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Old 04-13-2004
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the perfect 20'''' cruising boat?

It is funny that you ask this question because it is one that I have wrestled with since I was a kid. It is a very difficult question to answer because we all have our own goals for what that small cruiser might be. Throughout my entire sailing career, I always thought that it would be neat to have a small single-hander that one could also cruise. As a kid I was in love with the Cape Cod Golden Eye. I thought it the near perfect small boat.

Over the years my ideas about what the perfect 20 foot cruiser might be have greatly changed. I have literally drawn dozens of designs for small cruisers for myself to build. My earliest ideas were all somewhat camper sailors in the mold of the Herreshoff Alerion. Over time the designs have evolved into a small double-ended dory type, to something that is akin to a truncated more modern J22 to something that is closer to a Open Class boat similar to the Mini-Transat boats. All were designed to be the perfect under 20 foot pocket cruiser.

While small cruising boats exist, these often lack the sturdy simplicity and self- sufficiency of earlier pocket cruisers. They often contain too many undersized berths and not enough real berths and storage. The efforts to get something like standing headroom results in boats with too much windage and too much weight. Also sailing ability has often been compromised for trailering ability. Boats like the Flicka try to catch the romance of these earlier boats but to me the are really caricatures of the type that fall flat on their faces when it comes to sailing ability.

The idea of a small pocket cruiser has been around for well over a hundred years but even after all of that time small cruisers still raise a number of questions that after 100 years really haven’t been resolved, for example:

How small is too small to really distance cruise?
This one is just rhetorical.

Auxiliary propulsion:
Probably the smallest cruisers, the Rob Roy type double paddle canoes got by with double paddles as auxiliaries. Rob Roys crossed the English Channel and explored much of the Med. and inland Europe. Over here, in the 1870’s, a fellow cruised in a paper canoe from the St. Lawrence down the rivers to the East Coast. He then went down the whole length of the East Coast before stopping at cedar key on the West Coast of Florida. In the twenties it was not all than uncommon to carry a long sweep to get past that flat spot in the wind when time mattered less.

Somehow we’ve gotten ourselves into thinking we need an auxiliary motor. It may actually be true that we do. Some years ago I beat up a narrow creek and sailed up to a fuel dock to buy some ice. There was a power boat at the dock ahead of me and the skipper laid into me for endangering his pride and joy recklessly by coming in with out my engine running just in case. More and more I find people (often sailors) who chew you out for tacking up a narrow channel or sailing through a tight anchorage. But beyond that, if you look at modern so-called pocket cruisers, compromises are being made to provide modern accommodations beyond the size that the boat can support. That produces boats that do not sail as well as they truly need to if they are to go everywhere by the wind. By that I am not just talking about speed or light air ability, but the ability of a boat to tack reliably and claw off a lee shore in a bit of wind, and turn in a tight enough circle to sail into and out of a dock. Beyond that powerboat wakes and crowded channels mean that sailing ability becomes doubly more important if you are not going to be motoring a lot.

Electrical systems:
We seem to expect all boats to have a fairly sophisticated electrical system. It is almost impossible to have legal running lights without one. That means charging the batteries that means photocells at the least and more likely an engine. Once a boat has batteries do we add nav. and communication equipment? Somehow it seems to be taken for granted that any cruiser will minimally have a VHF and a GPS, let alone the current trend toward radar on smaller and smaller boats.

Dinghies and going ashore:
Around the turn of the last century the British built what they called canoe yawls. These small cruisers started out around 18 feet long. The first canoe yawls were ballasted centerboarders. When you wanted to go ashore you simply beached the boat or tied up to a dock. Very quickly the canoe yawls evolved into deeper keelboats that could not be easily beached. When I was a kid you could cruise even on Long Island Sound in a boat that could be beached in almost any harbor for the night. In effect these boats were their own dinghies. Today, there are fewer places that you can beach a boat and go ashore. This would suggest that beachable boats are probably not really able to deliver the independence that would be ideal for the type. But pocket cruisers are too small to carry or tow a conventional hard dinghy and there often isn’t room to conveniently inflate a dinghy.

How about ice boxes?
By this I mean we’ve come to expect iceboxes as standard equipment but ice is a very inefficient way to store food. The ice and surrounding insulation takes up a lot more room than the food it’s cooling. On a small boat, it is relatively easy to store enough food and water to remain independent from support for several weeks but with ice the best you can do is two or three days especially in a warm climate. Yet today we seem to take ice for granted.

