There is nothing better than a gentle summer easterly off the Atlantic coast of Florida. The breeze carries a taste of the not-so-far-away tropics and keeps the towering thunderstorms where they belong—over the Everglades and the suburbs. We were gliding north, about 15 miles offshore, hitchhiking on the Gulf Stream. Mike was at the helm. He had the sails drawing nicely and a satisfied glint creased his face.
"Ya, John," he said for the tenth time, "I sure am glad you convinced me to buy this boat. You know, I really like this boat. Here we are sailing at five knots you know we'd have been motoring in the old boat."
Mike calls himself a coal miner, not a sailor. Both are understatements. Along with his brothers he operates one of the largest mines in the Midwest and his daily stress factor spins upward in supplying the raw material that keeps the lights shining and computers humming in Columbus, OH, every day of the year. It is a tough job. For the past several years sailing had been his release. At least once a month Mike would escape to Ft. Lauderdale, usually with his friend Frank Rock, and spend time on a boat that he kept moored on one of the city's many canals. Unlike a lot of people who keep their boats here, Mike actually went sailing every chance he could. Key West and Freeport in the Bahamas were frequent waypoints and one summer was spent on Chesapeake Bay.
For better and worse, I was his mentor.
Unfortunately, Mike purchased the wrong boat: a big, beautiful, powerful, sailing machine that came with all the baggage a big, beautiful, powerful sailing machine carries. Imagine buying a 56-foot, 60,000-pound sloop with nearly eight-foot draft for a first boat? It's actually more common than it should be, as older, successful business people who are first-time sailors try to flatten out the learning curve with money.
The lure of distant islands and that overworked concept of "maybe I'll sail around the world," cause people to buy more boat than they need. Leaving the dock in Mike's boat, especially with a cross breeze or current, was always exciting. You don't casually fend off 30 tons of boat. Mike left his mark on a few pilings. And I, too, admit to mishap, "tattooing" the rubrail while expertly demonstrating the proper docking technique.
Once clear of the jetties, the Roberts-designed Jomar 56 was at home plowing through ocean swells. But, schlepping up the main was a big chore. You couldn't reach the sheet winches from the helm and adjusting the genoa leads underway required a lot of strength. She needed a breeze to respond so, of course, too much time was spent under power in light, fickle breezes that predominate along the Atlantic coast. The last thing Mike wanted to hear was the roar of another diesel engine. Instead he wanted to feel powerful sailing with the press of wind on his incredibly expensive new sails.
Big boats not only command big bucks, but they also rob you of your time, and especially that of an absentee owner. More and more of Mike's time was spent arranging for the teak decks to be redone, the generator replaced, the engine overhauled, the winches updated, and so on. The maintenance was endless. Soon it wasn't worth all the trouble and Mike sold the boat. A common Ft. Lauderdale story: Another cruising dream is deleted.
Mike was miserable without a boat and he would call me up just to hear about some of my sailing adventures. He lasted about a year before he started looking at boats again. And sure enough he started down the same slippery slope, considering big, expensive, systems-intensive boats. He flew to Minnesota to check out a Taswell 49 and seriously inspected an Oyster 53. Fortunately, his broker was a good chap and more interested in helping Mike find the right boat than in pocketing a fat commission. He insisted that Mike take a look at a Beneteau Oceanis center-cockpit 44. To many of us this seems like a big boat, possibly the ultimate boat, but to Mike it seemed almost ridiculously small and a step backward. He asked me, "Can I sail a Beneteau around the world?" I told him yes, but that he wasn't posing the right question. He should have been asking me if he could be away from the dock, under sail and making way in a light breeze in less than an hour in the boat. He groaned. There was no romance in that question.
I knew immediately that the boat was right for Mike. All the numbers were right. It displaced less than 21,000 pounds, drew just five feet, nine inches and had a manageable sail plan. The intangibles were right too. He could leave it unattended for months and it would be little worse for the wear. Most importantly, it was well-engineered and simply rigged with roller-furling main and headsail. And the view from the helm was excellent. An advantage of a center-cockpit design is that there isn't that much boat in front of you to maneuver. The self-tailing winches were easily reached from the helm, as were the leads for the traveler and load-adjusting genoa cars.
|"Mike would be able to learn some of the intricacies of sailing that his bigger boat had covered up."|
On this new boat, Mike would be able to learn some of the intricacies of sailing that his bigger boat had covered up. The Beneteau was just a few years old and spotlessly clean. The previous owner had not cluttered up the boat with too many "good-idea" gizmos. In fact, it looked like the owner had never set foot aboard. The gear and electronics were minimal and of high quality and the accommodations were lovely with two equal staterooms fore and aft.
Typically, Mike was too busy to attend his own sea trial. I took the boat out for him and nothing changed my mind. Mike bought the boat and a few weeks later the two of us set off to deliver it up the coast to Hilton Head, SC. Despite light air, we actually sailed most of the way. As we plied the coffee-stain-colored waters off the coast of Georgia, Mike shook his head and said, "We've been sailing two and half days and I haven't picked up a tool yet."
That was the point of it. We were sailing—just sailing.
Weighing the Consequences
Bigger is only better when it comes to bank accounts and, well, a few other personal matters. Here's a rundown on why smaller, lighter boats are the way to enhance your enjoyment of the sport, as well as a few reasons why you those options may not be right for you:
Better Sailing—Changing to a smaller lighter boat almost always results in better sailing. The truth is,light air is more common than heavy air and most sailors tend to avoid heavy-air days.
Lower loads, less muscle required—Smaller and lighter boats don't generate the same loads as heavier boats, meaning that they don't require the same strength and you don't have to muscle things as much.
Fewer crew required—Small boats don't require crew. Rounding up people to go sailing is a never-ending problem. Also, smaller lighter boats make single-handing more of an option. There are few things as rewarding as spending an afternoon sailing by yourself.
- High-tech advantages—Smaller and lighter boats benefit more from recent andvances in technology, ranging in improvements in sail shape and cloth to composite-construction techniques.
- High-motion—Lighter boats tend to be more active in the water and the motion is not as friendly. A disadvantage of downsizing is that the rapid motion of lighter boat is tougher on the stomach.
- Lower payload capability—Lighter boats can't carry payload as their heavy cousins can. Even if you cruise only occasionally, you will still need to load up the boat with provisions and gear, which can effectively hinder a lighter boat's performance.
- Narrow structural tolerance—Smaller and lighter boats need to be well-engineered and constructed to maintain the same structural quality of heavier boats.
- Comfort and seaworthiness—If you do actually sail around the world, chances are you would probably enjoy it more on a heavier boat. Speed is relatively unimportant on a world cruise, whereas comfort and seaworthiness are prime design factors to consider.