Here Comes the Judge!
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What sailor wouldn’t love to see what it’s like to sail a bunch of different boats? How about twenty-six of them in four days? That’s the opportunity Suzanne had at the end of October as one of the four judges for Cruising World magazine’s 2006 Boat of the Year competition. Here, in her words, is what it was like...

First off, how did I earn this honor? While sailing across the Atlantic last summer, I pulled out the June issue of Cruising World. An article with the title, “Calling For a Few Good Women” caught my eye. I read it and learned that previous years’ Boat of the Year judges had all been men. The magazine recognized the value of having a female judge, and they were holding an essay contest to find a winner. Contestants had to meet certain cruising experience criteria, which I did, and write a 500-1000 word essay reviewing a boat they had owned. I thought it sounded like a great opportunity, so I cranked out a review of Liberty and mailed it to Cruising World when we arrived in Bermuda.

 That was in June. Eight weeks later we were anchored off the island of Mallorca when I got an email with the subject line “Greetings from Cruising World,” from Herb McCormick, Editor in Chief. I started jumping around before I even opened the

message, knowing there was only one reason he would be writing to me. Yep – I’d won the contest. There was a problem, however . . . the judging would take place during the Annapolis Boat Show in October. By that time, we would be at Liberty’s winter berth in Rome.  Would Cruising World be willing to fly me all the way to Annapolis from Italy? Herb’s answer:  “No problem.” 

I flew from Rome to Annapolis on October 5th, arriving a day ahead of the other judges so I’d have a chance to recover from the long flight before the judging began. Rather than put us up in a hotel, Cruising World rented a beautiful house on the water for the entire week. In addition to the four judges, there were 8 others involved in the event staying at the house, including the editors/writers, the photographer and his assistant, and the launch operator. As Herb put it, this was communal living at its best. It was a nice change of pace to be in a real house after so much time on the boat, but strange to find myself sharing a bedroom and waiting for my turn in the bathroom!

The first four days of the competition, we four judges went aboard all 26 boats while they were pierside at the boat show. Adult supervision was provided by Herb McCormick or Executive Editor, Tim Murphy. I was humbled and honored to be treated as an equal among the other judges, including: Bill Lee, boat designer and former owner/designer of Santa Cruz yachts; Peter Hogg, record-holding single-handed translant and transpac multi-hull racer; and Ed Sherman, electronics wizard from the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC).

The dock-side inspections were relatively easy, except for the rain that fell all four days. Thankfully, Cruising World provided us each a red Gill foul weather jacket, complete with “Cruising World Boat of the Year Judge” embroidered on it. One boat representative told us he was terrified when we four judges boarded his boat and began poking around very seriously. I was surprised by this comment, because I can’t remember when I’ve laughed as much as I did with this fun group.

The second four days the pace increased considerably as we moved to the sea trial stage. Rather than waste time getting underway from the dock aboard each vessel, the magazine arranged for each boat’s representative to sail the boat to the middle of Annapolis harbor. It quickly became clear why they’d rented that house on the water:  at 0800 each morning we walked out the door, boarded a RIB and proceeded directly to the first boat, not to set foot on land again for 11 hours.

Let me pause here and tell you about this RIB: twenty-five feet long, all black, with a black carbon fiber radar arch across the stern, and four saddle-type seats on shock absorbers behind the black center console. Man, that baby could move out! We zipped around the harbor at 40 knots – a real “E Ticket” ride.

I’m used to boarding boats from a dinghy, but those boats are usually anchored in calm water and our dinghy is tied alongside. Not so for intrepid Boat of the Year judges! The boats we judged would head up into the wind while our RIB pulled up and we clambered aboard with both boats still moving. I felt like a ship’s pilot making the underway transfer.

We spent an hour and a half aboard each boat. Our routine included testing the engine at normal cruising RPMs and fast-cruising RPMs both for boat speed and noise below decks (measured with a decibel meter). Next we checked out the anchor windlass and emergency tiller. With those tests behind us we raised the main and tried tacking on main alone, then we raised the headsail(s) and sailed through every point of sail. We were especially interested in upwind performance.

As any sailor knows, the wind often fails to cooperate when you want to have a good sail. Not so this week! A nor’easter hung over the area the entire four days of the sea trials, bringing gray skies, frequent rain, and choppy water caused by some great gusty winds. That’s right – the wind blew anywhere from 15 to 32 knots the entire time we were on the water. It was a bit blustery, but you couldn’t ask for better conditions if you want to see what a boat can do.

