New and Cool From Strictly Sail Chicago

The exhibition hall of Chicago's Navy Pier was chock full of new boats and race gear for 2005. Here are a few SW's favorites.

With Lake Michigan looking more like a frozen Arctic Sea, it's no wonder Midwestern sailors flocked to the big winter boat show known as Strictly Sail Chicago. For four days in January they piled into the exhibition pavilion of Chicago's Navy Pier to look under the cockpit hatches of the latest cruising boats, to load up on knick-knacks and discounted foul weather gear, check in with their sailmakers, and talk shop with everyone from rope to hardware manufactures. Some were even smart enough to book discounted Caribbean charters. You name it, the big names in the sailing industry were present, and unlike the fall boatshows where exhibitors tend to offload their end-of-year inventory, this show had lots of new stuff in the offing. Three steps into the show's main entrance was a spread of one-design dinghies, among them, the ever-popular Flying Scot and Lightning, and even the Buccaneer 18. The Buccaneer (designed by Rod McAlpine-Downie and Dick Gibbs) is a relatively unknown doublehander, and its presence at the show is testament to the one-design philosophy of never letting a good design die. The Buccaneer may have faded yesterday, but today, with Nickels Boat Works (a Lightning class builder) expecting to crank out a dozen new boats this year, we'll be seeing as many as 30 teams at their Nationals in Burlington, Vermont, in August. Aside from its small-production build quality, Nickels spared nothing to bring the "Bucc" into modern times with a Mylar jib, spinnaker bow launch system, and complete Harken Carbo Block setup. We're told a new "Bucc"-fully rigged and with trailer-can be hauled away from the Nickels shop (in Fenton, Mich.) for about $15,000. Deeper onto the show floor, flanked by massive cruiser/racers from Beneteau, Dehler, Hunter, and others, Melges Boatworks, ever-popular here in Scow country, flaunted its venerable MC scow, its new 17-foot high-flying M17, and its Key West Race Week PHRF-winning Melges 32. Without a doubt, the M32 was the highest-tech boat on the show floor (discounting the Miss Wisconsin Land and Ice Yacht), and the stream of showgoers climbing on and off the M32 never waned. Melges salesman Andy Burdick says orders for both the 17 and 32 were coming at a steady pace-a pace he hoped was not too fast for the Caribbean builders at Soca Boats in Trinidad. On to the soft gear, Gill rolled out a few teasers from its 2005 line, many of which emphasized their attention to improving the "details"-watertight zippers, streamlined designs, and "hipper" colors (grays and blues). The highlight of the 2005 line is the RTC line (round the cans) designed specifically for keelboat sailors. In my opinion, the Keelboat Racer Smock and Salopettes could be Gill's best combination yet. For the many bow chicks out there, you'll be happy to know they now have an exclusive women's bow smock, too. Gill's first trapeze harnesses years ago were marginal at best, but their new trap harness is 200 percent better. Without actually wearing it, it's impossible to say how good it is, but it has a bunch of great attributes (back support rods, mesh panels, minimal adjustment straps, and RWO's quick-release attachment. For the straight-leg hiking sailor, Gill also has an excellent new 3/4-length farmer-john-style padded wetsuit hiking pant. From folks at Henri Lloyd, we were told to look out for their new Shadow Jacket and Sallopettes this spring. This kit will use a "next-generation" version of their TP2 fabric (it's called TP2 Alpha) and they claim it will be their highest-tech gear yet. They didn't have any product at the show, but they assure us it will have state-of-art waterproofness and If you've always coveted your buddy's pair of Dubarry sea boots and/or plan to by some for yourself, wait until March when Marine Trading Company (Vermont), the U.S. rep for Dubarry will offer the Dubarry One-Design boot, a shorter boot with all the same waterproof, breathable leather, and high-grip sole features of other Dubarry boots. MTC, which also distributes Spinlock in the U.S., says they'll also have available re-designed Powerclutch rope clutches featuring a "release tab" that allows you to put the handle in its closed position while leaving the clutch jaws open. This, says MTC's Alex Foster, is to prevent crew from stepping on and breaking clutch arms when they're in the open position. Spinlock's PX cam cleats have been redesigned, now with a smaller, more streamlined casing. If you're trading up from your Dacron sails to a high-tech laminate, all the rope manufactures tells us it's just as important to upgrade your sheets and halyards, too. Sure they're in the business of selling rope, but their logic does hold water: laminate sails hold shape better, so to take advantage of that, your sheets (and halyards, for that matter) should have equal performance. While they all have their new offerings, one that caught our attention was the Samson Apex, a 12-strand single-braid blend of Dyneema and MFP. Says Samson: "Perfect for sheets-low-stretch, floats, won't kink, and easy on the hands." From New England Ropes comes Bzzz and Salsa, the former a 12-strand single braid of Dyneema and "spun" polyester. Buzz was used on the Melges 32 mainsheet and has similar qualities to the Apex, with the spun polyester giving it an even softer feel. The Salsa is a updated version of their classic Regatta braid with a blend of Dyneema/Spectra and spun polyester-"easy to grip and kink free. From the "service" ranks, we found an interesting operation with a company called SailTime. Their concept is to offer a "gym membership" approach to sailing. In a specific location (there are now many), a fleet (starting with one) is made available (a boat from Hunter Marine's line). Each boat has an "owner" and up to seven "members" associated with it. Membership is $5,000 for a season (approx. $450), which entitles a member to at least seven uses during the month. Scheduling, logistics, and boat management are handled electronically (with a PDA). The SailTime base owner overseas the actual maintenance of the boat. There are many bases in the U.S., all using Hunter models, but in Europe they've partnered with Beneteau. While this is primarily a business to get would-be owners on the water, it could also be an easy way to get you and seven of your friends into a weekly beer can series-and never once having to pay slip, haul out, or maintenance fees. For more on the Chicago Strictly Sail and other Sail America shows: