Our Modern Magellans: OCEAN-SPANNING MOTOR TRAWLERS

Jim Bloom
Sea Classics

Feb 29, 2008 19:00 EST

Have you ever dreamed of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in your own boat? To the uninitiated it may seem like a fantasy. Although sailors have been crossing oceans for hundreds of years, the era of couples cruising the world in small powerboats is just beginning. On 16 May 2004, a fleet of 18 "trawler yachts," from 40- to 90-ft length overall, departed Port Everglades, Florida, en route to Bermuda, their first stop on their epic Atlantic Ocean crossing. The idea was to take ("shepherd" may be a better word) a group of 20 or 30 Nordhavns and similar trawler yachts across the Atlantic in a group, to prove that well-prepared recreationalboat owners could navigate a properly designed, properly equipped powerboat across the ocean. The fleet was sent across in two groups, so the boats could stay in tight formation during the 3800mi transatlantic voyage. First, small boats with a cruising speed of about 7kts, then, larger ones that cruise at 8.5kts. The first leg from Florida to Bermuda spans 900-nm, while the middle passage from Bermuda to Horta, Azores, is the longest transit -1800nm. The third and final crossing to Gibraltar comprised 1100-nm. This marked the first time that powerboats participated in a transatlantic group rally, but hardly represents the first powerboat transit of the Atlantic Ocean.

It is fascinating to witness the remarkable growth of the trawlerstyle personal power boat market. If the term "trawlers" brings to mind an image of slow, fish-smelling, rusty workboat hulks, think again. Today's ocean-going trawlers are tough, long-range vessels with yacht-like interiors transporting happy cruisers in comfort and style across oceans far and wide.

From aging sailors who want to ditch the hard work associated with sails and rigging to wanderlust-filled baby boomers ready for their next adventure, the number of people looking to buy a rugged so-called trawler is at an all-time high. It seems that, for many people, the modern ocean-going powerboat is a particularly good choice for exploring the world. The idea of a tough-yet-cozy little ship that can safely tour the planet and is easily handled by a couple or two remains a cornerstone of the philosophy for firms that design, build, and market high-seas boats under 100-ft

In the epoch of supertankers, mega-cruise ships, and massive container vessels, it's hard to grasp that the explorers of the Golden Age of Discovery (1450-1600) ventured into uncharted seas in miniscule craft of about 60to 100-ft overall length (including the projecting bowsprit) and which displaced about 75- to 100-tons. That's barely larger than today's offshore fishing craft or globe-circling trawler yachts. At some point, many a small craft skipper dreams of replicating these intrepid adventurers and making a long-distance passage - perhaps to paradisiacal tropical islands, or to the breath-taking secluded splendor of the frozen Arctic, imitating the voyages of Frobisher, Cavendish, Drake, Columbus, Cook, and Magellan.

With all due respect to intrepid sailboat voyagers, I am speaking here of contemporary circumnavigators powered by fossil-fuel engines rather than those propelled solely by maritime breezes. Undeniably, there's some stigma attached to those who make the transition from stick and canvas to engine-propelled craft and even less respect for those who never ventured out in traditional wind-powered vessels.

In the traditionalist view, powerboat voyagers are like campers who communicate with the wilderness from the comfy surroundings of a motorhome rather than roughing it by close-to-nature camping under the stars. I don't want to get into the pros and cons of the debate between the sailboat purists and the powerboat advocates. However, those who have made extensive cruises in trawler yachts can disprove the assertion that such voyagers "shut out the sea." Perhaps the critics have in mind those who drive "performance" motorcraft, dedicated to skimming the waves at 40-kts just long enough to reach the next marina with a well-stocked bar. That's the commonly held image of the typical powerboat operator. To a large extent, it's a justifiable impression.

