An elegant hybrid that joins modern performance and traditional beauty
Out there, in the fog, Block Island beckoned. We didn't mind that it beckoned from a point directly upwind. We had a weatherly boat and all day to sail from Newport to the island.
We didn't mind, that is, as long as the wind stayed in the comfortable 12- to 15-knot range. When it breezed up suddenly, the dense air whacking us in the face like a sodden, hard-thrown sponge, it was another story. In 28 knots of wind, the boat was rail-down and my sailing companion was fighting an ornery helm. Obviously, this called for a sail adjustment.
On most boats, there would have been two choices, neither attractive: Roll up some of the headsail and be left with a distorted, inefficient sailplan; or reef the main, always a hassle.
Because we were sailing an Alerion Express 38, we had a third alternative. We dropped the mainsail. With the sail nested securely in its lazy jacks, the boat rose to her sailing lines and, perfectly balanced, resumed making spritely progress upwind, riding the steepening seas like a gull.
The boat was balanced because she was sailing with a jib and jigger. Jib and what? A few readers not of a certain age may be puzzled. Jigger is old sailors' slang for mizzen. The Alerion 38 is a yawl. You know, two masts, the aft one small and stepped behind the rudder post.
The ability to sail with just a headsail and a mizzen is one of several advantages of the yawl rig, which is seldom seen in new boats today and has never been seen before in an incarnation as highly evolved as that of the Alerion.
The mizzen mast, for example, is carbon fiber, an elegantly tapered spar free-standing on the Alerion's spacious after deck sans the rigging clutter that conventional yawls bring to the back of the boat.
The tapered aluminum, double-spreader mainmast supports a large mainsail that, with a fractional, nonoverlapping headsail, provides plenty of power upwind. The combination is effective off the wind as well, thanks to a nifty invention of Garry Hoyt, who worked with Everett Pearson, CEO of TPI, Inc., and designer Carl Schumacher in developing the 38.
The racing test
Hoyt's patented carbon fiber Jib Boom vangs the jib to an efficient shape on all points of sail. Broad reaching, when conventional overlapping headsails twist off and lose their efficiency, the Jib-Boomed sail keeps a powerful shape. Running, the sail poles itself out, and easily flips to a wing-and-wing mode. Sheeted hard for a beat, it makes tacking a totally hands-free operation.
We put this innovative cruising rig to a test in a racing environment in the New York Yacht Club Spring Regatta at Newport, Rhode Island, with eye-opening results. With a crew of only three-Hoyt and my wife Jean and I-the Alerion tied for second in our jib and main class, beating all but one of the conventional masthead-rigged, genoa-powered, fully crewed cruiser-racers in the division. Even with only three of us aboard, it was a singularly untaxing jaunt around the buoys.
It would be a disservice to Carl Schumacher, though, to credit all of the Alerion's alacrity under sail to its innovative rig. Schumacher, known for his California-style light-displacement racers, de-signed the blend of a high-performance underbody with a traditional-appearing hull above the water that gives the Alerion its stealthy speed.
That combination will be familiar to readers who know the Alerion Express 20 and 28, earlier Schumacher efforts that successfully melded classic sailboat beauty with contemporary performance. While the 28, the first in the series, closely follows the above-water lines of Nathanael Herreshoff's legendary sloop Alerion, the 38 does not replicate a specific design but has a generically traditional look. With its perky counter stern, gracefully overhanging bow and springy sheer, it may suggest a Concordia yawl. Whatever it suggests, the look drives aficionados of sailboat aesthetics wild.
We learned that when we moored the Alerion in Great Salt Pond during Block Island Race Week. A spectacular assemblage of grand prix racing boats filled the anchorage and surrounding marinas, but it was the modestly proportioned yawl with the classic lines that brought a steady stream of compliments and queries from sailors passing in the daily parade of launches.
No wonder. The looks of the Alerion are irresistible. The boat we tested flaunted gleaming navy blue topsides set off by a red boottop and a stripe of white bottom showing above the water. Varnished teak brightwork framed her white, oval-portholed cabinhouse. With her ensign standing out in a snappy breeze, it was hard to resist the impulse to salute.
