full keel sailboats ... favorable argument

A good bluewater sailboat must provide a balance of design-characteristics that satisfy the sailor’s affinity for ocean passage in the following six categories:

1) Strength vs. speed (hull, superstructure and sailing rig)

2) Robust mechanical systems

3) Layout for shorthand operation (ergonomic design to operate running rigging, while living aboard comfortably below deck)

4) Sail inventory (to handle a variety of wind)

5) Piloting and navigation systems (autopilot, chart plotter, other instrumentation)

6) Electric power management

Paul Exner’s hand-built SV Solstice (from a bare Cape George 31 hull) is refit in the British Virgin Islands following massive destruction caused by Hurricane IRMA’s direct hit on the territory.

STRENGTH VS. SPEED: Personally, I favor strong boats that are also fast which together pose a challenge to attain. A strong boat that’s heavy is not practical to operate on a passage without a big expense on large powerful systems with layers of redundancy, nor is it simple to prepare and maintain for ocean work. Instead, speed and performance is very important because I’d rather have the option to navigate around bad weather using an optimized sailing design to sail where I want rather than hunker-down in a gale for days aboard a heavy boat.

But what makes a strong and fast boat? Hulls get their strength by thickness, whether they be of solid skin (without core) albeit heavier, or by using a lighter substrate sandwich construction (cored hull). Thickness of laminate is still the rule of thumb to measure a laminate’s strength (given appropriate glass to resin ratios), but solid glass or carbon laminates will withstand a beating from the ocean better than any other plastic reinforced construction. Interior structural liners and composite networks that reinforce a thinner hull laminate can also provide wonderful strength and speed but I must expose my belief that these builds are designed to withstand a certain amount of torsional flexibility which logically isn’t a great recipe to extend the lifespan of a vessel and just won’t withstand the physical demands of operation in the long haul in my opinion. Solid metal hulls are fantastic, and vessels with aluminum hulls and superstructures are now the best at meeting my requirement for fast and strong. Brand reputation isn’t always a qualifier for strength either because sometimes a bad batch of resin can be introduced into a product line’s lineage, or a used boat could suffer undisclosed damage to a future buyer (which is why a great Surveyor is needed). In my opinion, a sailor must possess enough familiarity with yacht construction to safely select a strong and fast boat, or solicit the counsel of a trusted industry professional to deliver answers to tough questions before meeting my number one criteria for any offshore vessel: strength and speed.

Hull shapes inherently play a role in strength while undoubtably help define a vessel’s propensity for speed; however, popular notions regarding the speed potential for an offshore cruising vessel’s hull shape are generally over-simplified and require a brief clarification. First, full keel vessels with their wine-glass and compound-curve shape are strong, fast, and have the best form that reinforces the keel’s attachment to the hull; that wine-glassed shape is bullet proof, especially if the ballast is integral to a solid glass hull rather than the bolt-on exterior type. The underlying characteristic which makes the full keel so fast as a cruising vessel is that she can better carry a burden of cruising gear compared to a vessel with similar length but lighter-displaced design (imagine the full keel Bristol Channel Cutter 28 with 2,000 lbs of cruising gear sailing in the ocean against a popular fin-keeled 30’ cruising vessel carrying the same load), the BCC would be safer and likely perform better than the compared vessel in typical oceanic conditions.

The modern trend in yacht design to improve a vessel’s stability index and interior space by increasing beam makes for a fast vessel because they sport a flatter bottom for surfing and require less ballast in favor of a (deeper) higher performance keel and rudder that optimize hydrodynamic lift, but the hull-to-keel structure, or swing-keel box should be over-designed to ensure reliability offshore, especially since the newer and wider boats flex and torque by architectural design. I personally attest that these offshore machines (especially the Farr or Jeppesen designs I’ve tested in bluewater recently) are quick if you can stomach the notion that the boat is changing shape around you (which isn't a bad thing I'll add). Well configured compromises in strength and speed DO exist in both traditional and modern hull shapes, especially true for those constructed of carbon or aluminum that also carry a higher price of ownership, or of solid Glass Reinforced Plastic construction with relatively "deep-draft and narrow-beam" designed with moderate to higher prismatic coefficients capable of bearing the weight of cruising gear, provisions, and memorabilia.

Mod Geo Sailing Solstice.jpg

ROBUST MECHANICAL SYSTEMS: A good hull must be supported by robust mechanical systems for steering and running rigging. There are numerous options to steer a boat by: transom-hung rudder on heavy-duty pintles and gudgeons supported in length to the bottom of a full keel, driven by tiller or mechanical windvane; to twin spade rudders with efficiently faired foils constructed of foam and skin laminate that actually float if they break off, steered by dual helm stations linked for parallelism and driven by electric or hydraulic autopilot systems. A stark contrast indeed, but many steering systems of different types have reliably crossed oceans with arguable reliability.