Discounting the open speedboat, which is largely confined to near-shore sprints of a few hours or so, the representative enclosed "cruising" powerboat is a weekender that can occasionally handle four- or five-day outings for a couple or a couple with two young children. Considering my own part of the US-the mid-Atlantic seaboard - my trips to Annapolis, Maryland's, marinas (I get there by car to enjoy the great seafood restaurants), shows a variety of "yachts" tied up with ports of origin on their transoms varying from as far away as Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Maine, but more typically from Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, or North Carolina. They are nicely appointed, rather-luxurious vessels ranging from about 35- to 75-ft. Folks can be seen lounging in the cockpit enjoying drinks before or after enjoying a meal in the dockside dining establishments. In other words, these boats are designed, purchased and maintained to travel about 300- to 500-mi at most from their home ports and are destined for the harbors where they can enjoy some rest and recreation, perhaps staying on shore at one of the hotels attached to the dock facilities. Or, the more ambitious may transit the 1200-mi Intracoastal Water Way, a strip of connected, protected water (bays, rivers, inlets, etc.) allowing the boater to travel from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West, Florida, without venturing offshore.

Such trips are at the limit of the boat's cruising range and sea-keeping capacity, and vacationers normally restrict their on-board stays to no more than a week at a stretch. Some are fishing boats that spend a few days motoring around the fishing grounds about 30- to 50-mi offshore, where in the event of a sudden storm, their top speed (usually 30- to 40 kts) can get them to shelter in an hour or so.

But these are not the "little ships that can." These are "sport cruisers" or "sport fishers" - decidedly not designed for world-wide expeditions. What I am discussing are the relatively small craft that are intended for those who want to cruise out of sight of land for weeks on end, to venture across the world's great oceans and visit distant, out-of-the-way islands, bays and inlets described in travel brochures and maritime fantasies. These are the passage-making trawlers.

Suffice it to say that even for intrepid sailboat skippers inured to the elements, windborne passages are limited to constricted corridors of predominantly beneficial air currents. These are the same sea lanes favored by the path-breaking explorers commencing with the Polynesians and the Vikings. Sailing in the tradewind belts can be very tricky, with conditions varying from howling gales to dead calms rendering practical passage complicated and unreliable, never mind uncomfortable. Just read Slocum's Around the World Alone, Chichester's Gypsy Moth, or other famous small-boat sailing classics and you can see that the necessary skill and stamina might require years of training and conditioning. Of course, many sailboats now utilize a very small motor with just enough fuel to get through the doldrums or, in a crisis, make it to the nearest shelter. Although the inclusion of a puny motor is an "emergencies only" remedy, some classicists may consider even this safety measure as a betrayal.

Regardless of whether one deems powerboat voyagers as wimps or pragmatists, the number of boaters who make great journeys in relatively minuscule motordriven ships have grown from a handful in the 1970s to such numbers that two periodicals are dedicated to the seagoing powerboat lifestyle - Passage Maker Magazine and Power Cruising-while the popular powerboat monthlies Power & Motoryacht and Yachting devote a sizeable chunk of each issue to long-range cruising. Not only do powerboats under 75-ft regularly cross oceans, many owners have circumnavigated the globe as modern-day Magellans, clad not in oilskins but in robe and slippers. I stress less than 75-ft because these are the craft potentially available to upper-middle-class retirees as contrasted with the mini-cruise ships with professional crews and maid service that are the domain of oil sheikhs, rock stars and Fortune 500 billionaires.

After WWII, the world's oceans accommodated a growing fleet of independent adventurers exploring the earth for themselves from their little boats. Invariably, the vessels were sailboats. Taking a clue from the daring single-handed circumnavigator Joshua Slocum (who made his pioneering circumnavigation in a 37-ft 9-ton yawl in 1897-1898), these self-made explorers eagerly embraced "self steering" devices for their craft. In fact, the prime reason that the trickle of explorers in the 1950s has grown into a full armada of pleasure seekers can be attributed to two devices - GPS (Global Positioning System) and self steering/autopilots.

The self steering can be handled by either electronic autopilots or mechanical windvane-driven devices, the perfection of Josh Slocum's primitive rig. Most experienced cruisers have both - an autopilot for motoring and mechanical self steering for sailing. Whether wind-driven or electromagnetic, these labor-saving, trustworthy gadgets were initially adapted for the sole use of stick-and-canvas sailing vessels. Similarly to old Josh's assertion, the solo small-boat navigator can theoretically snooze in the cabin while the wind and currents guided the apparatus to keep the vessel on course.

