Rupert Holmes reviews the popular trends in yacht design and boatbuilding in the 1990s, highlighting some of the stand-out models
The 1990s began with a recession that saw a massive dip in the number of new boats sold, in a marked contrast to the boom years of the 1970s and 80s. Without funds for significant investment many British manufacturers were particularly badly affected, including formerly big names such as Westerly which stumbled through to the end of the decade before finally closing for good in 2000.
A final death knell for a number of smaller British builders came in the form of 1998’s European Recreational Craft Directive if they were not selling their older models in sufficient numbers to justify the costs of compliance. However, other UK companies such as RS Sailing and Oyster Yachts did continue to grow and strengthen their market positions.
Recession is a classic time to invest in a business and is often a cost-effective time to build capacity. When economies recovered French and German boatbuilders were well placed to capitalise on the growing market with a raft of fresh designs. At the same time, investment in efficient production engineering became essential and changed the industry for ever.
The asymmetric spinnaker revolution, both in dinghy sailing and in larger boats, that had started with development classes such as the International 14 in the 1980s came to ordinary sailors during the 1990s, through boats such as the RS400 and Laser 2000 dinghies and the J/92 and J/105. These trend-setting designs were much copied and set their builders on a trajectory towards rapid expansion.
Progressively wider beam, broader transoms and longer waterlines continued as a trend in both racing and cruising yacht design. For the latter this meant bigger cockpits and more space below, especially in aft cabins. For racers a broad transom meant more form stability, which allowed more sail to be carried and also improved control when surfing downwind.
However, there’s a problem with wide transoms, both for cruising and racing designs. When the boat heels the centreline – and therefore also the rudder – tends to lift out of the water. Some designers mitigated this by moving the rudder post forward, which has the added advantage that the blade is operating ahead of any disturbed water flow near the transom. However, this still didn’t solve the problem of hull balance being lost as the boat heels, resulting in a tendency for boats to round up into the wind when over-pressed.
Nevertheless, an intrepid and growing group of sailors had proven an alternative solution in the most extreme conditions imaginable. Solo racers in the Mini Transat and Vendée Globe had already been sailing twin rudder designs and it was only a matter of time before this idea would gain mainstream acceptance.
Designer profile – Bruce Farr
Even as a teenager and in his early 20s New Zealander Bruce Farr quickly built a reputation for producing fast yet well mannered boats. After establishing his base in Annapolis, USA, he became extraordinarily prolific.
In the performance world he successfully navigated the transition from IOR through IMS and into IRC rating systems. At the same time his boats dominated the Whitbread Round the World Race, with a third place in 1982, which was followed by four successive victories from 1986 to 1998.
By the early 1990s he was also drawing production yachts, including Beneteau’s First range, and soon moved on to pure cruisers, including the French company’s increasingly popular Oceanis line up.
Red Fox 200E – 1990
To my mind this still rates as one of the best ever 20ft cruisers. Designer David Thomas created a flat-bottomed innovative trailer sailer that combines good performance and handling with great accommodation for a boat of its size.
The twin lifting dagger boards are an important part of the design – they are far less intrusive on the interior than a single lifting keel and have an asymmetric shape that generates lift to windward. With the boards fully retracted the boat floats in just 8in (20cm) of water and can easily be floated onto a trailer.
As well as providing good form stability, the relatively wide beam also provides plenty of accommodation space, including up to four berths, a small galley and a separate heads compartment aft by the companionway. The biggest downside is that there is only sitting headroom.
If you can find one, an example with twin rudders will track better and hold its course more easily when powered up in gusty conditions. Early boats were built of plywood and while some of these have been maintained to a very high standard throughout their lives, it would be prudent to be wary of those that look rough and are therefore a potential project.
Later a daysailer version with larger cockpit but smaller interior, the 200S, was offered. A few boats were also produced with twin keels. A 23ft version was also developed, with significantly larger accommodation, including decent headroom, though not as many were sold and they can be hard to find on the second-hand market.
LOA 6.17m 20ft 3in
LWL 6.10m 20ft 0in
Beam 2.49m 8ft 2in
(boards up) 0.20m 0ft 8in
Displacement 1,000kg 2,205lb
Price today £6,000-£12,000
Hallberg-Rassy 34 – 1990
This boat is sufficiently large and sturdy to take you almost anywhere, while being small enough to be easy to handle and avoid the properly expensive bills that big boats invariably attract. The German Frers design retained classic HR lines and attributes including the fixed windscreen, but combined these with a powerful spade rudder, deep low centre of gravity keel and finely balanced hull shape.
The result is a quick boat with flawless handling. For ease of handling all halyards and reefing lines were led aft to the cockpit as standard. Interiors were fitted out to a very high standard, with well organised stowage, two double cabins, a proper chart table and large galley. While the layout is unashamedly modern, it’s also configured to be safe and easily worked at sea.
