If you’d told me 3 years ago that I’d be excited about building a Gunboat 55 I probably would’ve kicked you in the shins. The Gunboat 55, the albatross that sank the original Gunboat. The Gunboat 55, the same boat as “Rainmaker” which was so famously abandoned at sea. Yet here I am, “bragging” on Sailing Anarchy about my Gunboat 55 project. WTF happened to me? How did I get here?
First, a little background
My project boat started its life destined to be another stock Gunboat 55 (5508), a “high-latitude cruiser” and an eventual sistership to Rainmaker. The Nigel Irens Design failed to live up to expectations, and proved far more expensive to build than anticipated. As a result, Gunboat went belly up (again) and the remains of the company were sold to the French in a bankruptcy auction. Hull 5508 was caught up in the bankruptcy and she sat, half-completed, with 5 of her orphaned sister ships in North Carolina for the last several years.
The second, brief incarnation of the boat was as a “Gunboat 57” (Gunboat 5701 is “VaiVai” as featured here on the FP back in 2016. Gunboat 5702 is “Vandal” which underwent a thorough refit here at Newport Shipyard and is now cruising in Tahiti). I contracted the sale and completion of this latest Gunboat 57 last year while I was still a Gunboat employee. The buyer was an experienced catamaran sailor who wanted what every Gunboat buyer wants, i.e. a wicked fast cat that his wife and kids could join him on.
He knew the limitations and history of the Gunboat 55 platform and was 100% willing to make the changes that the platform needed to “work”. We were going to make a “cafe racer” version of the 55, dispensing with all of the irrelevancies and going back to the roots of the original, minimalist Gunboat vision. I was stoked, the buyer was stoked, even Ze French were stoked. Despite their early enthusiasm (and contractual obligations) the French owners of Gunboat had a change of heart…and things went into “limbo” for a bit.
Having witnessed too many buyers in this performance catamaran segment get burned, and not wanting to be complicit in a builder abandoning yet another buyer, I quit Gunboat to oversee completion of 5508/5702 myself. We organized the tow of the boat from NC to Newport Shipyard in April. (I was tempted to go on a Tom Sawyer-type adventure and just strap a couple of outboards to the back…but…cooler heads prevailed and we took the low-risk, tow approach). For lack of a better name, we are now referring to the boat as a Man-O-War 57.
Our first step (once the boat was hauled at Newport Shipyard) was to get her leveled and on scales so there wouldn’t be any surprises later. The original Gunboat 55 was designed to be 9.5 tons but ended up nearly 50% overweight (+/- 14 tons!) and about 4 degrees stern down. When Rainmaker was launched everyone was surprised that the swim step was under water and bow was up in the air. Gunboat hastily stapled 2′ transom extensions onto the back of all 8 boats on the factory floor in an attempt to correct the trim, but it was too little, too late. We certainly didn’t want to fall into that trap. Our next step was to rip out as much weight as possible. We ditched the entire furniture package which had already been installed.
Though beautiful (and expensive) it was way too heavy and there was just WAY too much of it. We also cut out the centerboard trunks (centerboards on a performance cruising cat makes my short list of worst ideas ever). After that, we cut out the engine beds, engine hatch, aft stairs, cockpit coaming, cabin soles, etc. Once all the cutting was done we were sitting at about 4.5 tons. We are hoping to get close to the original design weight of 9.5 tons. We won’t get there, but in the immortal words of Captain Ron, “It’s important to have goals. I learned that in rehab”.
As for the design and engineering…we are lucky to be working with the legend, Dirk Kramers. He’s back in town after countless America’s Cup victories, happy to spend some time at home and concentrate on a variety of smaller projects. He, Steve Koopman, and Ross Weene at SDK Structures are doing the structural engineering and NA. Backing SDK up is Steven McNally who’s been doing the heavy lifting with the 3D and CAD work. Though he’s from a monohull background (working for Ted Fontaine) he’s taken to catamarans quickly. Knowing we had Dirk on the team gave us the confidence to really dig into the foil topic.
