Choosing the ideal cruising boat
by John Martin, Island Cruising Association on 29 Dec 2013
So you want to acquire a cruising boat ideal for the kind of cruising you want to do. Where do you start? Every manufacturer says theirs is the best, every ancient mariner has their own favourite. Here John Martin of the Island Cruising Association, having led myriads of rallies, having counselled hundreds of sailors how to make their own boat-buying decisions, gives us all some wise advice:
Windflower John Martin
There are many reasons why people decide to pick up the hook and head off into the blue. It may be a retirement dream or simply ticking off an item on the bucket list. For Lyn and I and our two kids Adam and Jenna it was the realization of an unfulfilled dream.
My Dad had graduated from his first cruising boat and built a boat, his dream boat, with the express purpose of cruising his local cruising area. The boat was finished but it was never quite ready, maybe next year.
One year next year didn’t come. Lyn and I had always had a hankering to explore distant horizons and create a different lifestyle to bring up our kids. This was the catalyst, there was no way we were going to let our dream slip away.
We made the decision to go cruising in November. By April, the following year, Lyn asked me why we hadn’t bought our dream boat yet. I was starting to get disheartened, we had looked at so many boats and, yes, some of them had promise but everything that looked good was also way out of our price range.
We finally found Windflower in September that year and you could say she was ideal, she ticked many of the boxes and we could afford her.
I have often been asked since then, what is the perfect Cruising Boat? And is there such a thing? The answer is, every boat is a compromise and depends on what you, as the individual, want out of your cruising lifestyle.
You will never buy a boat that will suit your requirements for all time, so we need to look at what your needs are today as your cruising needs will evolve over time. To start, the following questions have to be answered.
First and foremost, what is your budget? Yep, that’s the biggie and it’s the one factor that will have the biggest effect on your choice. Some lucky people may have a pot full so the choices are wide open. Unfortunately not many of the cruisers out there are on unlimited budgets so we need to establish some priorities. Remember too, if you are wanting to cast the lines off for an extended period you will need to have something left to live on. Add to that the inevitable fact that whatever you buy will need money spent on preparation and remember the acronym for BOAT is Bring On Another Thousand.
Where are you intending to cruise? If you want to cruise the higher latitudes then your choice of boat is going to need to be different than if you are simply going to cruise sunshine-filled coastlines or the tropics. There’s a world of difference between a passage in tropical waters and a North Sea blast. Are you looking at coastal cruising or to head offshore? Each one has its own requirements but a good coastal boat may not be suitable for extended offshore work.
Construction material is next on the agenda; you may have a preference here but keep an open mind. Every method of construction has its good points and its disadvantages.
Many people like steel from its safety aspect, 'If I hit something I won’t sink'. Yeah right. Tell that to the folks on the Titanic; anyway it’s my preference to avoid hitting stuff. While Steel is strong, rust is a lifelong companion.
Fiberglass or GRP, depending on age and construction may be subject to Osmosis or 'the pox' as it’s known, but a glass and gell coat boat is by far the easiest to maintain.
Wood, they’ve been around forever and boy a good one looks great but they are hard to keep looking great and of course rot never sleeps.
As to ferro, tremendous construction medium but maybe I’m biased. They’re not good if you stick them on the rocks but bang for buck they’re good value and being heavy means they’re comfortable in a seaway.
Construction techniques for Aluminum have improved over the years, light and strong but again the flip side is corrosion. If Carbon Fiber’s in your budget, hmmm, now we’re into a whole new world.
How many people are you going to cruise with? Do you want to do the longer passages, coatal or offshore as a couple, or are you going to take crew along. Crew is an interesting subject on its own but if you are intending to take crew you need to comfortably accommodate them. You’re not buying a racing boat so the idea of your crew 'Hot bunking' is not an option. On the other hand, if the crew is only with you for the longer passages, are you going to be able to handle the boat by yourselves after they’ve gone?
Will you be having guests to stay on a regular basis? There is an old adage when cruising, the ideal boat should, entertain eight, feed six, sleep four, two comfortably. Guests are a little like fish they start to go off after a week. As to the master cabin this is now your home and the bunk needs to be comfortable, easily accessible, for both of you and have good ventilation. Your cruise is most definitely going to get cut short if you are always tired and grumpy from lack of sleep.
There needs to be at least one bunk that is a good sea berth for the skipper that’s close to the action and comfortable on both tacks. Even if you are only intending coastal cruising there will be occasions where an overnight passage will be necessary. If you are having the kids along for the ride are they going to get along Okay in the one cabin or are they going to need a cabin each. Hmm, the boat just got bigger again!!
