Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shearwater 39

Sheer Tenacity on an early test cruise outside Hout Bay.
Photo taken with a cellphone, but its one of my favourites!

The ultimate cruiser should have a (1) traditional soul and good looks, (2) easily handled, (3) comfortable at sea, (4) safe as a house, (5) great to live in (6) affordable (7) fast! - not necessarily in that order. My definition of course, but if you agree then the Shearwater 39 is one of the best examples around. The example I am most familiar with is Rod and Mary's "Sheer Tenacity" - now cruising very happily in the Caribbean ( Rod and Mary are great folks and members of Hout Bay Bay Yacht Club, and the story behind the boat and its name is quite interesting, I'll tag it below as an add-on for those interested.

Hout Bay Yacht Club has had several Shearwater 39's around, and almost all our old salts have done time on them, including of course Dudley Dix, the designer. Another notable one is "Ukulele Lady", which belonged to our illustrious singer and radio personality Nick Taylor, another member of the club, and which saw an interesting party off to Rio just a few years ago. There's also Chris Hull's Sea Lion, and of course Peter Muziks's Shoestring, all well known to us, besides many others I don't recall the names of. The original one however, was conceived and commissioned by Gerfried Nebe (our local celebrity boat builder, who built his in wood). As I remember - Gerfried - who had done some extensive cruising in a Miura - wanted something bigger and faster, but not losing any of the great qualities of the Miura (see earlier post). Dudley Dix was automatically selected for this important job - our resident designer guru! - and came up with the Shearwater 39.

How does she match the definition I posted as the ultimate cruiser?

Traditional Soul and Good looks!
Sailboat Cruising is undoubtedly a romantic pursuit! Spice islands, parties abroad, storms, adventure and sheer bliss in the warm climes. Why do this in a slab-sided boat, or a tupperware for that matter?  

Traditional cabin top, portholes, wooden trim, butterfly hatches, bowsprit and cutter rig! Shearwaters are popular wherever they go, and amazingly people treat you better when you have a good looking traditional looking boat!

Easily handled
The Shearwater 39 has a cutter rig (sloop cutter) - a proper cutter rig, which not only looks good - it makes the sails smaller and easy to handle. This also reduces the loads on the winches and rig, making her safer and stronger, with great options for reduced sail in storm conditions. The moderate keel and skeg-hung rudder make her quite responsive and manouevrable, and the flat deck surfaces are easy to move on. The moderate beam and and moderate keel (with rudder well aft) make sure she will track well too. With the usual amenities of a stack pack, roller furlers, and an autohelm, she is easily shorthanded by a cruising couple. A cruising asymmetrical on a furler or with a snuffer is normal.

Comfortable at Sea
Fine clipper bow, moderate wineglass sections, moderate displacement/length, good flare in the bows, excellent weight distribution  - you don't get really much better in a cruising hull. Add the deep aft cockpit - the only other parameter that can increase comfort is size, but at 39' and > 9 tons you are already rubbing shoulders with the big guys. Shearwaters tend to be reassuringly stiff and stay reasonably level, good qualities for passagemaking. Its the sort of boat one would agree to sail "back from Rio" as I have heard more than once in the bar.

Safe as a House
Let's not forget the Skipper and the Builder have equal responsibilities in the safety department. But design-wise - you need a  boat with a good stability curve, a fair bit of overall mass ideally, a safe cockpit, manageable rig, and decent steering. Additionally, good buoyancy in the ends, and a secure galley station. Tick them all.

Great to Live in
The Shearwater has a cavernous interior - really big for a 39-er. The layout is conventional and simple, with the usual Dix idea of having the engine under the galley counter. In a 39' boat this works very well for many reasons (engine acess, weight distribution, prop-shaft angle, secure galley area), while not intruding in any way. The cockpit is economical in size for a 39-er, but ideal for its intended purpose as a passagemaker, and a liveaboard boat, where one wants to optimise the sailing aspect and accommodations below. It places everything at the hand of the skipper, and is ideal for singlehanding. It is more than adequate for a small party in harbour (been to several!). The Shearwater was originally designed to have a tiller - and I guess thats what I'd have - but nearly all now have wheels. The tiller folds away in harbour, is trouble free and simple, and looks good, while the wheel takes less strength to handle, and appears to be expected now in boats this size . . .?

