Rupert Holmes looks at the most influential and trend-setting boats from the first decade of the 21st Century
By the beginning of the 2000s it was the norm for new yacht designs to have low centre of gravity keels, with generally bigger bulbs than previously, which dramatically improved the ultimate stability of these designs.
This additional stability also helped to reduce the amount of changes of sail area needed in a building breeze, or gusty conditions. Even shoal draught options were often given additional ballast in order to retain the stability of their deep draught sisterships.
Bow and stern overhangs continued to shorten, although it was not until towards the end of the decade that plumb bows were a common sight on new designs. By this time even the large production boatbuilders had started to adopt twin rudders for the first time.
The new millennium also saw continuations of other existing trends. In particular ideas that had originally been developed for the racing sphere – especially solo events across oceans or around the globe – were increasingly adopted by cruising yachts.
Designer profile – Jean-Marie Finot
Jean-Marie Finot is a wide ranging and prolific designer – by the end of the 2010s Groupe Finot had been responsible for the design of more than 30,000 boats, including an astonishing four successive Vendée Globe winners. Like many designers of his age, Finot’s first creations were in the Quarter Ton class, in his case the Ecume de Mer of 1969.
While he continued to produced a string of successful racing designs, right from the outset Finot took a keen interest in cruising yachts and these represent by far the largest numbers of his designs in terms of boats on the water.
They range from Jeanneau’s innovative 28ft 6in Folie Douce of 1970, and more than 60 models in Beneteau’s Oceanis and First ranges, to the ground-breaking Pogo range of ultra-fast cruisers.
Jeanneau Sun Fast 37 – 2000
This model took an already successful hull – the Jacques Faroux-designed Sun Odyssey 37 – and added a deeper, low centre of gravity keel, plus an extra four feet to the height of the rig. The original boat had a well balanced hull shape, married to a powerful and deep spade rudder that held control long after many others had lost their grip.
The additional sail area transformed performance in light airs, while the more efficient keel helped to speed progress to windward. Improved deck hardware also made it easier to control sail shape and to depower the rig in gusts.
As with other models from Jeanneau at the time, this model had a spacious interior – when I tested the original Sun Odyssey version in 1999 it was the first boat of this size I’d sailed with a separate shower stall in the heads, which helped to kickstart a slowly building trend that resulted in this becoming a common feature by the end of the decade.
Hull length 10.96m 36ft 0in
Beam 3.70m 12ft 1in
Draught 2.07m 6ft 10in
Displacement 6,100kg 13,450lb
Ballast 1,840kg 4,060lb
Mainsail 29.3m2 315ft2
Furling genoa 38.5m2 414ft2
Hunter Channel 31 – 2000
This masterpiece by David Thomas was to my mind the best boat the British Hunter brand produced. The Channel 31 combined faultless handling with an impressive turn of speed and a commendably well thought out interior.
The well balanced hull shape was offered with a choice of a deep draught and low centre of gravity fin keel, or efficient twin keels which also had bulbs to increase stability. The Channel 31 was one of the boats I most enjoyed testing at that time – it proved rewarding to sail, even short-tacking in a narrow channel when short handed, yet had the feel of a boat with long legs that will cover distances with speed and ease.
Hunter Boats brought Ken Freivokh in to design the interior: the result was a civilised place to relax after sailing, yet a lot of thought clearly also went into making the accommodation work well at sea. Unfortunately the economy had yet to fully bounce back from the 1990s recession and only a relatively small number of boats were built.
It’s perhaps not surprising that owners tend to keep Channel 31s for a long time so they rarely come on the market – but if you’re lucky enough to find one they can be a great choice.
LOA 9.25m 30ft 7in
LWL 8.13m 26ft 8in
Beam 3.15m 10ft 4in
Draught (fin) 1.81m 5ft 11in
(twin) 1.24m 4ft 1in
Displacement 4,263kg 9,400lb
Ballast 1,610kg 3,550lb
Hanse 311 – 2001
This model, along with the Hanse 371 and 401, marked a change in direction for this then fledgling brand. In doing so it heralded a period of rapid expansion for the company that had been founded only a few years earlier by former yacht broker Michael Schmidt.