Once autopilots and GPS were installed in motorized craft that could traverse expanses of open ocean, every person could be his or her own explorer, surveying the world's exotic places from a personal and private vantage. Explaining how and why this fantasy could be realized is the fife work of Robert P. Beebe, embodied in his 1975 book Voyaging Under Power (VUP).

VUP, revised and expanded in 1994, is a fascinating, seminal book on the design and operation of a worldtraveling pocket power cruiser. It tells the story of the author, US Navy Capt. Robert Beebe. He was aboard an aircraft carrier during WWII when it occurred to him that, one day, he would leave it all behind to cruise the world in a small boat revisiting at leisure the alluring tropical vistas he merely glimpsed while on duty. Taking the daydream a step further, he decided he'd do it in comfort, which meant that, instead of setting out on a sailboat, the preferred method of long-range cruising at the time, he would need a powerboat. This was a radical view at the time since early efforts to span oceans in such vessels were little more than hazardous stunts. In any case, many of the tropical isles he viewed from the wheelhouse of the carrier were outside the trade belts that provided favorable winds, hence nearly inaccessible to sailboats.

The insight that struck Beebe aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga was the beginning of a lifelong mission that would arguably revolutionize the concept of voyaging under power in small craft. The undertaking would evolve through Beebe's own voyages aboard his 50-ft motorsailor yacht Passagemaker in the mid-late 1960s. The lessons learned and applied during his journeys would ultimately - in 1975 - be woven into the principles outlined in the first edition of his VUP, a book some experts still deem "the bible" for pasagemaking. Passagemakmg denotes the art and lifestyle involved in negotiating wide, empty expanses of open ocean for weeks, even months, at a stretch, in a relatively small (meaning 40- to 75-ft. long overall) engine-powered vessel.

Before looking at Beebe's progress and know-how, it might be helpful to examine the long-range powerboat efforts that preceded his 1960s experiments with his Passagemaker. It is a common fallacy that world-wide powerboat voyaging began with Beebe. In fact, in the first chapter of his own book there is a brief resum of those who made ocean crossings in powered craft early in the 20th century and a hint about some promising 1950s developments in the northwestern seaboard of the US that predated his own experiment.

When primitive kerosene and paraffin motors were first adapted for small craft use in the beginning of the 20th century, there were a couple of hardy (some say foolhardy) souls that wanted to prove the suitability of these power plants for sustained voyaging. In 1902, a 38-ft vessel, the Abiel Abbot Low, powered by a kerosene engine, made the crossing from New York to Falmouth, England, in 38-days, crewed by the mariner and his 16-yr-old son. This trip was sponsored by the manufacturer of the engines to prove the durability of his product. The Detroit made the next recorded crossing in 1912 - a 28-days voyage by the gasoline (petrol) powered 35-ft vessel. The sheer fortitude of the owners and crews of these vessels can not be overstated. Using the primitive equipment of the time fitted into hulls that we would consider totally unsuitable for the purpose, both highly uncomfortable and unseaworthy, they achieved if not the impossible, certainly the improbable feat of crossing a major ocean in a small boat under power alone. These stunts did not attract much attention, likely because they were just that - stunts, not practicable for the average small-boat sailor.

It can be seen that these two boats utilized their sailing rigs for more than just a crisis contingency, but the little engines reportedly ran constantly without a hitch.

Coming in just under the 100-ft upper limit for purposes of our discussion is the steam yacht Speejacks, a custom-built luxury vessel of 98-ft overall length that made the first east-to-west circumnavigation for a non-sail powered vessel in 1921-1922. Speejacks had an endurance of about 2000-mi at its maximum cruising speed, which meant that it had to be towed for a large portion of the longest leg between the Californian coast and Tahiti. In any event, the circumnavigation was more of a grand tour than a voyage, occupying the better part of two years, as the travelers wanted to visit all of the exotic harbors inaccessible to deep-draft passenger vessels and freighters. Nonetheless, it qualified as the first yacht without sails to circumnavigate the globe from east to west.

Most significant and impressive was a single-handed 18-day transatlantic passage in the Arielle, a 42-ft 7-in motorboat (23 July to 10 August 1936) with two specially designed self-steering devices piloted by the celebrated French maritime artist (and yachtsman) Marin-Marie. The navigator was awarded the Blue Water Medal for this feat.

