If you ask two sailors about almost anything you will get at least three opinions. There is no more controversial a question than what is a perfect first boat, no less what is the perfect family cruising boat. There is no one size fits all answer to this kind of question. You have not told us enough about yourself and your family so that we can even begin to give you meaningful input. We do not have a sense of your budget, or physical fitness. We don''t know how barebones and spartan or plush a boat you would prefer. We do not know how important reasonable performance is to you. We do not know what your fears are (If you are more afraid of running into something than you are of capsizing, for example, you might buy a steel boat, if you are more afraid of an uncomfortable motion than of running aground you might buy a deeper keel boat. etc. )
And to begin to make reasoned recommendations we need a basis since all boats are compromises. They are compromises between optimum sailing ability and the need for accommodations or shoal draft. For example, if a boat gets wider it gets more stable up to a point but then it has less reserve stability to right itself if it goes over. If a boat is too wide and blunt, it has a lot of drag but lots of room down below. If a boat is too narrow it has less drag but if too narrow won’t have much stability or room down below. Too much weight and the boat is slow and hard to handle, too little weight the boat is fast, fun, and easy to handle up to a point but at some point takes greater skills and athletic ability.
If you ask some sailors, they will recommend a traditional design because they are a bit harder to get into trouble with. I somewhat disagree. I really think that the boat you buy should be responsive enough that you can learn proper sail trim and boat handling. I have taught a lot of people to sail and I firmly believe that to really learn to sail the boat should be light and responsive enough that you can experiment with sail trim and sailing angles and see and feel the results. I recommend a boat with a reasonably easily driven hull and reasonably modern rig
and underbody. I find that fractional rigged sloops are really the easiest to learn proper sail trim on. Much of this depends on your own priorities. There are a lot people out on the water who really only understand the rudimentary aspects of sail trim and boat handling. That works for them and I am not judging them. If you really want to learn the fine points of sailing then I would stick to sloop 30 feet or less in length and of light to moderate displacement and a fin keel and spade rudder. Beginners sometimes think they prefer wheel steering, but on the size boats you are talking about a tiller is far and away better both to learn on and to sail with.
Under no circumstances should a first boat be a new boat. When you buy a new boat, there are a lot of decisions to be made and a huge amount of work sorting the boat out so that it is easy to sail and so that all of the little things are available and convenient. If you have never owned a boat and have not spent years sailing on lost of different boats (or at least a boat of your own) you do not have the knowledge base to know what it is that you want to do or what your options are. With a used boat, someone else has spent the time and money setting the boat up. You can try it out and if it does not work you can walk away and find a boat that does or knock down the price to correct the problem. People rarely hold onto first boats terribly long. As they learn their tastes, needs and goals change. Perhaps they want a more serious cruising boat or perhaps they want a to try racing. First boats tend to get beat up a bit. There is enormous depreciation on new boats, (masked by comparing base prices to the actual cost of equipping one) and so with the probability that a first boat will be sold more quickly than a second it makes no sense to buy new.
The key in picking any boat is to figure out where you are going to sail, what your abilities are and what your real needs are. Different sailing venues favor different types of boats. If you sail in an area with light winds, for example, you want a lighter weight boat with a generous sail plan or you will be very frustrated. As a beginner sailor you want a boat that is responsive enough to give you clues about sail trim and boat handling. You also have to ask yourself how are you going to use a boat. Will you only daysail, or do you think you want to spend nights aboard cruising. Do you want to trailer a boat to keep costs down or do you want to keep the boat in the water because it is way more convenient and is less abusive to the boat?
Here is a list of good first boats: (These should all be under 25K, most have inboards which I think is preferable for cruising.)
-Albin Ballad (30 feet (1973-1978) $12-20K)
These are reasonably fast and very well built and finished boats. They are not especially roomy but are good boats for short handing. They are beautiful looking boats. Most have a Volvo 10 hp diesel.
Albin Cumulus (28 feet-(early 1980’s) $15-18K)
These fractional rigged sloops would be a ideal first boat. They are reasonably fast (although 60 sec’s a mile slower than my Laser 28) and easy to handle. They are nicely finished and typically have diesels. The interiors on these boats are not exactly plush but is reasonable for the kind of stuff we do on the Chesapeake.
