Kay Cottee 56 Review

Issue: September 2002
Manufacturer: Kay Cottee

Fourteen years after she sailed around the world, alone and without stopping, Kay Cottee is still a very famous person. How do you tell if a person is very famous? That is not the right question. How can you tell if a sailor is very famous? The giveaway is, when you are talking to non-sailors about Kay Cottee, no one asks, “Who is Kay Cottee?”

The Australian public remembers Kay Cottee and remembers her fondly. This is more than can be said about almost any other sailor since Noah, because the hoi polloi has a short memory when it comes to yachts and yachting.

One of the reasons Kay’s fame endures is perhaps because her feat was a straightforward one, which the public could comprehend. Kay Cottee was the first woman to sail solo around the world nonstop. Full stop. In 1988. She was also Australian of the Year, was awarded the AO and became a big wheel in the National Maritime Museum, and became a public figure almost independent of yachting.

The yacht shown here, the Kay Cottee 56, is her very personal project which began 18 months ago when Kay decided to build a yacht to sail around Australia with her eight-year old son, Lee. The ideas grew as she drew more and more sketches and the boat grew through 48ft to 56ft. Kay went to naval architect Scott Jutson to formalise her ideas. Work began on the epoxy-skinned cedar hull in a shed near Yamba, on the NSW north coast where Kay and husband Peter Sutton (they were married in 1989) were building a holiday home.

Even as the yacht was building the project grew. “I knew”, says Kay, “that we would build a second boat when we made a mould for the deck.” The plan is now to sell this first boat and build as many sister ships as people want. All subsequent boats; however, will have hulls of foam-cored vinylester resin.

It is hard to talk about boats of this size and this level of sophistication without getting bogged down in engineering detail, but let’s give it a go. The bow, stern and sheer are Kay’s own, parameters she would not compromise when she handed the project to Scott Jutson. The 17.2m hull has a waterline length of 15m, beam of 5m, and weighs in at 21 tonnes.

The plan view drawing suggests there is quite a lot of volume aft. There are twin rudders, each with its own steering system, connected by a crossbar which can be disconnected if one rudder is damaged. The hydraulically-lifted keel reduces draught from 2.76m to 1.60m (9ft to 5.5ft). This is why there are twin rudders; no point lifting the keel if the spade rudder draws 2.5 metres. The rudders draw a fraction less than the bulb on the retracted keel, so if the hull dries out it is supported by keel and rudders.

The keel is made of heavy stainless steel plate, rolled to its hydrofoil section with the lead bulb through-bolted to its bottom edge. The upper section of the keel, the bit inside the trunk, has a rectangular section in plan, which locates the keel firmly in the trunk.

Where the keel emerges from the hull a stainless steel plate is bolted to the hull; it has a foil-shaped cut-out so that if the hydraulics somehow lose control of the keel it cannot fall out of the boat. When the keel is fully lowered the hydraulic oil switches to four 80mm pins, which lock the keel in place.

The hull structure features ring frames of laminated oregon (covered by 14 continuous layers of glass) which are the real thing – complete one-piece hoops, encircling the hull interior from keel to coachroof and back again, reinforcing the whole structure and helping bond the hull to the PVC foam/fibreglass deck.

The ring frames are also part of a foam/glass grid system which is capped by a U-section stainless steel structure. The whole grid ties together ring frames, mast base and keel case and provides homes for the generator and other ancillaries.

The massive mast section (keel-stepped) is supported by three sets of swept-back spreaders, each spreader fabricated from two struts. Neither of the two headsails overlaps the mast so the shrouds could be set outboard, creating massive shroud angles for good mast support. There are no runners. At first I found the shrouds got in the way when going forward; after a while it occurred to me (it sometimes takes a while) that the angle between the cap shrouds and the lower D1 diagonal is so great you can easily step through the gap. Both headsails are on Harken furlers and the main rolls onto a boom furler. The vang is hydraulic.

This is an Aussie boat; the cockpit is long and wide, as it should be. The layout is symmetrical around the centreline – there is so much width that the fixed table (with drop leaves) on the centreline causes no obstruction to passage and it’s an easy walk to and from the companionway.