A 16-year production run saw a continuous progression of improvements that increased space below decks and further improved both ergonomics and the standard of fit out. Almost 500 boats had been sold by the time this model was replaced with the Hallberg-Rassy 342 in 2005, although the HR36 that was launched a year before the 34 sold in even higher numbers.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the HR34 has held its value remarkably well, though boats that are in need of a replacement teak deck should be priced accordingly to allow for this.
Hull length 10.28m 33ft 9in
LWL 8.69m 28ft 6in
Beam 3.42m 11ft 3in
Draught 1.85m 6ft 1in
Displacement 5,300kg 11,684lb
Beneteau Oceanis 400 – 1991
The second generation Oceanis range had more conservative styling than the original, but proved even more popular with both private owners and charter fleets. The Oceanis 400 provided what was then seen as very impressive accommodation for a boat of this size, yet pricing was surprisingly modest.
Both aft cabins were unusually spacious for the era, with plenty of space to move around. However, the real selling point was the owner’s suite, which takes up the entire hull forward of the main bulkhead. There’s an offset double bed to starboard, with stowage below, plus hanging lockers and a small sofa to port, along with a full two metres of floor space. Right forward is a large and well appointed en suite heads and shower compartment.
A relatively small sail plan for its size limits speed in relatively light airs, and the shallow draught hinders performance to windward. However, the 400’s long waterline helps with speed on a reach in stronger breezes.
This model morphed into the Oceanis 411 in 1997, which had an elongated transom to accommodate a larger bathing platform, as well as many small interior improvements. These changes went down well and the revised model sold 250 examples in the first year alone.
There was also a centre cockpit boat, the 400cc, built on the same hull, though sales of this were much lower. In all around 1,000 boats were built using this hull, before the Oceanis 393 and 423 were launched in 2002.
Today there are more spacious boats of this length available, but the 400 and 411 can still be a great choice for those needing to maximise accommodation relative to purchase costs.
Hull length 12.19m 40ft 0in
LWL 11.0m 36ft 1in
Beam 3.95m 13ft 0in
Draught 1.70m 5ft 7in
Displacement 8,500kg 18,750lb
Ballast 2,500kg 5,510lb
Sail area 83m2 893ft2
J/105 – 1992
It’s hard to believe this 34-footer, which brought the asymmetric spinnaker revolution to larger boats, is now a quarter of a century old. It was conceived as a fast racer-cruiser that would be easily handled whether sailed fully crewed or short-handed.
J/105s have since raced around the cans, around Britain and across the Atlantic. They can still be seen at the forefront of prestigious events such as the Rolex Fastnet Race and few designs from this era have been so enduring, even though this is not a twin rudder boat. Equally, they make a fun daysailer or cruiser, providing you don’t mind the limited accommodation with maximum headroom of just 5ft 4in.
A whole host of asymmetric designs followed from J/Boats, including the later J/109 that launched in the early 2000s. Like the 105 this was initially often seen as a fast racer, a perception reinforced by photos of big Cowes Week fleets planing in heavy weather at speeds of more than 15 knots under what seemed at the time to be huge asymmetric spinnakers.
However, by today’s standards J/109s are relatively heavy for performance boats and are generally seen as much more moderate designs, with many now enjoying a second life as capable, fast and fun cruisers.
LOA 10.51m 34ft 6in
LWL 8.99m 29ft 6in
Beam 3.35m 11ft 0in
Draught 1.98m 6ft 6in
Displacement 3,515kg 7,750lb
Ballast 1,542lb 3,400kg
RS400 – 1993
This Phil Morrison-designed two-person 15ft dinghy marked the start of a revolution that saw RS Sailing steadily grow to become one of the world’s largest producers of sailing dinghies. Stand out innovations included an asymmetric spinnaker that’s large enough for stunning performance without intimidating less experienced sailors.
The open transom and raised floor ensured the boat comes up dry from a capsize. This was an important safety benefit missing from popular earlier dinghy designs and maximised sailing time on the windy days that allowed the boat’s performance potential to be enjoyed to the full. The foam sandwich GRP construction proved stiff, resulting in boats that remain competitive even as they age.
This model was soon followed by the slightly smaller RS200, then a whole slew of designs aimed at different sectors of the market, all of which have proved enduringly popular. RS therefore quickly became a major force in changing the scene at dinghy sailing clubs around the country. That effect is on-going – a measure of the popularity of the company’s boats is last year’s RS Games in Weymouth, which saw close to 1,000 competitors, from children to retirees, racing in multiple classes over a period of several weeks.
LOA 4.52m 14ft 10in
Beam 2.0m 6ft 6in
(board down) 1.13m 3ft 8in
Hull weight 85kg 187lb
Mainsail 10.96m2 118sq ft
Jib 3.93m2 42.3sq ft
Spinnaker 13.94m2 150ft2
Price from £1,200
Pogo 6.50 – 1994
By the early 1990s the 21ft boats used for the Mini Transat race from France to the Caribbean had already developed into the basic shape we know today, at least until the very recent popularity of scow bow designs. They are ultra-light monohulls, with a massively wide beam of 45% of the boat’s overall length, broad transoms, twin rudders and towering rigs.