Within four years of the fall of the Berlin wall Schmidt was building boats in Greifswald, a Hanseatic League city with a rich maritime heritage on the Baltic coast of the former East Germany.
Hanse’s first models were adaptations of existing cruiser racers that had gone out of production, however, the plan was always to develop the company’s own line of cruising yachts.
The 311 is a Judel Vrolijk design that’s much more cruising oriented than Hanse’s early models. However, it quickly drew applause for factors including quality of build, interior space and the distinctive American style coachroof that immediately set the boat apart from the existing European builders.
The bright interior has high-gloss joinery and includes an unusually large galley for a boat of this size.
On deck single-line reefing and an optional self-tacking jib make for easy sail handling, while tiller steered boats make more sense than those with the optional wheel steering.
Before long many more new models joined the new range, propelling the company into becoming one of the world’s larger boatbuilders.
LOA 9.45m 31ft 0in
LWL 8.10m 26ft 6in
Beam 3.30m 10ft 9in
Draught (deep keel) 1.75m 5ft 9in
Displacement 3,860kg 8,510lb
Ballast 1,250kg 2,760lb
Sail area 50m2 538ft2
Legend 36 – 2001
During the 1990s Florida-based Hunter Marine Corporation became a major international power in the yacht building world. A desire to increase the company’s presence in the European market led to a new state of the art UK factory being established in Portland, Dorset in 2001. This operated under the Luhrs Marine name, with the boats badged as Legend in the UK to avoid confusion with the already established British Hunter brand.
The Legend 36 was launched the same year as the factory opened and offered all the key attributes of the American-built boats, including the distinctive arch for the mainsheet traveller, a backstayless rig and excellent interior volume in a wide beam, high freeboard hull.
For the European market the range also included bilge keel options, which had been missing since the demise of builders such as Westerly, and Moody’s move upmarket into much larger yachts. Again these twin keels had more efficient shapes than earlier bilge keels, and benefited from heavy bulbs at the bottom.
For several years it looked as though the new UK factory would buck the trend of declining British boatbuilding and a comprehensive range of new models was launched.
However the project ultimately proved to be short-lived – with demand falling in North America the decision was taken to consolidate building there after 600 boats had been built in five years of UK production.
LOA 10.85m 35ft 6in
LWL 9.35m 30ft 7in
Beam 3.74m 12ft 3in
Displacement 6,300kg 13,900lb
Ballast 2,645kg 5,828lb
Draught 1.25m 4ft 3in
Sail area 67m2 721ft2
Beneteau First 27.7 – 2002
This was an era in which boats were becoming ever larger, with the result that new designs under 30ft started to become a rarity. However, Beneteau’s First series continued to produce a popular sporty 21-footer and later added a 25-footer.
For anyone looking for a fun boat for weekend sailing, or a summer cruise of a week or two there’s much to be said for the 27.7. It’s a Groupe Finot design that’s easy to look after and relatively inexpensive to run. While the interior fit out is more basic than that of a pure cruising design of this era, there’s still far more volume than earlier designs of a similar size, including berths for up to six and a separate double aft cabin.
More importantly, the boat is a delight to sail, with plenty of form stability and a hefty keel bulb to tame the powerful rig. When I tested the boat we reached speeds of 13 knots with the big asymmetric spinnaker, sailing two-handed and with the boat feeling as though it was running on rails.
Unfortunately, the boat wasn’t perceived as being competitive for handicap racing under the IRC rating rule, so didn’t sell as well as the other X.7 series First models on this side of the English Channel.
However, it’s a first-class choice for anyone looking for a capable and fast cruiser that’s heaps of fun to sail. My personal preference would be for the lifting keel version that gives scope for both creek crawling and fast passages in open water.
Hull length 8.30m 27ft 3in
Beam 3.00m 9ft 10in
Draught 2.15m 7ft 1in
Displacement 2,650kg 8,690kg
Mainsail 27.80m2 299ft2
Jib 22m2 237ft2
Spinnaker 60m2 646ft2
SB20 – 2004
When originally launched as the Laser SB3 this 20ft sportsboat quickly built a reputation for exhilarating performance and close racing in big fleets.
