In paging through some pre-World War II copies of The Rudder, a long-since defunct yachting magazine, it’s difficult not to be awed by line drawings depicting the “latest” craft; designs by L. Francis Herreshoff, John Alden, Phil Rhodes, Sparkman & Stephens, among others, their detailed line drawings flowing off the pages like so much poetry. It doesn’t take long, however, for a gearhead to realize that the majority of even the comparatively modern creations provide anything more than a modest accommodation for an engine (some make no provision for that) and little else in the way of gear. In all fairness, the galley for most of these designs includes an alcohol stove (often a two-burner), a sink with hand pump, and an icebox. In their day, however, these yachts were considered anything but Spartan. There simply was little else that could be installed in the way of modern accoutrements other than, perhaps, an enclosed, flushable head, although this indispensable — by today’s standards — piece of plumbing is conspicuous by its absence aboard some of these classic designs.
Even today’s yacht designs differ markedly from those conceived just a generation ago, thanks to the profusion of reliable, readily available, well-engineered and affordable accessories. I clearly remember strolling down the dock where our family’s modest runabout was berthed in the 1960s, asking my older brother why very few boats had those single yellow or black dock lines. In fact, those were the rare boats that were equipped with shore power and were set up with the scant 120-volt options — such as a battery charger and water heater — that were available then.
Today, it would be rare indeed for even a modest cruising vessel to leave the factory without at least a single shore-power receptacle and a few of the accessories powered by this umbilical cord. Beyond that, however, a host of other shipboard items have found their way aboard, to increase the comfort and convenience of cruising. Examples include reverse-osmosis (RO) watermakers, refrigeration, air conditioning, bow thrusters, inverters, compact AC and DC generators, large house battery banks and their attendant high-output alternator/regulator packages, as well as propane stoves and their American Boat & Yacht Council-compliant liquid propane storage and distribution systems.
Add to this plethora of gadgets the now nearly ubiquitous radar unit — a luxury once reserved for the Navy, Coast Guard, merchant ships and large yachts. It’s rare to encounter a cruising vessel today that does not use some type of computer, either laptop or desktop. It has also become de rigueur to insulate the cruising vessel’s reefer and freezer compartments, in an attempt to conserve precious amp-hours.
The concern revolving around nearly all of these issues may be distilled to one term: real estate. If you opt to cruise with some or all of this gear (Let’s face it, if expense were not an object, who would turn down an unlimited supply of hot, fresh water after a long, cold watch, or ice cream in the tropics?) you’ll need room to install it. Regardless of whether the gear is installed in a new or more mature vessel, it will have to be accessible for service and — in the event of overall failure — removable without performing major surgery on the hull or deck.
Designs driven by electrical
and electronic systems
Few would argue with the assertion that the greatest profusion of newfangled marine gear requires electricity. In fact, gear that is designed to do nothing other than distribute electricity to other gear takes up a great deal of space; the primary example of this is the modern electrical-distribution panel. Vessels designed and built from the 1960s through the 1980s often included a modest DC electrical panel of perhaps 10 or 12 fuses or circuit breakers to serve the electrical needs of a 40-foot vessel. AC service, if present at all, may have included three circuits, a water heater, battery charger and galley receptacle for a coffee percolator or toaster. (Microwaves, although available, were behemoths not often found in homes, much less aboard boats.)
The state of the art in fuel filtration. Tandem water-separating filters allow for an instant fresh filter simply by turning a valve, plus there is a filter for the genset. This system works extremely well; however, its footprint is large, so designing it into the boat is desirable.
Today’s electrical panels are far more complex, as well as being physically larger. A 40-foot cruising vessel may require 20 or 30 DC breakers (Fuses are part of a bygone era, thankfully.) and six or eight AC breakers, as well as ampere and voltmeters for both. Many modern designers and naval architects have incorporated this assemblage tastefully into nav-station bulkheads or behind hinged acrylic panels.
Aboard an older boat undergoing a refit, this necessary equipment may be more challenging to accommodate. Fortunately, there is healthy competition in the marine electrical-panel-manufacturing market, so custom and semi-custom panels are available for such applications. Where space is at a premium, and it often is on older vessels, a custom panel, or a number of smaller panels located in otherwise unusable bulkhead space, may suffice.
Battery banks, much like electrical panels, have also grown considerably in the past two or three decades. This explosion of amp-hour storage capacity is a direct result of the technological advances in charging systems. Automotive alternators and regulators simply were not capable of charging large battery banks quickly. Smart, multistep regulators have changed all that, and as a result, it is not uncommon to encounter 400 and 500+ amp-hour battery banks aboard even the smallest passagemakers.
However, the problem remains, where to put all this electrical storage capacity? New vessels are, fortunately, addressing this problem with purpose-designed, sturdy and durable battery trays or boxes. Ventilation, access and security in a seaway are key concerns in this process, and some present-day boatbuilders and refit yards have addressed the problem better than others. Light-duty, plastic buckles and strap-eyes secured with short tapping screws are simply not up to the task of securing a 100-lb battery in an offshore vessel.
Once again, where older-vessel refits are concerned, finding room for a large battery bank can be quite difficult. Although not ideal, this challenge can be surmounted by spreading batteries out, locating a few smaller batteries in different compartments rather than placing them all in one location. This approach often requires additional and heavier cabling; however, it may actually be beneficial to vessel trim and sea-keeping characteristics.
