Sled Revival

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Clockwise from left, Peter Cozzi, Logan Oliverio, Jack Walker, and Peter Reece fit a temporary deck on a new Tom Wylie–designed 80′ (24.4m) wood composite sled under construction in Portland, Oregon.

Designing and building large ultra-light displacement boats (ULDBs, aka “sleds”) for class racing and chasing transoceanic records to Hawaii once was a popular variant of the left coast yachting game. It brought together wealthy clients; notable designers like Alan Andrews, Bill Lee, Reichel/Pugh, and Tom Wylie; builders such as Santa Cruz Yachts and Westerly Marine; and a host of subcontractors who made sails, spars, and appendages. It was an era that produced memorable boats named PyewacketTaxi DancerMagnitudeRage (more on her later), and Pegasus. Boats that set records and lugged home the famous Barn Door Trophy for the first to finish the Transpac. They followed a trend that started with Lee’s Merlin, which paved the way for long and skinny IOR 70-raters by smashing the course record in 1977 and a few conventions along the way. Designed as a minimalist support system for the largest possible spinnaker with an out-the-door price tag of $135,000 (about $680,000 today), Merlin didn’t just set the pace on the water but also served as a benchmark for the boat speed-per-dollar ratio.

But as times, tastes, and rating rules have evolved, skinny sleds yielded the spotlight to bigger, faster, and more complex and expensive yachts. Yet sleds retained their appeal, and some old pros familiar with their design and construction still build one if someone asks. One such case is a Wylie-designed 80-footer (24.4m) referred to as Global Voyager, under construction on Hayden Island in Portland, Oregon, featuring a wood-composite hull (see “Sled Encore,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 203, page 14).

COURTESY MARK McCUDDY

Eight crew rolled the hull upright with four chain lifts attached to the rafters with D-rings.

Recent shop visits found the skinned and faired hull right-side up with temporary bulkheads removed, details of the interior taking shape, and deck construction beginning. The hull was rolled upright early last December by a crew of eight, who used straps, four chain lifts with D-rings attached to the workshop rafters, ropes, and a winch for purchase. “We kind of figured we were looking at 5,000 lbs [2,268 kg] of hull weight divided by four,” said Mark McCuddy, the landlord and business partner of builder Steve Rander, who at age 77 continues to defy age and gravity. “At 1,250 lbs [567 kg for each lift] we thought we had more than enough strength.” It was a quick operation that took about an hour but required a few days of prep, McCuddy added. “We lifted up the D-rings, which the straps were going through, to a point where [the hull] was up high enough to roll. It just went up, then around, and once it got to a certain point, it kind of wanted to keep going, [but] we had ropes in the other direction that had tension.”

According to specifications, the vessel displaces less than 30,000 lbs (13.6 t) and has a beam of only 13 9 (4.2m), both requisites for using tiller steering on a boat of that size. Strictly speaking, it is a larger version of Rander’s 70‘ (21.3m) Rage, a tiller-steered wood-composite sled still going strong 31 years after her launching and having set multiple records in races to Hawaii and along the West Coast. The client for the new boat bought Rage several years ago and wanted to re-create “that magic” but with added space and amenities for long-range cruising. Among the features atypical for this subspecies of racy sailing yacht are a pilothouse dodger in the middle cockpit that extends aft to offer protection from the elements, and multiple forestays for different headsails, as is common on singlehanded IMOCA racers. Trading some of the less-is-more principle for practicality, the equipment list specifies bow and stern thrusters to shoehorn the vessel into tight marina slips.

“In some ways [the project] was born out of thinking about a future in the middle of COVID and starting a conversation with Tom about my dream boat, if we somehow all managed to get through COVID,” the owner said on a phone call. Having sailed 505 dinghies in his youth, he is partial to tiller steering and knows the critical importance of weight discipline for performance. “Tom and Steve are good about simplifying, and most of the things that all come back to me are ways of making things simpler.”

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The interior surfaces show the wood hull’s decorative side, juxtaposing bright Sitka spruce and red cedar.

