Monday, September 22, 2008

Making a Splash

I think I’m as safety-conscious as the next guy. The boat’s weighed down with the usual gear – lifejackets, harnesses/tethers, spotlight, jacklines, flares (some even in date) and smoke bombs, heaving line, Lifesling, emergency ladder. There’s a DSC VHF that, at the press of a red button, will transmit a distress message including the boat’s position. Hit the MOB button on the chart plotter and I’ve got bearing and distance to the unfortunate casualty. There’s an orange sheet, with a black blob in the middle, that I can peg out on the cabintop if all other means of attracting attention fail.

I use a block and tackle for a preventer, and if need be I can clip it one end of it to the main halyard and the other to a casualty, then take its fall to a sheet winch and crank the unfortunate MOB back aboard before you can say hypothermia. I can unclip a six-foot length of the lifelines on either side to help get a casualty back on board. There’s at least one fire extinguisher in every cabin and another in the cockpit locker. There are handheld backups for the fixed VHF and GPS. If I put my mind to it, I could probably come up with a signaling mirror and a few extra whistles.

What all this means is that I’m amply equipped gear-wise both to prevent someone from falling over board, and to hoist their dripping butts back on board if they should be foolish enough to go over the side. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few MOB recovery exercises, so I also think I’m well enough equipped upstairs both to get back to a person in the water and to get him or her back on deck.

They say pride goes before a fall. They are right. For some reason it had never occurred to me that I might be the person who needs to be hauled out of the water. Until…

It was stupid, really. I went over the side on a sunny day, with the boat lying at her mooring. I’d been replacing a section of lifeline that had been ripped off when I got a spinnaker guy caught around the prop – another story. A wake rocked the boat just as I bent over to thread the wire through a stanchion, and that was all it took. As I went over I instinctively (and foolishly) grabbed the lower guard rail and tore a muscle in my left shoulder.

I was lucky for two reasons; the water was unseasonably warm for New England that day, up in the 70s, and my wife was on board. She walked back to the cockpit, dropped the transom-hung boarding ladder, and then retired to the foredeck while I emerged, dripping and furious, from the depths. She didn’t say a word, but I could see her shoulders shaking. I’d probably have laughed too.

It was a hot afternoon, so I washed the salt off with the cockpit shower and sat in the cockpit to dry off. It struck me that I’d been lucky. I’ve often been messing around on the boat, alone, on those squally, rainy days when no one else is around and the launch only comes past every half hour or so. I am to swimming what Wile E. Coyote is to bird-catching; if I’d gone over the side on one of those days, with the water temperature in the usual high 50s/low 60s, the outcome might not have been so funny.

This was a lesson well taken. I’d let my guard down, and been punished for it. It’s made me rethink my safety arrangements; all the equipment in the world is no use if it’s on the boat and you’re in the water. The boarding ladder was firmly secured in the ‘up’ position and there’s no way I could have dropped it from the water. I think I’ve now worked out a way for a person in the water to deploy the ladder; more on this if it actually works.

In the meantime, I’ve become a lot more careful moving around the boat. I’ve also learned another painful but important lesson: leave your phone and wallet on the chart table if you’re working on deck.

Monday, August 25, 2008

You bring the weather with you

Remember that great song by Crowded House, You Bring the Weather with You? It pretty much applies to most of the sailing I’ve done during this summer of relentless thunderstorms. A couple of weeks ago we went out to try one of those funky Parasailor spinnakers, the one with the wing that extends in front of the kite and generates lift. The importer had flown up from Florida with this complicated sail and only had one day to show us how to use it, which is why we went sailing on the same day the Marblehead NOOD regatta was cancelled because of weather warnings.

We went out of Salem harbor early and found the wind was indeed blowing from the south, which put us on a lee shore and meant we wouldn’t have much room for error if we mucked things up with the kite. By the time we’d got ourselves sorted out and motored far enough upwind to have a reasonable run, it was blowing a good 20-25 knots under a hard gray sky. We only had time to do two spinnaker sets – one with the main up, one with the main down – which were actually pretty easy, on account of the well-designed snuffer the kite was packaged in.

