As manufacturers and dealers in booming outdoor industries fret over delays, shortages, and even production shutdowns caused by COVID-19 and tariff-related disruptions in the just-in-time supply chain, some boatbuilding businesses in Anacortes, Washington, took action. The goal was to meet these challenges and demonstrate workable alternatives by staying close to home with a full-scale build and a fast turnaround. Bieker Boats, Emerald Marine, and James Betts Enterprises pooled time, talent, and resources to construct Pippa, the new Longtail 30 ultralight-displacement performance keelboat, and launch it within 12 months of the client’s initial phone call.
Designed by Paul Bieker, the Longtail 30 is a 30‘ (9.41m) LOD ultralight-displacement boat (ULDB) conceived for single and shorthanded operation. Because the customer was in a hurry to go sailing and had high performance expectations, the choice was a hybrid model with a stitch-and-glue wood/epoxy hull using computer-aided design (CAD) and construction technologies. Aside from a short gestation, building as much as possible in town reduced travel and carbon emissions while judicious material choices curbed nonbiodegradable waste for the landfill. Only the carbon spars, made by C-Tech in New Zealand, were vulnerable to possible shipping delays.
“The origin of the boat [dates to] 2020, when everybody was locked down because of the plague,” said John Rahn, 77, the client, who retired from teaching music and composition at the University of Washington and now runs a nonprofit publishing business. Rahn, who knows Bieker from racing on Puget Sound and previously owned the Riptide 35 Terramoto, another Bieker design, opted for a custom build because the production boats he tested left him unimpressed. “I would have been happy with a class boat had I found one that fit my criteria,” he said. “I could not sail my Melges 24 with crew [during the pandemic], therefore I wanted a boat for single or shorthanded sailing. I called Paul and we discussed ideas. I made a list of sailing and design qualities, and we realized that [his] list was very similar. He had thought about a boat of this type for a while.”
They settled on a concept that could be described as “going fast while staying safe.” Coming from dinghies and keelboats, Rahn did not want to give up the performance, but at his age, hard hiking and dicey excursions onto the foredeck to wrestle a big downwind sail were out of the question, so cockpit ergonomics were a focal point of the Longtail 30 design concept.
“I really enjoyed sailing boats like Six-Meters and some of the old knockabouts I got a chance to sail on the East Coast,” Bieker said. “The experience of being down in a cockpit and close to the water and kind of in the boat and comfortable, not hiking off the side like on the International 14s, was appealing to me. Most of these kinds of boats are not high performance; you don’t have the excitement a ULDB can provide.” The trick, Bieker explained in a Zoom talk organized by the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, was designing a ride for Rahn that sails “like a traditional boat and [is] able to get up and go like a modern high-performance boat.”
Maximizing Speed, Minimizing Cost
Looking at the numbers it’s quite clear what he meant. Thirty feet LOD, 7‘5“ (2.27m) beam, 552 sq ft (51.28m²) of upwind sail area, and a displacement of 3,100 lbs (1.4 t) with 1,705 lbs (773 kg) of ballast in the 8‘ (2.44m) keel produce a lot of horsepower and robust righting moment. One feature that reflects this go-fast, stay-safe concept is the giant 973-sq-ft (90.4m²) asymmetrical. Under way, its tack is attached to a fixed bowsprit. The sail can be struck from the cockpit using a downhaul line attached to its center (aka “umbilical cord”) that pulls the sail through an opening in the deck into a canvas chute below deck. To keep out water, the opening can be closed by a sliding hatch also line-operated from the cockpit. With an America’s Cup mindset but not an open-ended budget, Bieker explained his sensible, judicious design choices: “When we make judgments about where we spend our money in the boat, the tool we use is the VPP [velocity prediction program]. I’ll do different variants of the design—say, a boat with an aluminum mast as opposed to a carbon mast—and we brought them in the VPP, and that produces polars for the boat.”