Another demand was retaining the wood aesthetic that rules Rage’s mahogany-and-teak interior but with cedar and Sitka spruce, with the latter doubling as the 0° layer for the hull under the carbon composite skins. “The whitish [areas] are all Sitka, while the multicolored is cedar,” Rander explained on a walkthrough. “Sitka was used in the area above countertops and bunks.” It was sourced from Fred Tebbs & Sons in Gig Harbor, Washington, and the cedar came from Oregon-Canadian Forest Products in North Plains, Oregon, which milled (approximately 1,200 board feet in all) and delivered the lumber to the building site.

“We used WEST 105/205 to glue the material to the stations,” Rander continued. “Then we came back in and tabbed all of the stations (the actual bulkheads, not the temporaries) with three layers of 17 oz on each side, to the skin, except where it was going to show in the areas where spruce partial frames take up and form the corner. So when you look at it, you have all this natural spruce running 0°. Where it goes up to a bulkhead it looks like a frame, and the bulkhead is painted.” That’s the wood part. But it’s a different story for the hull skin.

Rander and his six-man crew, spanning three generations and recruited locally from sailing friends and folks who have worked with him previously, laid the first three layers of unidirectional carbon in the 90° direction, followed by ±12-oz/sq-yd (407-g/m2) carbon over two variants of foam core: 11⁄4 (32mm) M80 Corecell 5-lb (2.3-kg) above the waterline and M100 Corecell 6-lb (2.7-kg) below. The outer skin is all carbon, first ±12-oz/sq-yd and then four layers of 11-oz/sq-yd (373-g/m2) cloth. The carbon chainplates are bonded into the hull between the outer and inner skin using mainly unidirectional carbon. The hull is reinforced in the keel attachment area with carbon trays between the floor timbers on the inside and extra layers of carbon on the outside. Finisher Peter Cozzi picked up one of the mounts for the 110-hp Yanmar auxiliary diesel. They were made of ash wood with Divinycell core on the inside. “It’s light and helps with vibrations,” Rander said. “Carbon might save 5 lbs [2.3 kg], but it’s a wooden boat, come on.”

Cozzi was also building stringers and beams for a temporary deck with assistance from 18-year-old Logan Oliverio, who graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland and is intent on starting a career in the trades. He joined the project with his grandfather Paul, one of Rander’s sailing mates, who came to help and was gluing up cabintop arches on the workbench, using seven layers of 3⁄16 (5mm) spruce and portions of the lighter cedar wood, which will be visible in the boat’s interior.

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Left—Reece and carpenter Pete Thomsen fit a cabintop arch laminated from seven layers of spruce with cedar knees,

One entertaining aspect of covering a Wylie project is listening to the designer riff about eclectic influences that inform his work and the choice of modern and traditional methods and materials. In Wylie’s world, a cabintop arch is not just that but a design element that had intrigued him when he was researching the architecture of the castles in the Loire valley. At the same time, it serves as an example for building with different wood species to attain a desirable strength-to-weight ratio. “You’re going to see several arches of knees with graduated wood in the middle of the arch beam that’s made of cedar, which is 23 lbs/cu ft [0.37g/cm3],” he pointed out. “Where we want more tension [and] strength, we’ve got [Sitka] spruce, which is 27 lbs/cu ft [0.43 g/cm3]. That’s how we’re saving weight, by applying the same philosophy as the people who built sealskin kayaks in Alaska or Viking warships in Denmark: you taper out different things and use different materials, depending on their strength and weight.”

Also visible in the interior will be the maststep, a sculpted piece of massive Honduras mahogany glued up with epoxy and reversed grain. It is part of a strong “eggshell,” designed and engineered to bear loads exceeding 40,000 lbs (18,143.7 kg), with a 2:1 safety factor. For support, Rander added three plywood floor timbers underneath the mast that spread fore and aft to about 30 (0.76m). The hull skins underneath the floor timbers were reinforced to be about 2 (50mm) thick, by Wylie’s estimate. “The basic call is 1¾ [44mm] thickness, but there’s so much extra carbon tapered out locally,” he said. “And the same is true on the outside. Steve made the foam a little thinner in that area, and there’s a nice large patch of multi-directional carbon.” Tapered foam helped the reinforced area match the rest of the fair hull surface.