In my experience, the desirable elements of a reliable offshore boat’s mechanical steering system should be vertical structural support first, and rotational reliability; I’ll get to drive connections in a minute. Aboard my Cape George Cutter with the rudder completely supported vertically from transom to full keel, I NEVER worry about the rudder! The solid bronze pintles and gudgeons attach the rudder to the boat from top to bottom and they’re bushed with high quality polymer inserts set into the gudgeons, easily inspectable and have NOT worn out despite 16 years of heavy ocean work to date. On the other end of the steering spectrum I’ve not had an offshore failure of internally-supported rudder post systems, however I have worried about their reliability sometimes in the middle of the ocean, and have experienced several with weakened or failing vertically supported rudder posts, despite popular brand reputation. Vertical support for rudders comes down to leverage, whereby the hydraulic force on the rudder tip has torqued the upper-end of the rudder post’s structural connection to the boat. With increasing ocean miles, the rudder will experience athwartship transposition and you can feel it in the helm, or via a knocking sludge in the stern of the boat as it yaws in complex seas. I have helped investigate and specify several modifications to rudder post structures, some of which were so bad that water shot-in through the post-tube at the hull, and others where we added bearings for additional support at the post’s top where the steering quadrant had compounded the post’s transpositional problem.

A tiller’s connection to a rudder is a bullet proof steering system, and is perfectly suitable for ocean sailing. Wheel helms add cost and complexity to any boat, although they do facilitate many options for autopilot connection, and are popular today for dual-wheel installations that improve cockpit traffic to the sugar scoop. Wheels become a seaworthy advantage over a tiller when the mechanical reduction of the steering system’s linkage allows a sailor to more easily manage the physical demands of hand steering. Most ocean going tiller-driven vessels require strength to manipulate, and fatigue the helms person who must twist their body sideways while sitting in the cockpit and grabbing the tiller at the same time. However, the reliability of a tiller cannot be beaten, and if a wind vane can be used as an autopilot, the matter of crew fatigue is diminished.

ERGONOMIC LAYOUTS: Ergonomic layouts for cockpits and interiors that make it physically easier to manipulate running rigging while sailing, or improve comfort below deck offshore are desirable elements. The location and size of a winch, or the physical Realestate of a galley countertop may seem like a no-brainer for any boat designer, but what seems like a good idea on the drafting table, can be awful in practice offshore. Some boat layouts are best suited to island hop or gunk hole when the weather is great, but become bears to wrestle in the ocean. Crew fatigue is the number one struggle facing offshore-sailors as physical demands on their strength and diet take an accumulative toll. Sticker shock on the boat show floor is kept at bay by sail away offers specced with minimal equipment; but, upgrade options (in my experience) for some equipment aboard new offshore boats is mandatory for items like winches, autopilots, boom vangs, galleys, and sea berths.

Some offshore vessels in the 40’ range are SO powerful that electric winches are standard equipment (Amel for example does this); otherwise, the vessel should be equipped with large manual winch drums and long handles. It’s important to note that electric winches are prone to failure more than manual ones; switching between electric-mode and manual operation requires the central piston to be depressed in order to disengage the electric gear from the manual gears, which is easier said than done unless the loaded line is eased in tandem with inserting the winch handle and opening a rope clutch … that’s a complex and strenuous task to accomplish in the middle of the night, tired, while trying to reef for a squall as the electric winch fails, and they do. Standard manual winches are bullet proof if serviced twice per year, but they must be of a large drum diameter and located ergonomically in the cockpit so the average sailor can maximize their physical effort to control the line around the winch, and grind it!

Offshore galleys should not look like shore-side kitchens; this concept is a challenging to accept for some boat-owner chefs because their boat must resemble a standard kitchen when moored, but operate like a galley in the open ocean. There are numerous philosophies about provisioning for sea, and using those provisions to cook safely offshore … enough material there for a complete followup article. But, here’s the real deal about prepping food offshore, it’s twice the effort compared to shore-side cooking so the galley layout that facilitates preparation is essential, and the stowage of common utensils and ingredients should be readily available. The bottom line about offshore sailing is that if your galley is setup for offshore work, you’re more likely to cook underway and thereby enjoy the passage because every crew knows the hot meal offshore is the best they’ve ever had!

