Rupert Holmes charts the designers and racing trends that shaped the cruising boats of the 1980s – influences that can still be felt today

The 1980s ushered in more change in the marine industry. A key trend was that boats were rapidly becoming larger and more comfortable, especially towards the end of the decade, when sales of boats under around 23ft plummeted.

Another obvious change was the adoption of the aft quarter cabin – at the start of the decade these were found on only a handful of designs, but they were ubiquitous by 1989.

In addition, much effort was made to produce brighter interiors, with more natural light, than the typically dark interiors of boats from the 1960s and 70s.

To give more space in the aft cabins, the stern sections of yachts became wider.

At the same time, the move away from skeg hung rudders to larger spade rudders was also in full swing. This helped to some extent to overcome the lack of balance a wide hull tends to experience when well heeled, provided better control downwind in a blow and easier handling in marinas.

Even then, a number of models were clearly optimised more towards providing as much internal space as possible than good handling characteristics at sea.

Masts also started to move forward in the boat, often in conjunction with fractional rigs. While these still had overlapping genoas, which wouldn’t disappear on new yachts for at least another 20 years, in many cases the mainsail was now the main powerhouse.

This was a stark contrast to many 1970s designs, where the main was little more than a trim tab.

The IOR rating rule, which dominated design thinking in the 1970s, with its influence spilling over into the cruising world, had retreated to Grand Prix events by the end of the 1980s.

The Channel Handicap System (since renamed IRC) was successfully introduced for club racing in 1984 and rapidly became more widely adopted. Importantly, this didn’t excessively penalise low centre of gravity keels in the way that IOR had, which gradually encouraged more seaworthy designs.

Nevertheless the design of cruising boats continued to be influenced by the racing world. After Australia II’s historic win in the 1983 America’s Cup, which broke 132 years of American domination, there was much experimentation with different keel shapes, including bulbs and wings, plus tandem and Scheel keel types.

Designer profile – David Thomas

Thomas was one of the most prolific designers in the 1970s and 80s and few people have designed such a wide variety of craft.

In a long career, he continued to produce innovative craft at an age at which most of his contemporaries had long since given up.

His first commercial success was the Elizabethan 30 in 1969, a very capable design that scored well on the race course and subsequently went on to become a desirable fast cruiser.

Thomas’s name is almost synonymous with Hunters and Sigmas, starting with the 22ft Hunter Sonata in 1976, a design that drew immediate acclaim.

Competitive one design fleets sprang up all over the UK and Ireland and the boat was swiftly followed by the 28ft Impala, 20ft lift keel Medina and 25ft Delta.

We tend to think of broad stern designs with chines as being a recent development, but they featured on a number of Hunter’s models in the 1990s, including the Ranger 265 cruiser and the 707 sportsboat.

Despite his close association with these brands, they represent only a fraction of his output. One high-profile brief was for the first fleet of 67ft steel yachts built for Chay Blyth’s first BT Global Challenge – a yacht race for amateur crew going the wrong way round the world, which was first run in 1992/3.

Despite his many successes Thomas remained modest and unassuming. I sailed with him on a blustery winter’s day in the early 2000s, on an Elizabethan 30 he had restored to immaculate condition and refitted with the latest kit.

Even though well past retirement age, he was still enthusiastically experimenting with new ideas, including a suit of then state-of-the-art laminate sails he was evaluating for Sobstad, and a new antifouling formulation.

He continued to design boats until shortly before his death in 2014, most notably for Cornish Crabbers, which is owned by his son Peter.

Westerly Fulmar – 1980

Fast performance cruising Fulmar marked a new direction for Westerly

Replacing the phenomenally successful Centaur was a big deal for Westerly, so it was a surprise to many when 26-year-old Ed Dubois was chosen to design the successor. Nevertheless, the Griffon was very well received and he went on to draw more than a dozen further Westerlys.

The 32ft Fulmar represented something of a departure for the company from its mainstay range of chunky cruisers and secondary line of IOR inspired cruiser-racers. Instead, it was intended as a fast performance cruiser that would not be dogged by the problems associated with the IOR rating rule. Most have fin keels, but Westerly also offered twin and lifting keel options.

The Fulmar set new standards for speed, handling and heavy weather abilities, while also providing spacious accommodation with excellent stowage space. On the downside, the design was marginally before the explosion in popularity of double aft quarter cabins, which dates the interior, as does a lack of natural light.

