At the conclusion of Sailing World’s annual Boat of the Year test week in Annapolis, Maryland, it was clear to this sailing writer that there really is a boat for every sailor, and a sailor for every boat. In other words, the Boat of the Year fleet presented to the judges was more diverse and eclectic than it’s ever been—and that’s a good thing, because variety is the spice of the sailing life.
Come sail-test time last week, our three judges—pro-sailor Chuck Allen, naval architect Greg Stewart, and longtime SW contributor David Powlison—got their hands on 13 nominees. With the postponement of our Boat of the Year program in 2020, we had the addition of two important carryovers—the Dehler 30 One-Design and the Melges 15—alongside four dinghies, three performance cruiser/racers (what we call “crossovers” for simplicity’s sake), two bona- fide day sailors, and a pair of performance catamarans capable of mixing it up in the occasional race like the Caribbean Multihull Challenge in St. Maarten. We’ll call this new breed of two-hulled cruiser/racers “crossover cats.”
The first day of sailing tests was dubbed “dinghy day” with the early-morning launch of the inflatable Happy Cat Hurricane from Grabner; the rotomolded Topaz Fusion; Fulcrum Speedworks’ Rocket, and the Melges 15. With 10 to 15 knots of northerly breeze and flat water, the judges rotated through the boats with smiles all morning long.
Perhaps the most surprising was the performance of the Happy Cat Hurricane, which, on land came across as more gimmicky than racy. Grabner is a German boat manufacturer none of us had ever heard of, and frankly we’re not sure why. “Happy Cats are the crowning achievements of 60 years of travel sailing catamaran,” the brochure reads. How is it possible we’ve missed six decades of inflatable catamaran fun?
But each of the other dinghies delivered great sailing, too. The Fusion is a single or doublehander may be ideal for kids and families, but it handled just fine with a full-sized judge. Fulcrum’s Rocket is a new take on the old Phantom, which is easily mistaken for a Sunfish. Dave Clark, the scientist behind the Rocket, also builds the UFO foiling catamaran in Bristol, Rhode Island, and is a firm believer in making small-boat sailing easier, more accessible, and more affordable. With this boat, he’s delivered on all three fronts.
The Melges 15, which is now being produced at full capacity in Zenda, Wisconsin, was the speedster of the day, with Allen practically disappearing over the horizon (singlehanded) after setting the gennaker. Pitched as a pathway boat for junior sailors (an alternative to the 420 universe), the judges felt the Melges 15 is much, much more than a youth boat…it’s the sort of boat that’ll make any adult sailor feel young again.
The miracle of all miracles, especially for Annapolis in the fall, was the northerly stuck around for two days and remained strong enough to allow the judges to get an appropriate feel for the capabilities of the Dehler 30 One Design, the J/9, with “the most comfortable J Boat cockpit ever” (yes, they sailed with cushions and all) and the Tartan 245, which is designed primarily for sailing schools and club racing.
The day sailors preceded the crossovers, which included the ORC World Championship-winning Grand Soleil 44, the impressively styled Elan GT6, and the Salona 44 with its hydro-generating electric engines. Each were individually evaluated with the mindset of club and navigator-style racing, and which would be most ideal for an amateur team to get around the track and be capable of the occasional getaway extended cruise. Open, airy and bright interiors are the latest look and interior volume seems to be at an all-time high.
The final day of testing arrived with a southerly sea breeze and slightly more seaway, which was ideal for testing our two crossover catamarans, which were main attractions at the U.S. Sailboat Show, which reported record attendance. Both are South African-built vessels but their similarities end there. One need only peek under the hood of the Kinetic to better grasp its three-million-dollar price tag. Highly sophisticated in its build and its systems, the judges all agreed the Kinetic performed as well as it looked on the dock, but the same was true for the smaller million-dollar Balance catamaran. Even with their respective dinghies dangling from davits, both boats delivered the true sensation of speed and comfort that is the modern-day performance cruising cat. Transplant either one of these boats to a breezy point-to-point racecourse and not a sailor among us would be disappointed with the experience, especially when the furled sails are stowed and the beverages served.
As our testing ended, so too did our ideal window of sunshine and breeze, leaving the judges to hunker round the deliberation table to dive into the merits of each and every boat to determine our winners. Soon, we’ll announce our Boat of the Year and those deemed best of the rest, but until then, all we can say is there is indeed a boat for every sailor so get out there and experience what’s right for you, new or used, big or small.