Sailing historians generally credit Marin-Marie with the first solution to the wind-operated self-steering system: the main rudder of his pinnace Arielle was lashed, while a small auxiliary rudder, controlled by a vane, kept the boat on course. With the aid of this system, Marin-Marie was the first single-hander to cross the Atlantic under power. Joshua Slocum's 1890s pioneering remedy, while mentioned in his book, is not adequately described so that it was capable of duplication. Further, the hull lines appear to be more akin to the modern trawler yachts in that it is a displacement rather than planing hull.

To be sure, there were trawler yachts on the market for at least five-years prior to the launching of Beebe's prototype Passagemaker. In fact, the origin of the type, if not the term, is a bit ambiguous. Although Grand Banks is usually credited with being the pioneer in this genre, in the early '60s, the GB boats were really semidisplacement craft, not intended for world cruising - a GB 42 could go up to 17-kts but had a range under optimal cruising speed of 10- to 12-kts of about 1200-nm. However, there were other trawler-type power cruisers in production for a few years prior to their inception.

There were several builders in Vancouver building non-commercial boats before 1961 and all of them show a workboat design heritage. It seems that northwestcoast marine architects Arthur De Fever, Edwin Monk, Sr., and William Garden had been designing and building trawler-type yachts since the late 1940s, though the source of their inspiration and their influence in this regard is difficult to gauge. Certainly, the work of De Fever, Monk, and Garden in getting traditional workboats accepted as cruising yachts was very seminal. But, again, the lineage of production designs that they influenced is difficult to track.

In the late '50s, a group of offshore sailors wanted power cruisers that could safely take them up and down the unforgiving Pacific coast. They formed the Offshore Cruising Society and enlisted De Fever to design several cruisers meeting the group's stated credo - "...to encourage the development of vessels and equipment worthy of the sea..." De Fever had designed tuna clippers in the 1940s and it is believed that he adapted the trawler features from those vessels to meet the criteria of the Offshore Cruising Society. It seems that there was some synergy among these three designer/builders (De Fever, Monk and Garden) but, again, it's hard to point to by whom, how and when the trawler type entered their design lexicon.

It seems that the requirements of the Offshore Cruising Society also inspired some specially commissioned designs from a Norwegian shipyard which had previously devoted itself to making North Sea trawlers, several in conjunction with the Irish boat builders at Malahide, Ireland, who also had some local interest in recreational boats that could navigate the tempestuous waters of the North Sea. My research shows that the first true trawler yacht, as we know the breed, was probably a Romsdal 65-footer named Edward Grieg launched in 1958 by Romsdal Shipbuilders in Norway for an owner in Newport Beach, California. Grieg was one of six Romsdals imported by Peter Varney for US owners. Until 1958, Romsdal built only fishing trawlers for service on the North Sea.

While, as noted, anecdotal evidence suggests that De Fever, Monk and Garden were custom-building trawlerlike vessels since the end of WWII, it is only with the advent of the Romsdal boats that we can mark the inception of the trawler yacht tradition. Then we had the Willard boatyard in the US coming out with a modified - semi-displacement - trawler in 1961 and Grand Banks following with their pioneer effort in 1963, also semi-displacement.

More recently, there have been many long-distance passage-making voyages under power including several round-the-world epics. In 1983-1984, for example, Dutchman Kasemier Eilco made a 200-day circumnavigation from Plymouth to Plymouth. This voyage was accomplished in the 39-ft aluminum displacement motor cruiser Bylgia 11 of Sneek, Holland. Various Nordhavn 46s made a number of circumnavigations in the 1990s. In fact, such feats have become rather commonplace in the early 21st century.

Robert Beebe's theory was simple: An alternative to sail power exists for ocean cruising. It's possible for a motorized boat to cross oceans "with speed and dispatch" with an owner-operator at the helm and without a highly experienced, rough-and-tumble crew. This sounded like heresy to hardcore sail enthusiasts, but it was a sweet melody to many boaters who shared Beebe's vision of crossing oceans in "slippers and robe," rather than perpetually donning foul-weather gear. He wanted to cruise in comfort, arrive on schedule, and, if he felt like it, he wanted the option to diverge from his float plan on a whim.

