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Characteristics of a classic

23 May 2019 | Last update: 28 May 2019

Gemini is a Gauntlet, built in 1947, but the design dates from 1934, when the first of these famous yachts was built in the Berthon boatyard in Lymington, on the English south coast. In all, 39 Gauntlets were built by the yard between 1934 and 1951.

The class got its name from the first boat. The customer asked the yard to design a boat, but when he saw the design, he rejected it, and went to a competing yard. Harry G. May, who owned the Berthon yard, had such faith in the design that he built the boat anyway, without having a customer for it. Once completed, he threw down the gauntlet and challenged the other boat to a race and handily won. The story got around and pretty soon, everyone wanted one of his Gauntlets.

Two further boats were built in New Zealand just after the war, but I don’t know the story behind that. Perhaps someone from the yard emigrated there and took copies of the design along with them.

The design brief was for a fast, seaworthy, comfortable boat, easily handled by a small crew. These boats were destined to be successful long-distance, ocean-going racing boats, and they had a lot of success in their day. Even now, when the sea is rough and the wind is strong, they can keep going at speed when modern, lighter boats will want to reduce sail.

What makes Gemini fast? Primarily, 4 features.

1. The top speed of a sailboat is limited by friction with the water, so designers try to minimise the wetted surface area of the hull. In modern boats, they do that by making the hull broad but shallow. With Gemini, the design is for a narrow but relatively deep hull.

2. The narrow hull means Gemini leans over rather easily, compared to the stiffer behaviour of modern broad-hulled boats. To counteract that effect, Gemini has a heavy keel – 5 ½ tonnes of lead! This means that although she starts to lean over rather easily, she rapidly resists leaning over too far. Ultimately, this means she can carry more sail in stronger winds without leaning over excessively. This makes her fast in heavy weather – she can keep pushing hard through a gale.

3. A very tall rig, which means she can carry large sails. Gemini’s mast is as tall as modern boats of the same size. Gemini still has her original wooden mast. Contrary to what one might assume, wooden masts are pretty much as strong as aluminium masts. But they are much heavier. That extra weight up high is undesirable, so wooden masts are actually hollow. The mast is built in sections. They take a log, cut it lengthways down the middle, reverse the two halves and glue them back together, back to back, after hollowing out the middle. This construction method means that if the original log had any tendency to warp as it dries out, it is now trying to warp in opposite directions at the same time. So the construction holds the mast straight. Clever guys these shipwrights!

4. Finally, Gemini has a very distinctive canoe-shaped stern. This feature gives the hull an exceptionally streamlined shape, and is easily worth ¼ of a knot or so – a big speed boost. It’s also very seaworthy – it gives a very strong hull construction, and it cuts through the waves when they come from behind. But it is a very uncompromising design choice. Essentially it means you lose a whole cabin from the layout below. Gemini is a 41 foot boat on deck, but down below, she has about the same space as a modern 32 foot boat.

As far as seaworthiness goes, Gemini’s construction is all about strength. Really, she is overbuilt, to give confidence when dealing with rough weather. The structural, oak ribs are set just 6 inches apart, and every second rib is double-thickness timber. As I’ve already mentioned, the canoe stern also gives a very strong structure.

She has twin forestays, so if one breaks, the other is backup. And the narrow hull and heavy lead keel mean she is exceptionally resistant to capsizing, and if it should ever happen, she would flip back up within seconds. Many modern boats, with their broad hulls and ballast keels of just a few hundred kilograms, are remarkably stable when upside down.

Most of Gemini is actually under the water. That 5 ½ tonne keel pulls her down. It means that down below, there is plenty of headroom – more than 6 feet. Nevertheless, she doesn’t have much freeboard – the expanse of hull above the water. This is a good thing. Freeboard acts like a sail, except you have no control over it. The wind force against the side of the boat can be a significant factor, pushing the boat down to leeward when you really want to stay up to windward. Compare that with modern boats. Their light weight and flat bottom means that in order to provide a comfortable amount of headroom inside, they have to build hulls with lots of freeboard. The combination of large freeboard and light weight makes for a boat that falls down to leeward rather easily.

The idea of comfort at sea relates to the motion of the boat, how it responds to waves. A heavy boat like Gemini, with a narrow, V-shaped cross-section hull, doesn’t so much go over the waves as through them. Contrast that with modern, light, flat-bottomed boats that slap and bang through the gentlest of seas.

Ease of handling refers first to the sails, and then to the general behaviour of the boat. Gemini is a sloop, with a very simple rig, just a mainsail and a headsail. It’s a very efficient arrangement, and was quite modern in its day. Today it’s absolutely typical of most sailboats of similar size. She can easily be sailed single-handed, in some ways even more easily than modern boats of the same size.

In terms of behaviour, with her long keel, she wants to keep going in a straight line. She is very directionally stable and well balanced. This means it’s easy to set her up to steer herself while I can move around the deck, managing the sails or other tasks. Modern boats, you guessed it, fail at this task as well. Modern boats are designed to be easy to manage inside the marina. Gemini, to be honest, is a bit of a pig inside the marina because she’s not keen to turn, and she’s difficult to control in reverse.

But Gemini wasn’t built for the marina. She was built for the open seas!

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