What can the W17 trimaran offer as an alternative for dinghy cruising?

An article by naval architect Mike Waters

Since being first introduced in 2010, the W17 has grown to be appreciated by sailors worldwide as one of the most advanced and interesting small boats in the 16-20ft size range, with nearly 200 examples either planned, building or sailing in 33 countries. The design is a breakthrough hydro-dynamically, with simple but unique shapes creating a boat that is amazingly dry, strong, quiet and comfortable, as well as having a sparkling performance, particularly upwind, with remarkably low leeway. After Wooden Boat Magazine was persuaded by enthusiasts to independently test the boat, their confirming positive review led the prestigious Professional Boatbuilder Magazine to request the first of several articles explaining how these attributes had been achieved with such simple shapes, and many of these can now be accessed on line at https://smalltridesign.com/published-articles.html

But what about such a boat as a way to cruise? What would it offer and how might this compare with a conventional cruising dinghy?

Before going farther, I’d like to point out that I cruised extensively as a teenager along the South Coast of the UK in a 14ft Lymington Scow, covering much of the ground that Peter Clutterbuck did in his Wayfarer a decade later. We sure had some adventures and I nearly drowned during one of them when we were swamped and capsized before we could bail out. But after 35 years with small monohulls, I have now had another 35 years with small trimarans so feel a responsibility to say things as I have found them. 

I have heard three main objections to the trimaran format by conventional dinghy sailors, so lets address them right away. One is ‘beam and trailerability’, followed by ‘safety and seaworthiness’ and finally ‘appearance’. So please permit me a few words on each of these.

‘Beam’ is of course the one major dimensional difference with a traditional dinghy and once on the water, offers a significant number of great advantages that I will point out later on. But for trailering and hauling out, it’s not always so amicable. But today there are some really effective folding systems that enable a well designed boat to reduce its footprint to less than what is permitted on the highway, though only a very few of these boats achieve this with both structural solidity and attractive appearance … point #3 above. Many such small trimarans use pipes as extension arms (called ’akas’ by trimaran aficionados – based on Polynesian lingo) and personally, I just find any small boat using ‘pipes’ as beams, will never win a beauty contest, so giving ammunition to those who consider such boats as ‘borderline ugly’. Frankly, I have to agree. My only defence is that pipes are structurally quite strong and relatively inexpensive, but for me, that’s still not enough to pass the appearance challenge. The boat I will introduce to you has sculptured ‘akas of plywood which can also be simulated in carbon fiber if one so wishes… but more on that later also. The simplest folding system to reduce the wide sailing beam, is the humble hinge and with the right design, these can be ruggedly made using fiberglass that bond seamlessly with plywood. Another acceptable option are the swing arms that pivot back, tho these when folded in, are not as compact as the fold-over system.

The very first boat achieved some remarkable sea passages for a boat originally offered as ‘An Estuary Trimaran’, making numerous 40 to 60 nm open water passages over a period of 8 years between large islands in the China Sea, and was successfully cruised in a variety of conditions for well over 1500 nm with the only failure being the diamond stay of a substitute Hobie 18 mast. The original design calls for a rotating wing mast with proven plans available for home construction,  either in wood or carbon-fiber.

I am originally from the UK, and graduated from Southampton University in naval architecture. As a teenager, I cruised dinghies along the South Coast and also competed in the 1953 Coronation Race around the Isle of Wight, getting to meet Uffa Fox, Ian Proctor and John Westell in the process. My first-hand experience with cruising dinghies helped considerably in the design of the W17, and I now admit that the difference with this new boat has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. With a relatively huge 7 ft x 7 ft cockpit and 14 ft of beam, this boat is way more stable, drier and comfortable and even if a wave top were to find its way across the deck, the cockpit is totally self-draining, so bailing is a thing of the past. Here is a boat that, instead of trying to ‘forcibly bash its way to windward at 3 kts’ in 25 kt winds with the constant risk of being swamped or capsized, can slip along at 7-8 kts to windward with just storm sails, while the crew can stay dry, relaxed and comfortable. The difference is ‘night & day’ and deserves far more attention from the dinghy-cruising world. For one thing, the higher average speed allows a significantly greater distance to be travelled in one day and the many comfortable sitting positions on the boat, allow one to sail longer without fatigue, even when older. 

Much more on the W17 can be found at this website.

Videos to watch: 

On the wind                        

One reef

Storm sail

Building photos (Norway)

spacious cockpit
transport on standard trailer
trampoline tent or cockpit tent
deck floodlighting
lit automatically by movement when dark