THE PASSAGEMAKER WITH SAIL RIG DEPLOYED

Voyaging Under Power was not intended to be a travel guide. It begins with diagrams, technical information, and extensive research that demonstrate how Beebe's concept of passagemaking came into being. He goes on to define what hull, powerplant and other engineering formulations are essential for a long-range ocean-going powerboat. Besides his fascinating concepts on hull design, the importance of ballast, and propulsion, his work on roll-stabilizing gear with the implementation of "flopperstoppers" and paravanes (the latter sometimes referred to as "birds") may be the most appreciated by today's Naval architects and ocean-going cruisers. Before he died in 1988, Robert Beebe designed more than 150 vessels, none more famed than his 67th design which he built for himself and named Passagemaker.

So, according to Beebe what is the ideal yacht in which to make long passages on the oceans of the world in comfort and safety, with speed and economy, within the reach of serious dreamers? The first consideration, of course, is seaworthiness. Howard I. Chapelle in American Small Sailing Craft (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1951), summed it up masterfully:

"No known boat (of less than 40-ft on deck), can be considered wholly safe in heavy weather, for there are conditions of sea and wind that will overwhelm even the best surfboats and lifeboats. Fortunately, such conditions are relatively rare and, with forethought, can usually be avoided by small-boat sailors. [Also,] a good boat is no more seaworthy than her crew in other words, skill of handling is a part of seaworthiness in small craft... For the beginner, or relatively inexperienced sailor, to venture out into a heavy sea and wind in any small boat is folly that invites disaster."

Now, Chappelle of course was discussing sailboats, on which he was a recognized expert. He was also the mentor and lifelong friend of Robert Beebe, the latter bouncing his radical powerboat theories off the sailboat guru. As they have evolved, the passagemaker motor boats are now known as "recreational trawler vessels" or "trawler yachts." The term conjures images of commercial deep-sea fishing boats, which reveals the origins of these craft. While some casually refer to these passagemakers as trawlers, the unmodified term is not quite apt; it's simply a shorthand reference.

It may seem like a no-brainer, but a bona-h"de trawler is a boat that trawls for fish. Or at least it is a boat that was designed to trawl, i.e. a boat designed to: a) drag a net along the bottom of the ocean, b) hold a lot offish, c) go long distances in the ocean, d) be sea worthy, (meaning tough enough to withstand pounding seas), and e) be sea kindly, meaning to allow crew and passengers to sleep without being tossed from their bunks and to walk upright rather than lurching from hand-hold to hand-hold. Traditionally, they have been heavy, relative to their length. In other words, they are displacementhulled - a term which we will define presently - boats since this type of boat is well suited for these purposes.

Recreational boats can be designed with many of these same qualities as the fishing boats: Long range, that is, ocean-crossing range, sea worthiness, and sea kindliness. Of course they don't have to be quite as heavy as bona-Gde trawlers and the cargo holds and working decks can be given over to wine coolers, salons, walk-around staterooms, full bathrooms with shower stalls, gourmet galleys, dining and lounging areas, as well as the storage requirements for folks contemplating several weeks or more between ports. Accordingly, a trawler yacht is a boat that can cross oceans and convey its passengers in comfort and safety. Or, in other words, it is a long-range power cruiser. Not all passagemakers are trawler yachts and not all trawler yachts are passagemakers. But those intended for serious world traveling tend to favor the trawler configuration. There are notable exceptions taking advantage of more-advanced diesel engine technology, which I will discuss later.

The key to suitability for high seas is in the hull shape, and volume and engine type - factors impacting on the paramount issues of sea kindliness and range. While passagemakers can and do exceed the suggested 75-ft upper limit, a rule of thumb would be to use Beebe's original parameter of a 50-ft boat as a median. So, we are discussing craft with an overall length of roughly 40- to 70-ft, and displacements (literally weight of water displaced by the hull) of between 25- and 80-tons.