On deck, the boat sports a plethora of modern accoutrements-Harken furler, Hall Quik Vang, Lewmar self-tailing winches and the aforementioned Jib Boom-but the feeling is all traditional sailing yacht. The cockpit sets the tone. A long, narrow rectangle, it's flanked by full-length bench seats backed by teak coamings. Rising from the exposed rudder post at the aft end of the cockpit is ... a gracefully curved teak tiller.
A tiller on a 38-foot cruising boat is a lot like a yawl rig-rare. Besides adding an exclamation point to the Alerion's statement of yachting tradition, the tiller offered a nice, sensitive feel to the helm steering upwind. Still, I can see some owners opting for the available wheel-steering system, which counts among its advantages the opportunity to mount a big central compass on a binnacle. With the tiller, the best choice would be a pair of bulkhead-mounted compasses.
Down below, the Alerion offers the basic arrangement of berths, galley and head that has served sailors so well for so long, but seldom has this so-called "plan A" been executed in more handsome fashion. The gorgeously varnished teak and holly sole, Port Orford cedar ceilings, white Formica surfaces detailed with teak trim and, on our test boat, navy cushions with red piping present a symphony of hues and textures that bespeak the practical elegance of a traditional sailing yacht.
Cedar closet and wine locker
The owner's cabin forward is cozy and private. Aft, up to four guests can be accommodated by settee berths and a double quarter berth. The head and galley are large; the latter offers more than ample storage for extended cruising. A nifty touch in the main cabin hanging locker is a cedar lining that gives it the aroma of a cedar closet. The chart table is a stand-up design that saves on cabin space.
That apparently is also the reason the dining table is a fold-up affair. It's a beautiful piece of teak furniture that reveals a wine locker when it's in place, but stowing it against the bulkhead and unstowing it is a chore, an unnecessary one, it would seem. When it's unfolded, the cabin seems warmer and more inviting and the table offers a good handhold when under way. Why not just make it a fixed table? Besides the other advantages, this would keep the ship's wine stock on permanent display, a civilizing touch.
The Alerion's jewel boxlike finishing below speaks well for the care taken by TPI, the builder. Clive Dent, project engineer for the Alerion, explained that the flawless finish of the varnish below was achieved by spraying four coats on individual pieces of the ceilings and sole before assembly.
The hull is molded by the SCRIMP system, the resin infusion process that has proven successful at producing hulls that have great strength without great weight. The Alerion, a substantial 38-footer with a waterline length of more than 30 feet, weighs only 10,400 pounds.
Hull materials are E-glass with balsa core and vinylester resin. Reinforcing for the keel floors, engine bed and maststep are molded in during the SCRIMP process. The lead keel is bolted to the molded keel sump. In keeping with the imperative to blend high-tech with high tradition, the rudder is carbon fiber composite attached to a carbon rudder post and turned by a wooden tiller.
The Alerion makes good speed under auxiliary power provided by a Yanmar three-cylinder, 27-horsepower diesel, turns on a dime and steers well in reverse. That's a byproduct of the boat's racy, low wetted-surface underbody that features a whale's-tail fin keel and elliptical rudder. It is that combination, of course, along with a powerful sail area-to-displacement ratio, that gives the Alerion the superior performance characteristics under sail that were evident in our test.
In that uncommonly thorough test, which included two days of racing and three days of cruising in all manner of weather, the Alerion 38 proved itself to be exactly what Schumacher had intended: an elegant hybrid that wraps the improvements that have invigorated contemporary sailboat design and building in a traditional look that will never need improvement.
Why a yawl rig?
Some might say equipping the boat with a yawl rig is playing the tradition card a bit too boldly. But not to worry-it's an option. You can get the Alerion 38 as a sloop, but then you would miss out on the advantages of life under two sticks, which Hoyt is happy to enumerate: Jib and jigger sailing not just in a blow but whenever you want to take a spin with minimum fuss; using the mizzen as a riding sail to avoid having the boat sail round the anchorage on its anchor rode; having the ability to harness the reaching power of a mizzen staysail; using the mizzen boom to hoist your dinghy to the deck.
I'll add one of my own-the opportunity to stand out in a crowd of look-alike sloop rigs. I hesitate to use the word to describe something as drenched in tradition as the yawl rig, but it's cool.