down their backs, often exceeding by as much as 3 knots her theoretical maximum speed of about 9 knots.

When she gets to Acapulco, her narrow fin keel will be in no danger of hitting the bottom, 14 fathoms away at the Boca Chica entrance and 6 fathoms in the boat basin.

After the race, on the long cruise back, some of her other characteristics, unattractive to her critics, will become mighty attractive to the crew of Nalu. The high topsides, which may make her a rule beater, and the reverse sheer, which may make her ugly, also combine to provide a main cabin (see drawing) as roomy as that on a boat 20 feet longer. Her skipper, Peter Grant, calls her "the hotel," and she is almost that spacious and comfortable. The light weight is going to be an advantage north of Cabo San Lucas if time runs so short that it becomes necessary to turn on the engine. A light boat can get along on very little gasoline, and there are perhaps three gas docks on the entire 753-mile length of the west coast of Baja California.

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