A displacement hull is designed to remain fully in the water throughout its entire range of speed. It does not climb out of its bow wave and plane on the water's surface. Requiring a fraction of the horsepower that semidisplacement or planing hulls require to attain optimum speed, a displacement hull in the 40- to 60-ft size will be capable of maintaining speeds in the 7- to 10-kt range while burning a minimum of fuel. Beyond these speeds, a boat in this size range must get up on plane. With entirely different seakeeping characteristics, a planing boat requires tremendous horsepower, which leads to enormous fuel consumption, not to mention a disproportionate increase in noise and vibration. Planing boats are most always found making short sprints between local marinas.

It should be borne in mind that Beebe's original Passagemakerwas a motor sailor. That is, it shipped a rudimentary mast and sailing rig to supplement the engine. The idea was that the sails could be used to furnish additional range in conjunction with the motor, or, in the event of a mechanical failure, could be utilized to get the boat to the nearest harbor for repairs. Additionally, the sails and masts tended to check the rolling motion of the roundhulled boat underway. However, Beebe fitted paravanes (fish-shaped towed devices mounted on outrigger poles) to serve this purpose while proceeding under engine power alone. Larger trawler yachts (over 50-ft) generally employ motorized and gyroscopically directed fin stablizers - twin wing-like appendages projecting beneath the water at the bilge curve at around 45-degrees. The latter devices were initially quite finicky and subject to breakdowns in rough seas, but lately have been much improved, though many yachtsmen prefer to carry both mechanisms.

Another factor would be whether or not the boat can be handled by a couple, a small group of three to six friends, or would need a professional crew of a captain and mate aboard to assist the voyagers. Certainly, this depends on the navigational skill or experience of the owners and their guests, and also whether it will be an extended voyage entailing long stretches of open ocean. Then, one has to consider the available bunk and bathroom facilities. Most, though not all, passagemaker owners prefer to be their own crew, especially since boats built from around 1985 on are relatively easy to run and maintain. However, the owner-crew must read the technical manuals and be handy enough to make basic repairs underway as well as stock sufficient spares and redundant systems.

Beebe's original Passagemaker was built in Singapore and launched in 1963. The 50,000-nm that Beebe put under her keel over the next five-years was unheard of in a day when sailboats were the only recreational vessels venturing out of sight of land. Beebe had a radio receiver, a direction finder, a sounder and an autopilot. Navigation was accomplished longhand, and daily position and course information was posted on the helm console, which served as a chalkboard. Thus, the original Passagemaker was spartan by today's standards. She had no auxiliary power and thus no air-conditioning or refrigeration - cooking was done on a kerosene stove.

I have referred several times to the Nordhavn design because it was the CEO of this company, Jim Leishman, who was inspired enough by Beebe's book to switch from sailboat manufacturing to pasagemaking trawler yachts wholly based on Beebe's formula, which resulted in the Nordhavn 46 in 1989 and a further refinement resulted in the 1993 Nordhavn 62. It was Leishman who undertook to revise Beebe's book for a third, 1994 edition. To be fair, the firm of Kady-Krogen was designing and producing such worldcruising powerboats over a decade before the Nordhavn 46 appeared, as were Willard and Nordic Tug. Today, there are at least a dozen companies producing trawler yachts that are capable of transiting oceans and accommodating one or two couples who want to make the vessel their home-away-fromhome while on the extended passages. In fact, some folks have sold their land-based dwellings and use the little ships as their permanent residence

Trawlers are sophisticated machines capable of supporting their crew for extended periods of time. This means they have the ability to make fresh water, generate power, keep foods fresh for weeks, provide satellite communication and provide for a host of emergencies. The cost of these vessels ranges from about $600,000 to over $2-million.

Accommodations while on board are modest in size but often luxurious by boating standards. All vessels have full kitchens (galleys), flush toilets and air conditioning. Unlike sailboats which crew normally travels out in the elements, crew on these trawlers travel inside the vessel, though some are sporting open flybridges above the lower enclosed helm station and there are cockpits and foredecks that allow crew members to enjoy the sea air in calmer weather. The boats have to be totally self sufficient in terms of mechanical issues, personal safety, food, drinking water, medical, navigation, weather forecasting, fire fighting and more.

While most folks who own and operate trawler yachts don't emulate the vast voyages of the great explorers, they feel a lot safer and more comfortable in boats that can make such journeys. And, given the means and the leisure, why not be your own Magellan?

© 2008 Challenge Publications Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Source: Sea Classics