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A History of Trawler Yachts

Trawlers Transition from Sail to Power

Trawlers Transition from Sail and PowerSelene, Nordhavn, Kadey-Krogen; from a historical perspective these and other leading brands of trawler yachts are relative newcomers. The term “trawler” is now universally understood to refer to a power vessel, generally designed for economical, long range, coastal or trans-oceanic cruising. A contemporary pleasure boater contemplating a serious sea voyage will begin with a fundamental choice that wasn’t a serious consideration a mere 50 or 60 years ago- power, or sail?

It isn’t entirely by accident that most trawlers share some design element with workboats. The earliest references to trawlers described a method of commercial fishing rather than a specific boat concept. In the same way that we refer to a variety of boats as “gill netters”, or “purse seiners”, trawlers were, and in some applications remain, vessels used to drag nets across the seafloor in search of flounder, halibut, and other bottom-dwelling species.

As recently as the late 19th Century, most commercial trawlers were sailing vessels. A French shipwright, Benjamin Beneteau, founded a shipyard in 1884 and produced fishing boats. Beneteau built fine sailing vessels, and the company he founded is still engaged in the same enterprise. Beneteau shattered the sailing trawler paradigm when he built a petroleum powered trawler driven by propeller rather than sail. The power trawler immediately began generating more profits than competing sailboats. While the sail fleet was waiting on the wind, Beneteau’s power boat was en route to the fishing grounds. In addition, the power trawler would be first back to port- first to market when the daily prices were highest and with the freshest fish.

Rather than emulate Beneteau’s success and begin building power trawlers, competing shipyards launched a propaganda campaign. Rumors began spreading through European fishing villages. “That oil boat is going to destroy us! It’s scaring away all the fish!”

Rudolf DieselAs the 19th Century transitioned to the 20th and Benjamin Beneteau was combatting the smear tactics of competing shipyards, mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel was perfecting his modification of the internal combustion engine. Diesel was aware that over 90% of the fuel used in steam engines was wasted, never converted to mechanical propulsion. Diesel correctly theorized that there would be an incredible demand for an extremely efficient, reliable, internal combustion engine capable of running on commonly available fuels. Rudolph Diesel dreamed that farmers might be able to grow and process their own fuels, and his first engines were fired with peanut oil. When Rudolph Diesel disappeared from a passenger liner in the early 1900’s, conspiracy theorists suggested he came to foul play at the hands of thugs hired by petroleum barons. When we refer to “diesel fuel” today, we normally refer to fuel refined from petroleum.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, the diesel engine became popular in commercial fishing boats. Within a half century, nearly all commercial fishing in North America and Europe relied on power vessels, rather than sail. During those same years, steam engines were supplanted by diesel. Ocean going vessels incorporated smaller, more efficient engines. While the range of a sailing boat remained unlimited, (given favorable winds), smaller and medium size power boats could suddenly carry enough fuel to travel thousands of nautical miles.

Pleasure boaters interested in long range cruising were slower to adopt a charitable attitude toward power boats. In the early 20th Century, only the most financially elite Americans could ever consider owning a large pleasure boat. “Yachtsmen” cruised long distances on elegant sloops, yawls, and schooners- supported by large, typically uniformed crews. Organizations such as the New York Yacht Club, hidebound to tradition, discouraged power boating, and commonly banned power vessels from their fleets. (Although rapidly diminishing among true, bluewater voyagers it is still possible to encounter remnants of anti-power attitudes among a small percentage of sailors).

Trawlers Transition from Sail to PowerThe pleasure boat paradigm began shifting in the middle of the 20th Century. Simultaneous developments in the United States and Great Britain ushered in the era of long range voyaging under power. In southern California, naval architect Arthur DeFever, who designed most of the tuna and sardine fish boats built in the 1950’s, was a member of the Offshore Cruising Club. Virtually every member of the club was a sailor, but a small group of members approached DeFever to discuss designing and building cruising powerboats with the same long range capability, fuel efficiency, and seaworthy design of DeFever’s renowned fish boats. It is possible to frame a valid argument that the custom boats created for members of the Offshore Cruising Club of San Diego were among the first cruising pleasure boats designated “trawler yachts”.

About the same time that Arthur DeFever was applying work boat principles to a new concept of long range offshore cruisers, Great Britain began reducing its fishing fleet in the North Sea. The government extinguished the rights of hundreds of commercial fishers, purchasing the surplus boats in the process. By the mid 1950’s, the mothballed fish boats could be purchased very cheaply- but could no longer be used for fishing in British waters. An initial few trawler yachts were converted to pleasure boats, and proved so successful that within a few years nearly all available surplus North Sea trawlers were converted to long range, offshore, pleasure cruisers.

Throughout the 1950’s, virtually all pleasure trawlers were one-off custom designs or commercial conversions. In the early 1960’s, growing demand for economical, seaworthy, pleasure boats capable of cruising long distances under power inspired some shipyards to begin producing boats built to a standard plan. Certainly among the earliest in this endeavor was American Marine, producing Grand Banks.

Trawlers have continued to evolve. During the 1970’s nearly all production builders switched from wood to fiberglass- although steel, aluminum, and other materials are represented as well. In 1975, Robert Beebe published a book summarizing about 30 years of his own long range cruising experience, “Voyaging Under Power”. For most offshore cruisers, the principles incorporated in “Voyaging Under Power” define the essential characteristics of a serious, seagoing, vessel.

The term “trawler” now refers almost exclusively to power boats. The category didn’t emerge from a vacuum and owes a great deal to the tradition of offshore voyaging under sail. Trawler designs very definitely evolved from time tested, workboat concepts.

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