Issue: June 2003
All human endeavour requires large amounts of what filmmakers call the suspension of disbelief. Human beings must ignore the consequences of most of their actions or we would never cross the road, eat Indian food, have kids or go boating. All require the abandonment of doubt, the suspension of disbelief. Stepping board any boat requires a massive suspension of disbelief you can, after all, drown in even shallow water. And, in an era when whales and debris proliferate, if you are to sail offshore you need to shut down part of your imagination, because it is quite possible you may end up in a liferaft. And that is a fate no one wishes to contemplate. The Belgian Etap company builds a range of unsinkable yachts by, in effect, making two skins and filling the gap between them with foam.
And although we can never underestimate the sheer logic of making an unsinkable boat, there is much more to this Etap 37s than its unsinkability ‘ this is a clever and seaworthy design with a lot of remarkable features. As Etap importers Norm and Kerrin Ambrose say, there is no point taking the profound step making a boat unsinkable if the rest of the design does not measure up to this quite momentous capability. How is unsinkability achieved ?Conventional hull and deck mouldings are produced in the familiar way. Internal liners for both hull and deck are also made, but before they are assembled closed-cell foam is placed between the skins.
This takes the form of blocks (positioned before skins and liners are assembled) and two-part polyurethane foam, which is injected into the smaller cavities when the liners are in position. The closed-cell format minimises water absorption. The idea is that if the boat is flooded it will float with the water at about the level of the settees in the main saloon. Etap’s criteria were adapted from a French maritime authority and state that, when flooded, the boat should have freeboard of not less than three per cent of its LOA ‘ in this case 338mm or a bit over 13’. The boat must also be capable of sailing, and the righting moment must enable the boat to recover when the crew are on the leeward side and it is heeled to 90 degrees.
The foam’s insulation properties should also take care of condensation. The unsinkable quality opens up a whole discussion about life rafts, which I do not intend to broach. Norm Ambrose and offsider Mark sailed the Etap to Queensland and back without one. As we step aboard Kerrin points out that there is no mainsheet traveller; the mainsheet block is clipped to the toerail. In fact there is a mainsheet traveller; it is removable and stored below. It fits onto two pegs and is held in place by cotter pins, the work of a few seconds to install or remove. Without it, and with the mainsheet off to one side, cockpit space is greatly enhanced. There is a cockpit table, stored below. The boat’s two-cabin layout (with only one in the stern) means you get a big bathroom and big lazarette lockers either side of the cockpit.
The starboard locker is big enough for the inflatable and includes three stowage boxes for small items. Mooring lines and fenders are standard. Lift up the helmsman’s seat (hinged on one side) and you find the emergency tiller clipped to the underside, not buried down below or at the bottom of the lazarette, the usual locations. The toerail arrangement is worth an award. The stanchion bases are assembled and fixed into the deck before it is fitted to the hull. The stanchions slip into the bases so they are not fixed through the moulding. The toerail is an alloy extrusion mounted 30mm or so clear of the deck, like a small bulwark, enabling water to clear quickly and providing terrific support if you’re moving around the deck on the leeward side. It also gives great foot support when winching if you’re doing it right, that is, with torso over the winch barrel.
And the toerail, says Kerrin, is where you should hang the fenders, instead of from the lifelines where they have been known to slip if you don’t back up the clove hitch. ‘Etap call the non-skid the best in the world,’ says Norm, and I believe him. It is called TBS and is part of the moudling process, presumably being placed in the mould before the deck lay-up. It is sensationally effective. The combination of toerail and non-skid makes moving around the boat easy. The deck-stepped Selden mast has two sets of angled spreaders and continuous rigging which means you (or someone who really knows how) can adjust shroud tension. Shroud loads are fed into the hull and keel structure by stainless tierods visible in the saloon.
Backstay tension is provided by a mechanical system operated by the winch handle. The 9/10 rig has an high-aspect main and an overlapping genoa on a furler. Sails are by Elvstrom Denmark. Down below the designers have really started from scratch. They call this a ‘pilothouse style’, which means the cabin sole is stepped and, when standing in the aft end of the saloon, you can see out of the coachroof windows. Norm reports that at sea he could sit on the companionway steps and steer with the autopilot. The coachroof itself is quite short and the side windows the ones that cop the brunt if the yacht is thrown down sideways (these things happen) are small, details which are important to the boat’s seaworthiness and which designers of an earlier age regarded as vital for a boat’s safety.