In 1992 a foot was added to the stern sections to provide a ‘sugar scoop’ transom, and the model renamed the Fulmar 33. The following year it was relaunched as the Regatta 330, with a new Ken Frievokh interior, which featured a double quarter cabin, larger forecabin and aft heads. By the time production stopped in 1997 a total of 468 boats based on the Fulmar hull had been launched.

Among the other Westerly models Dubois designed is the 37ft Typhoon from 1990 which developed, refined and modernised the Fulmar concept. In my view it’s the best-ever Westerly. The Typhoon later morphed into the Regatta 370 and then the Westerly 37 towards the end of the 1990s.

LOA 9.70m 31ft 10in
LWL 7.92m 26ft 0in
Beam 3.33m 10ft 11in
Draught (fin) 1.60m 5ft 3in
Displacement 4,490kg 9,900lb
Ballast 1,914kg 4,210lb
Price today £15,000-£24,000

Hunter Delta – 1980

Hunter Delta 25 – a versatile performer

This David Thomas-designed 25-footer followed Hunter Boats’ better known Sonata and Impala models, but without the one-design format. While it quickly found favour with buyers looking for a boat of a size between the two earlier models, this was the period in which French designs with a double quarter cabin aft were suddenly in the ascendency.

As a result, after four years the hull was used for a radical new model, the Hunter Horizon 26. This had a new stepped deck and coachroof that also in effect increased freeboard, giving significantly more accommodation volume and increasing the original boat’s marginal 1.7m (5ft 6in) headroom.

The extra space gave room for a slim quarter cabin, as well as an aft heads. The saloon was open plan to the forepeak, there are six berths in all, as well as an L-shaped galley and aft-facing fixed chart table.

Although a relatively large proportion of Deltas were sold with lifting keels, most Horizons were fitted with twin keels. These were designed by Thomas to maximise performance and as a result the boat was faster than many similar sized boats with fin keels. Twin keel Horizons have relatively deep draught, with keels splayed 10-15° from the vertical to improve efficiency when the boat is heeled. Their efficiency was such that Hunter marketed them as twin fins.

The Horizon 26 stayed in production until 1988, when the stern sections were stretched out to produce the Horizon 272. This had a little more space and light in the aft cabin, while on deck more attention was given to making the boat easy to handle, with efficient reefing systems and self-tacking jibs offered.

LOA 7.70m 25ft 3in
LWL 6.17m 20ft 3in
Beam 2.74m 9ft 0in
Draught (fin) 1.52m 5ft 0in
Displacement 1,950kg 4,300lb
Price today £4,500-£8,000

Prout Snowgoose 37 – 1983

Prout Snowgoose, a capable, long-distance cruising catamaran

Roland and Francis Prout started out building performance catamarans, having joined two canoes together and added a sail in the 1950s. While their early designs exploited the performance potential of multihulls, they soon turned their attention to the larger commercial opportunities offered by the cruising market.

In 1962 the Ranger 27 had already set new standards and their range expanded in the early 1970s with a number of new models, including the original 35ft Snowgoose, which proved to be particularly popular. This was extended to 37ft in 1983 and given a new deck and coachroof, creating the Snowgoose 37. This boat offered significantly more space than the additional two feet of overall length would imply.

A further development in 1986, which added 16in (40cm) of beam improved the accommodation still further. This model, dubbed the Elite, has more spacious double aft cabins in each hull, while a variety of layouts were offered further forward. All benefited from what was at the time huge internal volume and these boats remain some of the most spacious that can be found in their price range.

Shallow keels allow the boat to dry out, but restrict performance to windward. In addition, the low bridgedeck can slam in a head sea, while weight needs to be kept out of the fine ends of the hulls to prevent excess pitching in these conditions.

However, the Snowgoose can make excellent progress when passage making, especially if reaching. Many of the approximately 500 examples built have cruised long distances successfully, with countless ocean crossings completed.

LOA 11.30m 37ft 0in
LWL 10.10m 33ft 1in
Beam 4.60m 15ft 0in
Draught 0.65m 2ft 2in
Displacement 5,500kg 12,7125lb
Price today £40,000-65,000

Rustler 36 – 1984

Among the last of the long-keel yachts, the Rustler 36 was also one of the best

One of the last long-keel yachts to go into production, this Holman and Pye design embodies lessons learnt over many decades and can be regarded as being among the best of its type. This, plus an enviable reputation for solid build quality, accounts for the boat’s popularity as a steed for the revived Golden Globe Race.