There are two wheels and steering positions, with the pushbutton controls for winches, anchor and bow thruster on the console ahead of each wheel. The sliding gate in the inner transom is on the centreline and there is room for two people to lounge in the sugar scoop of the extreme stern. The Italian Amtal winches are arranged on the coamings and on the main bulkhead. Only the primaries are powered, but the jammers make sure the crew suffers no unnecessary hardship.

The anchor winch is from Muir and there are twin anchor rollers. In the extreme bow is a hatch beneath which lurks a full-depth space, almost cabin-sized, that is intended as a workshop. Mounted just inside the hatch is a remote control unit for the bow thruster, so when you are raising the anchor with the footpad control you can use the thruster to steer the boat to the angle of the anchor scope. At the helm station pushbuttons allow you to raise or lower the anchor electrically.

Kay planned the 56 as a family boat – more specifically and more personally, a boat for her family – so the layout is quite open. The saloon is big, with the galley forward and down only two steps, because Kay wanted the cook to be part of the saloon social scene. Opposite the galley is what she calls a “breakfast nook”, a coffee table and seats for two.

The navigation area is on the starboard side of the saloon. The dining area is on the port side and the long seat on the centreline side of the dinette is actually the keel trunk. When the keel comes up you remove the seat cushions to reveal a clear panel, which is the watertight lid of the keel trunk.

You use a winch handle to open three locks, the top swings up and the keel is free to rise into the saloon. Kay observes that if you want to have a dinner party it would be better to be in more than 9ft of water. The master stateroom is forward, with a centreline double berth, plenty of stowage, and an extremely roomy en suite bathroom.

This is essentially a timber boat with a timber fit-out, but such as the properties of wood-epoxy engineering – where filleting and compound shapes are made possible by hand-finishing – that the bathroom looks moulded and, well, plastic, which in this context is a compliment. The same applies to the external finish on the hull topsides, which looks better than fibreglass – more fair and glossier than gelcoat, if that is possible. The door to the shower area is clear. The toilets are electric pushbutton affairs and discharge into a Lectrasan system which recirculates the waste until it is pure.

It then goes to a blackwater holding tank, which can automatically pump over board (because it is now pure) or pump via a valve into an onshore station. The grey water (showers, galley, clothes washer/dryer) drains to a tank which can either discharge over the side or be held for onshore disposal.

Solid timber is used throughout – Tasmanian blackwood for the trim, Tasmanian oak on the sole. Blackwood sounds dark, but it is not. There is plenty of light from the windows in the cabintop and from the ports in the hull sides. There is one loose lounge chair in this first Cottee 56. It, and the navigator’s swivel chair, were built by Kay. They were the first she ever built and, she swears, they will be the last.

She is also proud of the metal fittings that carry the oval-section blackwood handrails mounted to the cabin ceiling. Kay sculpted the moulds for the fittings, from casting resin. “We could find round ones, but I wanted a softer shape. Barry (Kean, production manager) said ‘Make them yourself’, so I did. “I paint and sculpt anyway, so it was no problem”.

The saloon table is another exercise in fine furniture-making. The top is in halves, which slide apart so the inserts can be folded out from within the structure. Beneath the saloon floor you will find the generator, stowage, other hardware.

The starboard-side stern cabin has a double berth and the en suite bathroom also serves the saloon. Here, too, you will find the clothes washer/drier. “One of the things I hate about cruising is searching for the laundromat the minute you reach port”.

On the port side is a cabin Kay designed for her son, with a desk and a single settee berth. A second berth folds up from the backrest, so the cabin could also be used for two guests. This, too, has a bathroom.

Set in the floor of each of these cabins is a 200mm circular glass lens. I comment on the remarkable blue/green colour of the sea. “You should see it at sea”, says Kay, very enthusiastic. “And at night, the phosphorescence is just gorgeous”.

The boat is air conditioned throughout, is fitted with DVD and VCR serving flat-screen TV monitors, and a sound system.

