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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Buying a Boat Articles
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Old 04-05-2002
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Size Matters

This article was first published in August of 2000 on SailNet.

 
If Tod and Buzz, the enduring characters from the 1960s TV drama Route 66, had gone cruising instead of highway touring, would they have taken a 50 footer or would a more spartan 30 footer have suited these two adventurers?
 
There was a time in my life when the two people I envied most were Tod Stiles and Buzz Murdoch. If those names open a creaky door in some moldering chamber of your brain, you are no doubt going to discover a smile stored there. Savor it. We’ll wait.

For the rest of you, wondering "what the hell is he talking about now?" Tod Stiles and Buzz Murdoch were fictional characters in the television series Route 66, a program that aired from 1960 through 1964. The premise was simple: privileged and sheltered Tod (Martin Milner) inherits money when his father dies, so he spends a portion of it to buy a new Corvette, picks up his street-wise buddy, Buzz (George Maharis), and the pair head out on a coast-to-coast “voyage” of discovery.

In each episode, filmed on location all over the US, the two—together or individually—became involved in the conflicts of people they encountered. For me the best moment of the show was always at the end when, with the top down and suitcases belted to the luggage rack, Tod and Buzz pulled out of a parking lot or away from a curb and headed out once again for the open road.

My best friend and I imagined ourselves as Tod and Buzz. With graduation looming on the horizon, we planned and schemed and calculated how we would pool our resources to buy a ‘vette together and embark on such a grand adventure. Even laboring under the clueless optimism of adolescence, I soon knew the Corvette would have to be sacrificed. Ron wouldn’t countenance that. He joined the Navy, got his Corvette, and found ample satisfactions in cruising around town. I eventually spent most of a year exploring America’s highways and back roads, an experience undiminished, in my mind, by the fact that my “chariot” was a well-worn Volkswagen bug.

"Some of us find boats a greater attraction than sailing. There is a joy in simply owning a boat that can't be denied."
Though we had voiced our dreams in identical terms—'buy a ‘vette and take off'—what each of us really sought was hardly related. This disparity is worth pondering.

Some of us find boats a greater attraction than sailing. There is joy in ownership. A boat can offer the substantial pleasures of tinkering with it. Maybe there is sense of pride, perhaps even boastfulness because the boat is of a certain vintage, a certain size, or a certain reputation.

If your boat brings you pleasure in these or other ways, how often you actually sail it strikes me as no one’s business but yours. However, the small number of empty slips in virtually any large marina in America on a perfect weekend sailing day suggests that relatively few owners of large sailboats have much real interest in sailing. I find that doubtful.

So what is happening here? It is tempting to ascribe the blame to the complications of life—overtime and lawn care, soccer games and visits to grandma, head colds and art festivals. Innumerable other activities do clamor for our time and attention, leaving us less of each for sailing, but don’t we all know this before we buy a sailboat? If the answer to this question is yes—and it is—then either we never expected to sail much or something else is at play.

That something else is cabin envy. The nautical equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses, cabin envy leads many sailors to buy boats too large and too complex to lend themselves to daysailing. The result is a boat that sits more than it sails, a boat that is more burden than joy. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

 
It's a beautiful day and the marina is full. This happens all over the US, but why?
 

If you have come to sailing recently and you are contemplating buying a boat, above all other selection criteria, buy something that is pure, unadulterated fun to sail. That means different things to different people, but for a first sailboat it almost certainly excludes all boats with stand-up headroom.

Look for a boat that is easy to get underway. If it is on a trailer, launching and rigging must not be an ordeal. An in-the-water boat gives you the launch and retrieve time for sailing, and if the mooring is nearby you can go sailing like you would go jogging—before or after work, for example. The more often you sail, the more you learn and the more enjoyable it becomes.

For couples, a pair of small boats can be a better choice than a larger vessel. Women tend to accept a secondary role (this is an observation, not sexism), and having their own boat avoids that risk. The result is that when you—the couple—buy your next boat, both will be equally comfortable sailing it. This is not a radical idea, as witnessed by the number of biking couples riding separate motorcycles these days.

Keeping the boat small and simple allows you to “discover” the subtle nuances of sailing. Next year you can widen your horizon with a bigger boat, but don’t be in a hurry.

Cruisers    If extended cruising is your goal, the larger the boat, the farther in the future the cruise. This is no more than an economic reality. It takes twice as long to earn the money for a $100,000 boat as for one costing $50,000, and 10 times as long if the price tag is $500,000.


Perhaps this little easy-to-launch, easy-to-sail, 20-footer is, as its name implies, the perfect boat—Just Right.

And then there is the cost of cruising. The larger the boat, the more you pay for fuel, dockage, insurance, rigging repairs, sails, haul-outs, bottom paint—virtually everything except food. These higher costs are not nominal.

And while you slave and save for that future cruise, your nearly idle bigger boat is a big-dollar depreciating asset, soaking up additional dollars for dockage, insurance, and maintenance. No wonder that the cruising dreams of most sailors founder and never get off the dock.

The best advice I can offer, which is a recurring theme of mine, is to go cruising in the smallest boat that will accommodate you, not the largest boat you can afford. Consider the following sage observation:

". . . the object of cruising is to make a complete change of surroundings . . . you should not lug along what you are trying to leave behind."

—L. Francis Herreshoff, 1940

If you are unwilling to heed this counsel, then at least delay the purchase of your behemoth until you define your departure time in months rather than years. Keep, instead, a smaller vessel, one less costly to own and maintain, and more to the point, one that is suited to the type of sailing available to you until your cruise.

I have often said that I believe something similar to the Peter Principle affects sailors. As our sailing skills improve and our imaginations expand, we move up to ever larger boats. Unfortunately we rarely see the limit in this natural progression until we have crossed it and find ourselves with a boat that is less fun to sail than the one we left behind.

 
Getting out there, not getting ready, is what sailing should be all about and statistics tell us that smaller boats are more active than their lengthier sisters.
 

This reality can be masked by our sense of pleasure at the new boat’s relative luxury, but soon enough, days on the water begin to decline. “No time,” we lament, and maybe we even believe that, but the truth is that sailing this boat simply requires too much effort. The usual outcome is that the boat sits mostly idle for a few years while her owner becomes increasingly aware of the expense. Eventually the boat is sold, and one more ex-sailor tells his friends the old “two happiest days” bromide. Too bad.

What sailing needs is an amnesty. For 12 months, every sailor could step back into a smaller boat with no stigma attached. Without that, you have to go against the current to make your next boat smaller. But you will sail more often, spend less money, and wonder why you didn’t do this long ago.

There is an inverse correlation between the size of a sailboat and how often it leaves the dock. If you are sailing less than you once did, maybe the size of your boat is at fault.



Suggested Reading:

The Right Boat by Don Casey

The Pros and Cons of Smaller and Lighter by John Kretschmer

You've Bought the Wrong Boat by John Kretschmer

SailNet Store Section: Steering Pedestals and Accessories

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