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Once upon a time, sailboats and powerboats represented two different worlds. Sailboats had little engines and big masts; were crewed by outdoorsy folks wearing yellow overcoats to stay dry; and had few amenities. Powerboats had large engines and no masts; were driven by people wearing golfing outfits; and featured such luxuries as air conditioning and blenders for pina coladas. Sailboats rarely exceeded six knots while powerboats went three or four times as fast. To make the sailboats go, sailors had to hoist sails and crank winches. Powerboaters simply turned keys and drove away.
But you can forget all those distinctions. Sailboats today cross oceans at 20 knots, and sailors, who have adopted colorful golf clothing, push buttons to trim the sails and expect all the amenities of a luxury penthouse. Powerboaters, meanwhile, now often plod along at an eco- and pocketbook-friendly six knots.
And here's the most amazing change: powerboat owners are moving over to the Dark Side and embracing sailboats.
If there has been a defining moment in the new world of sailing, it might have been when Netscape cofounder Jim Clark appeared on the cover of Fortune, cigar in hand and wearing a big grin, while perched atop the mast of his new yacht, Hyperion. It wasn't just that Clark had invested between $30 million and $50 million to build a 155-foot vessel. And it wasn't that it incorporates a reported 47 miles of fiber-optic cable linking an incredibly sophisticated computer system that can pilot the ship without a crew.
No, the unusual point about Clark was that he had built a huge sailing yacht. For considerably less money, he could have had his pick of power mega-yachts and, in fact, he could have built one that was far larger than Hyperion. Instead, like an increasing number of high-profile boat lovers, Clark opted to cast his vote in favor of sail power.
So what has caused the surge in sailing's popularity?
There is, of course, the issue of fuel. A sailboat looks better to a powerboat owner every time he swipes his credit card for fuel. Another factor is that sailing blends wind and water into a quiet recreation that is a respite from an increasingly hectic world. Sailing lets families enjoy time together without exhaust fumes or constant vibration.
But the biggest factor may be that sailboats have changed. What once required a fairly high level of physical involvement now involves less effort than answering an e-mail. Push a button and the mainsail unfurls from storage inside the mast. Push a second button and the jib unrolls. Need to trim a sail? Just push a third button.
Not long ago, I was invited to try out a 100-foot Italian-built Wally sailing yacht (see sidebar). When I arrived at the dock, only the captain was aboard and I discovered that we'd have no crew. I tossed off the dock lines, the skipper used the bow thruster to maneuver us neatly out of a tight slip and, once we were offshore, he pushed a few buttons to hoist and trim the sails. Stepping away from the wheel, he said, "It's all yours. I'm taking a nap." With that, he disappeared.
I was left alone behind what seemed like the nautical version of the "glass cockpit" in aircraft: a console with several navigation screens, rows of buttons and a couple of joysticks. For the rest of the afternoon, I amused myself by tacking and maneuvering this mega-sailboat merely by tapping a few buttons. I could have anchored the yacht without leaving the wheel (another button) and then started the whisper-quiet generator to cool the cabin with one finger. I think I would have had to make my own pina colada, but I wouldn't have been too surprised to find a button for that as well.
Like the controls, sailboat shapes have benefited from modern technology, with sophisticated computer software replacing drafting pens to create hulls that are far more efficient than ever before. Modern materials, from carbon fiber to Kevlar, also trim tons off formerly hefty sailboats. And this speed advantage isn't just for racing sailboats, either: a large cruising sailboat hit speeds of 20 knots during an ocean passage recently, while some of the crew relaxed in the hot tub. Yes, both Christopher Columbus and Horatio Hornblower are looking on in amazement from Sailor Heaven.
Take the Catalina 470, for example. This 47-footer is the flagship of Catalina Yachts, a company that has been providing fiberglass production sailing yachts for four decades. Standard equipment includes the previously unknown luxury of air conditioning, plus a generator to power everything from food processors to hair dryers. There's also a washer-dryer and you can add a gourmet galley with convection oven and freezer for the chef. You can also give the skipper electric winches, self-furling sails and a full panel of electronics for everything from radar to autopilot.
At the other end of the spectrum, Italian super-yacht builder Perini Navi recently launched Melek, a 183-footer that is the 10th in a row of uber-luxury sailing ketches. Competing evenly with mega-yachts of the same size, this powerful sailboat has five-star accommodations for five couples in private staterooms (each with en suite bathrooms) and, of course the crew of 10 includes a gourmet chef. Amenities? How about a couple of 21-foot tenders for waterskiing or fishing and, for the true hedonist, a big Jacuzzi on the upper deck. Even better, this yacht is capable of 15 knots under power and more when the 16,000 square feet of sail (about one-third of an acre) is set.
Rhode Island-based J/Boats has built more than 12,000 high-performance sailboats, so it knows what works. The company recently dipped its toe into the luxury market with a 65-footer, and just days after it was launched, the second of these yachts entered a 1,000-mile ocean race and took second in its class. Oh, by the way, the crew enjoyed air conditioning, not to mention dinners of chateaubriand and lobster tails, topped off by an insouciant little cabernet from the climate-controlled wine rack. No, this wasn't man-against-the-elements!
If one luxuriously appointed hull is good, wouldn't two be better? Yes indeed, which is why Lagoon-the French builder whose catamarans populate the Caribbean charter fleets-now offers the Lagoon 620, a twin-hulled sloop that adds a new dimension to luxurious sailing. This yacht is 62 feet wide and, with a beam more than half its length, has the roominess of a much longer vessel. The salon or living room spans the two hulls with a formal dining area and sofas, all opening onto an airy cockpit that serves as a rear "patio" with sliding doors. Each hull offers four or five staterooms, allowing for exceptional privacy and separation.
Another denizen of the bareboat charter markets is Beneteau, the French and American builder that now offers a 57-foot sloop notable not just for the spacious owner's suite that spans the full width, but for such niceties as roller furling, generator, air conditioning and even a water-maker so you can always enjoy hot showers.
For sailors who want to go the extra mile, Nordhavn Yachts-which built a reputation for no-nonsense long-range trawler yachts-now offers the 56-foot Motorsailor. This is a sloop-rigged vessel for adventurers who might want to sail into the high latitudes to chip ice off a glacier for their cocktails or who want to snorkel in mid-ocean atolls. While it has a comfortable cockpit amidships for fair-weather sailing, the real drawing card is the weatherproof pilothouse with comfortable seating for skipper and guests. You can operate the fully air conditioned and heated boat without ever having to set foot outside. Even better, the Motorsailor brings to the sailing world many features that were previously reserved for powerboats, such as marble countertops in the well-equipped galley and a walk-in engine room.
For anyone who loves sailing, it's clearly a whole new world out there.