Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
  • home built Flica 37

  • plywood Romany 34

  • lightweight 14ft Zeta mainhull

  • Strike 15 trimaran at speed

  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

People seem to think they result in a faster boat that is less prone to pitchpoling.

People seem to think they result in a slower boat more prone to pitchpoling.

They cannot both be right, or can they?

In fact it all depends on whether you think a vertical bowed boat is a longer WL boat cut off or a short boat with the WL extended forward.

Vertical bows are often seen on race boats (both monohulls and multihulls) these days because most top end race rules have a maximum overall length (eg TP52 or Vendee 60). But for people who don't need to conform (like most cruisers) what are the pros and cons of vertical bows??

Well first of all, just because a race boat has a certain feature that doesn't mean it is a "good" thing to use on a cruising boat.

There is only one non-aesthetic reason to draw a vertical bow. Simply to get the maximum boat for a given length, for by and large the longer the WL the faster the boat will be.

However a hull is not a two dimensional object. You want the WL to come to a nice sharp point, so clearly, unless you distort the hull shape, a vertical bow also means very fine bow sections all the way up the freeboard, resulting in a very narrow foredeck. And of course that also means smaller sail lockers and less room inside.

These vertical topsides also mean that a vertical bowed boat will be wetter to sail and also more prone to bow impact damage. Furthermore the water running up the hull side causes drag (it is after all "wetted surface area" even if it is above the WL). So anything that reduces spray is a good thing. After all, that is why powerboats have spray rails.

I have designed several vertical bowed boats (Wizard, Sango, Elf, Wizzer). To try to overcome the increased wetness and lack of space all these designs have a distorted hull shape in cross section to make forward sections appear wider. Elf has a knuckle, the others a tulip shape. Even so I know from personal experience that a Wizard produces more spray than a Strider when sailing at the same speed (they have the same WL length).

Recently "ram bows", or a reverse rake, have become popular on beach cats and of course now feature on the new America Cup boats. They are even seen on some cruising multihulls.

I'm not sure about that though, it seems impractical to me. I have often had times when I've been anchored in light winds and when the tide changed have had the anchor line catch under the stem. Obviously with a ram bow the warp will not release itself under the hull but rather ride up to deck level. At the very least this will be noisy and disconcerting, especially if you are asleep at the time. And I'm not sure what happens when hitting flotsam or weed, while coming bows-on into a dock or to another boat is tricky if you cannot fend off easily and safely. (And any damage will be on the WL not high up)

The photo above shows a 26ft Shuttleworth cat which originally had vertical bows. No problems for 19 years. Last winter the owner changed to ram bows with the predictable result, each bow was damaged in two separate incidents.

Fortunately the "real" bows are still there, so no leaks. And the fact that it is a small light boat meant the damage was much reduced when compared to a bigger heavier boat

The shape of the boat above the water doesn't have a great deal of affect on speed, so there is no real reason why a vertical bowed boat should be any faster than a boat with an angled stem and the same WL length. The only advantage is that potentially a slim bow will cut through the water as it burys, so the boat doesn't slow down, then potentially broach or pitchpole. The vertical bow opponents say, "yes but with a fuller bow the bow won't bury in the first place"

Many people think you need a modern design with vertical bows and rounded decks for high speed. So it is interesting that the Tornado is still the fastest beach cat, yet has none of this attributes (it was designed in 1965)

As you can tell, I'm in two minds about vertical bows, not surprising as I have designed both overhanging and vertical bowed boats. But I won't be designing cruising boats with ram bows however fast they are, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

Having said that, for cruising I prefer a bow with an overhang, flare and preferably a knuckle. If nothing else that is because it results in a drier boat and the decks are nice and wide making coming alongside and sail handling easier.

For that is another important difference you must remember when saying "yes but a racing boat has..." It probably also has a big experienced crew and certainly only has one aim - to win races. A cruising boat has to do much more than just sail fast.

You may come into a strange anchorage in the dark with only two people on board. Been there, done that - lots of times. In that, all to common situation, a boat that is easy to handle in a marina or anchorage suddenly becomes much more important than a boat that sails a fraction faster to windward.