Sailing performance: Modern hull shape, keel type, and sail area
When we talk about small cruising boats we seem to always look back at the successful designs of the past. Hindsight is after all easier than looking ahead. But boats of the past were products of the available materials and technology of the time (not to mention a different pace.) Many of the venerable designers of the past were striving to advance the “art” just as hard as current generation designers like Farr. Nat Herreshoff designed a very successful fin keel with bulb and a spade rudder design in the late 1800’s. He abandoned fin keels because they were outlawed under the racing rules of the period. But even his “traditional designs” like the pocket cruiser “Alerion” , with its sliding gunter rig, foil shaped keel and board, and extremely light weight construction for the day was a very advanced design.

As soon as we talk about pocket cruisers we seem to look back. Obviously no one would consider a Melges 24 a candidate for a pocket cruiser, but I don’t understand why we also don’t look at boats like ‘American Express’, the Wiley designed 21’ Trans Atlantic racer or the Farr 727.

It seems like there aren’t many manufacturers willing to look at developing advanced pocket cruisers. When you look at what seems to sell the most it’s half-baked and scary. Internal lead and iron ballast was abandoned in sailing yachts in the middle part of this century because it was inefficient and frankly dangerous. So who at the beginning of the next millennium decided that internal ballast, water internal ballast at that, is suddenly a good idea. Look at the boats that really sell in large numbers and try to find a model under 28 feet that doesn’t offer water ballast (not the Volvo sixty type).

Then there is the Keel issue. I will catch some flack for this but there is no doubt that strictly from a sailing ability a properly designed small boat with modern fin with bulb and spade rudder will out sail a well designed long keel design every time. On the size boats we are talking about there is no such thing as tracking without dynamic balance and a balanced fin keel boat will hold course with a long keel boat. But there is the issue of draft. Daggerboards work well in boats this size but then again you end up with the cabin bisected by the Trunk. Swing keels work pretty well until you get into “deep serious” and the want to close on their own.

Also in this size there is very little difference in motion between a lightweight and a heavy weight boat. Small boats are small boats and will feel like a small boat no matter how light or how heavy.

Which brings us to sail area. In the past, pocket cruisers often had rigs that could carry enormous amounts of sail. Kunhardt shows an 18-foot Chesapeake lifeboat yacht (essentially a pocket cruiser of the day) with 275 s.f. of sail area in its “lowers”. That is without main or jib Topsails. (That is more than carried by my prior boat, a 28 foot Laser which was a third of the weight) That is what it took to make old time pocket cruisers go, even in light air. But today we are unwilling to live with 8’-6” bow sprits on our traditional 18 footers. Yet traditional boat types argue for the type without seeming to remember that to push large wetted surface through the water takes even larger sail plans. I argue that it is far more tiring on the crew to wrestle with these large sail plans than to live with a lighter boat and smaller sail plan.

Lastly Cost:
In the early seventies, there was a large community of live aboard Hippies and ex World War 2 vets (who were collecting thirty-year pensions) in Dinner Key, Fla. They lived on an assortment of small cruising boats. You could buy a wooden whaleboat style lifeboat for $100.00 or so and convert it for $500 to a thousand to a really mediocre sailboat. The best life boat conversions sailed well and made the passage back and forth to the Bahamas with ease. You could buy one of these for $1500 or so. You could buy a nice Bahama Sloop for somewhere around $2500 to $2800. I bought my folkboat for $400 and had it pretty well ready to go cruising for a couple grand. To put this in perspective a new Ford Mustang was somewhere around $4000. A used Vanguard was about $11,000. So here we are at the end of the millenium, and I look around and boat prices are so far out there that they get beyond the point that quality boats are beyond the practical reach of most normal people. In 1985 my Laser cost the first owner $27,000 new, fully found with a trailer. Today, I understand the same boat would cost close to $100,000 to produce and it probably would not be Kevlar and Vinylester. We haven’t had that much inflation

A part of the jump in new boat prices is in “raising the standard of living” by cramming features often found in fully found serious offshore cruisers into what should probably be simple fast comfortable boats. If these boats are kept simple and are designed to be what they are, small boats, with most of the compromises that a small cruiser entails, then perhaps they would also be affordable.

Respectfully
Jeff
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