Beneteau First 30 or 30E (30 feet (early 1980’s) $18-22K)
Fairly modern design that should sail reasonably well. Not the most solid boats but fine for around here. They had diesels and pretty good hardware. The 30E might be a fractional rig
, I don’t recall.
-C&C Corvette (31 feet (1967- 1970) $15-22K) and –C&C Redwing (30 footer ( 1965-1970) $12K- 20K)
Attractive and reasonably venerable designs; they are not especially fast but OK for the era. The Corvettes are moderately long keel/ centerboard boats and so are great for poking around the shallower areas of the Bay. The Redwings are fin keel/spade rudder boats. They are really not competitive racers any longer.
Cal 2-30 and Cal 2-29’s (just under 30 feet (mid 1960-early 1970’s) $10-18K)
These are reasonably well built racer cruisers that have reasonable accommodations and pretty fair sailing ability. Like the Cal 25, the design is a dated and if the gear has not been updated will be less convenient than a more modern design. Still they sail quite well and can be a good all around boat.
Catalina 27’s: (1970’s to 1980’s) (Under $12K)
While not especially well built boats, they are reasonable first boats offering a nice interior and reasonable sailing ability. (I am not a fan of the Catalina 30’s. While ostensibly an enlargement of the 27, they really do not sail as well as the 27 and are particularly poor in a chop.)
Dehler 31 (31 feet (Mid to late 1980’s) under $20K to mid-20K range)
These are really neat little boats. They are not as fast as my Laser 28 say but are quite fast and look easier to sail and single-hand. They are fractional rigged and have a very nice interior plan. They would one of my favorites on this list for a first boat that can be both cruised and raced.
Dufour 2800 (28 feet (mid 1980’s) mid $20K)
These are OK boats with a big following. They are not my favorite but they would not be a bad boat if the price were right.
Irwin Competition 30 (30 feet(mid 1970’s) $12-16K)
These were well rounded little boats that sailed well and had reasonably nice interiors. There was one that dominated its class in PHRF for years. Irwin’s were not the most solidly built boats and so you are looking for a well maintained example in reasonably good shape.
MG27 (27 foot (Mid 1980’s) under $20K)
Nice little fractional rigged English boats. They seem to be well mannered and have an interior layout similar to my Laser 28. They have a diesel aux. But tiny tanks that will need to get upgraded.
Oday 28 & 30 (28 feet and 30 feet(late 1970’s and early 1980’s) $12-20K)
These were not the best built boats or the fastest boats in their day but are common and sail reasonably well.
1970’s vintage Tartan 30’s, (30 feet( 1970’s) under $20K)
These are my favorite masthead sloops of that era. They are good all around boats. Most still atomic 4’s but you can find them with diesels.
Late 70’s/ early 80’s Hunter 30’s, (30feet (15-20K)
These are under appreciated boats. We have had two in my family and again it is a matter of finding one that has been upgraded and is in good clean shape. My Dad raced his in PHRF and went for a couple years without finishing lower than a first or second. They are roomy and surprisingly fast.
70’s vintage Pearson 30’s (Not Flyers)
These are very venerable racer/cruisers here on the Chesapeake. They have an active one-design class and are also good boats for cruising the Bay. I have no idea how common they are where you are based. Of course they come in all kinds of condition from really well maintained and up graded with good racing hardware and a diesel engine to stripped and trashed. You can buy them from under $10K (but you would not want any in that price range) to something approaching $20K. You should find good boats in the high teens.
Ranger 29 (29 (early 1970’s) 10-18K)
These are good sailing and nice cruising boats. They should be adequate for club racing and are certainly good boats. They were not the best built boats and so again you should be looking for a clean and updated version. Still they offer a lot of bang for the buck.
Wylie 28 and Wylie 30 (28 and 30 respectively(late 1970’s to early 1980’s) 10-15K)
These are neat little boats that sail well and are really pretty interesting. The few that I have seen have good hardware and have had simple but workable interiors. They came in fractional and masthead rig
versions. There was a masthead version that did quite well on the Bay. There was a one design version called a Hawkfarm but they never caught on the Chesapeake but are still raced in S.F. Bay.
If you want something that is more of a race boat than cruiser, you might look at :
Shockwave (also called Schockwave 30, or Wavelength 30 )
If you want some thing more traditional
C&C Redwings and Corvettes
Pearson Coasters, and Wanderer’s
You will find that these boats that are more traditional boats have less room and will have older equipment but they should be less money.