Several strong hand-holds placed strategically around the offshore galley is the number one feature that separates good and bad galleys … it’s easy to get thrown around down below; sometimes the boat makes a move and I know how it will fall next, so I’m lurching for a hand-hold to stabilize myself. Next, I need a convenient place to keep my utensils and ingredients that likely have food residue on them, so I need to stash them in a sanitary and accessible location which for me is actually within a dedicated open container within the sink where high sides will contain my active tools. The sink is my goto location for many tasks in the galley, and if its located near the centerline of the vessel and accessible from a couple sides even better. If my sink has a central divider, I can further divide the “active” pieces of the cooking puzzle, and manage to rinse my hands of food debris when I need to. Having fresh and salt water spigots is really useful when trying to manage water consumption, and I believe the manual foot pump is the best way to distribute water in the galley, rather than pressurized water since I have to use a hand to open a pressurized tap which makes me prone to falling down as I’ve just lost a hand to hold on with. A ventilation hole in the coach roof above the galley, or a nearby porthole is essential to keep yourself comfortable as the cabin heats up while cooking. High fiddles on the countertop are a must to contain galley spills, or stabilize storage boxes containing ingredients. If the galley is located away from the boat’s interior traffic pattern, everyone will be happier as cooking doesn’t interfere with operating the vessel underway.

Paul Exner’s SV Solstice carries a complete inventory of offshore sails. Despite the large interior volume consumed by sail stowage, the following sails provide excellent coverage for a variety of points of sail and wind conditions: mainsail (3 reefs); super yankee; working yankee; staysail; storm jib; storm trysail; and A2 asymmetric spinnaker (settable by ATN Tacker or movable pole).

SAIL INVENTORY: Every sailing vessel going offshore must have sails in serviceable condition, even better if they have an efficient shape by a reputable designer. There’s typically not space aboard offshore cruising boats to carry a complete inventory of sails for every wind condition and sailing angle, which means we must be very selective. First and foremost, the mainsail must be in good condition and reefable for use in 40-45 knots of wind, plus a storm trysail. This means the mainsail must have a deep third reef (despite what anyone tells you to the contrary, this point is essential). In-mast furlers are fantastic and reliable offshore tools as the sail area can be micro-adjusted. Sometimes during the passing of a strong cold front offshore I’ll deploy just a couple feet of in-mast furled mainsail so I can sail the boat safely forward at 5 knots. I still recommend having the provision to fly a trysail if you carry in-mast furling. Roller furling headsails are the norm, although I still use a hank-on system aboard my boat for her staysail, and a furler to manage her headsails flown from the bowsprit.

For the ocean sea-trials I perform aboard my client’s boats I calculate our fuel burn-rate at 1 gallon of diesel per hour, which translates into 250 nautical miles of range for 50 gallons of fuel consumed at a comfortable RPM. Some offshore sailing vessels carry SO MUCH fuel they can motor the entire passage! Other vessels, like my boat Solstice carries 50 gallons so sailing the boat efficiently in light air is necessary and keeps the passage interesting, putting an emphasis on a good sail inventory when I’m making passages more than 750 miles (my rule of thumb regarding fuel is to have enough to motor 1/3rd passage). Thus, what I’m really looking for to round-out my sail inventory are two “reaching” sails for light to mid-range wind that gives a lot of sail-power while broad-reaching deep, and close-reaching tight, resulting in my preferred inventory to include either an asymmetric spinnaker or reacher, and a Code Zero that can trim tight to my standing rigging in lighter air. It’s typically the case in the ocean that we get diminishing winds AND choppy seas so the desired sails must provide enough power to get through lumpy water well-enough to not get frustrated by flapping sails and slow speed, resulting in motoring. I also believe we need three primary headsails for close hauled sailing: big, working, and storm. Thus my ideal inventory for a cutter-rig is 8 sails! That’s a lot, and I fit them all on a Cape George 31 so I know anyone can make room in their boat if motivated.

PILOTING AND NAVIGATION SYSTEMS: Piloting boats offshore is the practical side of seamanship I enjoy most; getting from A to B while managing the entire vessel is stimulating and highly rewarding. Sometimes I’m so “dialed-into” operating a boat offshore that I happily focus solely on that, and think of nothing else … I’m a master of my vessel and my destiny. But, the planning, experience, and optimization techniques I use took me decades of practice to attain. I always pilot offshore with an objective in mind (an ultimate or intermediate destination). Basically I manage the boat based on my Course Over Ground as given by my GPS, and I compare my COG to my boat’s heading when she’s sailing in the groove to make inference about currents or leeway; in this manner I can also tell if I can glean more efficiency from the setup by studying how she behaves in the given sea state and wind speed. I’m navigating and piloting constantly while on watch, and making sure I don’t hit anything, and I monitor the status of ALL the boat’s systems to make preventive maintenance corrections before they become problems. The piloting systems that enable me are: magnetic compass, GPS position, COG, SOG, electronic autopilot feedback from flux-gate compass or wind-vane servo (or the feedback from a mechanical wind vane if in use), AIS, radar, hand bearing compass, and depth sounder. I really don’t use wind instruments although my clients sometimes like them so I help them gain proficiency. I also plot regular fixes on my oceanic charts, make log entries, and download info from communication systems including weather forecasts. As a skipper I’m also caring for the crew and making sure we eat and sleep. It’s a full time job, and on expedition I’m also leading my crew to do all the same tasks for themselves, while experience a higher-level of sailing.