The forward-facing coachroof windows are 10mm thick and are angled so if you stand in the right place you can also see up if you need to check the sails. The layout is a masterpiece of practicality. The twin stainless steel sinks (very deep and vertical-sided) are mounted in the island unit amidships, which also houses the drinks cabinet. This island enables you to wedge yourself in position for cooking, or even glancing at the chart on the nav table if heeled the other way. There are handrails and overhead grab rails everywhere. The stove has two burners, oven and grill and the whole fiddle arrangement unclips to make it easy to clean the stove’s upper surface. The designers have provided a removable tray, which clips between galley and island worktops, adding to the work surface when you’re cooking or washing up.
The saloon table is on the centreline forward, with a drop leaf each side. Stowage is in lockers mounted at eye level, running down both sides of the cabin. They are quite small, which is the right approach, because contents will stow snugly. The portside cabin aft is roomier than the bow cabin, though the latter has two hanging lockers instead of one. The vee-berth forward projects well into the bow and foot room could get a bit tight ‘ certainly the aft cabin is roomier. Both have a small seat and good headroom when you’re in bed, not the case in all yachts. The bathroom is big and includes a vast wet hanging locker. The floor has a grid moulding, and Kerrin reckons that if the worst thing imaginable happens to the toilet, you throw in a couple of buckets of water and pump everything out with the bilge pump.
This boat is fitted with a Lectrasan toilet. The Etap’s hull has a longish waterline and the waterline beam is almost 700mm less than overall beam. The keel is a cast-iron fin with bulb, the rudder is mounted well towards the transom of the boat. She is easy to sail. Hoist the main with the halyard led to a jammer on the coachroof top, making sure the boat is head to wind to keep the battens from tangling with the lazyjacks. Unroll the main and sail, after switching off the 29hp Volvo Penta diesel which, at 2000 revs cruising speed, is almost inaudible. The helm position is excellent. You can sit centrally on the humped seat, stand with the leeward foot supported by the angled cockpit floor or, as the boat heels, move your backside out to the cockpit seat and, because the stern is quite narrow, brace your feet on the opposite seat.
The rack and pinion steering is terrific, weighted and geared perfectly. We intentionally carried full sail on a 25-knot day to see how the hull would behave under pressure. Hard on the wind the gusts would heel her to a certain point ‘ not gunwale-down, perhaps rubbing strake-down ‘ and she would stiffen up and heel no further. In the big gusts when she reached that point I would wind on full lock and just as I was about to call for the mainsheet to be eased I would have to unwind the wheel again because the hull suddenly straightened up and forgot any tendency to broach. By now we were way over-canvassed, but it was not necessary to reef and the Etap showed tremendous directional stability. On a deep reach/run we saw 10 knots when we ran onto a little swell in 21 knots apparent.
Upwind we saw 6 knots in 22 apparent, and a peak reading of 7 in 26 knots, but when a boat is over-pressed it will sometimes reach and hold speeds in excess of normal smooth-water readings. But the Etap handled impeccably on a day when we should have carried at least one reef in the main and rolled up a bit of jib for balance. Norm Ambrose says that when running down the coast north of Sydney the Etap peaked at 13.2 knots in 30 knots of breeze and that later, when the wind went into the south, they got 5-6 beating into 35 knots. The Etap 37s owes nothing to convention. Designers and builders have started with a clean sheet of paper, or a clear computer screen, and given the boat the characteristics they thought were worthwhile, as opposed to characteristics dictated by fashion or production requirements or by memos from the marketing department.
The result is a boat for which seaworthiness was a major design factor, in a manner almost forgotten in the modern cruiser/racer. The hull is extremely well behaved, but you cannot help being impressed by the design detail. The boat gives every promise of being able to handle itself at sea, and the cook should be able to produce hot meals for as long as the crew is capable of eating them.
Words by Barry Tranter