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Old 10-01-2009
jeflaba jeflaba is offline
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Cal 31 - Not for Bluewater Offshore Cruising

Before I comment on why I think the Cal 31 is not an ocean crossing blue water sailboat I want to give a bit of background so you know where I am coming from.

I LOVE my Cal 31, Imagination. I've sailed for the last 45 years in dinghies, beach cats, cruising and racing boats from 20 to 60 ft. In the last 19 years I have owned her I have sailed my Cal 31 from Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island to Chula Vista harbor in San Diego and pretty much everywhere in between, mostly solo. Of the eight channel islands the only one I haven't been to is San Nicholas (60 nm offshore & no safe anchorage). I have sailed OPBs in San Francisco bay and been crew on a Columbia 36 going up around Point Conception. I have also been paying crew on a 56 footer from Ala Wai harbor, Hawaii to Glacier Bay in Alaska and on down to Sitka and Juneau. I would consider myself a competent coastal cruiser with some limited offshore experience.

The worst conditions I have been in on the Cal 31 was 25 kts wind continuous with gusts to 30+ and 12 ft swells at 12 second interval (this is what really counts) sailing solo. In those conditions the top of the line autopilot (TillerPilot 5500) could not keep up and I had to hand steer. If anything had gone wrong I would have been hard pressed to leave the tiller to fix it. I had two reefs in the main and the roller reefing jib was rolled to less than 70% of the fore triangle. We were doing in the high 7 to low 8 kt continuously with spurts to 9 to 10 kt sliding down a swell. I was on a broad reach. After four hours of this I made port and was VERY glad for it!

I have been in worse but only for short periods like when a squall line passes through - over in less than 10-15 minutes. I have also been close reaching in 20+ kt for a couple of hours at a time. I don't have a dodger and was quite wet even in full foulies and wide brim tilly hat. By the time I reached a slip I could wring water out of my underwear and was mildly hypothermic with continuous shivering. I would have been hard pressed to do another hour. Sobering when you consider that worse storms at sea can last three days or longer.

In all of this I never felt like I was in any serious danger UNLESS something broke. I try to thing about what I would do in situations ahead of time but doing it when I am out in it can give me the cold sweats. Losing a shroud or even the mast would be a serious problem in the west Santa Barbara channel only 20 nm from a safe anchorage. Developing a major leak because of a broken through hull or hitting something tough enough to hole me could be life threatening.

So, here are the reasons I would not consider the 31 a true blue water cruiser. First, it is just too small. Yes, I know lot of folks have circumnavigated on smaller boats but the Cal is only 9170 lbs and considered tender. She needs a reef when going to weather in 12 kts if you want to keep her on her feet. The fuel tank holds 15 gal. enough for about 300 nm of motoring in calm seas. There is 50 gal of water storage at 1 gal/person/day = 25 days - no long or even short showers! She is also short on food, equipment, and supplies storage for two and there is no way I would single hand her on ocean crossings. If you did get enough stuff aboard you would have to repaint the water line a foot higher!

Second, there is a major design flaw in the Cal 31 and that is the large main hatch. Not only is it huge it opens at a wide angle so that the hatch boards only have to lift an inch or so before they come out. This is not a major problem most of the time, it's easy to get my big mountain bike down below and out again, but offshore it could prove fatal.

Another design flaw for offshore work is the very large fore deck hatch. Again it is very convenient passing large sail bags and hoping back and forth when I have to raise the anchor and flake the chain coming down the hawse pipe under the V-berth (this is a refit I did). However, the hatch takes 6 dogs to secure it and they have to be REALLY tight to prevent even minor waves from causing some fairly serious dripping. I also worry that the caulking could fail on the Lexan and that would be one seriously large hole (I had a young crew member push on the Lexan and not the frame trying to open the hatch and the sealant failed - it was 25 years old).