Things went amazingly well. The kite was a monster, a bit too big for our 34-footer, and it filled instantly and dragged us off downwind at a hell of a pace. At times nudging 8 knots, the old girl was throwing out a serious quarter wave and starting to get a bit squirrelly while the kite wagged from side to side. I was impressed, though, with its docility; we would have been balancing on the edge of control with a conventional kite, but the Parasailor just seemed to shrug its broad shoulders and pull us along behind it. There’ll be more on this intriguing spinnaker in an upcoming issue of SAIL.

But we were talking about weather; no sooner had we got the kite down than our phones started ringing – anxious spouses passing on the weather alerts. . A band of thunderclouds sixty miles across was about to descend on us, allegedly bringing tornadoes and 50-mile-an-hour winds. When the going gets tough, the tough run for shelter. We picked up a mooring in the lee of an island and waited for the fun to begin.

As so often happens, the actuality didn’t live up to the possibility, and even though the sky looked as blue-black and threatening as anything I’ve seen, we got no more than 30-knot winds and torrential, horizontal rain. When it eased a little we motored the five miles home and repaired to a nice, cozy bar to dry out a little.

Fast-forward a week or so, to the Buzzard’s Bay regatta. Along with SAIL’s Managing Editor, Amy Ullrich, I was crewing on a sweet little Alerion Express 33 expertly helmed by Cape Yachts broker Rich Barker. We were there to check out the new Expressly For Fun class at the regatta. The EFF is a low-key class aimed at newcomers to racing; it was pioneered by the Huguenot Yacht Club on Long Island, where it is run as a pursuit race.

The BBR took a different approach, employing Tufts sailing coach Ken Legler to give the neophyte racers some hands-on instruction that started with a Friday seminar and escalated to on-the-water coaching off Marion on Saturday and Sunday. It was all hugely entertaining and we thoroughly enjoyed our two races on Saturday, in which the little Alerion showed a clean transom to the rest of the fleet.

As we started back towards Padanaram, the wind went light and on the nose so we reluctantly doused the sails and fired up the engine, thinking that we would outrun the predicted afternoon thunderstorm. Wrong. We were about to witness Murphy’s Law in its unadulterated, natural glory. The sky turned from blue to gray to purple to black, and as the wind ratcheted up through the teens and into the twenties we could see the front line of the rainsquall flattening the waves to the west. It hit fast, horizontal rain pelting us with a ferocity that I’m sure we didn’t deserve.

In the middle of the chaos a warning light blinked on and Rich immediately cut the engine. One-nil to Murphy. But hey, we’re sailors. With the 100 per cent jib out we jogged along at a respectable 6 knots, which was fine until the wind started to drop and our course was taking us closer to Cuttyhunk than Padanaram. It was time to hoist the mainsail, an easy job with the Alerion’s powered winches – until Murphy stepped in again, with the main half up, and threw in a nasty override in the self-tailer jaw (a first for me) that looked impossible to clear without the aid of a knife. There was just 12 inches between the winch and the main halyard’s rope clutch, not enough to even attempt to pull the main up by hand. We got out of it pretty easily though, by using the tail end of the jib halyard to tie a rolling hitch around the main halyard as close to the clutch as possible, and then using the other primary to pull the halyard a few more inches out of the clutch. Soon we had enough free halyard to clear the override, and up went the main.

As the sky slowly cleared we tacked towards Padanaram, fighting the tide as well as well the now fickle and fluky wind. We were off the harbor mouth when Rich decided to give the engine another try, and realized that what he’d thought was the low-oil light was in fact the alternator light. You’d never run an engine with no oil, but a non-functioning alternator is another matter. Soon we were purring up the harbor, sails flaked. The sun was low in the west, but hot, and wisps of steam rose from the shore. We’d certainly earned our cocktails, but I was more in the mood for a Guinness. Thanks, Murphy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Promises, Promises

Sailing season a quarter gone and here I am, still immersed in assorted boat projects… just what I’d promised myself wouldn’t happen this year. Weekend rain, thunderstorms and family commitments are what I’ll remember June for, and even though we got out a couple of times, quite frankly the desire doesn’t burn as bright when you’re cringing in the cockpit waiting for a bolt from the blue to zap you on the masthead.

