If you ever wonder what the look of sailing in the future might be like, take a look at the new eye-catching J/Boats with retractable carbon bow sprits and large, asymmetrical spinnakers.
Boats like nothing you’ve seen before are appearing on the bays and harbors of the world. They have long sprits projecting from the bow to which are tacked huge, colorful spinnakers. Not since the switch from gaff-rigged to Marconi mainsails has the look of sailing changed so dramatically. People are referring to them as "sprit boats", "sport boats", or in dinghy-sized versions they’re called "skiffs" as in Australian 18 skiffs where the concept originated. Yet, "skiff" would hardly describe J Boats’ flagship 65 foot fast ocean cruiser, the J/65.
The Summer Olympics embraced the new look for TV cameras in front of the Sydney Opera House. The America’s Cup now uses them. Some sailing schools and sailboat charter operations are carrying sprit boats exclusively, convinced that they along with the novices are going to benefit from the new technology. Sailmaker ads talk of the new shapes in easy-to-fly downwind asymmetric spinnakers. Just about every new boat under 30 feet now features a retractable bow sprit and asymmetric spinnaker.
But sailing is one of the world’s oldest sports where traditions die hard. Sailors can be conservative, leaning toward a glorification of the old. They may not be quick to embrace the new. Time spent on an extra 2 coats of varnish may be more precious than time spent sailing an extra 2 knots faster. So, the question for many is whether this is a breakthrough product to enhance the sailing experience or some marketing gimmick designed to get everyone to invest in new boats and sails.
Any owner of one of the new Js will give you the answer. They will tell you that bow sprits and asymmetrical spinnakers make an incredible difference, sailing becomes easier and more fun for novice and expert.
What’s more, the new boats benefit first time sailors and novices immediately. Experts on the Grand Prix Match Racing Circuit praised the J/105. The J/120, a 40 footer that won Cruising World’s Overall Boat-of-the-Year in 1995, now numbers over 200 boats with one-design racing fleets in Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes and California. J/105, with over 650 boats in 17 countries (as of April 2008), is one of the largest offshore one-designs in the world. The J/109 has now grown to over 350 boats. The 26' J/80 has become the most popular modern day sportboat in the world with over 1,150 boats sailing in 15 countries.
The reception given the new designs by more popular handicapping bodies, has been enthusiastic. Racing under PHRF in the Americas, IRC (formerly CHS) in Europe, sprits have won a number of major events while at the same time providing unparalleled fun and excitement for owners.
Asymmetrical spinnakers help sailors by making sailing downwind possible for two people in boats as large as 65 feet. After all, if you own a sailboat, why not sail most of the time instead of having to turn on the motor? The new boats are far simpler to operate. To jibe one person casts off the old sheet and pulls in the new one. To fly a spinnaker the old fashioned way you additionally needed 4-8 people to manage complicated spinnaker poles, pole up & down controls and afterguys. When was the last time you had 2 weeks spare time to train a large crew?
Another reason sprit boats work better is the crew doesn’t have to fight the boat and sails downwind in strong breezes. The center of effort of the spinnaker is further forward and lower with more slope to the sail’s leading edge and with a leech that’s more open because the trailing edge never has to function as the leading edge of a symmetrical sail. All this means that: When gusts of wind hit the sail, the boat tends to become better balanced with a neutral helm; the back edge of the spinnaker opens up rather than cupping; and, the bow has a tendency to lift rather than bury. So the energy of the wind is transmitted into acceleration forward rather than a frightening round-up and knockdown. These boats make, what used to be terrifying conditions, just another great day to zip across the bay.
J World Sailing School in San Diego, San Francisco, Stockholm and Annapolis have fleets of J/80s. They claim that people are having more fun in the learning process and are advancing their skills more rapidly. In a day or so they whistle past the old salts on the bay with half the effort.
Selection of the 49er dinghy for the 2000 Olympics in Australia and the flood of sport boats with sprits under 30 feet across the planet serves very clear notice that this phenomenon is here to stay. Industry insiders estimate that over $100 million of product in terms of sprit boats and asymmetric sails have been purchased in the past few years and the trend is up.
This revolution might have happened sooner if there’d been a parallel advance in technology. Everyone knows bowsprits and big sails go back to Columbus or earlier. The SCRIMP resin infusion process dramatically improved the glass to resin ratio in composite construction, 60-70% now rather than 35-40%. Flexural, tensional and compression properties of the laminates double in strength. Weight saved in excess resin is put at the bottom of the keel in the form of lead. A Carbon fiber mast can be added to take 100’s of pounds out of the rig. Each of these steps lowers the center of gravity. A very stable boat results, which doesn’t need lots of crew on the rail or frequent reefs to sail upright. That partially explains the get-up-and-go of these new designs.
The other part is hull shape. Apart from having fuller, more buoyant bow sections to handle the increased power of the asymmetric spinnakers and to precipitate earlier surfing, a lower center of gravity reduces dependency on the need for wide, fat hulls for added form stability. A proportionally narrower hull, that slides through waves more smoothly, is more comfortable when cruising, and faster. Less motion means smoother flow of air around sails and less disturbed water flow around the hull.
The bad news is that old boat owners can only pick up about 25% of what these new boats offer. To do so, they would have to buy new asymmetric spinnakers and modify their deck layout for cockpit operated snuffer controls. They’d still lack the retractable sprit, hull form and 18" clearance for the spinnaker halyard mast exit above the headstay to permit the snuffer to articulate with the spinnaker on a jibe.
The good news is that there’s never been a time when you’ve had a better excuse, or when it’s made such great sense, to buy a new boat.