Lastly, the engine is marginal. Yes, I know, it's a sailboat but I have listened to cruisers and read enough to know that you spend a lot of time motoring. The 16 hp (on a good day) two cylinder diesel just can't push the boat against much of a headwind. On one occasion I was trying to get back to San Pedro from Long Beach with a torn mainsail lashed to the boom and could not make better than 1.5 kt against a 25 kt head wind. And this was behind a breakwater! I spent a night sailing on my anchor at Johnson's Lee on Santa Rosa Island (33 lb Bruce on 265 ft of chain + 100 ft of nylon). The wind was 35 kt and howling like a banshee. If I had had to motor into that, I don't think I could have made any headway at all.

All this said, if I had a gun to my head, here is what I would do. First, find a way to secure the hatch boards so they couldn't lift out (I would also replace them with boards with at least a 1/4 inch lip not just a butt joint). I would upgrade the hatches with serious offshore quality models - stainless or bronze to replace the opening port lights which are just plastic, not even Lexan. Same with the cabin windows. I doubt they would hold up to a real smacking from a breaking wave. Upgrade the through hulls and double clamp all the hoses.

It goes without saying that the standing and running rigging would have to be new, oversized and top of the line. Sails would need to be serous cruising quality. I am not sure how I would handle the jib. I cannot see going forward to change out a headsail. Roller reefing (not furling) is a must but it has to be designed so that storm winds, when you are running under bare poles, cannot unravel the fully furled sail. If the boom is sheeted to the cabin top, I would consider moving it back to the standard location on the bridge deck (mid-boom sheeting can lead to boom failure). This limits how big the dodger can be and you WILL need a dodger. If you are not going to use a windvane for steering you will need multiple backups for the autopilot and the wiring for it has to be bullet proof (my boat would need a complete rewire). Backups for GPS, VHF and other nav gear including a sextant are needed to prevent Murphy from joining your crew.

You would need to give some thought to where you are going to sleep. The v-berth is going to be full of stuff and you don't want to sleep before the mast anyway - you're the captain not crew! While offshore only one of you will be asleep so you only need one of the two settee berths but it will need lee cloths. We needed them on the 56 footer so I know you would need them on the Cal.

Lots of other stuff too. Where are you going to navigate from? There is no seated nav station. The galley needs some way to secure the cook in a seaway. The storage areas above the settees need to be secured. Imagine the boat on her beam ends - what would fall out? On my boat the original manual bilge pump required me to keep the port cockpit locker open in order to use it - a total no-no (now replaced with one I can use while hand steering if necessary). Also, the cockpit locker hatches have no way to be secured from the cockpit, you have to go below. Where is the life raft going to be stowed? The v-berth is a long way to drag something that big and heavy in an emergency. The cockpit locker openings are too small and the room on deck is quite limited.

That said, I have seen a Cal 34 which circumnavigated and she was extensively modified. I have read about a Cal 25 which was circumnavigated by a couple with two young kids (they were born on board) was had longitudinal stringers glassed in and a hard dodger. The owner said he would never have done it if he didn't already have the boat and the skill to basically redesign it and do all the work himself. FWIW, I know of at least two other Cal 31's in Mexico which have extensively cruised the Sea of Cortez and southward.

Bottom line, the Cal 31 is a wonderful coastal cruiser. She is fast, weatherly, strong, and she has the space below of a 35 footer (of the same vintage). I love mine unreservedly. In the 19 years I have owned her I have never seen another boat I would have wanted to have bought. I will almost certainly keep her into retirement and I plan to do the 2011 Baja Haja (though I am not looking forward to the Baja Bash coming back).

However, you won't have to read very many stories of being caught offshore in a storm before you realize the Cal 31 just isn't the boat you want to be in. Seriously, check out Adlard Coles' Heavy Weather Sailing by Peter Bruce on Amazon and elsewhere. It's a classic and, IMHO, no one should go offshore, even coastwise, without reading this book.

Last edited by jeflaba; 10-02-2009 at 01:57 AM.
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