Shannon 53 HPS Review

Something Old, Something New

By Tim Murphy
"Cruising World" Editor-at-Large and "Boat of the Year" Judge

Walter Schulz sees a fundamental dilemma in designing cruising boats: the getting there versus the being there. Now, after 35 years and nearly 400 boats that all but perfect the getting-there side of that equation, with the new Shannon 53 High Power Sailer he’s raised the bar on the being there

Pop quiz. What’s the most innovative sailboat of our time?

OK, granted: It’s a trick question, a trap sprung by one of the core paradoxes in yacht design. For, what at first seems most novel usually turns out to be an old idea we just didn’t remember we knew. Meanwhile, our deepest-held certainties about what constitutes a proper yacht often turn out to be based on notions a hell of a lot newer and untested than we initially reckoned—never mind the patina. We see some transoceanic record-crusher like PlayStation or Groupama 3, and we muse that only the Space Age could have produced such a revolutionary craft; that is, until we stumble over the yellowed drawings of a certain yacht designer from Bristol, Rhode Island, circa 1875. To resolve the innovation paradox in yacht design is to realize that the freshest, most successful ideas have always started with a clear set of problems, then drawn what’s best from both the nearly forgotten past and the up-to-the-minute present—and, yes, even from the occasional flash of original inspiration. Sometimes, rarely, we see our most intractable problems solved in some good way that they haven’t been solved before.

All of which is by way of introducing the Shannon 53 High Power Sailer.

Another Heresy

For 35 years now, Walter Schultz has been working every side of that paradox. With nearly 400 boats launched—ranging from 28 to 53 feet, and including 99 iterations of the iconic Shannon 38, with her lengthy bowsprit and her wineglass transom—it’s initially tempting to think of Schulz and company as creators of merely traditional cruising boats. But he’ll be the first to tell you about all the guff he’s taken for innovations he’s brought to boat shows throughout his career: for the lazy jacks in 1978, for the bow thruster he himself built for a 50-footer in 1981.

“Each time,” he said, “I get everybody busting my chops. ‘What are you doing! Another heresy!’”

He responds by casting the question in terms of the problem he’s wrestled with his whole career: How can I make sailing better and easier for people? The automotive industry responded long ago with power brakes and power steering and power windows. But what has the marine industry done?

“There were two two-masted boats at the last Annapolis sailboat show—this one, and the Pride of Baltimore,” said Schulz, speaking of the new Shannon 53 HPS and Maryland’s 160-foot topsail schooner. “What’s wrong with that picture? It’s forcing everybody into sloops with big headsails. When you roll genoas up past a third, they’re a bed sheet. Now, if the engine doesn’t start, they can’t beat their way off of anywhere with that rag of a sail.”

In the Shannon 53 High Power Sailer, Schulz has solved this problem and several other even more vexing ones. In fact, the 53 HPS is Schulz’s grandest heresy yet: a luxury 53-foot, twin-headsail yacht that draws a mere 4 feet 9 inches, sails comfortably in the 9-to-10-knot range, motors fast and efficiently, provides cozy inside steering, and in its “sketch” configuration passes under the bridges of the Intracoastal Waterway.

All this, and the best owner’s cabin at last fall’s sailboat show.

Aboard the Shannon 53 HPS

I sailed hull number one in Rhode Island’s Mount Hope Bay with Walter Schulz last December. We motored under Tiverton’s 65-foot bridge, rolled out the sketch’s 1,200 square feet of sail, and hardened up into 15 to 18 knots of breeze. After a bit of tweaking and trimming, the 51,000-pound yacht settled in at a stable 7 or 8 degrees of heel and a steady 9 knots of boatspeed, with mid-9s in the puffs.

The hull form of the 53 HPS—along with that of her smaller cousin, the Shannon Shoalsailer—truly is something new under the sun, yet with echoes that bounce from 19th-century catboats to early 20th-century William Hand motorsailers to the Volvo 70s that nowadays flirt with 600-mile day’s runs. In the 53 HPS, these design elements are applied to different ends. A fine entry forward flares out in the waist to wide, flattish sections that, among other things, confer plenty of form stability under sail and plenty of interior space for, e.g., that aforementioned aft cabin. Most of the full 17-foot 6-inch beam carries from the forward end of the cabin house straight through to the transom. The waterline is nearly as long—98 percent—as the overall boat. Twin semi-balanced rudders, relatively short and installed well outboard of the centerline, work with that ample beam to provide sure steering under sail yet without compromising the boat’s shoal-draft aspirations. In the midship sections below the waterline, the hull incorporates a subtle hollow alongside the long, low-aspect keel. This, according to Schulz, creates positive pressure along the keel’s leeward edge, and therefore lift. Under sail, a corkscrewing trail is visible just below the wake’s surface.