So, I occupied much of my down time with planning boat improvements. I’ve known people who enjoyed working on boats much more than they enjoyed sailing them, but I don’t count myself among that sawdust-covered group. The fun for me lies in making the boat more efficient, both as a sailing machine and as a floating vacation home.

The machine gets goodies like new sails, a backstay adjuster, genoa cars that are adjustable under load, a mainsheet traveler that can be hauled to weather by a child in 20 knots of wind, a 3-bladed feathering propeller, an inner forestay, a retractable bowsprit.

The home gets shore power, new plumbing, a water heater, a cockpit shower, a gravity-drain holding tank, LED lights, a battery and monitor upgrade, solar ventilators, new upholstery; perhaps, one day, a fridge.

There are times when I question my own sanity, pouring all this effort and money into a 35-year-old boat. There are other times when I think it keeps me sane.

Anyway, right now I have several projects on the go and in various stages of completion. One is the installation of a retracting bowsprit, which involves the drilling of nine holes in my foredeck. As you can guess, drilling holes in one’s pride and joy is not to be taken lightly; it’s much easier to bring yourself to do it on a 35-year-old boat than a nice crisp new one, though. I haven’t actually drilled any holes yet, but that’s only because I can’t fit into the tiny space in the anchor locker to get the backing plate and nuts on the three bolts that’ll be located right up in the bows. That procedure requires the willing assistance of someone younger, slimmer, and more flexible, ie
Mrs Nielsen.

I did pluck up the courage to drill three other holes, for the padeye to which the inner forestay will be secured. Then I plugged them again while I went to drill matching holes in a sturdy stainless steel backing plate that will be linked to the anchor locker bulkhead via a spare turnbuckle and some anchor chain. Since the foredeck is cored with half-inch aluminum plate (those Swedes didn’t mess around) this should be plenty strong enough to take the rig loads.

I’m enthused about the inner forestay, because I’ve gone over to the fiber rigging side for this item. I didn’t like the thought of a length of wire banging against my new mast, nor of a hefty stainless pelican hook clunking around on deck.

So, instead of the length of 5/16 wire that’s coiled and waiting in the basement, I’m going to use 7mm Dynex Dux, a pre-stretched braided Spectra line that’s made in Iceland. This will be not only be sturdy enough to stop the mast from pumping when used in conjunction with running backstays (also Spectra), but will carry a staysail (the old #4 jib) and storm jib, which will be secured to it with Spectra “hanks.” I’ll tension the stay with a 4-part tackle. First, though, I have to actually bolt the padeye into place…

That makes two works-in-progress. The third is the VHF installation. In the interests of safety, I decided last weekend to replace the ancient VHF radio with a new DSC-capable model complete with remote microphone. After spending a sweaty half-hour with a handheld drillsaw enlarging the hole left by the outgoing radio, I finally managed to coax the gleaming new one into place.

Time was short by the time I’d finished, and so was my temper. I figured the delicate job of making the relevant NMEA connections to allow the GPS to talk to the radio could wait for another day, and just hooked the radio up to the antenna and power supply. Reception was loud and clear, but – guess what – when I hit the transmit button to call the launch, there was no response. Nada. Nope, the launch driver said when we’d finally flagged him down, he hadn’t heard us at all. We were, electronically speaking, mute.