This was not an example of accidental commercial success – a huge amount of expertise when into refining the concept before putting the boat into production.
Adrian Jones, who was marketing director of Laser at the time, told me a mock up of the cockpit was built in the office in Banbury so they could sit in it during tea breaks.
This facilitated plenty of opportunity to discuss every aspect of the ergonomics and whether each control had an optimal lead for any manoeuvre that might be encountered on the race course including windward spinnaker drops and setting the spinnaker while gybing around a windward mark.
Within four years of launch there were hundreds of boats afloat and it became the largest fleet at Cowes Week, where the class attracted more than 100 boats at its peak.
Designer Tony Castro rescinded the license from the new UK owners of Laser Performance in 2012, when the boat was renamed the SB20. Some 800 boats have now been sold across Europe.
LOA 6.20m 20ft 4in
Draught (keel down) 1.50m 4ft 11in
Displacement 685kg 1,510lb
Mainsail 18m2 194ft2
Jib 9.3m2 100ft2
spinnaker 46m2 495ft2
Price from £5,500
RM880 – 2006
Bilge keels have largely remained a peculiarly British phenomenon, with most European boat builders opting for lifting keels for shallow draught models. However, a notable exception is RM Yachts, which started building a 30ft bilge keel performance cruiser in 1989. The RM880 was the company’s fifth design and came at a time of huge growth, with turnover having increased six-fold in the previous four years.
From the outset RM used plywood and epoxy construction, resulting in a multi-chine hull shape that lends itself perfectly to today’s broad hull shapes with marked chines. It’s worth noting that using epoxy is vastly different to earlier plywood construction, as the timber is protected from both water ingress and impact damage.
A further distinguishing feature of the range is the large deck house with big windows that give an all-round view. The interior of the 880 packs in a lot of accommodation for a performance cruiser of this size, including a large galley, double aft cabin, and generous saloon.
Designer Marc Lombard drew high-aspect deep keels with big bulbs on their base. The result is excellent righting moment and an efficient aerofoil section, while minimising wetted surface area.
RM models tend to be in high demand on the second-hand market and prices are further buoyed by the yard’s reputation for an extremely high standard of finish and attention to detail. Production of the 880 stopped in 2013, when it was replaced with the RM890.
Hull length 8.72m 28ft 8in
LWL 8.05m 26ft 5in
Beam 3.25m 10ft 8in
Draught 1.25m 4ft 1in
Displacement 3,200kg 7,055lb
Ballast 900kg 1984lb
Sail area 46m2 495ft2
Beneteau Oceanis 37 – 2008
Two decades after the launch of the Oceanis series, the latest generation was sporting many of the attributes now associated with today’s yachts.
While the earliest models were criticised for lightweight keels with low righting moments and therefore small angles of vanishing stability, the Groupe Finot-designed Oceanis 37 benefited from a reassuringly large bulb at the bottom of both the deep draught and shoal draught keels. The former also helped provide far better performance than was previously associated with the Oceanis series.
Chainplates of the fractional rig are taken out to the side of the hull, which reduces loads in the rig and in the hull structure. As a result the sail plan has non-overlapping jibs, which makes for easier handling, particularly after a tack, and further improves windward performance. This is especially true in stronger winds, when a partially furled jib sets with a much more efficient shape than a deep-reefed genoa.
The Oceanis 37’s hull shape owes much to the designers’ experience of producing IMOCA 60s for the Vendée Globe Race, while also providing plenty of accommodation volume. This is enhanced by high freeboard – the trend over time has been for this to increase, to provide both more headroom and a more spacious airy feel to the accommodation.
Finot also designed the Oceanis 31 and 34 as smaller models in the same family. Details that arguably give away the era of these boats include the single wheel, single rudder, lack of chines and no option for a large fold-down bathing platform. Nevertheless, the Oceanis 37 remained in production until 2015, when it was replaced by the Oceanis 38.1.
