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The Perfect Cruising Boat?

I'm behind on my reading—who isn't? I tell you this because I just got around to reading the March issue of Cruising World. In this particular issue, the editors of CW share with us their judgment of the best new cruising sailboats of 1999.

CW's editors judged the Morris 34 as the overall winner. Now don't get me wrong; the Morris 34 is a terrific boat. But the price tag, according to CW, is $240,000. Called to task by their readers—who presumably look to CW for help in achieving or at least sustaining their cruising dreams—the magazine defended the selection by saying it "wanted to send the message that a well-made, thoughtfully laid out boat under 35 feet can be an outstanding cruising boat."

Fine, and true, but the second half of that message is that you need a quarter of a million dollars to own such a boat. And if you want a "full-size" cruiser (what message does this terminology send?), you need 460 grand in your checking account—the price of CW's best boat in this category, the Sabre 452.

The question that comes to my mind is: These are the best cruising boats for whom? Do you have $460,000 to spend on a sailboat? Me neither.

Yet the clear implication is that the cruise experience will be better—vastly better, judging by the dollars—for those who can afford these fine boats. If that is true, then it must be equally true that those of us who cannot (or will not) spend $460,000 or even $240,000 must settle for a lower level of enjoyment.

Really? So we might expect this exchange between two cruisers in Trinidad:

"Carnival was great, huh?"
"For you, sure."
"Excuse me?"
"Your boat's a Sabre 452."

Or on the VHF: "Nice sunset."
"Not from my boat."

Or how about this:
"Did you drag anchor last night?"
"No chance. My boat's a Morris 34."

Economic prosperity and a runaway stock market have meant that the number of sailors able to afford boats costing mid six figures has increased dramatically, and I would not argue that for some, a tricked-out big boat gives them great pleasure. But whether such boats enhance a cruise is another matter. In faraway anchorages, the more expensive the boat, the less likely it is that the owner is aboard.

If there is a single key to realizing the dream of cruising, it is restraint in what you spend for the boat. Cruising dollars are nearly always better spent on something else. Think about it. If you sell your house for $250,000 and sink $240,000 into a boat, you can cruise frugally for less than a year on what is left. But if you spend $50,000 on the boat—a realistic price on the used market for a "well-made, thoughtfully laid out boat under 35 feet"—just the interest on the money that remains exceeds $10,000 a year, meaning your cruise is fully funded in perpetuity.

A fatter kitty also means you can visit places that might otherwise seem too expensive, stay in marinas (if you like), eat at restaurants, rent cars, take inland excursions, and fly home. None of these benefits accrue from spending more on the boat, only from spending less.

A smaller investment in the boat will also reduce mental stress. When your boat represents a substantial portion of your personal wealth, the mischarted rock or out of season cyclone is never far from consciousness. A fat insurance policy can dull this worry, but away from domestic waters, hull insurance is shockingly expensive, sucking up cruising dollars in direct proportion to the value of the boat. Most long-distance cruisers go without. If you elect to insure, expect contractual restraints, such as requirements to take on additional crew for offshore passages and to be beyond a certain latitude prior to a specified date.

Nothing here should be construed to suggest buying a boat that is anything less than uncompromisingly seaworthy. A good cruising boat will also be comfortable, but that does not mean complicated. The simpler the systems aboard, the better suited the boat will be for cruising. In the most desirable places to cruise, competent technical assistance is scarce and expensive. Even if you can handle the repairs yourself, breakdowns are still a distraction. You are enriched on a cruise not just by what you gain but, paradoxically, by what you leave behind. Travel light.

Luxury, real luxury, is spending an entire day reading a good book, or enjoying the companionship of someone you love, or marveling underwater at the colors of tropical fish. And knowing you can do the same tomorrow if you want to. And the day after. Neither perfect joinery nor five extra feet of length have much to do with this—unless they prevent you from going.

I identify a cruising boat not by her D/L ratio, her centerline sink, or her inner stay, but by the white gash she cuts in a blue ocean, the spread of shade cast by the harbor awning, the mingled ring of laughter and smell of bread drifting downwind. I can't tell you her length or beam or sail area, but I know she is big enough to carry food and water and dry clothes; a small library and big anchors; and the dreams of her crew.

The best cruising boat of 1999? That's easy. It's the one that takes you cruising in 1999.

Don Casey is offline  
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