“Hmmm,” said the maker’s tech support guy next day. “Could be the radio, could be the antenna. Best thing to do is hook up another antenna to it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, send the radio back to us.” So, my next Saturday morning is already mapped out: buy emergency VHF antenna (handy to have anyway), try VHF. I’m hoping the set itself is the problem, because it’s a lot easier to replace that than the antenna. Then there are the other projects to attend to. Sunday, I’ll go sailing. And that’s a promise.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Power to the People

Funny old game, boating. The boat goes in, if the yard’s to be believed, this week. I had been promised it would go in the week before Memorial Day, but anyone who knows boatyards knows that line is right up there with The Check’s in The Mail. So I spend the weekend doing yard work, and never went near the boat – no reason to, as she’s ready for launch.

What a contrast to last year. This time last spring we had taken our first steps down the Road of No Return… that is, we’d stripped everything removable from the decks and cockpit, portlights and hatches included, and were prepping the boat for new paint, new grabrails, new ventilators, and a new rig.

The latter process involved enlarging the hole in the cabintop that the mast passes through (the hounds), fitting a new mast step, and installing a deck ring. Doesn’t take long to write it down; but what an agonizing process it was. I’d never done anything like it, and it was fairly critical; if I screwed up, the mast might end leaning one way or the other; the location of the mast step itself was just as critical.

With the help of a couple of wise old heads in Joe Grenier, the rigger at Hawthorne Cove Marina in Salem, and Scott Alexander, sales manager for mastmakers Selden, I contrived a measuring jig that involved taping vertical straightedges to the chainplates and carefully measuring the distances between them; then we rigged up a laser level across the midpoint of the cutout and shone the beam down onto the mast step. To cut a long story short, it worked. The mast stood as straight as we could we wish when it was finally stepped, raked a desirable 3 degrees aft with enough latitude for adjustment.

In amongst all this I filled and sanded a couple of dozen dents, holes and gouges in and around the gelcoat, filled in a 14” x 6” hole in the cockpit footwell where I’d removed the old hydraulics panel, took off the winches, and generally sweated blood over that and a dozen other jobs. Then, grunt work complete, my wife took over and painted the cockpit and decks.

That accounted for all of April and May and most of June; when we finally got the boat launched it we found we didn’t have a headsail that would fit the new furling gear, and so we spent a few more weeks sailing with a blown-out #4 jib whilst awaiting the new genoa.

Anyway, that seems a lifetime ago. This year we’ve almost had the opposite problem. There is still a hell of a lot to do, but only one thing that would have interfered with the operation of the boat – dead batteries and an antiquated charging system that looked as though it could fail at any time.

After killing off the house battery over winter (see State of Charge, below), I leapt (well, slouched) into action early in April. I relocated the engine start battery to make room for a second house battery, and bought two new Group 27 flooded batteries from West Marine. This doubles my house capacity to 180ah; low by most standards, but since I am replacing almost all the domestic and running lights on the boat with LEDs, and there is no power-greedy fridge, it should serve us well enough.

Spanking new cables in attractive red and ABYC-compatible yellow replaced the cracked, greenish items that had been on board for a generation or more, and I connected these, via a new Blue Sea Dual Circuit Plus battery switch, to a Blue Sea ACR 7160 automatic charging relay that automatically diverts the full alternator charge into the house battery bank after the engine battery is topped up. This means I never again have to worry about forgetting to click the switch to ‘both’ so both banks get charged; the switch keeps starting and house circuits separate, while the ACR combines batteries for charging and isolates them when the engine’s turned off. This is small potatoes compared to some of the electrical systems I’ve seen in boats costing 20 or 30 times as much, but it’s as close to state of the art as we’ll ever get with this 35-year-old boat.

I need to know what this whizzbang system is doing, so I also added a Microlog battery monitor that shows me the voltage on both banks as well as actual current input and draw. I now know that the stereo draws nearly half an amp, and that my minuscule solar panel is putting close to two-tenths of an amp into the house battery at high noon. This was a weekend well spent; the project was surprisingly easy, and extremely satisfying. There’ll be a full account of this makeover in the October issue of SAIL.