Thierry Dubois’s legendary Pierre Roland designed one-off (Proto in Mini parlance) Amnesty International was winner of the 1993 Mini Transat Race, covering the 2,650 mile leg from Madeira to St Martin in just 15 days and four hours. This formed the basis of what was to become the Pogo 6.50, a boat that packed amazing capabilities into a small package and quickly became one of the most popular production models in the fleet.
Displacement of less than 900kg gives a phenomenal power to weight ratio – the Pogo’s sail area/displacement ratio is almost exactly double that of a J/24. As a result, 12-14 knots of true wind is enough to plane at speeds well into double figures. And, unlike the IOR designs of only two decades earlier, the broad transom and twin rudders give enviable control – it feels as though the boat is running on rails.
Around 125 boats were built before the design was succeeded in 2002 by the Pogo 2, which is around 5% faster. Few of the original Pogo model now race in the Mini class, but they have relatively civilised accommodation, albeit without standing headroom or a separate heads, and make a fun and capable fast cruiser.
LOA 6.50m 21ft 4in
LWL 6.50m 21ft 6in
Beam 2.97m 9ft 9in
Draught 1.6m 5ft 3in
Displacement 890kg 1,970lb
Fountaine Pajot Athena 38 – 1994
The 1990s also saw a growth in the demand for cruising catamarans. New investment by French builders quickly eclipsed that of British manufacturers.
Fountaine Pajot had its roots in performance dinghies, before building larger racing yachts. The company launched its first fast cruising multihulls in the 1980s and by the mid 1990s was developing increasingly sophisticated designs.
The Athena 38’s plumb bows give a waterline length five feet longer than ostensibly similarly sized British catamarans of the same era, while the French boat’s beam was 41⁄2ft greater. This therefore felt like a much larger boat, yet more sophisticated construction kept the total weight in check and the additional beam allowed for a more powerful rig.
At the time this boat offered an impressive optimisation between the different demands of speed, space and comfort, including an option with four double cabins.
Although more recent designs have more volume relative to their overall length, well looked after Fountaine Pajot models of this era remain sought after on the second-hand market.
More than 200 Athena 38s were built before production stopped in 2001.
LOA 11.58m 38ft 0in
Beam 6.30m 20ft 8in
Draught 0.95m 3ft 1in
Displacement 5,500kg 12,100lb
MacGregor 26X Powersailer – 1995
This is a boat that purists love to hate and in many ways it’s easy to see why. The slab-sided styling is neither classic nor sleek, the austere plastic interior isn’t welcoming, the boat doesn’t sail particularly well and it’s not a great motor boat either.
Designer Roger MacGregor’s own interest was in more performance-oriented boats, including a rapid 36ft catamaran with accommodation only in the hulls and the ultra light MacGregor 65 performance cruiser, which became the biggest selling boat of its size in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, he understood the market better than anyone and became one of the biggest north American builders of sailing boats, responsible for more than 38,000 craft. For almost four decades his 25ft and 26ft models outsold all other similar craft throughout the world. So what’s the appeal?
Large-scale production helped to keep costs of the 26X low, while water ballast makes it one of the largest boats that can be used as a trailer sailer. And the lack of aesthetic appeal doesn’t prevent the MacGregor 26X taking owners to beautiful places on beautiful days. Even better, if the weather changes the 60hp outboard motor will get you home at speeds close to 20 knots and is powerful enough to tow watersports toys and water skiers.
The fact this is not a boat for long passages or inclement weather therefore had no impact on its appeal to those with more modest ambitions. The 26X was followed by the 26M in 2002, which replaced the swinging centreboard with a daggerboard. This freed up interior space, allowing the accommodation to be remodelled in a more spacious arrangement. When Roger MacGregor retired his daughter bought the assets of the company and now sells the 26M as the Tattoo 26.
LOA 7.9m 25ft 10in
LWL 7.0m 23ft 0in
Beam 2.4m 7ft 10in
Draught (board up) 0.25m 0ft 9in
Displacement (ex water ballast) 1,066kg 2,350lb
Yacht design trend of the 1990s
In the 1980s production engineering principles that had originated in Japan’s hyper-efficient motor industry were becoming widely implemented across Europe, though the marine industry was slower than many to adjust. Nevertheless, by the mid- to late-1990s the large boatbuilders had introduced streamlined production processes that reduced the price of boats and ensured a more consistent quality.
Among the factories I visited at this time were Bavaria and Westerly. The latter had a team of half a dozen people working with jigsaws inside each boat to fit out the interiors. Bavaria, however, had a fully productionised process, with timber cut and lacquered by CNC machines, before being assembled into modules that could be dropped straight into a hull.
It’s a hugely more efficient process that saves a vast amount of factory labour, reduces lead times and, if done correctly, ensures consistent quality – something that was often lacking in earlier boats.
The drop in the labour costs of fitting out a boat made larger craft proportionately cheaper, while many small boats suddenly started to look expensive, especially those built in low numbers.