Understanding Naval Architecture Basics

Knowing the basics of naval architecture will go a long way toward improving your enjoyment of the sport.


Corrupting the classic line from The Wind in the Willows about "messing about in boats," my naval architecture professor avowed, "there is nothing-absolutely nothing-quite so pleasing to the eye as smooth fair buttocks." It was his surefire opening line on the first day of classes each year, intended to capture the attention of the new batch of freshmen students, all male in those days, who would soon become walking nautical dictionaries. Our vocabulary would grow to include not just buttocks (longitudinal lines which define the shape of the hull), but diagonals, waterplanes, prismatic coefficients, bale cubics, admeasurement, metacentrics, and all manner of arcane terminology.

Years later, referring to the business competition he faced on a daily basis, renowned yacht designer Jack Hargrave observed, "the problem with this business is that there are just too many talented amateurs." Hargrave, using the term in its pure sense, was referring to those who possessed genuine talent, education, and experience, but were pursuing the design field more for the sport of it than as a gainful occupation. He delivered the comment with a bit of frustration for those who cut into his bottom line, but also with respect for anyone who was passionate enough about yachting to educate himself regarding the finer points.

His favorite people, by far, were non-designer yachting enthusiasts who cared enough about the sport, their yacht's performance, and the safety of their vessel and crew, to understand at least the basics of good design. They could talk to their designer, their builder, their broker, their crew, and their service providers with confidence. Whether at the yacht club or at the boatyard, they were able to distinguish quickly between those serving filet and those shoveling fertilizer.

It's been 40-plus years since I first learned about smooth fair buttocks, but my education on all matters nautical continues to grow on a daily basis. The shelves housing my personal maritime library already consume an entire wall, yet Llewellyn Howland, of the Concordia Yacht family and a skillful peddler of rare marine books and charts, adds to his trust fund on a regular basis at the expense of my own children's inheritance. While I don't suggest that you devote yourself to naval architecture to this extent-my wife feels I may be in need of a 12-step program-I do recommend that if you're serious about yachting, you should spend a little time learning to understand your boat, its design, construction, and operation. a great place to start is right here in the pages of Yachting each month.

If you'd like to go a little deeper into the subject, there are two books that I'd recommend. The first, Preliminary Design of Boats and Ships, by Cyrus Hamlin (Cornell Maritime Press, 1989), is a delightful, plain-English text with attractive, hand-drawn illustrations. Like many design books, it is a bit heavier on sailing yacht theory than motoryachts, but it's still a worthwhile read whether you're designing a yacht from scratch or just want to know more before you decide on a new production boat.

The second book, Naval Architecture for Non-Naval Architects, by Harry Benford (The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1991), is a bit more formal but is still easy to understand. It deals not only with sailboats and motoryachts, but also with commercial ships and barges. Both books have extensive glossaries to help add salt to your vocabulary.

While there may be nothing more pleasing to the eye than smooth fair buttocks, there is nothing so pleasing to the ear as a yachting enthusiast who can speak of his vessel and his sport with knowledge and confidence. Better yet, that knowledge and confidence, put into action, will enhance his time on the water and that of his guests-and nothing's better than that.