However, the basic elements of piloting that I couldn’t do without are: magnetic compass; regular logbook entries; GPS Latitude & Longitude; dead reckoning; position plotting on paper charts; cloud observations; eyeball navigation; and, means of hands-free helming if shorthanded. There exists a blend of items from my lists above that suit each skipper, and it’s important that we all develop a method for piloting our vessels, and ensuring they’re properly equipped.

ELECTRIC POWER MANAGEMENT: We must also consider the offshore management of our vessel’s electric power. It seems that ocean sailors demand more and more power these days as we run everything from freezers to AC power inverters for microwave cooking, to radar at night, to AC-powered sound systems, and air-conditioning offshore, let alone basic navigation lighting and positioning systems we must have. A sophisticated electrical system costs a lot of money and takes time to workout the kinks of improper setup but we are willing to invest the time and money, and suffer disappointment when it doesn’t all work as expected. Fortunately, it’s still viable to sea reliably with basic electrical needs should we choose (more about practical electrical systems carried aboard my Solstice later).

Whether we go offshore with 200 amp hours of house battery capacity, or 2,000 Ah, we must have the ability to charge the battery banks somehow: engine-powered alternator(s); solar; wind; diesel generators; and/or, hydraulic generators … all of which are made efficient with sophisticated charging regulators, Automatic Charging Relays, amp meter computers, shunting, and redundant systems on the supply side.

But our task is to choose the best compliment of electrical components that meet our cruising style while managing the supply and demand side of the equation. During my ocean sea trials aboard my client’s vessels, we create an Electrical System Log Table in the logbook to get a handle on what we’re consuming and making. I find that this hand-derived method of logging and monitoring brings methodology to the practice of safely operating the vessel offshore as a whole, not just the healthy maintenance of the electrical budget. Even if the vessel doesn’t have an amp meter computer, the DC panel usually provides means to monitor amp draw at any given time, and voltage readings … I monitor those readings and enter the data in the log along with what house systems we’re actually running at the time. Using my methods, even aboard unfamiliar vessels I can find inadequacies with systems (like unresponsive batteries), or identify improperly configured equipment like aftermarket installation of a SAT Phone harness or water maker that are wired directly to the panel without breakers; I can also pickup on failures in solar charge regulation, or a identify the bastardized installation of an emergency bilge pump which could inadvertently be turned off when we need it most … all of which failures I’ve experienced and much more! Our ultimate goal is to operate a well-refined and efficient electrical system that has no wasted capacity, or under-rated components. I obtain a common sensical awareness to our electrical system, akin to what an anesthesiologist must have when monitoring the depth-of-sleep and vital signs of a patient undergoing surgery. My methods work for offshore sailing, they keep us safer and healthier, and they’re simple for all of us to implement.

Paul Exner’s SV Solstice … full keel bluewater cutter.

MODERN ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF FULL KEEL BLUEWATER SAILBOATS: Aesthetics, robustness of structure, and bullet-proof reputation are the characteristics of the full keel design that molded my confidence to build/own one as a young naval architect drawing boats between the age of 12 to 23 before actually purchasing a Cape George 31 bare hull in 1991 to finish and sail onward to today. Serendipity played a role then as I never imagined I’d acquire enough money to support my passion for boat ownership and sailing, so I embraced the idea that I’d build my own and do everything for the boat with my own hands, and the full keel seemed like the design that would make my dream attainable.

The traditional full keel evolved as a naval design to it’s optimum shape that some say peaked in 2002 when Lyall Hess drew his “last and best” design: the gaff-rigged Falmouth Cutter 34 (which I tested under Marconi rig in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2014); Lyall never lived to see it float, yet it’s arguably the masterpiece of a creator who understood the kindliness, efficiency and economical build-out of the full keel design. What’s most interesting about Lyall’s FC34 is the culmination of his life’s experience into a benchmark full keel design, drawn with hard bilges for stiffness to carry a powerful sail plan against a relatively light ballast to displacement ratio; could it also be that Lyall was keeping up with the emerging trend to maximize interior space by favoring these parameters? The result was certainly to create a powerful 34’ full keeled cutter … the king of its type, and strong as nails! Lyall Hess was a modern designer of full keeled vessels that still go offshore strongly today.

