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.