While I was fiddling around with electrics and dabbing paint on the bottom, Pip was replacing the tired old vinyl hull liners and redoing the cabin overhead. Then, suddenly, there was nothing pressing that needed to be done… and that’s a feeling I’ve never had around a boat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Antigua and All That

Team SAIL went to the races a couple of weeks ago. Along with colleague David Schmidt and a gnarly crew recruited from the waterfronts of Marblehead, Mass, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Annapolis, Md and New Orleans, I’d chartered a 50ft Beneteau from Sunsail at the mecca of all warm-water regattas, Antigua Sailing Week. I had been surprised to discover that charter boats made up a healthy proportion of the fleets in the Caribbean regatta circuit. In fact, of the nearly 300 boats entered in the Heineken regatta in St Martin back in March, 130 were spread through seven bareboat classes. When nearly one in two boats in a regatta is a tubby cruiser, you know you’re on to something. Here is a way for Everyman to race at a competitive level alongside some of the hottest boats in the world, in some of the best sailing areas in the world.

You might think the average charter boat is more fun at anchor than under sail, and up to a point I’d agree. If you’re one of that small contingent who only sails hot racing boats you won’t find much to whoop and holler about on a boat with five toilets and bunks for ten vacationers. But for us mere mortals, the thought of punting a 40 foot Jeanneau or 51 foot Beneteau through warm Caribbean waves seems pretty attractive.

And it’s not as if people don’t take this kind of racing seriously. I’ve seen anchors and chain piled up on the docks, stoves and tables removed and stashed ashore, water tanks drained. The leeward mark roundings can be pretty hair-raising; no wonder the charter companies ask for a hefty racing deposit – 5,000 Euros in our case. There are even ways around that. We met one skipper at Antigua who had insured against his deposit being lost. Thankfully, he was in a different class. Crews tend to come back year after year, often chartering the same boats. Some even have sails made just for the regattas. It’s not easy to win a bareboat race.

Most of our competion was European. The boats weren’t decked out in corporate logos the way they were in St Martin, but the crews generally sported team uniforms that matched down to the Speedos. Some also evidenced an unfortunate predilection for getting naked at every opportunity, chief among one boat full of middleaged Germans that we found anchored next to us on a couple of occasions. You can carry the bareboat concept a bit too far.

I won’t tell you how we did on our Sunsail Beneteau 50, because the report’s in the July issue and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say we learned a few things, not least among them that the bareboat class is a wonderful way to check out the hot boats. We started before the fast guys and they usually caught us before the leeward marks, so we got to see plenty of spinnakers and some interesting takedowns. We even got asked kindly to move out of the way, once or twice.

We did our best to sample some of Antigua’s legendary parties, but only got to two of them. The other nights we kicked back on board, grilled steaks, and drank a bit too much Wadadli and Carib beer and rum laced with Ting, a local soda. I had never realized that Wadadli, the island’s national beer, was actually brewed in Denmark, while the maltier Carib is made locally. Luckily, neither was proof against aspirin.

In spite of these temptations we emerged at the end of a solid week’s racing happy, tanned and more-or-less healthy, if you discounted the inevitable boat bites and cruises. Winds had been unusually light, not topping out at much more than 20 knots, and more often around 12-15. The five races were all around 20-22 miles long, favoring the beautiful south and west coasts. By the end of the week we were starting to get the hang of the place.

This was one of the best weeks of sailing I’ve had in years. To top it all off, I got home to find that my wife had refinished all the floorboards on our boat. Truly, does life get any better?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

How many times have you heard this statement: you should not abandon your boat until you have to step up into the liferaft. Sounds pretty facile, doesn’t it? Easy for you to say, if you’re not the one with a foot of water over the cabin sole in the middle of a black howling night a hundred miles from land.

The thing is, there are more and more instances of people abandoning boats that are then found weeks or months later, having drifted across large expanses of ocean. Only a few weeks ago a 36-foot cruising boat that had been abandoned because of an unspecified rigging problem during the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers back in December was found drifting off Antigua. Considering the crew had been aiming for nearby St Lucia, the boat did an admirable job of getting itself so close.