However, I will not forget to mention how truly amazed I am of Robert Perry's latest technological advancement of the full keel using mostly carbon fiber in its construction; Perry’s space-age vessel broke all records this year when he launched SIX awesome full keeled “Carbon Cutters,” which sail-away custom-built for $1.6 million; not in my league to own, but the design is perfect when her lines and physical form is inspected. The most important feat by Bob and his six loyal clients is that a carbon fiber, full keeled, cutter-rigged boat was launched during an exciting era when talented sailors walk-on-foils donning helmets!

Despite the contemporary view full keeled vessels being heavy and slow, I will respectfully disagree. In my opinion, the full keel hull shape will always prove an awesome vessel to go to sea in; it will stand the test of time (mark my words)! There’s a harmony captured between a designer’s understanding of the full keel and the natural hydraulic properties of the sea; this marriage between tradition and the physical principles of science is no accident; its a natural aesthetic transcending changes in popular form spanning more than 100 years of seafaring history that’s allowed us to sail over the horizon reliably and safety, especially while burdened with cruising gear, provisions, and dreams. Natural selection gave us the form embodied by sea mammals who carry their shape for life, some naval designers have gained deep understanding of that shape and realized that a floating vessel can also mirror it to support human life on lengthy voyages; and guess what, the full keeled vessels created in likeness to sea mammals are fast designs … just like an Orca blasting with rapid precision toward her prey.

Some sailors believe the notion that the full keel will “track” a straighter course than designs with shorter keels, and I’ve found this idea to be untrue as all boats yaw a lot in the ocean. In fact, I may argue that full keeled vessels “track” worse than other designs as there’s a larger underwater profile for overtaking waves to push around. What is true from my experience with full keeled designs is that they’re more likely to sail themselves while keeping in the groove compared to designs with shorter keels. Since the full keel carries a larger proportion of weight in her ends (higher prismatic coefficient) they can certainly carry more sail area distributed over her length, hence the cutter rig with sails flown from the bow and bowsprit; and, mast positioned more forward in the hull compared to sloops allows for generally longer booms and larger mainsails. The entry and exit of the bow and stern respectively make for a kindlier hull that knifes into oncoming waves rather than “pound” like modern flat-bottomed hulls do; although this characteristic also makes the hulls more susceptible to pitching which ultimately slows boat speed and momentum, which is another reason a lot of sail area is required on a broader tacking angle to give the full keeled vessel the raw punch to drive through waves.

One of the characteristics of the full keel I love is her ease in blocking while hauled out. My full keeled Solstice was one of the few boats in the Nanny Cay Boatyard during Hurricane IRMA’s strike on the BVI to NOT tip over on land because she was blocked solidly to the ground along her full keel, and her slack bilges allowed for upward and athwartship jack-stand support. Because the wineglass shape is inherently so robust as a structure, some say the full keel can safely lay on its side and keel (careening) on the ocean floor during a large outgoing tide, although, I’ve not yet tried this.

Not all full keeled cutters are fast sailing boats, but some are extremely fast, and seaworthy in the open ocean. I think that having a good eye for the aesthetic of the full keel form, and identifying the complementary nuances of the bilge, beam, and sail plan will provide a gut feeling about the strength and speed of a full keeled design, but the best way to know for certain is to get out and sail one, and leave the on-line forum discussion on the matter to those who would rather be sailing.

WHY A CUTTER RIG WORKS GREAT FOR BLUEWATER SAILBOATS: It’s the cutter rig which is necessary to propel the full keeled hull. The trim between a full keeled hull and cutter sail plan will create harmony and efficiency with the sea unlike any other design, but it’s not simple to attain. The tradeoff to a great symphony should not diminish it to the lowest common denominator … full rigged cutters are a specialist’s vessel, they are not easy to sail, but they provide a vast and interesting transmission to capture the widest range of sea-states and oceanic conditions thrown at a small vessel and crew that’s trying to cross an ocean, characteristics that make the vessel capable and worthy of serious consideration as a live-aboard passage maker. With knowledge, practice, and experience, the safest and most enjoyable passages are made aboard full keeled cutters, in my opinion.