The 140hp Yamaha eases us away from the dock. Kay is excited and perhaps a bit nervous as she has not spent much time aboard. She is still getting used to the idea that this massive project, in which she has invested several years of time, effort, and money, is a reality, a creation that has the capacity to delight and, if it doesn’t work, massively disappoint.

We have about 15 knots of breeze blowing across the waters of Sydney’s lower Pittwater, one of the reasons Kay is excited, because the boat has not had this weight of breeze before.

The main halyard is a 2:1 so takes a little time to hoist fully using an electric winch. Kay unfurls the staysail – the small one, storm-staysail size. By now we are well down Pittwater, and the breeze starts to perform the antics, which have driven generations of Pittwater club sailors to drink. That is the excuse they use, anyway.

The breeze drops, it gusts, it swings through 90 degrees and, not content with that, it swings through 180 degrees without a big change in fundamental direction. When we clear all headlands it settles down, more or less, into the northwest. The boat is still new to its owner and Kay is literally learning the ropes.

She is obviously a single-handed sailor – she talks herself, aloud, through the routines of sail-handling in the fashion that an Olympic skipper or good sailing master would talk the crew through the same disciplines. With only the self-tacking staysail out we are under-canvassed, but the dodgy little breeze produces an occasional gust and we see 7.3 knots in 12 of breeze at just over 30 degrees apparent.

Unlike some self-tackers on production boats this one is set at quite a tight sheeting angle on the Italian-made curved track, so the boat points high and you can steer to the tufts instead of making. Roll up the staysail, unroll the headsail. The boat starts to respond and the co-designer/owner/builder relaxes a little. This is not a slow boat and we finally see 7.8 in 12, hard on the wind. More should be available using both headsails. This is quite a snug rig, with a P measurement of 18.65m.

We tack, and discover a big plus. The headsail can be hauled through the gap formed by the inner and outer forestays; with a little practice it blows through the gap if you slow the tack a little. This avoids the need to roll up the headsail with each tack, or to limit yourself to the main/staysail combination in congested waters. Kay earlier rolled up a little of the main to flatten the sail and later she dropped the traveller down the track a fraction. The leech responds by standing up properly instead of twisting off.

With the sails properly trimmed the big hull begins to accelerate in the gusts, but because of the crew’s height from the water and the complete lack of turbulence from the stern there is no audible indication that we are going fast. Instead it is a cerebral realisation – we look at the stream swishing past the hull and, yes, we are moving fast for this weight of wind. The co-designer/owner/builder looks happy again.

The steering is quite firm, presumably because there are two rudders and two steering systems, and there is no lost motion. When on the wind there is little feedback – it does not tell you when you are at the optimal angle – but this is not a small boat and the hull seems stiff, so it will need more wind pressure before it starts to telegraph messages to the helmsman. Headsail trimming is easy – press a button. You can trim the primaries from either side.

The breeze is by now a waste of time – we will not learn much more today. Rolling up the main we do not get the boom height/angle quite right, so the roll of the furled sail creeps forward a bit too much. Same with all boom furlers – it takes only practice to sort this one out.

The main is now snug in the boom. To complete the stow you slide forward a sort of narrow strip of fabric, like a long, skinny curtain which runs along grooves in the edges of the boom opening and provides protection for the furled sail.

On our way back to the dock, locals sailing past recognise the very famous person at the helm and congratulated her on the new boat. It is a beautiful craft, an attractive mix of classic and post-millennial external styling and interior design. Kay Cottee is starting to realise this massive project is a pleasant reality. Does she have a sense of relief now that it is complete ?

“Yes, but more important is realising my vision worked. I wanted the ultimate cruising boat, and for years I had it in my head and scribbled on bits of paper. A lot of combined experience went into this. Scott brought his professional skills, and his knowledge of fast race boats. Barry Kean is a traditional boat builder with plenty of high-tech experience and he sails, as well. I bring my own experience, as well as a lot of feminine practicality and softness. That’s how it worked”.

Prices for a fixed keel model start at $1.95 million. The lifting-keeler shown here, including all options, is the Signature, priced at $2.3 million. 

Story by Barry Tranter