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Souped-up sailers
Mort Lund
April 28, 1958
Hottest hulls on the Seven Seas today are the fast and unpredictable planing sailboats
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April 28, 1958

Souped-up Sailers

Hottest hulls on the Seven Seas today are the fast and unpredictable planing sailboats

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Practically every sailor who has ever been left slatting around in the monoxide backwash of a powerboat has on occasion wished violently for just enough speed to sizzle up to the fellow and say a few words. Short of attaching rockets, his best bet today is to invest in a planing sailboat. The planers are light, tough little craft that can make anywhere from 12 to 25 mph, more than enough for an owner to occasionally enjoy the altogether lovely sensation of leaving a gas-burner behind.

Almost as surprising, a good planer will take a cruising yacht three times its length with no trouble at all. Until recently one of the unshakable axioms of sailboat design had been that the bigger the boat, the faster she goes. This natural law of sailing was first turned topsy-turvy by an English naval architect named Uffa Fox. Fox, a man noted for his unorthodoxies, claims to get most of his ideas while ruminating in the bath. (Once, in answer to a request for Fox's portrait from a highly respectable publication, the architect sent along a photograph which showed him reclining, Archimedeslike, in his tub.)

Whether Fox got his idea for the planing hull in the tub or not, he first tried it back in 1928 on a class of small 14-foot dinghies known as the International 14. The 14s were a clubby little bunch who had just gotten around to standardizing their hull design somewhat when Fox decided to crack the class.

Fox took the basic design, refined it, sharpened the bow and flattened the lines aft. He named the result Avenger. It was an apt name. Avenger was nothing less than a new and somewhat fearsome concept in sailing.

The big-boats-beat-small-boats rule was based on the fact that every boat underway creates a bow wave and a stern wave. As a law of physics, it is impossible for such a two-wave system to travel much faster than 1.6 times the square root of the distance between the two crests (which is the same distance as the boat's waterline length). So every conventional sailboat was caught in a trap of its own making as far as top speed was concerned. Any attempt to pile on canvas and increase the speed beyond the natural maximum resulted in bigger and higher bow and stern waves whose drag nullified the added power.

The Avenger, on the other hand, was so light and fast that she jumped right up on her own bow wave until it was underneath her mast, then planed along on her bottom like a surfboard. The stern wave was practically eliminated and along with it the limitation on speed. Fox was delighted to find that Avenger kept right on gaining with a freshening wind as long as her crew could keep the boat on its feet.

Avenger was promptly entered in the top International 14 race, the Prince of Wales Cup. In that race, Fox lapped 14 of his competitors on the two-mile course and won the race by five minutes. As an encore, he sailed the 14-foot Avenger across the Channel (a feat in itself) to Le Havre where he won three races in two days. His race score for the year was 52 firsts, two seconds and three thirds. With a good wind broadside, Avenger would come up and plane, accelerating from six to 12 knots so fast that she left her fellow International 14s behind lonely and obsolete.

Historically, Avenger did more for sailing than provide a superior International 14. She was the progenitor of thousands of planing boats that changed the complexion of racing for those who joined the new classes. For instance, the heretofore dull and spiritless business of inching in on the leaders on the downwind legs was done away with. Given a good breeze, the downwind leg of a planing race is marked by a quick scramble of crews trying to jockey their hulls into planing position the instant the mark is rounded. The first man to plane his boat can make three or four boat lengths on the slower fellows. And sustaining the plane has become an art in itself. A hull planes best when almost flat on the water and the crews have to be willing to hang outside of their craft like trapeze artists to keep them flat. In fact some classes developed "trapezes" strung from the mast to facilitate just this.

In the beginning not everybody approved, of course. The early Fox design was tricky, prone to swerve like a rodeo bronc. The acrobatics required put a premium on belly and leg muscle. But winning is winning. Not long after Avenger's debut, the whole International 14 class was going to Fox for their boats. The 14s became hot rods. "A floating bundle of nerves," snapped one sailor who remained among the unconvinced.

"A disease," agrees George O'Day, the leading U.S. planing sailboat man. "The International 14 keeps you scared. You never know what it's going to do to you. I love it."

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