The design is a development of the long-running Rustler 31, which in turn was based on the hugely successful Twister from the 1960s.

In many ways the Rustler 36 therefore represents the ultimate evolution of long-keel yachts, and has better handling, speed and comfort than its forebears. A wider beam, carried further aft also gives more interior and cockpit space than many earlier long-keel models.

Nevertheless, the boat has less interior volume than we now come to expect from yachts of this size. There’s no space for a double quarter cabin, for instance, so there’s a traditional quarter berth instead. On the plus side, the interior fit out is of a very high standard, especially in later boats.

A few boats were built before Ralf Hogg bought the moulds and established Orion Marine, which later morphed into Rustler Yachts, in 1984. However, it’s not known when the first of these was launched. Between them, Orion and Rustler have built 125 examples.

Used boats tend to be sought after and have often been maintained to a very high standard, which helps to keep resale values high, particularly for recent examples. Rustler Yachts still has the moulds, though it’s five years since the last one was built. Adrian Jones of Rustler tells me they have recently refitted older boats, “… adding new electronics and sails, and making them look lovely for a cost of around £40,000.”

LOA 10.77m 35ft 4in
Beam 3.35m 11 ft 0in
Draught 1.67m 5 ft 6 in
Ballast 3,456kg 7,620lb
Displacement 7,623kg 16,809lb
Price today £60,000-£85,000

Beneteau Oceanis 350 – 1986

Beneteau’s Oceanis 350 broke new ground for accommodation

Boatbuilding in France grew rapidly in the 1980s thanks to a combination of innovative designers and a recognition that, for many boat buyers, interior comfort, space and style were the most important criteria. Beneteau’s makeover of the First 35 in 1984 that created the First 345 was a huge success.

This model benefited from a much brighter and more stylish interior, including the option of a spacious two-cabin owners’ version, plus more refined external lines and decals. The 345 quickly became a hit as a cruiser, with both private buyers and charterers. If a performance design could succeed in that market, what could be achieved with a boat that was designed from the outset as a cruiser?

We didn’t have to wait long to find the answer to that question and the Oceanis 350 was the start of a revolution. The distinctive windows that wrapped over the coach roof represented a huge step-change towards lighter interiors while wide beam, carried well forward and aft created an impressive internal volume. Accommodation in the main part of the boat was pushed out to the sides of the hull, which emphasised the amount of space available, albeit at the expense of stowage volumes.

A shallow draught fin keel, or optional even shallower wing keel, allowed access to a wider range of cruising destinations. On the downside, the boat was lightly ballasted, leading some to query whether the lessons of the 1979 Fastnet Race just six years earlier had already been forgotten.

Nevertheless, the 350 was a huge success and four other Oceanis models – the 320, 390, 430 and 500 followed within two years. Later Oceanis designs sprouted efficient deep keel options which significantly improved performance to windward and ultimate stability.

Hull length 10.30m 33ft 9in
LWL 9.13m 30ft 0in
Beam 3.43m 11ft 3in
Draught (fin) 1.56m 5ft 1in
Displacement 4,800kg 10,054lb
Ballast 1,800kg 3,969lb
Sail area 58.6m2 630ft2
Price today £24,000-£35,000

Oyster 406 – 1986

Oyster 406 Deck Saloon

Although some British boatbuilders started to struggle in the 1980s, Oyster was a clear exception – this was the decade in which the company became firmly established as a builder of quality long-distance cruising yachts.

In 1983 the Holman & Pye-designed Oyster 435 set the parameters for a slew of successful designs. These included a choice of sloop or ketch rigs, an optional deck saloon and a high volume hull that maximised living space and storage. This also provided good load carrying ability and a long waterline for fast passage making.

The 406, which followed in 1986, offered excellent accommodation for a 40-footer, using almost the whole length of the hull and configured so that two couples could spend extended periods on board with a degree of privacy that was normally only found on much larger boats.

It’s the smallest deck saloon model Oyster has produced, giving many of the benefits of the larger models in a size that’s easier to handle and more economical to run. It’s no surprise therefore that this is a popular design for long-distance cruising.

By the time production stopped in 1990, 35 Oyster 406s had been built. The 435, however, enjoyed a longer production run and almost twice as many were built, making it the company’s most popular model until it was eclipsed by the much newer and considerably more expensive Oyster 56.