Size of boat:
That brings us to the next question, size. We have watched the average size of cruising boats increase over the last fifteen years. When we first set sail around the South Pacific, at 13.5m we were one of the bigger boats in the fleet, five years ago we were considered smaller than the average as systems aboard became better at allowing small crews to easily handle bigger boats. You still need to consider though the weight of the gear, while it’s on the roller furler good winches can bring in a sail of any size, but think about trying to lug your sails up from the sail locker or man handle them if they need repair.
A number one genoa on a forty footer I can lift with one hand, on a fifty footer it will take two beefy lads to shift the number one.
The other consequence of size is dollar value. The price goes up by the square of the size and so do the maintenance and berthage costs. With the world economy in a recent slump the size trend has now started to reverse and about 12.5m is now the average.
Next question is what kind of performance you are looking for in your cruising boat? There have been three separate shifts in cruising boat styles over the last decade. First is a move towards lighter displacement, fast cruisers. These are ideal for the lower latitudes (ie the tropics), they go to windward better than some of the older heavy displacement boats, often have great cockpits for entertaining but are not as comfortable in a seaway.
Second is an increase in the number of powerboats. Particularly if you are looking at extended coastal, these displacement trawler style boats have a lot going for them. Let’s face it, once the longer passages are over, most cruisers will admit they spend a lot more time than they would like using the motor. Whether it’s just to charge the batteries, bring down the freezer or navigate through channels and around reefs a good motor needs to be high on the priority list.
Number of hulls:
The other and most significant shift is towards cats. The catamaran has gone from almost non-existent as a cruising platform fifteen ago, to making up over a third of the fleet in some rallies. If you are looking at a cat, be careful, your social calendar will never be empty and you risk becoming the party boat, cats make great entertainment platforms as well as being quick and in the main, easy to handle.
So, now you’ve answered the above questions and have a handle on the type and size of boat you’re looking for, what else is important?
A good galley is a must, you’re not just dishing up the lunch you packed at home for the day out, and you need to think Christmas dinner. Just as important is it a safe galley in a seaway. Most modern cruisers have refrigeration, is it easy to access and can you see the bottom without the use of a strong torch, your arms are only so long. You will need both fridge and freezer for extended cruising, particularly if the weather is hot.
Many of the imported production cruisers come standard with fridge only, have a look to see where you would put a freezer. Is there enough storage space, not only for pot, pans, utensils and crockery but enough for a major provision to last two, three or four people up to three months?
Ventilation is another important factor, not just the galley but the whole boat needs good ventilation. Hatches are fine at anchor, if they are covered, but dorades are necessary for ensuring the boat is ventilated on passage. Good storage for boat gear is also essential.
Moving outside, a good cockpit has enough room to entertain but still works for sailing, has good shelter and high enough coamings to keep the sea out and you in. If you are looking at a sloop, where is the traveler? A traveler in the cockpit is fine for racing but a real pain, literally, for cruising.
A good lazarette or other storage and a large anchor locker is a must. Your best insurance is how well you stay put in a blow, so good ground tackle, a winch that will pull up the Titanic and somewhere to stow the spare rode and all those fenders is essential.
There are as many styles as there are methods of construction all of them have their good points and bad, but of all the things we need to consider in the longer term is how easy she is going to be to maintain. It is often better to spend a little more on a boat at purchase, to save cost over time. I would also sacrifice size for age, the newer the boat the longer it will be before you need to replace worn out gear and systems.
Sea trials before purchase:
Next on the agenda is the sea trial. Your boat also needs to perform, this is not only important from a safety aspect, boat balance ease of handling etc., but also the frustration factor. After all the time and drama to get to this stage you have probably donned a pair of rose tinted glasses so it’s a good idea to get someone with experience to go through the boat with you, put the boat through its paces out on the water, give you an honest unbiased review of the boats character and always, always, get a survey done prior to purchase.
Extra funds required:
Last but certainly not least, how much is it going to cost to bring the boat up to an acceptable standard for extended coastal cruising or offshore? This can make a big dent in the kitty. As a guide for planning use your local racing regulations. Although designed for racing boats they will give you a guide as to the minimum standards you should be looking to achieve.
As with all things yachting, compromises will have to be made. In general, buy the best boat you can for the budget you have but don’t stretch your finances too far and most important, get out there and do it!
John and Lyn Martin run the Island Cruising Asociation. Their tag line is 'we make cruising more fun'. The Island Cruising Association provides resources, training and events to help you get yourself, your crew and the boat out there safely and having fun. Most of their cruisers are around the islands of the South Pacific.
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