November 18, 2010

Somewhere West Of Laramie


Why do modern cruising sailboats look the way they do?

Why are so many of them getting so big and fat and, well, starting to resemble Winnebagos more than boats?

A few posts back, here on O Dock, the story of Ned Jordan and the Jordan Motor Car Company came up (OK, I brought it up). Jordan was one of those unique American characters whose lives give birth to legends and to blog posts. He lived in an age before massive federal regulation and before all-powerful armies of lawyers strode the earth, when it was actually possible for someone to start his own car company.

But not only did he start his own car company and build cars, he wrote the advertising campaigns for those cars. And it's those ads for which he's remembered, more than for any car he ever built.

What was so special about the ads and what might that have to do with how sailboats look today?

Well, before Mr. Jordan, most car ads focused on the cars themselves. You know - stuff like engines, cylinders, brakes, and upholstery - really boring stuff. Jordan's cars were no better than those of his competitors - in fact, he bought a lot of the important parts from those competitors and reassembled them to make his own cars. So, he needed something to distinguish his ordinary cars from his competitors' ordinary cars.

To do that, he ended up writing what may have been the first car ad that was total BS. He went way beyond merely exaggerating the capabilities of his cars. He elevated total BS nearly to the level of high art. It was a watershed moment in the history of advertising.

In the ad, Jordan nearly ignored his mediocre product - the Jordan Playboy (great name, huh?). Instead, and here's the nub, he focused on the mind of the customer and what owning a Jordan car could mean to that customer. The ad implied that merely possessing a Jordan Playboy would transform whoever owned one into a lusty adventurer - a smart and worldly dude familiar with life's sweeter pleasures. Just like that.

Here's the ad. Click on it and zoom in to read the copy. Man, could this guy lay it on.

Saddle and quirt.

Laughter and lilt and light.

Revel and romp and race.

What the heck did any of that have to do with bearings, brakes, and balljoints?

In 1923, this ad caused something of a sensation - what we would today call 'buzz'. People were suddenly talking about the Jordan Playboy, which was, remember, a pretty ordinary car. One result of that ad was that marketing people began thinking that the look of a product and the 'aura' created for it by a crafty ad campaign could be more important than the product's real properties.

The shape of a car's fenders and grill could do more to sell it than the quality of its engine, gearbox, or suspension. If it looked like a car a 'playboy' might drive - if it made the owner think they'd somehow become a 'playboy' just by buying one - then who cared about how fast it went or how well it stopped? Styling and advertising would soon become more important than engineering in the American car industry. It would eventually lead to ridiculous looking cars like this:

Ah, but it didn't stop with cars, of course. The idea that looks and 'image' were more important than substance would seep into almost every type of consumer product, from pencil sharpeners to vacuum cleaners.

And yes, those ideas would eventually find their way to the usually conservative world of sailboat design. Here's just one modern example:

This is Catalina's current 38-footer. This boat might actually sail OK and be comfortable down below, but I don't think sailing ability was the most important thing in its design. Or the second most important thing.

This is a boat designed to look impressive. It looks even bigger than it actually is. It has a huge freeboard that creates lots of space below but that can't be too helpful when you're trying to go to weather. The cockpit is big enough to host a wedding. It's more a lounge - a place to be seen - than a space designed for controlling a sailboat under way. Belowdecks, Antony might feel comfortable feeding grapes to Cleopatra in the galley, aft cabin, or main saloon.

The Catalina 387 is what Ned Jordan might have called 'high, wide, and handsome'.

Compare it to the 38-footer that Catalina was making 25 years ago - a boat designed by the respected yacht design firm of Sparkman and Stephens, and a boat that will sail the pants off today's Catalina 387.

Now, I'm using Catalina only as an example, mainly because I have an older Catalina and don't want to be accused of dissing someone else's brand of boat. A lot of the more popular lines seem to be following this trend today towards plumper, overdone floating pleasure palaces.

If, like me, you're scratching your head and wondering why so many new boats look the way they do today, consider that this may be the result of something set in motion a long time ago, somewhere west of Laramie.