Like other Shannons, the hull is a single-part lamination of stitched biaxial fiberglass cloth and vinylester resin in the outer skins for osmosis protection, then polyester resin throughout. The hull’s core is linear Corecell foam set in Core-Bond, a two-part polyester-based adhesive the consistency of yogurt that fills the gaps (the kerfs) where the hull turns. The deck is cored with cross-linked foam to better handle temperature fluctuations. The laminates are all hand-laid, and carefully engineered throughout the boat, depending on particular loads. In the bow, Kevlar protects against collision; extra fiberglass layers are added near chainplates and other high-load areas. The keel is cast lead encapsulated in the hull: no bolts to worry about; no keel ever to drop. The mast is stepped on the keel.

“If you compare a Shannon built today with a Shannon built in 1980,” said Bill Ramos, who runs the front office at Schulz Boat Company, “the new hull is 60 percent stronger and 40 percent lighter.” He attributes this evolution to advances in both materials and techniques—and in no small measure to the yard’s home in Bristol, Rhode Island, a community whose leading citizen was once Nat Herreshoff himself, where boatbuilding history runs deep and lives on, and where today the cutting edge is sharply honed at places like Goetz Custom Technologies, just down the road. As Ramos says, “We’re at the leading edge of boatbuilding, but not the cutting edge”—which sounds just about right for boats designed not to carry professional deck monkeys around the course but to carry families off to the great beyond for a long time and for many miles to come.

To the boat owner, that means better materials for long-term ownership: foam core instead of balsa wood; high-density glass-reinforced Penske Board instead of plywood for backing; state-of-the-art adhesives throughout the boat—from two-part methacrylates to Sikaflex—that are long-lasting and optimized for each particular purpose.

The Shannon evolution also owes something to an owner who decided early on that he needed to spend his career not in the front office but on the shop floor, hands-on, designing and building boats himself. Walter Schulz is a yard owner who actively sails his boats at least 1,000 miles every year. To this day, he’s a sailor first.

For all the leading-edge technology, Schulz Boat Company remains largely a gathering of custom craftsfolk—from electricians to mechanics to wood joiners and varnishers. The yard’s 50 employees build about eight boats a year, every one of them unique, and with minimal work subcontracted out. To a new observer, Shannon’s fine joiner work immediately bespeaks quality. But behind it are scenes that deserve equal attention: plumbing and wiring and machinery that’s elegantly installed and labeled. What you’ll see is a kind of quality that promises not just a wow at the boat show but lasting value, many years out.

In these ways, the HPS is like other Shannons. In fundamental design and intent, though, it’s altogether different. What may initially seem most heretical about this boat is her looks. “HPS” stands for High Power Sailer, and her lines above the waterline, especially aft, comprise the squarish forms of some trawlers or cabin cruisers. Sailors steeped in prototypical cruising-boat aesthetics, the kind exemplified by the Shannon 38, may be taken aback by their first impression of the 53 HPS. But a sailor whose tastes are steered more by the function in the form will love a second look at this yacht.

The introduction of the 53 HPS makes it useful to think of two classes of Shannons. In the first are the cruising boats that helped define a generation: the 28, 38, 43, 50 and their near cousins. “The battle I’ve been fighting,” said Schulz, “is that you’ve got a big quandary: getting there, and being there. I’ve built boats that get anywhere. I’ve got people who are going on circumnavigations, and around the Horn. The Tasman Sea. Up the Amazon. I’ve had the getting there down pat for three decades.”

The second group of Shannons—the Shannon Shoalsailer 32 / 35, introduced in 2001, and the new 53 HPS—faces more squarely the question of being there.

How did this class of Shannons come to be? It started with an a-ha moment eight long years before the Shoalsailer was publicly introduced. Walter Schulz was enroute from Long Island to Connecticut, sailing a 1930’s centerboarder built off plans drawn in 1885. “It drew 21 inches,” Schulz said, “but with the board down the thing drew 7 feet.”

Straightaway after leaving the dock, the boat’s engine died. Then the tide turned foul. “We were there for hours: no motor, torturing ourselves, taking longs tacks. We could not get around the point to get in through Plum Gut to get around into Long Island Sound.”

Finally, of course, they did get through, and eventually tied up in Stonington, Connecticut.

“So now I’m laying in a wet bunk, the boat’s leaking like crazy, and the paradox of dropping the centerboard down really hit me. I’m saying, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Shoal draft, 21 inches. I could have cut right across the bar if I’d had the damn engine running. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to look into this. How hard could it be?’”

The answer, of course, was: harder than he thought. The problem was how to create a vessel that’s shoal-draft even under sail. At first, Schulz tried to solve it with multiple chines. “I spent close to three years on that,” he said. “But you get all screwy wetted surface.” Along the way, he found relational-geometry software that helped immeasurably—but even that took him only so far. There was no apt database of similar designs to test it against.

“Finally in ’99 I bit the bullet,” he said, “and I built the 32-foot Shoalsailer. No molds; I built it as a one-off. I put it in the water, and I sailed it over a thousand miles—and I knew I had it. What was even more shocking about it—and it’s just sheer luck, by the way—is I didn’t change a damn thing.”

