There is nothing like a boat show to stir things up for wannabe cruisers. Up and down the dock jostle brand-new boats, rigging clanging with the fluttering banners of the manufacturers who hope to put your name down on their production list. Up to now, you’ve probably seen these boats only on the ad pages of glossy magazines, but at the show you get to tramp through each and every one, even those far outside your budget. In this environment, you may find yourself asking, “What size boat should we be looking at for cruising?”
There is no simple answer. The right boat size for you will factor in many considerations – sailing abilities, voyage planned, size of crew, cabins needed, storage needed, comfort expectations, rig and layout preferred, equipment you want to add, modifications you need to make, and, of course, budget. Every decision you make about the boat you go cruising in will have a cost associated with it – in dollars, energy and attention — both up front and forevermore as you move it, maintain it, dock it, haul it, and repair it. What you can, or are willing, to spend — in dollars, energy, or attention — will inevitably be the controlling factor, but the worth of many of those considerations may be quite different when you are out using the boat than when it was a pie in the sky on the dock!
Industry reports say the size of boats being shown at boat shows is getting bigger and bigger. But, when is a boat too big? Quite simply, a boat is too big if you can’t afford it. “If you have to take a mortgage or if buying a particular boat takes assets away from retirement or other after-cruising uses, you may never feel comfortable with the decision,” counsels Lisa of Lady Galadriel, a Crealock 37. “You’ll find that the costs of cruising are not merely proportional to the size of the boat, they’re exponential! Plus, you need to ensure that there’s enough left over to enjoy the travel at the places you visit.”
“A boat is too big if it taking care of it becomes too much work, if you can’t find a convenient place with big enough equipment to haul it, if you have to hire other people to do all the work that needs to be done, or if you can’t keep up with the constant cleaning that is necessary when you live in every square inch,” weighs in Donna of the Privilege 39 Exit Only. A boat is never so big as when you are underneath her cleaning the hull and the waterline!
Most importantly, a boat is too big if you can’t handle her. As a boat gets bigger, so does its sail plan. It’s more work to raise the sails and more work on the winches to trim them. Vicki of Firebird, at 84 feet by far the largest boat in my Admiral’s Club, says, “We’ve liked many things about our big boat: the walk-in engine room, the space for guests, the privacy and security our high freeboard affords us, and the extended range our of big tankage, but we could not have cruised this monster without our third crew!” Most cruisers don’t have the luxury of hired crew and might not want to sacrifice the privacy if they could. Most of us are more concerned with the challenges of maneuvering our boats in packed harbors, in the close quarters of a marina, or, as Kathy of Hale Kai reminds, coping when things go wrong: “A big boat is more difficult to sail or anchor single-handedly, to short tack up a channel should the engine fail, or to kedge off if you run aground.” A boat is too big if the crew is “afraid” of it. How many times have I seen a couple pinned to a marina, or, sadder, a boat stashed in a yard, because a scary experience took the wind from their sails?
“Go on the smallest boat you can put up with,” says Lisa of Lady Galadriel. Because the Crealock is a small 37 (thanks to her low freeboard), during the four years it took them to cruise from San Francisco to Annapolis, Lisa and her husband spent a lot of time considering boats they might upgrade to. Upon arrival though, they opted instead on a major refit. “So I don’t have an indoor shower,” Lisa shrugs. “We know this boat, we can each singlehand her, and her particular strengths – a great salon for entertaining and surprising storage – outweigh the other inconveniences of her size.”
Lack of storage is a key compromise in choosing a smaller boat. “I’ve spent time on a lot of different-sized boats,” says Judy of Ursa Minor, a Saga 43, “and no matter how big the boat, there is never enough storage space, especially if it’s to be your only home.” For Kathy Parsons, who wrote her first book while cruising on a Whitby 42, it’s the lack of work space that frustrates her on the 38’ Hale Kai. “Writing and doing projects becomes more difficult. I’m always having to put my work away because every space aboard does double duty.”
Debbie, who has lived for six years on the 29′ Island Packet Illusions, however, says this. “Only on rare occasions have I wished for a bigger boat. We originally wanted a 32′, but, due to finances, that would have meant working at least another year, and we were ready to go! We decided to buy the 29′ and try it. If it proved too small, we could always go back to work again for the bigger boat. I highly recommend going NOW on a smaller boat as opposed to not going at all… or waiting ‘til it is too late.”
Fully half of my Admirals have been cruising for years in boats under 38 feet. Unilaterally they sing the praises of the smaller boat’s affordability, its ease of handling, the fact that they can singlehand if they have to, and that they can take shelter in small places.
But there are some caveats. Smaller boats with shorter waterlines are slower, making passages longer, while lighter boats are not as comfortable in rough conditions, making passages (and sometimes anchorages!) less pleasant. Furthermore, for some cruisers, performance is not something to be sniffed at. “Our 51’ retired Moorings charterboat was the most waterline we could get for the money,” says Ellen of Cayenne III. “it was the fastest yet most comfortable and seaworthy hull we saw. As we look at new boats on the market, we see lots of gee-whiz bells and whistles, but all that stuff in a fat slob of a hull wouldn’t be worth a dime to us. Fast is fun, and when fast isn’t fun, at least it’s over soon.”
And then sometimes it just comes down to elbow room. When my husband and I were looking for an “our” boat to take the place of our two 44’ CSYs, we found, because we are both tall, that many of the boats highly touted as cruisers were just too confined for us. Neither of us wanted to have to duck to move around belowdecks, and we insisted on being able to stretch out full length in both the berth and the cockpit. We kept our 44 with the 7’ headroom and have found her to be just right!…FOR US!
Contributing Admirals: Lisa Schofield, Lady Galadriel; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Vicki Juvrud, Firebird; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; plus others.
This article was published in the March 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.