N. Mex., is not the kind of place one associates with cruising sailboats. There
is something miragelike about it: parching desert winds, sentinel cacti—and
sails shimmering in the sun. Yet just as at many other unlikely ports far from
the sea, at Elephant Butte fleets of tiny cruising boats are winging over the
available water like gulls blown far inland by a gale.
Towing a house
trailer across Death Valley or up into the Rockies may be enthralling, but to
sail your own home on a lake rimmed by mountain spires, to thread through
desert arroyos or up a meandering river under sail; to be driven by nothing
noisier than williwaws: these are experiences at once slightly incredible and
conventional sailboats are not specifically designed for this kind of sailing,
it has taken a special type of boat to open up the new frontier. Boats with
deep keels draw too much water, and they are awkward to tow on high-speed
turnpikes. Additionally, launching and retrieval require special lifts or
marine railways that cost anywhere from $10 to $35 a clip. I here is another,
less obvious, disadvantage to deep-keel boats. With his boat tied up at a
marina or stored in a boatyard, an owner finds it difficult to work on the
vessel; it is far easier for him to pick up a telephone and order the job done.
Since a yard may charge $11 an hour for labor alone, this common malaise
frequently puts upkeep costs into orbit.
believe the answer to the deep-keel, small-boat dilemma is a combination
ballast keel and centerboard. This, they argue, permits trailing and
shallow-water sailing with good performance. But centerboard boats, no matter
how stable initially, have never quite managed to erase the feeling that
centerboard is synonymous with capsize. And the gusts that come down mountain
passes and sweep across deserts and plains are certain to put to the test, with
shocking suddenness, a manufacturer's claim that his boat is self-righting.
Finally, small cruising boats (of less than 30 feet, say) are uniformly short
of headroom for anyone who is more than 4 feet tall.
So, for the
self-sufficient sailor-camper who is attracted to inland sailing, who is
willing to moor his boat in his garage and launch and rig his boat himself but
wants to live aboard in reasonable comfort and sail virtually without fear of
capsizing, what's the solution? Maybe a cruiser with a top that pops and a keel
drop-keelers range from a tiny fiber-glass 17-footer called the Venture 17,
through the swift Cal-21 and husky Santana 21, to bigger boats like the 24-foot
Seafarer Sail 'n Trail. Some boats have pop tops, while others, such as the
Santana 21, do not. All, however, are identified by a distinctive footprint:
some form of drop keel.
As the name
suggests, this is a keel that may be lowered and retracted. It slides up and
down like a centerboard, but there the resemblance ends. Where the centerboard
is basically a pivoted, weightless foil designed more to help a boat beat
against the wind than to prevent capsizing, the drop keel performs both
functions. But another way, when down and locked in position the weighted drop
keel holds a boat on her feet, thereby freeing her crew from the tear of being
precipitously tipped over. When winched Lip inside the boat, a drop keel allows
her to skim through water only inches deep or to he hauled smoothly up on a
trailer at any one of thousands of launching ramps found throughout this
country on rivers, lakes and coves. In addition, because a drop-keel boat is
not propped up high in the tow car's slipstream by a three- or four-foot fixed
keel, towing her home to dry-land anchorage—instead of an expensive
marina—becomes a breeze.
The other key to
the type, the pop top, is not exclusive to drop-keelers. In fact, the best
known pop-topper of all is not a drop-keel boat but one with a ballast keel:
the O'Day 23 centerboarder. This is a spiffy little gem which not only sails
well enough to win races but whose entire lid almost lifts right off. By
cranking on a mechanism whose principle O'Day borrowed from automotive campers,
the skipper of a 23 elevates his cabin top, converting a "down"
headroom of only 4'7" to a heads "up" headroom of 6'4". Cloth
screens and vinyl curtains are provided to close the gap. The difference a pop
top makes to cruising can be appreciated by anyone who has spent a night pinned
in claustrophobic humidity to the bunk cushions of a midget's cabin.
King of the
drop-keel pop-top trade is a bearded 36-year-old California named Roger
MacGregor who builds the Venture line at Costa Mesa, almost within sight of the
Pacific. As MacGregor explains it, the idea of mass-producing drop-keelers grew
out of a class project in a business course he attended at Stanford as a
master's candidate. "The project was to find a market that as yet hadn't
been exploited fully," MacGregor says. "From what I'd seen, most
boat-builders were hopeless as businessmen; many wouldn't know a time and
motion study if they saw one." What was needed, says MacGregor, was a boat
with a price set as low as possible by efficient production and sufficient
volume. With his training, he figured he could cut it where others had
Like so main
other boatbuilders, MacGregor's start was in the backyard. He designed a
21-foot sloop and began molding it in his garage. That was seven years ago.
Since then he has moved to a sprawling, ever-spreading Costa Mesa plant where
production has reached 13 boats a day. Last year he grossed $6 million while
others were hard hit by the recession, partly because he has a knack for cost
shaving. For simplicity he color-codes such things as drilling jigs and
compartmentalizes every step of production. Thus he does inn need boatbuilders
of classic skills and classy wages. His gang of thick-maned coed assemblers
doesn't really need to know it is working on a boat, let alone its size.
"Boatbuilders? He picks them up wherever he finds them," grumbles one
of MacGregor's competitors, a man who believes things have been going downhill
since Nelson's day.