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The Search for the First Boat - long learning curves

(This is going to be pretty long - apologies in advance....)

I've been looking for the first boat for about a year. I'm still looking, but I've learned a lot in the search, and from this board, so I wanted to share progress and thoughts, in case it helps some other new sailors in their searches.

It seems like the forums get a regular flow of "what boat should I buy" questions, and the answers are always the same. I think part of the problem is that when all you've sailed is 20' or smaller, you just don't know what kinds of questions to ask, so you end up with these vague descriptions and "requirements" that the folks here patiently address, over and over.

Over time, and with learning, my "requirements" have changed pretty dramatically. I read here, I post here (sometimes), and think about the answers. Even the flame wars between the senior members are educational, because they define the problems and the different viewpoints.

Rule 1: Do Not Hurry.

I wanted to have a boat last summer. Now, I *might* have a boat this summer. If it isn't until next summer, that's ok. Better to take your time and let your wants and needs evolve with your learning.

If I had 200K in my pocket when I went to the Annapolis boat show last fall, I'd probably have a Delphia 37 right now. It would have been a mistake. It's not because the Delphia 37 is a bad boat (I still love the design - she's a great boat), but because it's not a good fit for the kind of sailing I plan to do.

Why? Lots of reasons. But for the experienced sailors here, I'll say that if I had 200K in my pocket right now, I'd want to get either a Valiant 32 or a Southern Cross 31. From that, you can tell what kind of sailing I want to do, and why the Delphia would have been the wrong boat for me.

Those two are the wrong first boats, too, because I don't have enough experience to be setting off on ocean passages. Those will be my second boats, maybe, because I *want* to set off on ocean passages.

The point is, if you hurry into the decision with neither sufficient experience nor book learning, you'll probably end up making a huge expensive mistake. Just last week I finished a book (Lin and Larry Pardey's "Care and Feeding of the Sailing Crew") that made me significantly rethink three "requirements" that I previously had.

Rule 2: Be Honest With Yourself.

The two most often used responses, in this forum, to, "what boat should I buy," are, "what kind of sailing do you want to do," and, "where are you going to be sailing?" Listen to this, and be honest with yourself. It has HUGE bearing on the kind of boat you should be considering. I would say that a third question should be, "how much experience do you have?"

What kind of sailing do I want to do? Blue water. But not right away. I'll be daysailing, weekending, and doing three or four week-long trips every season. Even though I *want* to do blue water passagemaking, it's not something I should consider with my first boat (much as I hate to write that).

Where am I going to be sailing? On the Chesapeake. Exclusively. Ok, maybe a little foray once in a while up to the Jersey Shore, or down to Virginia, but coastal cruising at the most. The Valiants, Pacific Seacraft, and others are not the right boat for that location and kind of sailing.

Honesty in these respects is critical. It will keep you from making huge and costly mistakes.

For example, I will be sailing with my wife and two teenage daughters. As much as I would like a racing boat, the motion will not make the others very happy....

Rule 3: Don't worry about the money.

Don't shop, initially, based on money. It doesn't hurt to look at what's available on YachtWorld based on your expected budget, but that's not how you should make your list of possible boats.

The way to make the list is to learn. Read. Talk to sailors. Go to shows and look at new boats and gadgets. Go to yards and look at boats on the hard. Always try to learn. I'll include a list of books that I've found extremely helpful.

It's much, MUCH better to understand the KIND of boat you need before trying to find one you can afford. Note that I said "kind" rather than "make." This goes back to Rule 2. Deciding what kind of boat best suits your sailing style and location will greatly determine what makes of boats you should consider.

This is also related to the book list, below. Reading Ted Brewer's Understanding Boat Design, for example, dramatically helped me understand how hull shape influences motion and tenderness.

After you've determined the kind of boat you need, you can start looking for a make, year, and condition that fits your budget and skills.

Rule 4: Read, think, and learn.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone like me post "I'm trying to decide between a Catalina 30 and a Westsail 32 - help." This is a sure sign that someone hasn't done enough research.

It seems there are four categories of understanding that you need in order to buy a boat and be successful with her. You must understand: yourself; sailing fundamentals; sails - theory, design, and set; and boat design.

I don't think there are many books that help with the "understanding yourself" part. That's on you. There are several that will make you think about the kind of sailing you want to do, and how your relationship with your boat will work out. I include here "inspirational sailing" books - those that fuel the dream (aka obsession, insanity, etc).

