interview: THE EVOLUTION OF NAVAL ARCHITECTURE

Roger C. Taylor knows boats.  Born and raised in Rhode Island in a maritime family, I imagine he could probably sail before he could walk.  Mr. Taylor would go on to become Editor-in-Chief of the Naval Institute Press, and eventually found International Marine Publishing with the goal of creating "good books about boats."  He is the author of several books on the art and science of sailing; from a series on Good Boats,  to Knowing the Ropes, and The Elements of Seamanship.  Currently, Mr. Taylor is working on a two-volume biography of famed American yacht designer L. Francis Herreshoff.  Excerpts from the soon-to-be-released book can be found in the most recent issue of Wooden Boat Magazine.

I had the opportunity to talk with Roger about the design of good boats.  Both the science and the art of good boats, and how that science and art is being handicapped by a strange set of scenarios.

THE SCHOONER JOANN, BY L. FRANCIS HERrESHOFF           IMAGE:   WOODENBOAT.COM

 

Roger Taylor:  Speaking of the designed environment, you might wonder, if you walked the docks of a marina today, why all the sailboats are so ugly?

It's all about handicap racing. In order to level the playing field between different sizes and designs of boats, the experts (including boat designers themselves) concoct a mathematical Rule that taxes speed-giving qualities (like length) and rewards speed-reducing qualities (like high sides). Modern racing boats are designed to fit the Rule, rather than to follow traditional hull forms that have proven themselves at sea over centuries. 

Because most modern sailboats are stamped out of fiberglass, their builders must be able to sell many copies of each design to reduce unit cost enough to meet market demands. Thus, style and fads come into play. In order to be popular, a boat has to look like the latest racing boat, whether or not it will ever race.

These daysailers and cruisers would rate very well under the Rule, but they are actually not much to look at, uncomfortable to sail, not particularly fast, and definitely not seaworthy. The Rule, unfortunately, rewards light displacement, high freeboard, chopped-off sterns, and small working sail area. The part of the designed environment represented by sailboats is generally ugly. 

Bring into that environment a heavier, low-sided boat with graceful bow and stern, a sheerline with recognizable curve, and plenty of easily-handled sail area, and you will hear "oohs and aahs" from all, both sailors and land people. Everyone can tell a beautiful boat.

The frightening thing is that ugly boats are so prevalent today that they are accepted by their owners as normal. What, exactly, is the process by which the public taste becomes debased?

An Architect's Perspective: It seems that, while these modern sailboats are following the mantra of, "Form follows function," the function in this equation is flawed.  The "rules" that dictate the function of these boats are designed specifically to reduce their performance, so naturally their form will suffer as well.  This reminds me of a track coach I had in high school who really hated the expression, "Practice makes perfect."  In his eyes, just practice could lead to sloppy technique, not perfection.  Instead, my coach advocated that, "Perfect practice makes perfect."  That lesson might be applied in this scenario, where, "Form follows function" isn't enough.  Instead, we need, "Form follows perfect function."  Do you think there is a way the racing world can create fair guidelines without sabotaging the functionality of the boats?

RT: Probably not. The racing boat's function of speed should be combined with the function of seaworthiness. A racing boat, to be successful, has to reach the finish line before breaking and sinking. Today's racing boats sail a rather fine line in that respect. Seaworthiness requires reasonable displacement (weight), but displacement is the enemy of speed, so racing boats, even those designed to race round the world, are getting lighter and lighter. And to make a light boat at all seaworthy, you have to eliminate overhangs at bow and stern and increase freeboard, almost guaranteeing ugliness.

THe modern ac72 racing sailboat, with its rigid wing sail and hydrofoils, would make a horrible boat for 99.9% of the world           image:  cupinfo.com

AAP: In your new book you tell the story of L. Francis Herreshoff, the son of famous yacht designer Nathanael Herreshoff.  L. Francis was a proficient yacht designer in his own right.  What I find most interesting is how you describe the difference in their respective approaches to design; Nathanael was the engineer, and Francis was the artist.  Did either approach lead to notable differences in the end product, or were they simply different paths to the same end?  Were Francis' boats more beautiful?  Nathanael's more functional?

RT: As to Nathanael G. Herreshoff and his son, L. Francis, and their different approaches to design, Nathanael used formulas (that he himself devised) and made incremental improvements to successful designs, while L. Francis used a well-developed sense of proportion and made leaps from design to design, both methods leading to outstanding boats. In the end, boat design is an art, and the son's artistry was superior to the father's, so that, in my judgment, the best designs of L. Francis came closer to perfection than the best designs of Nathanael. Both Herreshoffs were clearly leaders in their profession.

AAP: Your last sentence rings unfortunately true in all fields of design.  It speaks to the standards of design.  As you say, what is "accepted as normal."  If someone had only eaten fast-food their entire lives, their standard for 'good' food would be greasy hamburgers.  But, introduce that person to fine dining, and you raise their standard for 'good' food.  The question is, how do we raise the standard of design?  It is a daily struggle for me in the architecture world to overcome the public's acceptance of Home Depot doors and synthetic materials.

RT: I'm going to have to leave this one to you and your generation. I wrote a series of books on "Good Boats," hoping, by publishing designs of high quality, to open the eyes and raise the standards of sailors everywhere! A walk through any marina will show that there is much to be done.

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My mind keeps going back to Roger's original statement of the mission of International Marine Publishing; to make "good books about boats."  It is a brilliantly simple way to keep yourself on track.  When you get stuck in details and lose sight of things, just step back and ask yourself, am I making a good book about boats?

Perhaps the designers of today's boats need a similarly simple mission statement; to "make good boats" seems like a good starting place.  Of course, a "good" racing boat isn't necessarily a "good" day sailer, which isn't necessarily a "good" cruising yacht.  A key distinction that may be getting lost.