  1. Hmmm.

    I think that if I wanted a boat to shit on and cook on and sleep on, then I would want one that had plenty of room for shitting and cooking and sleeping. You don't show the space for shitting in your photos but the spaces for cooking and sleeping look quite comfortable and adequate to me. In fact, if I were a 'playboy' and wanted a boat to shit on and cook on and sleep on then I would probably buy something like the Catalina 387.

    But if I wanted a boat that was fun to sail then I would probably buy something like this.

  2. Huh...where's the go-faster-stripe? Plus there must be an "i" model? The "387i" sounds like it would be faster than a mere "387". And you've got to add "HD" to everything nowadays.

    So I think I'll wait for the "387i HD" model with the snazzy red line down the side and bit of schwarzkopf crystal bling inside.

  3. For those interested, I found a photo of the room they have for shitting on the Catalina 387. It's not exactly spacious but I guess it would be OK if that's what you need a boat for.

  4. You're so very right!... the mad sailing boats these days are weird looking flying trimarans. They sail alright and there's nothing to see about the galley or the poo corner.

  5. Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood inside of the head, and looked at himself in the mirror.
    "Pathetic," he said. "That's what it is. Pathetic."

    Oh....I thought she said Pooh's corner

  6. Dammit Baydog, you've typed too fast for me!

    Frankie, we can always count on the French to come up with the perfect expression.

    I was wondering how to sidestep Tillerman's Anglo Saxon directness when you did it for me. The 'poo corner' as you say is indeed, uh commodious on the 387 (sorry, JP, no 'i' or 'HD' yet). This particular chamber of the pot also contains a separate shower stall and is probably twice the size of the one on the old 38.

    In fact, one might describe the 387 as 'the house at poo corner'.

    And even the Mumbai verification word writer agrees. His contribution is boxessen

    The 387 is more a box for essen than for sailing.

  7. Or even a box für scheißen.

  8. Yawn.
    Obviously you are not acquainted with the latest in Cruising Yachts.

    The people buying those new Catalina tubs have money. You remember money? Green colored fabric embossed with images of dead presidents.


  9. Sail? You expect sailing? You must be confused. The purpose of the modern yacht is to provide a floating platform - at dockside - to engage in inebriated banter with "the Joneses", with whom 387 owners are trying to keep up with (appearance wise, not sailing wise). The 387 is just the blob of plastic needed.

    The pooh corner, as Baydog put it so well, is actual for emptying the stomach after having ti many martoonis.

  10. But does the Scamp come with oyster ultra-leather interior, 23,000 BTU's of air-conditioning, 15" bulkhead LCD TV/DVD player with remote and masthead mounted antennae. and inner spring mattresses with custom sheets?

  11. I've wondered here before just who is buying new cruising boats of this size.

    Certainly, no one I know. I don't think any boats that are actually new have shown up on O Dock for a very long time. When my 30-footer was new, it was priced so that ordinary people might conceivably be able to afford one (although I had to wait until it was 20 years old).

    Maybe most of these boats are being sold to chartering companies. I do know of one couple who bought a new 47-footer a few years ago (the main saloon was bigger than many hotel rooms I've stayed in). But they had to sell a house in the San Francisco bay area to manage that. They're living aboard and planning on going cruising soon.

    It could be that some of the most creative work in boat design being done today is by the builders of small boats like the ones Doryman so often blogs about.

  12. I'm not quite sure why people buy these floating behemoths. From what I've observed, the larger the boat, the less it gets used.

  13. Some where west of Laramie lies a Catalina 30 enjoying herself assured in the knowledge that she can sail the pants off the floating behemoths of today. I want one of those cool vacuum cleaners now. Thanks O'Docker.

    word verification - dachine - how salty is that?

  14. Alright alright... call it poopoo corner then! or else just poop... as in French "poupe" which actually is the name for the rear (hm) of the boat. Sailors of (h)old used to hang on there to... well... poop LOL

  15. Some people claim there's a woman to blame...

  16. Floating behemoths languished in relative obscurity for years and would probably remain there today had they not been perfected by an enterprising and dedicated San Francisco boat designer and then brought to the world's attention by a passionate San Francisco blogger.

  17. I think it was Ricardo Montoban that said;
    It is better to look good, than to feel good!