Longtail 30 Particulars
- LOD: 30′ (9.41m)
- Beam: 7.5′ (2.27m)
- Draft: 8′ (2.44m)
- Displacement: 3,100 lbs (1.4 t)
- Ballast: 1,705 lbs (773 kg)
- Upwind sail area: 552 sq ft (51.28m2)
- Asymmetrical: 973 sq ft (90.4m2)
- Okoume plywood hull and frames
- Carbon fiber/foam deck
To illustrate the strategic use of carbon composite (i.e., resin-infused sandwich deck panels) on a wooden boat, Bieker made a pie chart that breaks down weight distribution: with 55% in the keel, most weight is below the waterline, where it creates stability. Moving up, everything gets progressively lighter in absolute and relative terms: hull structure (21% of displacement, or 660 lbs/300 kg), deck and house (7%, or 220 lbs/100 kg), and rig (4%, or 112 lbs/51 kg), which yields the best returns for the money spent. “One of the key thoughts behind the design is really spending the money where it improves the boat,” Bieker said. “We could make that hull half the weight if we built it from composites, but that would only save 7% of the weight of the complete package and… the hull is low in the boat, not the most important place to save weight. Doing the deck in carbon fiber and foam makes sense constructionwise; you can minimize the amount of framing. Typically when you go light with a wooden deck, you go down to something like a ¼“ [6mm] plywood; we would have stringers on 8“ centers or so, which is not just a fair amount of work but weight as well.”
Another example is the keel, which has a steel spar with E-glass fairing, not one that’s fully made of carbon. “There’s a temptation when you get into composite engineering, the materials are magic,” Bieker said. “I can build a keel that’s as stiff…at one-sixth the weight, but the reality is when you put it into VPP and trade it off, you realize it makes very little difference to the performance of the boat. If I make the keel a whole lot lighter, I can make the bulb just a little heavier, but the bulb gets bigger, has a bit more drag. The boat is slightly faster but not enough to be worth the money you spend. Besides, the dependability of steel lets you sleep at night.”
Andy Stewart, who owns and runs Emerald Marine, the small yard that built Pippa, was excited to be part of this project. His permanent crew of five specializes in wooden boat repair and construction. “There’s kind of a pile-on effect, if you look at the hull,” Stewart said in the presentation. “It did not have to be designed as [elaborately], and it did not have as many materials and man-hours in it, and [parts were] easy to cut out on the CNC machine. Therefore we get almost as good performance characteristics for a lot less investment in labor and materials.” He also pointed out the wooden interior, the cool factor, and, possibly, a more seakindly motion.
In his Zoom talk, Bieker also brought up the important but overlooked aspect of composite boatbuilding—trash. “From my point of view, one side of composites that is frustrating and a challenge in the long run is the amount of waste, the things that go into the landfill that are not biodegradable that you produce when you make a composite part. For the smaller high-performance boats I built, my general impression was that I put just as much weight of stuff in the dumpster as I did in the boat. So the way we built this boat, we significantly reduced that compared to an all-composite boat.”
The hard-chine hull was primarily planked with 3⁄8″ (9mm) ply, except the upper strake, which is 1⁄4“ in the traditional stitch-and-glue method with interior frames spaced about 39“ (1m) on center, CNC-cut with spruce stiffening. The plank pieces are connected with strong puzzle joints glassed with tape for additional strength. One exception is Frame 4, which simultaneously handles the compression force from the deck-stepped mast, and the vertical and some lateral loads of the keel. It is 3⁄8“ plywood with spruce and carbon reinforcements laid at different orientation angles and vacuum-bagged. All the other frames are 1⁄4“, meaning they are light, and stringers help keep them straight. Stewart: “Of course we took time to set everything up level and plumb, then we sanded the epoxy, so when we fillet the planks on, we have good adhesion.”
Stewart said one worker spent about a month milling all the wood, assembling the pieces, and double-coating them. “We’re prefinishing everything in three layers of epoxy that [offer] some UV protection,” he added. “As the hull goes together, it’s virtually completely finished down below.” Despite the 200-g/m² and 300-g/m² E-glass sheathing adding significant stiffness to the plywood panels, the wood still does most of the work, so it wouldn’t be possible to build this exact hull from fiberglass and foam-core sandwich. “The boat’s strength comes from the skin, but it’s all secondary bonded to the frame,” Stewart noted. “The only stringers are at the sheer and toward the turn of the bilge.”