I could come up with many more examples, but you get the point. In this age of instantaneous communication, it’s only too easy to call for help when things get tough. Long gone are the likes of Blondie Hasler, the progenitor of the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR), who, when asked what would happen if his boat sank under him, replied that he would “drown like a gentleman.” (That, for the record, is not the answer I gave my wife the first time she asked that question).

Anyway, I was intrigued by two incidents that took place recently off the coast of New Zealand, my old stamping ground. In the first, an inexperienced crew helping deliver a 25-foot boat down the west coast of the North island decided they’d had enough of the 25-knot winds and 10-foot seas (fairly typical Kiwi sailing conditions) and pulled the pin on the EPIRB – against the skipper’s wishes.

Now, the skipper was adamant that there was no danger and that his boat was well able to handle the conditions, but even so he was ordered to abandon ship along with the three frightened greenhorns when the rescue helicopter arrived. The uninsured boat, Air Apparent, was left to drift and for all I know may be still sailing in circles in the Pacific; her unfortunate owner thought the mutinous crew should cough up for a replacement, but I doubt he’s had any luck.

This incident stirred up a huge debate among Kiwis, who generally have a low tolerance for wimps and little sympathy for people who get themselves into situations they can’t cope with. The contrite crew impressed by making a large donation towards the cost of the rescue, but so far the luckless owner is no closer to getting a new boat. Remember the Perfect Storm book and movie? The poor skipper whose green crew pulled the same stunt, and who was taken off his boat – which survived the storm on its own, and was later found, still afloat?

Two lessons here are that a boat can often take more punishment than its crew; and you should choose your crew very carefully. Being offshore in a small boat – and in that context anything shorter than a maxi-yacht is a small boat – is not for everyone. Ocean sailing is wonderfully rewarding but it can get uncomfortable and scary out there, and if you don’t have the mindset to deal with that you should stay home. The uncomfortable, scary parts are, of course, just part and parcel of the whole offshore experience that many people find addictive.

Calling for outside help should be a last-resort measure, taken when you are in actual and pressing danger, not just scared, wet, and cold. Putting a helicopter crew at risk just because you’d rather be at home in front of a fireplace than stuck in a small boat in a storm is irresponsible and inexcusable.

Now, here’s a great story that shows how real ocean sailors cope with misfortune. A husband and wife, each sailing their own boats on circumnavigations (it’s a long story), were 700 miles off the New Zealand coast when the husband’s 27-foot plywood boat Galennaia was damaged during a gale and began taking on water. Did Tony Curphy set off his EPIRB? Did he hell. He radioed his wife, Suzanne, who was 150 miles away on her 40-foot ketch, So Long, and started pumping. Two days later, she arrived and the two hooked up a towline to Galennaia. Eight days later, they pulled into Nelson, on the tip of the South Island.

Now that’s an example of the right stuff. And an example of the kind of crew you never need to worry about – no crew at all.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A century of excellence

Olin Stephens turned 100 last weekend, and that’s a birthday worth noting even if you’ve never owned a Sparkman & Stephens design. The old boy’s life spans the history of yachting as we know it – or indeed sailing as we know it. He’s designed some of the loveliest and most enduring yachts ever built, and stamped his influence on cruising, racing and even motorboating. From bulletproof cruisers to America’s Cup winners, graceful yawls to blunt-nosed workboats, Stephens had the kind of magic touch that most boat designers would kill for.

The roll call of famous S&S boats would take too long a time to get through, so I’ll restrict myself to one of my favorites. I was living in Australia during the early 1980s when two remarkable voyages took place. A likely lad called Serge Testa built himself a 12-foot aluminum boat and sailed it round the world. But I digress – this was no S&S design, it was all Serge’s own handiwork, and a finer example of never letting a lack of cash stand in the way of a great adventure has seldom been seen. More on that some other time.

