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How I built the boat of my dreams

The best boat design should combine old and new, says Tom Cunliffe. And he put it into practice in his own craft, The Westerman
THIS WEEK, Earls Court is resplendent with fine yachts, bristling with new technology. Nearly all are descendants of the hull-shape revolution of 25 years ago. By contrast, my own boat, The Westerman, lies quietly on a tidal creek in the New Forest. She was designed last year but, seeing her, you might imagine her to be 100 years old and that her owner must be some kind of lost-soul romantic. Perhaps I am, though I doubt it, for this boat combines all the magic of old-fashioned boat design with the advances of modern know-how.

Sophisticated technology often insulates crews from the harsh realities of maritime life - often the very realities they hoped to rediscover by going to sea in the first place.

It's not that I'm suggesting sailors should wear hair shirts. It's always been important to me that my boats have a coal stove for warmth and dryness, cosy berths and a highly effective galley. But why go cruising at all if every sail sets and furls itself? The occasional battle with kicking canvas is part of the seaman's life. And for what purpose should we abandon common sense and move our steering positions from the security of the aft end to some vulnerable perch half-way to the bow? The answer is that this creates a cabin like that of an ocean liner, with space for a bed larger than the one at home.

For me a boat should always be a boat, and not a cottage on the water.

When I took delivery of Hirta, the Edwardian pilot cutter in which John McCarthy and I circumnavigated Britain for BBC1's Island Race series, the previous owner observed that "she has every comfort, but no luxury". Hirta taught me how wise he was. Her sails were heavy, and she had no pumped water, no electricity to speak of, no fridge, no central heating, no winches and absolutely no electronics, especially in the navigation department, yet she was the kindest, easiest boat that I have ever sailed at sea.

Sadly, the very antiquity of classic boats and yachts means that they need a lot of looking after. When I damaged my back I had to face the fact that my 15-year love-affair had to end. Searching for a younger replacement in the brokers' advertisements produced no credible contenders, so I decided to build a new boat from scratch, and commissioned the designer Nigel Irens to work on something for me.

Irens is famous for his racing multi-hulls and for developing fast, economical power boats such as the record globe-girdler, Cable and Wireless. At the same time, having lived aboard an ancient wooden beauty in the early Seventies he understands about easily driven hulls, and knows more of the way of a boat on the sea than anyone I can think of.

His work on The Westerman has not disappointed me. Although Irens and Ed Burnett, his right-hand man, are adept with the CAD (computer-assisted design) program, Irens initially drew this boat on a paper napkin, and only later transferred his ideas to the computer. After the machine had worked up a set of lines he carved a model, just as boatyards did in the days of sail.

Together we considered the primary embryonic vessel, then fed the lines back into the electronic box for modification. The next model was nearly right and by the time the final version appeared, the form was perfect. The completed boat has now crossed the North Atlantic and has won four out of her first six racing starts. Her appearance is timeless, her motion at sea is a pleasure and her accommodation, much of it in reclaimed pitch pine, emanates an atmosphere of deep peace. Maybe this is because she was drawn purely as a sailing craft, without reference to any furniture we might put into her. That is the well tried method of the sea. It still works.

The Westerman is constructed in wood epoxy, timber treated with penetrating glue, and she is totally impervious to water. Thus she has all the benefits of a glass fibre boat yet looks like, smells like, feels like and sails like the real thing.

She is living proof that there is no need to follow current fashions to find satisfaction, and that sometimes it pays to listen to the lessons of history.