One area of hull construction required some finesse: The second plank off centerline normally would have twisted into the bow knuckle, torturing the plywood. “The routines we use for developing the flattened shape of the panels tend to get less accurate when the panel is twisting a lot, and also you just don’t get that volume in the bow knuckle you like to have,” Bieker said. “So on this boat I decided to try a panel that forked. I basically split it around the keel. The cool thing is that we glued it up on the table. It was a forked piece of plywood, with all reference lines on it, so we get the fork at the [proper] angle. I was super pleased to see this thing drop in there nicely.”
Carbon and CNC Precision
Lending the boat some classic aesthetics is the rounded cabintop, a detail that elicits comparisons to Herreshoff’s Alerion daysailer. “The idea was keeping the freeboard quite low and keeping the hull as small as we could, [but] we needed room for a porta-potti and a bunk,” Bieker said. “That shape of house made sense because you get the most usable space inside, which is maybe why Herreshoff did it.”
Farther down in the boat, this detail is worthy of attention: The spar of the fixed steel keel, which continues through the bottom of the boat, is surrounded by a bolted flange where it enters the hull, while the upper end bolts to the intersection of the deck and the main bulkhead. “It’s just about the strongest keel structure you can do in grounding and heeling,” Bieker said. On the other hand, the thin, light (22-lb/10-kg) high-aspect-ratio rudder—manufactured from aerospace-grade prepreg by composite specialist Simon Miles in Port Townsend (see also the sidebar “Cooking the Foils,” PBB No. 184, page 26)—is closer to what one would expect on an AC yacht, because calculations showed solid efficiency gains.
For cockpit-based operation, the boat was fitted with a multifunctional carbon barney post, a repurposed International 14 bowsprit that sat behind Bieker’s workshop. By adding custom parts such as pedestals for cleats and winches, this post effectively controls all sheets and sail trim lines.
Auxiliary power is a 6-kW Torqeedo Cruise 10.0 pod drive directly behind the keel and a 5-kWh 48V battery. Rahn said he likes the clean, simple solution so he wouldn’t have to deploy or retrieve an electric outboard just to get in and out of a marina berth. For Bieker it was an opportunity to place the weight of battery and propulsor in the middle of the boat, where he wanted it. He also fabricated the carbon shroud chainplates by laying them up by hand one evening, taking care to maintain a tight, smooth, fair radius.
To keep the transom and its large swim step light and strong, Bieker made the section out of carbon, building in the backstay chainplates to eliminate a lot of stainless hardware. For the spinnaker takedown trough, Bieker chose Evan Walker and Betts Boats for the CNC-cut tooling. Bieker calls Walker, a designer at his office, “really switched-on with computer programming [and] CNC-cutting machines.” Working around the limited 12“ (305mm) gantry clearance of the 3-axis CNC router at Betts Boats, Walker stacked plywood pieces and cut them into 6“– or 8“-thick (152mm or 203mm) slabs he then glued together. The part Bieker then fabricated has useful features such as machined-in takedown rollers.
Also cut at Betts’s shop were resin-infused cored carbon deck and cockpit panels. Convenience and time savings increased, as Bieker pointed out, because computer-designed and CNC-cut parts require little trim work. “The composite deck panels were cut neat as well, so if we did our job right lofting, there won’t be any significant trimming of the carbon parts when they come into Andy’s shop.”
Vacuum-bagging also reduces resin content in the laminate. “With a woven [cloth] you can get 55% fiber and 45% resin by weight,” Bieker said, “but if you didn’t vacuum-bag, it’s a little tricky to not get little air pockets in the corners and things like that, and you are always putting down the same amount of fiber, but the resin might be 55% or 60% of the weight of the laminate. That’s a fair amount more resin in the part if you don’t vacuum-bag.”
CAD Tools and Craftsmanship
Shaping the stem from laminated spruce to conform to Bieker’s computer templates was originally thought to be a labor-intensive task. “We woke up one day and realized that maybe the CNC machine should do that,” Stewart said. “So sure enough…six hours for both programming and cut time…that would have taken me a couple of days on the bench by hand.” Weight and labor were also saved from the carbon floor panel of the cockpit, which is strong enough not to need framing underneath. The cockpit sides are plywood. The full structure was built in a separate jig and dropped into the boat.