The voyage I really mean was that of Jon Sanders, a sheep shearer from the dusty hinterland of Western Australia. I was a long-haired, bewhiskered editor of a motorcycle magazine in Melbourne in ’81 and ’82, the years in which Sanders circumnavigated Antarctica – twice, alone – in Perie Banou, his Aussie-built S&S34.
I wasn’t interested in sailing per se in those days but I was interested in adventure, and since I knew people who knew Sanders I followed his exploits keenly. He had already made a name for himself by placing second in the 1979 Parmelia Race, from England to Fremantle, on the same boat (another S&S 34). Back in the mid-70s, he’d circumnavigated with stops, and with crew. In between, he’d criss-crossed the Pacific and Indian oceans numerous times and made a dozen or more transits of the southern Australian coastline, and raced a few Sydney-Hobarts.

Later in the 1980s, Sanders traded up to a bigger boat and circumnavigated another three times without stopping – twice west-east, once east-west, covering 71,023 miles in 657 consecutive days at sea. I have a feeling that’s a record that’ll stand forever; Sanders later said: “Normal people would say ‘you’ve got to be mad,’ and I’d think, yup, and if I’m not, I’m sure it would be helpful.”

Mad or not, Sanders trusted his little 34-footer enough to dodge icebergs alone for nearly a year. The S&S 34 was conceived in the dying days of Britain’s RORC rule, and its design was influenced by both that and the new International Offshore Rule (IOR). Olin said at the time: “We hope and believe that the S&S 34 will make a good all-round boat, so as to demonstrate in a fairly small package that a good boat for offshore racing will also be a good boat for cruising.”

The 34 had all the characteristics of what we now identify with those early IOR days – a hull that was diamond-shaped when seen from above, with fine bows and a pinched stern, a short waterline, long overhangs and a generous dollop of tumblehome that meant the person sleeping in the windward pilot berth was further outboard than the rail monkeys sitting above. The skinny-main, big-foretriangle rig set the tone for the decade that followed.

This is the style of boat that leads people who have never sailed one to pontificate about downwind death rolls, lack of stability, poor build quality, bad seakeeping and lord knows what else. Some later IOR boats did for sure give the whole generation a bad name, but many early examples were and remain excellent, solidly built sailing boats that are still rewarding to sail today. Note to people looking for cheap, tough, well-mannered cruising boats – you could do a lot worse than an early IOR racer.

The 34 made its bones when British prime minister Ted Heath won the 1969 Sydney-Hobart in Morning Cloud, and for the next five years S&S 34s won or placed highly in that tough ocean classic. It gained a rep as an excellent heavy weather boat, and even now, beating into a stiff breeze, it would give nothing away to many modern designs. Sailing conditions around the Australian coast are as tricky as you’ll find anywhere, so it wasn’t surprising that the boat proved so popular there. The Aussies soon began building S&S 34s, and believe it or not you can still order a brand new one, built the modern way with resin infusion by the Swarbrick yard.

Following in Sanders’s wake, Aussie youngsters David Dicks and Jesse Martin also circumnavigated alone on S&S 34s, and these little boats have carried many other sailors safely through adventures on the world’s oceans. A few years back I tried hard to find one to buy, but the only example I could track down was a tired old warhorse in California that had way too high an asking price.

They don’t design boats like the S&S 34 any more, because people don’t buy them. Like the Contessa 32 – another ‘70s cult classic - a 34 was a big boat back in the ‘60s, but compared to a modern 34-footer it feels like you’re in a closet. At sea the lack of interior volume is a blessing rather than a handicap, but in port you need to set your sights a bit low in terms of cruising comfort. This isn’t a boat for big crews, which may be one reason it’s so popular with singlehanders.

Even though it doesn’t have the cachet of Dorade, the beauty of Finisterre, or the high profile of many bigger S&S designs, the S&S 34 epitomizes that sweet blend of form and function that made Olin Stephens such a great designer. It looked right, it was right, it still is right, and it’ll always be right. There aren’t that many boats you can say that of, and a good many of those took shape on Olin Stephens’s drawing board.