Often misunderstood, the value of the cutter and full keel combo will be under appreciated and over simplified in discussion by sailors who have little experience in these vessels; for example, one common statement made is: “Simply strike the yankee-sail, and sail under staysail and main when it blows.” This statement rarely presents itself true if you seek the full advantage of the cutter-rigged full keel; although, I have stricken the yankee completely in a blow (staysail too sometimes, leaving just a triple-reefed mainsail) and employed fore-reaching as a heavy weather technique during a storm, but the more probable scenario which showcases the advantage of the full keeled cutter is where the mainsail and staysail are optimally trimmed to compliment one another to bring the full keel to max sailing efficiency, but the yankee remains under-trimmed and luffing 10-25% of it’s leading edge as I sail along under wind vane autopilot and wait for a large yaw to leeward by an infrequent but quantifiable wave—it’s at these moments that the main and staysail’s efficiency becomes stalled, but the under-trimmed yankee is now fully powered to enable the aerodynamic forces needed to accelerate the hull and allow the wind vane to once again bring the boat on the wind where the complimentary trim between mainsail and staysail puts the boat back into its groove, and on course!

But, to sail a full keeled cutter in heavier winds, the action to simply strike the yankee is not an acceptable practice because (just like any other boat with headsails) a flatter, smaller area sail would do a better job than no sail at all when it gets windy. Remember that the full keel hull has “fuller” ends (bow and stern) that push water ahead and away from the bow, while water astern is drawn into the transom as the vessel displaces water and her self-created wave of length equal to her practical waterline seemingly perpetuates her motion … in this narrative it should be obvious to understand that the full keel hull form craves sail power. Because of this, it’s extremely important to the cutter (or any sail boat for this matter) to have appropriately sized and shaped sails; but the challenge with the cutter for it’s crew is that now they have three sails to try to optimize and carry aboard. Further, because the cutter has three sails, each one becomes of a more manageable size and weight relative to sloops with two sails that could be heavier and larger should they propel a similar hull. This hopefully helps illustrate the added flexibility the cutter rig offers its crew in dialing-in the sails to propel a hull efficiently in a wider variety of sea states and wind conditions.

I will say from my personal experience that the art of sailing has been vastly fruitful while figuring out how to optimize the full keel cutter offshore. I’ve never felt safer nor had more fun sailing any other small boat design in the open ocean. The common sea state served-up by Neptune offshore is always complex (for all intense and purpose), and that translates to six identifiable types of motion a hull will experience at sea, which must be harmonized with the vessels sail plan. The six types of motion are: 1) roll; 2) yaw; 3) pitch; 4) surge; 5) sway; 6) heave. The cutter sail plan, driving the full keel hull, truly offers the most customizable blend of characteristics to go to sea with.

Paul Exner Solstice full keel running rigging.jpg

HOW I’VE SETUP MY SV SOLSTICE ON DECK FOR BLUEWATER SAILING: I’ve rigged Solstice in a simple and straightforward manner to accommodate my affinity for short-handed sailing, and to improve reliability of the system by making all the components visibly inspectable and easily accessible should a hang-up occur, even at night. My system requires moderate levels of agility on deck outside the cockpit, and average physical fitness, and is resilient enough to ward-off errors inherent in any running rigging system.

All halyards and triple-mainsail-reefing can be accomplished singlehandedly at the mast while Solstice is sailed by her wind vane autopilot. Three Leewmar-40 two-speed self-tailing winches are mounted to the mast (two on starboard, one on port). Mainsail reefing is performed on the starboard side of the mast where one winch is dedicated to the mainsail's halyard, and the other starboard winch is used for the mainsail reefing control lines that exit the bottom of the boom at its forward end which then are directed upward via snatch block to the other starboard-side winch. The reefing control lines can be cleated by line-stoppers located where the lines exit the boom at it’s forward underside. In this manner, I can easily reef from a single location on deck while maintaining a constant eye on every component of the system to notice a hang-up should one occur. My position at the mast is also made safe because my distance from Solstice’s center of buoyancy is minimized because I stand at deck-level, not atop a cabin house because Solstice’s house is curtailed just aft of the mast. A standing position at the mast also provides the best ergonomic location to operate a winch compared to other boat’s winch layout at the aft-end of the cabin top located under a short dodger, where muscle leverage is hindered. 

The second winch on the starboard side of the mast (non mainsail halyard) is also used to operate the spinnaker and staysail halyard. All halyards stow conveniently coiled and hung on their winch, or above the line-stopper in the case of spinnaker and staysail halyard.

The single port-side mast winch is used for the two available Yankee halyards and the mainsail topping lift which doubles as a spare mainsail halyard. The two yankee halyards pass through line-stoppers, and topping life cleats to a horn cleat.

I designed Solstice’s halyard system and winch configuration myself while consulting Mike Feldman of Offshore Spars who custom fabricated Solstice’s spar for me. I specified redundancy in halyards and to this day, after 16 years of hard ocean sailing aboard Solstice, I’ve always been able to fly the sails I wanted because a spare line was available to support my desire should I have a failure.

