It's Boat of the Year Time Again

BOTY directory Tony Bessinger shares a few memories from contests past and previews this year's entries. "Gear Up" from our October 9, 2008, /SW eNewsletter/


Courtesy Laser Performance

Every year around Columbus Day, three sailors gather in Annapolis, Md., to decide which new boat will be Sailing World's latest overall Boat of the Year. This year's judges include Chuck Allen, director of North Sails One Design New England, Greg Stewart, a designer at Nelson/Marek Yacht Design, and Barrett Holby, a high-tech boatbuilder. The three are also avid racers, and are well versed in both inshore and offshore racing. Perhaps the most important thing about these judges is the fact that they have no allegiance to any of the boats they test, or the companies that are selling them, and are beholden to nobody for the final decision they make, including Sailing World's editorial or sales staff.

Other publications and websites may award "Best Of" trophies, but for 24 years, Sailing World's philosophy has been to let independent judges decide what's best. A lot of times their choices have been spot on, as in 1994, when they chose the Melges 24 as the Boat of the Year, and in 1998, when they chose the Farr 40. Other years, choices were made that had noticeably less of an impact on the marketplace.

For six years, one of my jobs at Sailing World has been Boat of the Year director, a rather grandiose title for a job that mostly involves scheduling and making sure the BOTY judges have what they need to perform their tasks. The perks of the job far outweigh the labor involved. Every year I get to spend a week with fellow sailors as enthusiastic about the sport as I, and get to sail 15 or more of the newest, fastest, coolest production boats available in the United States. We've sailed in conditions ranging from zero knots of windspeed to over 40, depending upon the whim of the Chesapeake at the time. We've flown hulls on big cats, spun out crossover racers, and enjoyed the best and worst of what sailing has to offer. On one memorable occasion, a certain BOTY judge who I'll not name here, convinced me to test sail a 16-foot dinghy with him. Big mistake. Normally, I don't sail the dinghies with the judges, as they fall out of my area of expertise and, at 6'3", 240 pounds, I'm not exactly a dinghy-sized person. After a few minutes of benign test sailing, the judge leapt from his seat on the rail, dashed forward to the mast, and started pulling it over as hard as he could. His intent was to capsize us, of course, but I was equally intent on staying dry. A mighty battle of balance raged for a good four minutes, which Walter Cooper, our longtime BOTY photographer, dutifully recorded, his camera shutter set on automatic. Finally, the nimbleness of the judge outweighed my acrobatics, and over we went. When I look at the photo sequence now, I laugh my ass off. But at the time, I was as mad as a wet editor can be. As an indication of how well I was raised, the judge is still with us, and still judging BOTY for SW.

This year's lineup of 17 entries promises to be a good one, especially from my point of view, because I see only two boats that might get me really wet, and there's no way in the world that I'm going to set foot on either one with the aforementioned judge. The Bug from Laser Performance is an 8'5" rotomolded boat designed for beginning sailors, and the RS Tera is a 9'5" planing dinghy. Other than those two, we're mostly looking at larger crossover designs, such as the Archambault 35, Archambault 40, Dufour Performance 40+, Summit King 40, Finngulf 43, X-34, Santa Cruz 37, Sunfast 3200, Grand Soleil 43, and Bavaria 38. Thrown into the mix are some more high-performance designs, such as the Melges 20, the M 65 (an Open-Class Mini), the BC 27, Andrews 28, and the Summit MD 35.

Our three judges, tailed by me to make sure they don't escape into the nearest beer tent, especially on Sunday when the football's on, will walk the docks at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis this weekend and inspect each boat dockside, digging into the interior, looking at fit-and-finish, and talking to the designers or factory reps. From Tuesday through Friday, we'll take to the waters of the Chesapeake and sail each boat thoroughly, trying in an hour-and-a-half to get a feel for the boat and its performance. It may not sound like a long time, but if the breeze cooperates, it's plenty of time to sail upwind and down, tack and jibe, and even pull a few race maneuvers, such as a 720 and a practice start. Each evening the judges will discuss the boats they sailed that day, and I'll take notes. On Friday, they'll sit down for a longer session, talk through the numbers and how each judge feels about each boat, and come up with an overall winner as well as category winners. Next Saturday, we'll all fly home and try to convince our significant others how hard we've been working all week.

Look for the announcement of our 2009 winners online in mid-December, and in the January issue of SW. Meanwhile, specifications and photos of the BOTY class of 2009 are available here.