As Cozzi, Logan Oliverio, and carpenter Jack Walker joined Kiwi boatbuilder Peter Reece, who apprenticed with New Zealand designer, builder, and offshore sailor John Lidgard, to fit a piece of the temporary deck, Rander was watching intently from the mezzanine. “We keep putting [deck construction] off, because the longer we have it off, the easier it is to work on everything else,” he said. It will all be built on-site, starting with the innermost layer of 1⁄8 (3mm) sapele plywood that also is the visible part of the cabin ceiling, which will be epoxy-coated and sanded, primed, and painted in oyster white, except where it will be glued. “It will get cut, fitted, scarfed, traced, then removed. When it comes back it gets glued up [at] the scarfs and wherever it’s put down,” Rander explained. But first the deck’s plywood inner skin has to be built up with composite layers. That’ll be done on the shop floor and adds 1 (25mm) Divinycell M80 core, and the outer skin consisting of a combination of 0-90° and ±45° carbon. “There’s some intricate stuff in between,” Rander continued, “like where the jibsheet tracks are, there are doublers and things that go on the inside, and they have to be let into these frames and stations before the deck can go on so that everything gets bolted through.”

Meanwhile, others were finishing up bunks and water tanks. The hull sides there have additional layers of lightweight glass and epoxy that form the outboard side of each tank. The inboard sides of the tanks are longitudinal bulkheads, also integral to the bunk structure, that intersect with the hull side of the tanks in the bilge. The tanks have baffles and inspection ports on the top. Tempting as it might be, there is no water ballast that can be moved from side to side.

While work on the hull and deck was progressing at the shop in Portland, everything else needed to happen in synchronicity. Subcontractors in California, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Mexico have been manufacturing components to be shipped to Schooner Creek Boatworks (Rander’s former shop), located a couple of miles down the road and the place chosen for the final fit-out. Those bits include the 7 4 (2.24m) carbon-composite spade rudder made by Larry Tuttle from Waterat in La Selva Beach, California (see “Old 505 Needs New Home,” PBB No. 185, page 8), while the 12 6-deep (3.8m) keel was fabricated by Roberto Vulling at Duro Industries in Teoloyucan, Mexico. Vulling is a specialized fabricator who has worked with Wylie and other West Coast designers for decades. The keel’s 12 (3.65m) steel fin was fabricated to a NACA profile and will hold nearly 100 gal (378.4 l) of diesel. The lead ballast bulb is cast directly onto it and won’t be removable. Because it doesn’t protrude forward of the leading edge, it won’t easily get hung up on crab pots or kelp.

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Mark McCuddy, left, and builder Steve Rander take measurements for a bow fitting.

The 95 (29m) carbon mast and the boom are built domestically by Offshore Spars (New Baltimore, Michigan), which recently emerged from bankruptcy, and Moore Brothers (Bristol, Rhode Island), respectively. Wylie also brought in project manager and composites designer David Hulse, formerly with Future Fibers, Southern Spars, Hall Spars, and Tripp Design. The mast is built over a mandrel and will have a D-shaped profile developed with input from Doyle Sails. “Doyle was able to run stiffness numbers on the engineering of the different spar proposals that we’ve had,” Wylie explained. “They know how the mast will bend with different tuning and different wind velocities and directions, so that the sail shape marries to the mast shape. They’ll be able to modify the laminate to the curve they want for the sail.” He estimated that the mast will bend about 10 (254mm), or roughly 1% of the 80 (24.4m) luff curve to keep the column stiff and prevent headstay sag on any one of the headsails set on different attachment points on the foredeck.

Because the new boat will be raced with experienced crew and cruised with friends and family, it’s important to be able to simplify sail handling. To that end, a stainless-steel bow fitting will serve as an attachment point for the tack of the full A-2 downwind sail that won’t be roller furled but is set as a flying sail, like a traditional spinnaker. Farther aft on the foredeck will be other attachment points for smaller headsails, all the way down to a storm jib. About the large square-top main, Wylie said he noticed and appreciated the technological advancements in sail fabrics that allowed them to be lighter, stronger, and better at holding the shape the sail was designed for. “The draft-forward shape and the flat exit, especially off the leech, really fit light, tender boats,” he observed.

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Rolling the hull upright revealed the wood layer and the plywood bulkheads before work began on the interior and the deck.

The launching of this yet-to-be named boat is expected later this year. It will bookend a build project that brought together old mates and time-tested alliances to revive the concept of long, skinny, and fast boats that once dominated the West Coast racing scene. 

About the Author: Dieter Loibner is editor-at-large of Professional BoatBuilder.