As a result of what’s configured at Solstice’s mast, only the staysail sheets occupy the cabin top, trimmed by dedicated port-n-starboard Lewmar-40 two-speed self tailing winches. I sometimes also run the yankee furling control line to the starboard side cabin top winch. When the spinnaker is flying, I use the cabin top winches to trim the spinnaker sheet. The spinnaker forguy is also lead to the windward cabin top winch.

The cockpit of Solstice is “clean” underway, and only the actively controlled running rigging lives there. I installed two large Lewmar-48 two-speed self-tailing winches as her primaries for trimming the yankee sheet. There’s no need for a mainsail traveler aboard a full keeled sailboat from my experience (leeway angle rarely warrants the boom on centerline, and if it ever does in flat water, I simply center the boom using a spare line attached to the end of the boom and drawn tight to the windward stern cleat; thus, Solstice's mainsheet is simply attached to the transom at a single point. Mainsail twist on a reach is controlled by a Hall Spar solid boom vang with it’s control-line tied by bowline to the starboard cabin top handrail.

Using this setup that I designed and optimized myself, I’ve been able to single hand Solstice in any wind condition (light to storm) and even fly the solo … and it’s obvious to me how easy it is to use because I’ve taught my paying expedition crew to also fly a spinnaker singlehandedly under wind vane autopilot while I took rest below deck.

Paul Exner wind vane autopilot full keel.jpg

WINDVANE AUTOPILOTS FOR OFFSHORE TILLERS: Solstice is only equipped with Scanmar’s MONITOR servo-pendulum designed wind vane, and I’ve managed to sail thousands and thousands of miles in light-and-heavy air with it, and without any electronic means of automatic steering. I had explored the option of installing a light-duty electric autopilot that attaches to a custom mount on the MONITOR where its wind vane would attach, as I’ve heard successful reports from other sailors who’ve done this by simply dialing in a compass course to the autopilot and tricking the MONITOR to believe the feed back provided by the autopilot is the apparent wind setting the MONITOR would act on.

The MONITOR wind vane sails Solstice to the apparent wind determined by the angle I set the wind vane w.r.t. the boat’s centerline. If the wind shifts, or the boat changes course w.r.t. the apparent wind, the vane tips to one-side or the other depending on how the changed apparent wind strikes it. The “tipped” vane then adjusts the orientation of the MONITOR’s paddle that’s engaged with the ocean to cause the paddle to swing in a manner that turns the tiller to put the boat back on the desired apparent wind setting. The wind vane connects to the tiller via direct connection to the tiller and acts to turn the tiller to turn the boat.

Solstice’s wind vane can be completely controlled within her cockpit, making micro adjustments easy. There are several advantages of the wind vane auto pilot: no electrical draw; always sails to the apparent wind thereby keeping the boat in its sailing groove better; every change to the true wind direction also translates to a predictable change in apparent wind so changes in weather can be anticipated better, and small tweaks to the sailing trim can be made to keep the boat moving most efficiently. The MONITOR works equally well to hold a course on any point of sail, often better than a human can steer, but experiences more yaw on deep reaching courses than upwind courses. Using a wind vane is also a prerequisite to mastering any boat under sail as the nuances of each boat are drawn out when the helm is set to sail a consistent apparent wind point of sail.

Exner’s custom articulating 15 Watt solar panel; coupled with a specific charge regulator, this basic setup really puts out the juice!

Exner’s custom articulating 15 Watt solar panel; coupled with a specific charge regulator, this basic setup really puts out the juice!

THE SIMPLE AND COST EFFECTIVE BLUEWATER ELECTRIC CHARGING SYSTEM: Offshore, Solstice has two means of charging her house and cranking battery banks: 1) alternator driven by the auxiliary diesel engine; and, 2) a 15 watt solar panel on a custom articulating mount, regulated by a basic charge regulator by Flexcharge designed to simultaneously charge my gel-type house bank, and sealed lead acid cranking battery.

I obtain excellent results from this simple system with a total house-capacity of 200 Ah. Offshore my electrical demand is limited to LED navigation and interior lights, the legacy 176C GPSmap Garmin chart plotter, and ICOM IC-M304 VHF radio. I occasionally also use my Victron 12/350 Pure Sine Wave Inverter for AC power to charge laptops, phones, cameras, InReach tracker, handheld VHF radio, and Iridium 9555 sat phone. That’s it! All other systems aboard Solstice and manual mechanical.