Ellen MacArthur. Taking on the World.
Richard Henderson. Singlehanded Sailing.

Books that address sailing fundamentals:

US Sailing. Basic Keelboat.
Bob Bond. The Handbook of Sailing.

Books that address Sails:

Emiliano Marino. The Sailmaker's Apprentice.
Don Casey. Sails and Canvaswork.

Books that address boat design, maintanance, and handling:

Ted Brewer. Understanding Boat Design.
John Vigor. Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat.
John Vigor. Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere.
William Seifert and Dan Spurr. Offshore Sailing.
Nigel Calder. The Cruising Companion.
Brian Gilbert. Fix it and Sail!
Don Casey. Any of his sailboat repair books, particularly Good Old Boat.
Lin and Larry Pardey. The Care and Feeding of the Sailing Crew.

There are a few others, but this is a good list (as is the required reading list on this site).

Rule 5: Rethink your requirements.

A huge amount of what you think you need when you start looking for a boat is really stuff you want. The folks here are amazingly knowlegable, and there's a huge volume of literature available. Make a list of what you think you need, but be ready to change that list when you find out you didn't know what you were talking about.

Looking back, I've pretty dramatically changed my "requirements" for my first boat. I started out with:

Roller furling.
35+ feet.
Propane stove.
Wheel steering.
Decent speed and pointing.

Now I'm down to:

Decent speed and pointing.


Diesel - yes, they're nice to have because of the gas fumes and the global availability of parts. It is no longer a requirement, though, because there are a lot of boats that I'd like to have (example: Pearson Triton 28) that generally don't have diesels. I might be missing a great Bay sailer, which is what I really need it for, if I restrict my search to diesel auxilliaries.

Roller furling - yes, it's nice to have when you're single handing and need to reduce sail. From reading, though, there are some significant disadvantages: UV degradation, luff compression, difficulty setting partially furled sail, windage aloft, weight forward, cost, and complexity (something else to break). So is a roller furler "required" for daysailing or weekending on the Chesapeake? Nope. It doesn't take that long to hank on a sail.... I've seen some nice boats (older Sabers, Tritons, P30s, Tartan 30s) that don't have roller furling, and they tend to be less expensive to buy.

35+ feet. The longer the boat, the heavier she is and the more easily she'll handle chop or larger seas (to broadly generalize). Also, more room below for family and friends. My wife really likes about 37 feet. The Pardeys, though, sail on smaller boat. More room below means you'll tend to load her down with "stuff," or at least I will. Smaller boats are cheaper to moor, haul, paint, and clean. Smaller boats have fewer systems, which means more time sailing and less time checking wiring, changing filters, fixing the plumbing, tinkering with the electronics, varnishing teak, etc. So for daysailing and weekending, do I REALLY need a boat over 35 feet, even for my wife and two daughters? I don't think so. The Triton 28 has four bunks and a head. That's all we really need.

Propane stove. Kind of a silly requirement, but I really detest alcohol stoves. It doesn't matter, since the only time we'd really use it is when we anchor out, and I can use my portable propane camp stove for that. Again, not a requirement, but a nice to have.

Wheel steering. Salingdog really surprised me when he challenged this one. He's absolutely right. There are advantages to tiller steering, particularly on a smaller boat! More room in the cockpit when at anchor (with the tiller raised), easier to move about under sail, one fewer thing to go wrong and require fixing, and better control of the boat (or so they say). Some beautiful extremely seaworthy boats have tiller steering: Westsail 32 and Southern Cross 31, for example. It just makes sense.

So I'm left with seaworthy and decent performance. Seaworthy because I might be completely in love with her and want to go offshore in her, and I don't want the design or construction to preclude that. Decent performance because the quicker she is, the farther I can take the family on a weekend. The second "requirement" is not nearly as important as the first. Generally, I think a more "seaworthy" boat will have a kinder motion for my seasickness-prone wife.

I'm currently looking at a couple of Triton 28s. Good price, good hull design, pretty to look at (IMO). Very, very simple systems. And small enough that if I want to try my hand at lofting my own sails, it's not an unreasonable thing to do.

Anyway, this is kind of the "lessons learned" so far in my boat search. I hope it's helpful to somebody....
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