Stewart said he laminated the stem blank according to the build jig and planed one side parallel to the centerline. Walker then fastened it to the CNC router, trued the other side, and cut the landings but left portions standing off so he could flip the piece on the machine bed. He cut the other side and returned it to Stewart, who slicked off the standoffs.
Important to Stewart’s crew were the drawings that showed the build setup and construction sequence. If “you see these pictures, nobody has to tell you what the sequence is,” Bieker noted. “For me, that’s the best kind of drawings. Andy’s shop is only a three-minute drive away, but I did not have to go there very often to look at the shape of the boat. It’s gone together pretty smoothly.”
An attendee of the Zoom talk asked about software. For most of the lofting and the layout, Bieker used Rhino 3D, a popular CAD program developed by Robert McNeel & Associates in Seattle. Basic design, flow, and VPP calculations for the Longtail 30 were based on a Rhino model, while Walker’s and Bieker’s business partner Eric Jolley turned to Solidworks, built on principles for mathematical and computer modeling of 3D solids. Solidworks models emphasize physical characteristics—accurately representing thicknesses and bevels—before they are reimported into Rhino, which, according to Bieker, has better visualizing tools and is more convenient for creating drawings. “It’s pretty mind-blowing, the power of the computers and the software tools we have been using for the past 15 years; they go hand in hand. I don’t think we fully understand the significance of what that has done for the kind of machines we can create pretty efficiently.”
“I told Paul that I’m in a hurry,” Rahn said. “I’m 77 and want to go sailing, not spend five or 10 years in a garage to build a boat.” Pippa, envisioned as a sporty daysailer and racer for single- or shorthanded operation, also showcases computer and software advances that have trickled down from multimillion-dollar racing campaigns to the design and construction of one-off recreational boats like the Longtail 30.
The takeaways include blending traditional wooden boat building techniques with computer-aided design-and-construction methods to produce a high-performance craft with a swift turnaround. Resident talent and native infrastructure avoided supply-chain delays that have slowed or shut down production of cars, bikes, and other durable goods. The project supported the local boatbuilding community, and by designing for reduced environmental impact, it also helped cut carbon emissions and reduce landfill waste. While others are still talking, the folks in Anacortes rolled up their sleeves and did it.
Sidebar: Cutting to the Chase
At 31 Evan Walker carries himself like he’s done composite work all his adult life. Yet he cheerfully admits he’s a newbie. He lives near Bellingham, Washington, close to the water, convenient for his boating habits and building his sailing résumé, which includes racing a Melges 24, kicking butt in the Race to Alaska, and crossing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans multiple times. When he’s not sailing, he’s building a stitch-and-glue skiff from Port Townsend Watercraft. His place is also close to the mountains, where he mountain-bikes. Certified as a welder and machinist at Bellingham Tech, Walker came to the composites game through the side door after he got into machining. “It’s not that hard,” Walker said when we met at Betts Boats, where he was about to cut carbon/foam cockpit panels. “I try to stay out of the Tyvek suit as much as I can.” He added that the parts he built for the Longtail 30 were his first cored infusion job.
Before cutting the cored carbon panels on a 3-axis CNC router, he worked on the laptop and a remote control in full protective gear (coveralls, gloves, and breathing mask). He’d built the panels on a heated (90°F/32.2°C) infusion table using Pro-Set infusion epoxy resin and 400-g/m² (11.8-oz/sq-yd) carbon fabric per side—two layers each of 200 g/m² (5.9 oz/sq-yd) ±45° and 200 g/m² of 0/90° over ½“ (12.7mm) Gurit Corecell M core.
Walker spent 10 minutes setting up the router, carefully measuring and remeasuring for proper placement. First, the machine drilled holes for small screws that hold the piece in position on the bed. The gantry returned to the far end, picked the proper routing bit, and cut the carbon around the outside and down the middle, leaving a trail of carbon dust Walker cleaned up with the Shop-Vac.
While he adjusted the cutting speed with a remote control, the router followed the paths laid out in the cutting files Walker had programmed in RhinoCAM, a plug-in for Rhino 3D. “Because we lofted the boat in Rhino, the data existed,” he explained. “This makes CNC cutting easy and adds value.”
Stitch-and-glue worked well for the Longtail 30, he said, “because we CNC-cut all the plywood parts, which took only one day.”