I often run during the day with ZERO electrical demand when I can articulate my basic 15 watt solar panel on its zenith to the Sun; this will register a full 14.1 volts of potential energy on both my house and cranking banks! I don’t use an amp meter computer because I monitor my electrical consumption in a hand table scribed in my logbook, but I’ve often thought about adding one, but haven’t yet seen the need aboard my Solstice.

As an amazing data point!!! I sailed Solstice 2,700nm from Cabo San Lucas to Hawaii in May 2018, a trip duration of 18 days, four hours, and my electrical system for the entire passage was powered by solar charging via my articulating 15 watt panel, supplemented by a TOTAL of 3 HOURS of engine run-time to activate the alternator … now that’s efficiency!

When I get around to installing DC-USB receptacles aboard Solstice to charge phones and InReach tracker, I can really minimize my use of the Victron inverter and save even more power. 

FUTURE SYSTEM UPGRADES FOR A SIMPLE BLUEWATER SAILBOAT: I designed and built Solstice from the perspective of a 25-35 year old sailor because that’s how old I was during her construction. At the age of 52 now, and with thousands of bluewater miles sailed since her launch in 2002, I can only think of a few ways I’d improve Solstice without designing a completely different boat.

1) Solstice’s cabin house is curtailed just aft of her mast, a feature I truly love about the boat because it makes working at the mast safer, makes a large foredeck, and looks great! However, I would provide a few more inches of head room forward of the main bulkhead in the head and v-berth cabin (this is not easy to change at this point), but I could lower the cabin sole slightly in that area to give more space to move around in.

2a) The following changes I plan to implement: improve Solstice’s anchoring system by going to all chain anchor rode of 3/8” BBB x 300’, she presently has 65’ of the same chain and 250’ of 3/4” 3-strand nylon. I believe an all chain rode will NOT weigh down the bow as I initially thought, and an all chain rode will be easier to retrieve and stow given that Solstice doesn’t have a deck accessible anchor locker, instead her rode passes through a hawse pipe in the foredeck directly below the windlass gypsy. 2b) I will remove the sub-floor I glassed into the anchor locker to allow the chain to pass completely to the stem of the hull and afterward into a small rode stowage locker underneath the forward section of the v-berth. 2c) I will also modify my recently upgraded manual windlass (Simpson Lawrence SeaTiger 555) by replacing the port-side drum with a second gypsy to allow a second all chain anchor rode to be available from bow. This will require me to glass-in a centerline partition that keeps the port and starboard all-chain anchor rodes separate. 2d) I will add a second 35 pound CQR anchor to the port-side bow roller as an immediately accessible second anchor; I have had extremely good fortune with the CQR over the 16 years I’ve actively sailed Solstice, and that anchor profile also fits my bow roller and bowsprit platform rather well. The final impetus for my upgrade to Solstice’s anchoring system is the fact that I now lead expeditions in Hawaiian waters where deeper roadsted anchorages is the norm, and it’s difficult to locate large suitable patches of sand to anchor in that are not also surrounded by sharp lava rock. I believe that all-chain will be less susceptible to chafe against lava rock when the wind direction shifts in the middle of the night along the coasts of the Hawaiian islands caused by high elevation volcanic terrain that complicates the Trade Wind pattern with geographic funneling and diurnal effects. I feel the prudent need to routinely set dual anchors in Hawaiian waters, and have the provision to easily set and retrieve dual anchors will greatly improve her safety.

3) The height of Solstice’s boom above the cockpit is relatively low and poses a problem to add a Bimini because the sailor would lose all standing head room in the cockpit. Although the boat is in need of sun protection in the cockpit, I’ve always felt that adding a Bimini would be a greater detriment for lack of standing maneuverability. At anchor or under engine power for prolonged periods, I rig a sun awning over the cockpit and cabin which greatly cuts-down on sun exposure. However, the addition of a dodger is a feature I’ve considered adding as this would alleviate all salt spray from entering the cabin through the companionway with the hatch is slid open. Since Solstice has relatively low freeboard, the dodger would truly be a welcomed addition to protect the interior from saltwater, although I must spend some time on the aesthetics of the dodger design to not ruin her beautiful lines that are accentuated by unhindered appearance of the cabin house.

4) The addition a water maker would make Solstice a better offshore vessel. Her offshore crew of three would have plenty of water for daily showers, plus extra capacity for drinking. I really like the Spectra PowerSurvivor 40E which draws 4 Amps and produces 1.5 gallons of water each hour. It’s small size would allow a simple installation inside Solstice’s engine room. With a water maker, we could bathe with one gallon of water everyday, produce extra drinking water, and have a redundant freshwater system for only 3 hours of run-time each day. Our routing options would greatly increase should we need to navigate around storms.