LOA 12.34m 40ft 6in
LWL 10.59m 34ft 9in
Beam 3.59m 12ft 9in
Draught 1.70m 5ft 6in
Displacement 12,247kg 27,000lb
Price today £60,000-£85,000

MG Spring 25 – 1987

MG Spring 25 starred in the BBC1 drama Howards’ Way. Photo: David Harding

The second half of the 1980s saw sailing brought to the fore in the form of Howards’ Way, the prime time BBC1 drama set on and around the River Hamble. Many viewers with a boating background found the two innovative yachts that featured in the series, the Sadler Barracuda 45 and MG Spring 25, more interesting than the cheesy storylines.

Both were twin rudder designs by Tony Castro that combined sparkling performance with comfortable accommodation. The Barracuda was an ultra-light displacement boat able to plane at speeds close to 20 knots in the right conditions, yet with the twin rudders providing good control.

This was a step change from the then IOR derived high-end racing yachts that were heavy, hard to control downwind, and had little hope of sustaining such speeds for more than an occasional surf.

In addition to its twin rudders – a definite novelty at the time – the Spring had a relatively shallow wing keel. A large fractional rig provided plenty of power in light airs, though needed to be reefed earlier than many of its contemporaries as the breeze increased. The smaller size meant it needed to be proportionately heavier than the Barracuda, but it still offered good performance, both on the racecourse and for family cruising.

Given its performance credentials, perhaps the biggest surprise about the Spring 25 is its accommodation, which is almost palatial compared to similar sized yachts of only a decade before. There’s a small double quarter cabin, aft heads compartment, functional galley, forward facing chart table with its own seat, plus berths for a further four people in the saloon and open plan forepeak.

LOA 7.80m 25ft 6in
LWL 6.90m 22ft 9in
Beam 2.70m 9ft 0in
Draught 0.90m 3ft 0in
Displacement 2,040kg 4,498lb
Ballast 700kg 1,545lb
Price today £6,000-£10,000

Moody Eclipse 33 – 1987

Moody Eclipse 33 holds its value well

Motor sailers had long been favoured by boat buyers who valued the shelter of the wheelhouse, along with a big engine that would push the boat to windward at close to hull speed in almost all conditions. However, they also had drawbacks, mostly stemming from designs that were based on the lines of old fishing boats.

Traditional motor sailers can roll badly in a quartering sea, even if the main and mizzen are sheeted flat for stability. Their long keels also made manoeuvring ponderous and reversing a potential lottery. In addition, small sail plans meant meaningful progress under sail might only be made on a beam reach in a stiff breeze.

By the late 1980s boat design had moved on a long way and Bill Dixon put this knowledge to good use in a new range for Moody. The idea was to use up-to-date sail handling systems, including roller furling mainsails, to create a larger and significantly more powerful sail plan than that of existing motor sailers. This was combined with a modern underwater profile, with a choice of fin or efficient twin keels.

The bright and spacious deck saloon layout included an inside steering position on early boats, but later models were equipped with an autopilot with dual station controls as standard. The inside wheel was therefore removed, which freed up space for an even larger and more open plan galley. The six-berth accommodation includes two double cabins, the forward of which is very spacious, plus a separate shower stall in the heads compartment.

The Eclipse 33 was an instant success and more than 250 were built over a six-year period. It is still in demand today and is one of the few boats of this era that has held its value well.

LOA 9.91m 32ft 6in
LWL 8.54m 28ft 0in
Beam 3.40m 11ft 2in
Draught (fin) 1.45m 4ft 9in
Displacement (fin) 5,666kg 12,465lb
Price today £38,000-£48,000

Construction trends

Resin vacuum infusion techniques were developed in the 1980s. (Alamy)

Instead of the crude chopped strand mat of the 1960s and early 70s, construction techniques were now becoming more sophisticated. This included greater use of woven rovings and sandwich construction to create stiff, yet relatively lightweight, structures.

These new techniques were not entirely without problems, especially where balsa was used as the sandwich material. If this becomes waterlogged, or if the adhesion between the core material and the laminate each side fails, the structure loses its strength.

If the problem is in the deck or coachroof it’s usually relatively easily fixed – although if paying for someone else to do the work you’ll need to budget well into four figures, potentially more on a larger boat. However, if a balsa core has failed in a hull moulding repair costs have the potential to exceed the value of the boat. Again, as with many instances in boatbuilding, the early examples of balsa cored construction are more prone to problems than later boats.

During the 1980s vacuum bagging slowly became standard practice for high-end race boats. This helped to optimise the amount of resin in a laminate and helped with the adhesion of core materials. However, it was not widely used for cruising yachts until much later.