One big bummer for sailing show-goers at Miami this year was that the sail side of the show was split between two venues. Most boats were at Sea Isle Marina next to the Venetian Causeway, but a h
andful of larger ones were at the old Miamarina Bayside location. To see all the sailboats you therefore had to spend a lot of time waiting in line for shuttle buses. One big bonus, however, was that there were at least four different boats at Sea Isle that were continually taking folks out sailing on Biscayne Bay. One of these was the new Presto 30 from Ryder Boats in Maine. I'd seen drawings of this modern reinterpretation of the classic shoal-draft sharpie in a number of magazines and was anxious to go for a ride.
The very first thing I thought on seeing the boat in the flesh was that this would be a perfect little cruiser for exploring all the skinny water around south Florida and the Keys. And lo... what do I learn on stepping aboard but that she is in fact directly descended from a famous round-bilge sharpie called Presto that was designed by one Commodore Ralph Munroe, a south Florida legend, almost 120 years ago. This new design is by Rodger Martin, who is part-owner with Phil Garland (co-founder of Hall Spars) of hull number 1, which was the boat on display at Miami. It is quite light (less than 4,000 pounds in lightship condition) and narrow (just a tad under 8 and a half feet), and with its centerboard and kick-up rudder retracted draws just 13 inches of water. The cat-ketch rig is thoroughly modern, with square-headed full-batten sails that are supported by carbon-fiber wishbone booms and unstayed carbon masts built by Hall Spars.
I was fortunate in that I got to sail with both Phil Garland and Skeet Perry. They used to race together back in the days of the old SORC, and Skeet is a fount of wisdom regarding all things Floridian. As we skedaddled out into the bay making a good 5-plus knots in just 10 knots of breeze, he pointed out all the shoal spots where we dared not venture with our board deployed and filled us in on the vagaries of Miami waterfront real estate development.
You'd think that a light, slender boat like this with no ballast keel would be quite tender and also a bit vulnerable to capsizing. The Presto's center of gravity is indeed a bit high, but the rig has a very low center of effort that compensates for this. The flexible unstayed spars also spill wind easily so that sudden gusts (which are not uncommon when sailing in close proximity to the high-rise topography of downtown Miami) aren't directly translated into sudden lurches to leeward. Sailing the boat both on the wind and on a fast reach (during which we did top 6 knots several times), I found it remarkably steady and predictable. The helm was light and smooth at all times, and the boat tracked like a train. Reportedly, flying downwind in a strong breeze, the boat will plane and has hit speeds in excess of 12 knots. In our case we ghosted downwind in minimal apparent breeze with an old A-sail from another boat set as a mizzen staysail and had no problem keeping our speed over 4 knots.
Later, on delving into the technical side of things, I was amazed to find that the Presto's published stability curve shows the boat with a very high angle of vanishing stability (or limit of positive stability) of 145 degrees. It is also, you'll see, very unstable when inverted. The negative portion of the curve is quite small, which indicates the boat should quickly right itself if ever it is capsized. The reason for this is both the extra volume in the deckhouse and the extra flotation provided by the sealed spars. The spars in particular, because they act as tall vertical flotation chambers, have a dramatic effect. That big kink you see in the curve at 90 degrees, where the spars touch the water, represents this. Without the spars and deckhouse Rodger Martin reckons the curve would go negative at just 103 degrees.
Though the curve does account for the negative effect of the boat's very large (10 foot long!) open cockpit, it does not account for the large offset companionway. According to Martin, the assumption is the crew will keep this closed in any conditions wild enough to lay the boat over on its beam ends. But if ever the boat is knocked down to port with its companionway open, significant downflooding will likely occur and stability will inevitably be adversely affected.
One thing I love about the boat is how simple it is. Auxiliary power on our Presto, for example, was provided by a retractable 9.9-hp outboard engine that lives in a offset well at the forward end of the cockpit beside the companionway. (There's a plate at the bottom of the drive leg that closes up the bottom of the well when the engine is hoisted up.) Handling the rig is easy, as you needn't touch any sheets when tacking or jibing. The anchor locker is simply a big open well up forward in the bow.
And the living accommodations, though hardly palatial, are dirt simple and easy to cope with. With two long settees in the saloon and a generous V-berth forward there is room for four to crash in comfort, plus there's a surprising amount of dedicated storage space (if you include the vast compartment located directly under the cockpit). There is a plumbed head behind a curtain for privacy, and later iterations of the boat, I'm told, will include both an enclosed head and a dedicated galley space. Headroom is quite limited, but there is a pop-top coachroof that can provide 6'5" of clearance when the boat is stationary.
The only thing that made me nervous about the Presto was moving around on deck. The coachroof is nicely crowned, the side decks are very narrow, and there are no shrouds to cling to, so moving forward, particularly while the boat is sailing, requires some concentration and deft footwork. Fortunately, because the rig is so simple, you rarely need to do this. It is possible to order the boat with stanchions and lifelines, and if I were cruising with children aboard I would definitely opt for these.
Bottom line: the Presto 30 is quick and surprisingly stable and will make both a great daysailer and a fantastic trailerable shoal-draft coastal cruiser for those who don't mind living the simple life while aboard. Despite being a centerboard boat, it is safe enough that it can definitely be sailed in boisterous conditions. I won't be at all surprised if someone eventually sails one across the Atlantic or around the world or down to Antarctica or something like that. I personally would not recommend this, but if you have the cojones, this boat is probably up to it.