Hull length 11.11m 36ft 4in
Beam 3.91m 12ft 10in
Draught 1.40 or 1.90m
4ft 7in or 6ft 3in
Displacement 6,354kg 14,000lb
Mainsail 33m2 355ft2
Furling headsail 32m2 344 ft2
Jeanneau Sun Fast 3200 – 2008
This model marked a change of direction for Jeanneau’s Sun Fast brand. Instead of adding more efficient keels and taller rigs to the hulls of the Sun Odyssey range as for previous Sun Fasts, this was a totally new Daniel Andrieu design intended to appeal to the rapidly growing number of short-handed long-distance racing sailors.
The new design offered stunning performance, along with trans-ocean capability, from a boat that’s very easy to handle. The twin rudders give excellent control and allow the boat to be pushed at speeds in the mid- to upper-teens, even when steering on autopilot.
Below decks the accommodation layout was unusual, but by no means novel. The basic format, with two double aft cabins, plus a heads/sail storage area in the forepeak, is the same as that of the Westerly Tempest of 1987.
However, Jeanneau added neat touches, including configuring the chart table seat to allow short-handed sailors to take a quick nap. In addition, the much broader aft sections of the 3200’s hull provide far more space in the aft cabins. On the downside headroom is marginal and the standard of finish was basic on early boats.
An R2 version was launched in 2017, with a carbon mast and a plain lead keel with no bulb. While this may appear to be a step backwards, the weight saving in the carbon rig means there’s no appreciable loss of stability, while the new keel shape has a lot less drag.
The cockpit layout was also refined and Jeanneau offered a kit to retrofit these changes to existing boats. The success of the Sun Fast 3200 should not be underestimated – it’s still in production after more than 10 years and many hundreds have been sold.
Hull length 9.78m 32ft 1in
Beam 3.48m 11ft 5in
Displacement 3,400kg 7,496lb
Draught 1.90m 6ft 3in
Mainsail 33.50m2 360ft2
Headsail 28.5m2 307ft2
Spinnaker 83m2 893ft2
Price from £70,000
Foiling Moth – 2002
This development dinghy class has a long-standing tradition of pushing the boundaries of technology. As long ago as 1974 Frank Raison had successfully sailed his boat in full flying mode with wooden foils. By 1999 Ian Ward had produced the first centre-line foiling International Moth – this was the first boat to bear close resemblance to current designs.
By 2002, with the class having outlawed foils on the outriggers, John and Garth Illet in Perth, Australia, had added the now familiar bow wand that controls ride height to a centre-line foiling hull. In doing so they solved the control issue the resulted in Ward’s earlier design repeatedly crashing.
Even so, the foiling Moth was not an easy boat to sail at this stage – only a handful of people worldwide could do so. However, that changed when Rohan Veal bought John Illet’s first production model. He spent a huge amount of time learning the boat, trialling different configurations and identified the benefit of sailing with 15-20° of windward heel.
Once the early builders and developers had started to get to grips with sailing the boat they quickly became increasingly adept at teaching others to do so. By 2008, when Alan Hillman opened the Pro Vela Foiling Centre on Spain’s Mar Menor, competent dinghy sailors could learn to foil in a weekend. In less than 10 years the number of people that could sail a foiling Moth went from fewer than a dozen to many hundreds. They now number many thousands, ranging in age from teenagers to those in their 70s and even 80s.
LOA 3.35m 11ft 0in
Beam (inc wings)
2.25m 7ft 5in
Hull weight 8kg 17lb 13oz
Sail area 8m2 86ft2
Design trend: electronics and autopilots
Early marine electronics tended to be expensive or unreliable – and in some cases both. However, by this time the waterproofing of cases had improved, while the range of functionality was increasing. One of the biggest changes was in the sophistication of autopilots. Early models in the late 1970s and early 1980s were crude devices that would steer a good course in light or moderate winds, but would struggle in more severe conditions.
However, the needs of the solo racing community – particularly sponsored sailors with big budgets – helped to push development. Improvements in processing power in below-deck course computers, plus more sophisticated software were big steps forward, as were the addition of rudder angle sensors and rate sensing or gyro compasses.
These offered big improvements over the early pilots that only knew the boat’s heading, but not its rate of turn or rudder angle. These improved pilots are undoubtedly big factors in the rise in popularity of short-handed sailing, both cruising or racing.