The wind made for some mighty sporty sailing, especially considering that we started out on each boat with full sail, then reefed according to how the boat responded. As soon as Bill Lee completed his motoring tests and we raised the sails, he would turn the helm over to me. That meant that I was almost always the one to find out whether or not we had too much sail up! I quickly acquired the nickname “Dr. Spin” as I rounded up a couple of boats in the gusts. Even with shortened sail we had the rail in the water on almost every boat. Some boats were much more tender than others, and let me tell you, the adrenaline was pumping! We grinded so many winches that whenever we’d get on a boat equipped with electric winches we enjoyed the luxury.

The first two days we sailed seven boats a day, and the last two days six per day. At 90 minutes per boat, that made for a lot of sailing.  

The experience of sailing 26 boats provided me a lot of “firsts”: first time to sail a catamaran (and we sailed six), first time to sail a boat over 50 feet LOA (we judged boats from 31 to 65 feet – what fun!), first time to sail a “performance cruiser” – meaning a very fast, yet stable boat in the 45-foot range (After sailing those babies at 9 knots at a mere 25 degrees off the wind, I was hooked!), first time to use running backstays and adjustable backstays. It was quite the challenge to move from boat to boat, each with different methods of raising or furling the main, different travelers, different winch set-ups, etc., but basically, sailing is sailing, and sail we did.

The highlight for me was the test-sail of an unusual cruising catamaran called the Gunboat 48. The owner/builder, Peter Johnstone, was anxious to show us what his boat could do. So, in spite of the 25 knot winds, he put up the full main and jib. Bill Lee took the helm and shortly had us sailing at 16 knots. Now, sailors who cruise aboard catamarans often brag that they don’t have to stow anything when they get underway because their platform is so stable. Peter Johnstone didn’t bother to secure a few things, either, which quickly became apparent when we heeled enough to send all the bottles in his liquor locker crashing onto the deck of the starboard hull. The horrific sound was just like someone emptying a trash can full of bottles into a trash-truck. The cabin instantly filled with the smell of (good) red wine. Oops! An even bigger “oops” were the dents on the bulkhead opposite the cabinets from where the bottled hit it just like projectiles.

Undeterred by the spillage and unsatisfied with 16 knots, Peter then raised his asymmetrical spinnaker. He put me on the mainsheet with the instructions: “When I say ‘ease’, you ease!” Peter Hogg was on the spinnaker sheet next to me. Luckily owner-Peter was at the helm, because when that huge cruising catamaran (49 feet, remember) reached 18 knots, the starboard helm lifted 20 degrees out of the water!  I learned that this is called “flying a hull.” Cruising catamarans, by the way, should not be doing this!. Suddenly the boat rounded up (something the experienced cat sailors aboard had never experienced) and would not fall off again. Reason why:  the port rudder had completely sheared off! The spinnaker was flogging madly, and Peter had to start the engine to fall off enough for the spinnaker to be hauled in. When all had settled down, Peter Hogg held up the spinnaker sheet – a spectra line with about six feet of the cover melted right off! Peter Johnstone looked at it, laughed, and said, “Oh well, there goes an $800 line.” (Not to mention a carbon fiber rudder!). We were very grateful that the owner was the one at the helm during the incident. As a monohull sailor, I didn’t know enough to be worried during all the excitement, so I thought it was all great fun!

But alas, our schedule was tight, and we had to move on to another boat. As mentioned above, we headed for the first boat at 0800 and test-sailed three boats. Lunch was a quick sandwich eaten aboard the RIB while we bobbed around the harbor in the rain and wind (not enough time to head back to the house). Then it was on to either three or four more boats. By 6 pm we were ready to head back. That’s when I was really happy for the RIB. Zipping back to the dock at high speed was the closest thing to “beam me up Scotty” I’ve ever experienced.

After arriving back at the house at sunset, our day wasn’t over. Oh, noooo. We then moved into deliberations. Each judge was given five minutes to discuss a boat – so that was twenty minutes per boat times six or seven boats. The editors had learned in years past that it wasn’t a good idea to feed the judges before the discussions, so they held us prisoner until all deliberations were complete. The home-cooked meal at the end was worth the wait, even though by this time it was 10 pm.

On the final evening we voted for the winners. I was very pleased at the integrity of the whole process – there was no pressure to choose a particular boat and we voted by secret ballot. We judged each boat strictly on what we saw and experienced. As for the winners, you’ll have to wait for the January issue – I’m sworn to secrecy.

On a personal note,  I took a lot of ribbing from my colleagues. Why? Every time I sailed a boat I particularly liked I said the same thing: “I want one!” But I’m happy to report that I was very happy to fly home to Ty and Rudy and to step aboard Liberty. She may be 25 years old, but she’s a keeper.