I guess this is relative! However the Shearwater makes use of simple materials, low rig stresses, smaller winches, transom rudder etc. It offers the accommodation of a much larger boat, due to the cabin roof and cockpit shape. The traditional looks make it very attractive without resorting to high-tech adornments like carbon wheels and fancy rigs - they are essentially semi-corinthian but look like an art classic! Best of all - Shearwaters hold their value very well and are treasured by cruisers all over the world. (The Shearwater brand is famous for the Shearwater 45, which received  "Best Traditional Voyager" and "Best Cruising Boat" in the Cruising World Boat of the Year 2001 Awards.

The traditional topsides hide a very advanced underbody, and the rig and keel are very powerful, on all points of sail. So the Shearwater goes much faster than it looks. It even goes faster than fast-looking boats sometimes. Peter Muzik on Shoestring did a blistering time (10 days) to St Helena a few years ago - in the Governor's Cup race.  Dudley explains this better in his own commentary, but my experience is identical - pacing Sheer Tenacity with a DiDi 34, I was very suprised how she moved, and with the comfort and dignity of a battleship. The "enigma" of the Shearwater is shown in the picture below. The fine wavepiercing bow has quite a deep foot, giving her waterline length in front, while the flat run to the traditional oval shaped transom is more than a bit sporty, particularly if she's heeling a bit . . . . " See for more commentary on their perfromance.

note also the simple semi-balanced transom rudder on that traditional stern - it really "looks the business"

Shearwaters have any vices? Are they perfect?
This is what I asked Rod Turner Smith after about two years of ownership and one year of cruising, mostly passagemaking.
Rod had this to say: "Justin, a lot earlier in our travels, you asked if I felt that the Shearwater was the ideal cruising boat. We have now done just over 4000nm in "Sheer Tenacity" since we left Cape Town last month, and have had time to assess her performance , and time to learn how best to trim and sail her. The answer is unequivocally YES!! She is an absolute joy, and a real passage maker! Not only is she good on all points of sail, but she is naturally fast, spacious, and better ventilated than any other boat I know. She is also a real "looker", and commented upon wherever you go! A great combination of classical elegance, and efficient yacht design. Her reputation preceeds her, and people from all over the world recognise them, and respect them. Gerfied and Dudley certainly hit the jackpot with this boat, and I cannot believe that only about 25 of each size were built, and.. that we are lucky enough to own one!

So Rod seems more than happy! Having said all that - each boat is designed for a specific purpose, and all are compromises. The Shearwater is the sort of bluewater cruiser you would buy if you want to go places and really sail, including the Southern Ocean if necessary. If you specifically need shoal-draft, or a large enclosed centre cockpit for very cold climes, or a floating caravan, etc you may want to look a bit more widely. But if the Shearwater meets your needs - look no further!

See for another amazing account of "Ithaka", owned and sailed by Bernadette Bernon, the editor-in-chief of Cruising World for over ten years. When she picked a boat for her own cruising - it was the Shearwater 39. They voted it "Boat of the Year" in 2001 I think.

See for the Dudley's comments and the technical detail.

The story behind Sheer Tenacity, as I observed it, anyway:

Rod and Mary, originally from JHB where they were enthusiastic outdoor lovers and 4x4 enthusiasts, moved to Hout Bay a few years ago to escape the rat race etc etc. In no time at all, they had bought a Miura (4x4 of the sea), called Tenacity (mentioned earlier in this blog), and practically rebuilt her - including a full osmosis treatment done at home, and basically everything new. Rod - never one for half measures - received a terminal dose of the sailing bug - and simultaneously bought a large old Roberts boat (about 53' if memory serves) - called "Gambula" or similar, with the goal of doing some extended cruising. Gambula came with loads of good kit - mast, rig, engines etc, and Rod moved her up to their house in Meadows (across the road from the Nebes in fact). Then he started working on her. I guess it was quite fortunate that it happened right in the first few days - he fell through the rotten hull near the stern! One can only imagine the suprise and emotion that this must cause - I don't have the words for this kind of thing. At least not printable ones. A "chainsaw party" followed and that was it for Gambula. Anyway, never being one to lay down and give up, Rod and Mary took a quick decision to sell their beloved rebuilt Miura (yes I know), and buy the last new Shearwater mould from Achesons yard. Again this was a bit testing because the yard was being liquidated and they had to move it out p.d.q. at one point. Then came a long and arduous job of fitting it out - Rod worked fulltime for about a year and a bit to do this, moving much of the kit over from Gambula, which was still perfect. The woordwork and standard of finishing was damm good if I may say, and the rigging, fitting and electrics all top class. Eventually she was launched and Rod and Mary sold their (rather lovely) house and moved in to her in Hout Bay, taking a year or so to get everything sorted before going cruising. She is not called Sheer Tenacity for nothing! - and remains an inspiration on how to convert adversity to advantage! Read their blog!