Going into this Gunboat 55 project I wanted to go for “interesting” daggerboards. None of us thought full-foiling on a cruising cat was an idea worth pursuing, but surely there was something between 1970’s tech and the AC50’s that we could benefit from. Having been a part of the Gunboat 68 design, I had an unfulfilled desire to explore what was possible with lifting foils on the performance catamaran platform. My first question to Dirk was, “would lifting foils work on this platform”. His immediate, unequivocal answer was “Yes”. Having been involved with the DOG match, Oracle’s AC72, and BAR’s AC45/50’s, I knew there were few people better equipped to explore the topic with. The question about foils has sent us down a (fun) rabbit hole and thought experiment. We started with the assumption that the boards would be L’s and the trunk would hug the outboard side of the hull (like everyone else has been doing it).
The first and most obvious downside was a daggerboard trunk outboard meant we’d lose the topside window on the outboard of the hull, lose the deck hatch, and we’d need to move the door to the head inboard. As we dug a little deeper, though, we realized that the targeted maximum 9 tons of vertical lift created a lot of “unbalanced” load on the bearing and lift assembly. That was a struggle to resolve. Lastly, moving the center of lift so far inboard meant we were giving away about 20% of our righting moment. We re-thought the trunk orientation and now plan on a canted-in orientation. We are also headed for a modified “T” solution for the lifting foil. That’s gained our RM back, balanced our loads, saved the topside window, saved the deck hatch, and kept the door location. Win-win-win.
On the build side, we are working with Stew Wiley, Ted Brown, Vinnie Pard (yeah, that Vinnie Pard), and the guys from Al Fresco Composites. Stew and I did the first refit on the first Gunboat about 15 years ago. Since then, he’s worked on virtually every Gunboat and likely has more hours working on Gunboats than anyone else in the world (though I’m not sure if that’s a curse or a blessing. Neither is he). Stew and his guys are some of the best boatbuilders in the country, Vinnie has seen and done it all, and Stew and Ted are fair and easy businessmen to work with.
We are working with Steve King at Offshore Spars and Nick Black at Rigging Projects for the rig package. Offshore is one of the last independent spar manufacturers that has survived the North consolidation and the last major US spar manufacturer, so we are excited to work with them. Nick and Rigging Projects are the experts in this market segment and they’ll backstop Offshore’s entry into this game. One of the ideas that really set this project apart from the rest of the fleet is we are raking the martingale forward (with a split V), allowing the structural headstay to move further out and fly what’s normally the large J-1 sail, reducing luff sag and allowing the J-1 to be self-tacking (another typical Gunboat headache).
One of the things I’m most surprised at is how much I’m actually falling in love with the boat. Admittedly, it’s taken me awhile to “get” the 55 platform but with a little rethink of some areas, and utilizing the original vision, its great. We’ve added tillers at the back of the boat in addition to the inside helm. The 55’s open bridge deck design allows a clear, easy path from tiller to tiller with great visibility of the seas and sails while driving, as well as great communication between the helm, salon, and cockpit (one of the weaknesses of the typical Gunboat’s inside helm location).
The trimming cockpit is a quasi indoor/outdoor area, keeping the guys forward dry when it’s rough and cool when the forward doors are open (another weakness of the typical Gunboat forward cockpit). The 4-cabin, 2-head layout gives plenty of room without the system weight and complexity of the heads. We’ve ditched the heavy diesel engines aft and replaced them with Oceanvolt electric drives amidship, under the sole and below the escape hatch. That freed us to reconfigure the aft engine room area into a mechanical space, leaving great storage and system access for an owner/operator.
Coupled with some other innovative ideas and hardware solutions we feel that this boat will offer fantastic performance with minimum headache factor for the owner operator. We’ve rethought just about every corner of the boat, from deck plan, to winch plinth, interior furnishing, systems, t-rudders…I could go on. I’ll be keeping updates in the forums as the project unfolds.
Although the “me” from 3 years ago would be horrified to hear what I’m up to today…to be honest…I find the challenge exciting. I won’t lie, the question “Can this platform be made to actually go fast?” DOES keep me up at night. I don’t know that I know the answer to that question yet, but we’ll find out. I do know this, we’ve got the best team imaginable to try and turn this dog into a cat. Working with Dirk and the designers has been an honor and a delight, Stew and the guys are always great, and the owner is one of the nicest guys in yachting. Fingers crossed and stay tuned.
Nils Erickson was formerly Technical and Sales Director for Gunboat. He now owns Soma Sailing LLC with his wife Meredith, as well as their Hurricane Irma-damaged Formula 40 “Soma”. If you’re in Newport, stop by the big white tent at the Shipyard and check progress. Nils can also be reached at [email protected] or (619) 430-8935.