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This Article Last Updated: Oct 14th, 2010 - 15:13:49 

Seahorse Magazine: Article on Stars with Bill Buchan
By Bill Buchan
Aug 21, 2009, 11:45

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This article was written for the September 2009 edition of Seahorse International Sailing magazine.


A very good year - Part 1

2011 will mark the 100th birthday of both the Star and X One Design classes. Time to begin celebrations with a little history... firstly with Olympic gold medallist and three-time Star World Champion Bill Buchan


Similar to most one designs of the period (including the XOD in England), originally the Star Class yacht was created to be a club, or local racing sailboat, in this case primarily intended for use in the Long Island Sound area of the United States. But once sailors began to realize what a wonderful design it was, and the need that it filled, within a few years it had quickly started to spread to the far corners of the globe.

Wishing that it remain a one design class, there obviously also needed to be a set of measurements and specifications that could be adhered to by a variety of boat builders, no matter that they might be professional as well as relatively unskilled amateur builders. And from the very beginning, right through until the mid 1980s, these measurement tolerances remained quite generous... The rules did dictate, though, perhaps optimistically, that there was to be no ‘intentional taking advantage of these tolerances to create a boat with a design advantage’; they were strictly for the purpose of allowing for genuine errors in building and still have the boat certified as a legal Starboat for racing purposes.

The truth of the matter, and to the long term benefit of the class, was that as soon as the late 1920s there were new shapes being created by naval architects that took advantage of what was already known as the Statute of Limitations.

In the mid-1930s, one young man, Phil Spaulding, who later went on to become a prominent naval architect in the field of commercial ship design, and incidentally just happened to be a classmate of Skip Etchells at the University of Michigan, as well as a Star sailor in the Puget Sound Fleet, wrote his Masters Thesis on what would be the results, at least theoretically, of building Stars to a variety of hull shapes that would all fall within the envelope allowed. His efforts also included some rudimentary tank testing.

Even though there were by this time literally hundreds of Stars being built every year, the extent to which some builders were exploiting the tolerances wasn’t widely appreciated – especially regarding the flatness or otherwise of the fore and aft contour or profile shape. There was mention of what we call the ‘moving base line’ concept in the rulebook, but it wasn’t widely applied, let alone understood, until the early 1950s.

Bill Buchan and a youthful Steve Erickson collect their gold medals
at Los Angeles in 1984.
Basically, a ‘favourable’ rule interpretation allowed the maximum height of the key measurement Station 6 to lie some two inches (50.8mm) ‘higher above the base line’ than the plan offset implied, instead of the commonly believed maximum of one inch (25.4mm) higher. This in turn permitted a much greater design range including what we now regard as the modern flatter and faster canoe shape.

What had kept many builders from going in the direction of the ‘minimum rocker’ hull, as it was called, was the perception that the ‘standard’ shape was still considered the best all purpose design, whereas the boats with less rocker only excelled in the higher wind range – upwind and down. Conversely, the rounder, lower wetted surface shapes, were considered light weather standouts. Eventually, though, as sails and sailing technique started improving into the 1950s, all boats were soon being built to variations of the faster minimum rocker design.

The next innovation, we’ll call it the ‘Vee’ bottom, took the principle of less rocker to another level. Even though the specifications called for the athwartships shape to be a segment of a true arc of a circle, there were several boats built that didn’t meet that standard. For better or worse, the class responded by creating minimum and maximum radii templates with relatively short chord lengths for stations 3, 6, 8 and 10. The result of this was that most competitive Stars being built today are of the maximum radii (ie as flat as possible) through the middle portion of the hull bottom. This has the secondary effect of creating an even flatter fore and aft shape.

While all this was going on, the ‘wide bow’ made its debut appearance. None of us building boats in our basements or garages could understand how boats from an east coast builder were showing up on the racecourse with a plumb bow look. Well, surprise of surprises, in 1956 to be exact, the measurement tolerances were modified to greatly expand the maximum half-breath tolerance of the chine at station 1 from 57mm to 95mm – legalising the manipulation needed to produce a plumb stem. Quite a change, but it at least leveled the playing field going forwards. Several boats in our own 6th District, which includes Washington State and British Columbia, as an example, were successfully modified shortly after to take advantage of this new measurement.
For a few years after that, everything seemed to be running smoothly... except that it was obvious that with the arrival of fiberglass we would soon need – among other things – a class minimum weight. Even though there were cedar boats rumoured to be as light as 610kg, the only restrictions up until then being the scantlings, the class decided on 671kg as a good lower weight. This has proven a good figure, but from then until today the class continues to try to resolve the next issue of controlling the weight distribution and the lay-up of the hull. There have been attempts to control the situation (the rules specify an ‘even’ weight distribution) but to date the class has not come up with a workable solution and wide differences continue to exist.

The Star's unique combination of finesse and brutality
has drawn in most of the very best sailors at one time or another.
And that appeal rarely disappears; many of the top American's Cup
and Volvo sailors, like that 'last Laser', still keep a Star tucked away
just in case. Among class enthusiasts is Juan Kouyoumdjian
(racing here with Alejandro Colla at the 2009 Europeans in Kiel.
A Juan-K designed Star took the gold medal in Qingdao.
Photo by Tom Korber/Rolex
While all this was going on, in 1970 the class also made the move into aluminum spars, and with the approval of aluminum came a mandated minimum tip weight. Even though there was discussion of making the rules for aluminum such that they wouldn’t make wood masts obsolete, calmer heads reminded us that, no matter what we did, wood will always be replaced with aluminum, so let’s get on with it.

So that is how it went, and it’s been good. Even though aluminum masts do fail, they are much more reliable than were their elegant but fragile predecessors. More recently, there has been discussion of carbon fibre spars; from my limited experience I would say that the technology isn’t there as of this date – maybe in the future that will change. The way Star sailors get all worked up over the differences in the bend characteristics of aluminum spars from the same mast builder, I can’t imagine what would be the uproar we’d have with carbon...

From the mid-seventies up through the mid-eighties Star hull design generally remained pretty stable, other than adding several measurement points to the rudder and keel, but those of us on the class technical committee could see the potential for trouble on the horizon. The fact that the measurement tolerances were still so large coupled with serious designers taking a look at the potential for breakthrough shapes, made it obvious that we needed to develop a new set of Star plans based on the designs that were currently being utilized but with much, much tighter limits. That work was completed in a relatively short period of time with a lot of help from Hannes Gubler, who created the new lines drawing, as well as Andy Menkart and several others.

In other words, the Star as it appears on the plans being issued today isn’t the same as what was being sent out to builders for the prior 70 plus years. Our objective was multi purposed, to tighten the Statute of Limitations around a modern hull shape, so that it would be virtually impossible to build a legal, non-competitive boat and to add some measurements where, believe it or not, there weren’t any before. At the same time, we compared our new envelope with the other, competitive boats being built to make sure that they would all conform. Even though there has been some criticism of the fact that the sheer heights at the extreme ends of the boat weren’t addressed, I would say that what we did has proven good for the class.
New ‘breakthrough’ boats come and go, but today there is a healthy selection of excellent boatbuilders able to turn out a series-built championship winning Star boat design... off-the-shelf.


Bill Buchan was also a Star builder, and built the ‘Long Beach’ special that took him and Steve Erickson to the 1984 Olympic gold medal. Bill’s son Carl also won the 1992 world title with Hugo Schreiner. He was talking to class historian David Bolles and 1986 Star World Champion Vince Brun.

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