Sheer luck, says Schulz. But sheer luck plus eight years of dedicated puzzling on this problem. Sheer luck plus three decades of designing and building boats. Sheer luck plus the ongoing relationships with owners of the 400 boats he’s sent to the four corners of the world. Sheer luck plus a lifetime’s involvement with designers and builders both living and dead, men like William Hand and Olin Stephens and Henry Hinckley.

“You know,” Schulz said of his experiment, “I thought I’d be Bondo-ing and buzz-sawing, and all kinds of stuff. But I brought that hull back to the shop, took the molds off that hull, and that’s the Shoalsailer. The only thing I changed is I put a swim platform on to make it a little more livable. Sheer luck that I got it on the first try.”

Since that first Shoalsailer was introduced in 2001, 16 have been delivered to clients. Then, several years ago, Schulz started getting questions about building something bigger.

Closing the Circle

It’s one thing for a boatbuilder and designer to solve a problem that’s troubled his own mind. But this is a business, too. The ultimate question is whether there are sailors for whom the solution uniquely works.

The owner of hull number one described a day four years ago when he and his wife had been beating for several hours into a nasty tide-induced Buzzards Bay chop. They were aboard their 55-foot deck-saloon sloop. Bound for Newport, he thought for a moment at the Sakonnet River mouth that they’d fall off and enjoy a pleasant reach up the river and down the bay enroute to the Jazz Festival. It was a happy moment—until he remembered the bridge at Tiverton. “I can’t do that,” he said to himself. “The mast is too tall.” Instead, the couple spent another two and a half unpleasant hours slogging around outside to Newport.

This was his own a-ha moment. “When I moved up from 40-foot boats to an over-50-foot boat,” he says, “I hadn’t quite grappled with what it was to have a mast that couldn’t get under 65-foot bridges or a draft that was well over 6 feet. A lot of places we cruised went off limits.” He and his wife loved the interior space and natural light inside their deck saloon, and they didn’t want to give that up. So they started looking into catamarans and trawlers before learning about Schulz’s design for the 53 HPS.

The owner of hull number three came to the 53 HPS from a different set of problems. Yes, draft led his list; he lives on Florida’s shallow west coast. But there was something else. “I’ve got artificial joints,” he said. “Once you get older, it gets a little harder to move around on a traditional sailboat.” He’s sailed all his life, from dinghies to big cruising boats. He currently owns a Pacific Seacraft 40 on Lake Ontario, and a 35-foot Shannon Shoalsailer in Florida.

“I’m tired of getting beat up,” he said. “I used to do that regularly in my younger days: sitting in a cockpit, 30 knots of wind, in 10-foot seas. It was fun when I was in my 20s; but now I’m in my 60s, and I really don’t want to do that anymore. The 53 is really comfortable.”

That comfort derives from several things at once. It begins with the hull shape; all that form stability provides a stable platform underway. Perhaps more intriguing are the several spaces this boat offers for both halves of a cruising life: the getting there and the being there. The layout of the deck and the work stations is highly refined. The cockpit, aft of the cabin house, affords remarkable visibility of the whole boat. Twin helm stations promise good sight lines whether under sail or coming in to the dock. All running rigging is led intelligently and out of the way to power winches right where you want to reach for them. A companionway opens from the cockpit into the main saloon, with its inside steering station. Visibility through the windows is at eye-level for 270 degrees. And a video camera on the aft deck keeps you apprised of aggressive cruise ships bearing down on you in the Delaware Bay. One of this boat’s many fine details is a fixed hatch in the cabin top above the inside helm that provides great visibility of the masthead and sails underway—a bugaboo of even traditional cruising cockpits with large biminis. And Walter being Walter, the hatch and cabin soles were designed large enough to remove all machinery and tanks from the boat, should that ever be necessary down the line.

Now consider the being-there side of the equation. In the main saloon, you’re perfectly sheltered while looking through large windows at eye level. In the cockpit, you’re in as much sun and wind as you want to be, but not more. In the aft cabin, you’re looking not through 6-inch portholes but through full-height sliding doors at the best coastal real estate in the world. The outside deck aft of the owners’ saloon and one level below the cockpit is a partly sheltered outdoor terrace for reading or swimming or sipping cocktails.

“What I was initially looking for,” said the owner of the boat I sailed, “was a boat that had to sail reasonably well, but I knew there had to be a compromise.” Indeed, given his wish list—shoal draft, bridge-friendly rig, raised-deck saloon, every comfort of home—we’d think so too.

But having sailed the boat for several months, he said: “I’m not so sure that compromise is there now.”

To which we can only say: thank God for occasional heresies. And for restless designers who never stop asking, “What’s wrong with that picture?” And for builders who respond to age-old problems in smart ways that are decidedly new.