When Herreshoff, Alden, Rhodes and Stephens designed their first boats, navigation equipment consisted of a compass, watch, taffrail log and, for those headed offshore, a sextant. Today, that’s changed considerably. Compact, inexpensive GPS units, along with radar, chart plotters and cell phones have revolutionized recreational cruising. Today’s new designs frequently incorporate copious amounts of flat-panel space at the nav station to accommodate the current crop of electronics. The once sparsely equipped nav table, featuring a VHF radio and Hecta sailing instruments, is a distant memory.
The refit yard tasked with updating an older vessel’s electronic equipment will often find a daunting undertaking. Flat-panel displays, keyboards and hard drives are simply difficult to incorporate into 1960s cabin styling, which was designed when this gear could only be seen on episodes of Star Trek and Lost in Space. Creativity becomes the byword of the electronics retrofit technician, along with a modicum of skillful joinerwork. An upgraded cockpit pedestal can hold a considerable amount of multifunction gear, or enlarged nav-station bulkhead with remotely mounted “brain boxes” &mdash the guts, rather than display, portion of the gear &mdash which can be mounted out of the way.
Designs driven by propulsion engines and gensets
It’s interesting that while the horsepower-to-weight ratio of diesel engines has shrunk considerably over the past 25 years, engine rooms seem to have grown. There is a reason for this seeming contradiction. Many new-vessel designers have, thankfully, realized that the vessels they conceive will actually be sailed, and they will suffer from mechanical failures. This will necessitate fitting the vessel’s skipper or a mechanic into the engineering space to effect repairs. If the skipper and/or mechanic can’t fit into that space to work on the engine, sales will suffer.
Additionally, many designers and new-boat manufacturers are aware of the fact that much of today’s accessory equipment can be installed in the engine compartment provided, it’s not susceptible to damage from high heat and the occasional oil, fuel or coolant spill. The trend in the past few years has been a transition of engineering spaces from a locker that is scarcely bigger than the engine block it houses, to spacious compartments and rooms.
The additional room no doubt offers enhanced accessibility at the expense of crew accommodation space. New-boat buyers appear, however, to be willing to make this sacrifice, knowing that it will pay dividends in the future. Modern, larger engineering spaces are capable of accommodating other gear, such as water heaters (both conventional and diesel-fired), sophisticated fuel-filtration and polishing equipment, multiple high-output alternators and hydraulic power takeoffs, as well as vibration-damping isolated drive systems.
The now-familiar refrain of the refit yard, “Where are we going to put all this stuff?” rings true where traditional engine compartments are concerned. Engine lockers of old are often cramped and difficult to access. The primary concern of any mature diesel-engine owner (those with at least 6,000 hours on the clock) is: Can the engine be removed without cutting away companionway thresholds or hatches? For older vessels, the answer is sometimes, sadly, no. New-vessel designers and builders appear to be more conscious of this, and for the most part, modern vessels are not built around an engine. (This is a question well worth determining prior to any purchase, new or used.)
The saving grace in this case is the aforementioned diesel-engine shrinkage factor. Repowering projects in the boatyard I manage often involve a net increase in horsepower for the same package size, gaining a few more horses, while maintaining the footprint. The new, more powerful engine, may actually weigh less than its predecessor.
Accessibility isn’t necessarily enhanced unless the joinerwork is modified, a task that is usually simple enough if undertaken after the defunct engine has been removed.
Many of the above caveats hold true for generators, too. So many new vessels are being designed to at least accommodate a generator, even if it’s not installed at the factory. The average 40-foot cruising sloop designed even 10 years ago rarely would have had the room to make a generator installation possible. Today, thanks to ultra-compact generators and evolving vessel designs, many incorporate generator and propulsion engine in one space, economizing sound insulation and fuel supply.
Other systems that benefit from planning while a vessel is on the drawing board include bow thrusters, RO watermakers, diesel-fired domestic hot-water/heat and fuel-polishing systems. While a bow thruster can be retrofitted into nearly any vessel, when the designer incorporates this as an option into the vessel’s hull, providing enough room for the tube to be glassed into place, as well as clearance for the drive motor in the forward cabin area, the installation is considerably less painful. Many new-boat manufacturers offer bow thrusters as a factory option, ideal from the standpoint of entrusting critical glass work to the same people you trusted to build the rest of the boat.
As is the case for all afterthoughts, installing a bow thruster after the vessel is built, where no provisions have been made for access or drive gear, can be quite time consuming and expensive. In extreme cases, where older vessels are being fit with bow thrusters, it is sometimes necessary to choose the bow thruster make and model based on what will fit versus what is ideally suited to the application. Or modifications must be carried out on forward V-berth, raising it so that enough clearance is available for installation of the drive gear.
Watermakers also present the designer with an opportunity to integrate equipment into the vessel’s overall layout. Where older-vessel refits are concerned, installing even the most compact watermakers means forfeiting some percentage of already inadequate storage space. In some cases, I’ve had customers who have opted to remove one of a vessel’s two water tanks in order to make room for a watermaker, reasoning that so much storage is no longer necessary. When many of these vessels were designed, RO watermakers were large, expensive and power hungry, if available at all.
Refitting an older, classic (and proven) design remains a popular and often cost-effective means of going to sea. Fitting all the accessories and gear aboard a revamped cruiser can, however, present a considerable, though not insurmountable, challenge.
New vessel designs have evolved considerably over the last decade. Many have steadily improved performance and accommodation spaces, as well as support of systems and equipment that make cruising much more pleasurable.
Contributing Editor Steve C. D’Antonio is a freelance writer and the boatyard manager of Zimmerman Marine in Mathews, Va.