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Old 05-29-2001
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Don Casey is on a distinguished road
The Right Boat

This article was originally published on SailNet in late 1999.

The bigger they get, the harder it is to keep the costs of sailing under control, to say nothing of tight-quarter maneuvering and taming the increased loads larger sail plans bring.
Ever wondered just how to put a lid on the costs of sailing? I muse about that all the time. Despite a predominant impression to the contrary, the joys of sailing are not derived from how much money one spends, but more so from how much time one spends on board. 

When I was in business school—in another life—one of my courses included a case study about Dole Foods starting a new pineapple plantation on a small Pacific island. Funny how I paid attention to this particular case. Anyway, Dole hired virtually all of the indigenous population, and the project was off to a good start. But then came the first payday, and after that, not a single native could be coaxed back to the plantation.

What happened? On this remote island, luxuries were defined by what the one small store had to sell: mirrors, printed fabric, wooden chairs. With two-weeks' wages, the natives were able to buy all the luxury items they had ever imagined owning. As their lives could no longer be improved with more pay, they saw no reason to continue working.

Smaller boats demand a heightened awareness of the surroundings, and arguably produce more attuned sailors.
There is a lesson for sailors in this tale. The essence of sailing is that moment when all distracting thoughts are lost in a straight wake, when rudder movement is directed by the inner ear, when sail and heart swell in concert. To experience this magic you need only a slippery hull and a decent sail.

Yet the unavoidable impression one gets from most of the articles and all of the advertisements found in boating publications is that to extract the most enjoyment from your time on the water, you need a bigger boat, a feathering propeller, or the latest electronic wizardry. Ironically, the fun of sailing can be masked or even lost altogether in the pursuit of these items, or in the discontent their absence evokes.

Nowhere is the risk of losing perspective greater than with boat selection. In America we tend to think bigger is better—bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger hamburgers. But here is a question to ask yourself: As sailboats get larger, are they more fun or less fun to sail?

The truth is that getting a big, complicated boat underway and putting it to bed again at the end of the day is such an effort that outings become scheduled events. When you have a modest, simple boat, you can sail at the drop of a hat, no small advantage for a pastime entirely dependent on the vagaries of wind.

Small boats enjoy other advantages that are largely unheralded in the mainstream sailing press. Smaller sails and lower stresses make smaller boats easier to sail and arguably safer for a small crew. The consequences of a gaffe in judgment or plain bad luck-grounding or collision, for example, and are nearly always less serious, recovery easier. Small boats are handy, tacking easily through narrow waters. They can also traverse thin water. In fact, given seaworthiness, a small boat can take you everywhere its larger sibling can go and lots of places beyond the big boat's reach.

Choosing to buy a smaller boat will mean easier maintenance, faster turn-around times between haulouts, and more time  spent out on the water.
Small boats are also more economical to own, operate and maintain. With other activities competing for leisure time, smaller investment means smaller boats sit idle much more comfortably. In the long run this has an enormous impact on sailing enjoyment.

Do not misunderstand; I'm not bashing big boats here. I just happen to believe that a dynamic similar to the Peter Principle (employees rise to their level of incompetence) is afoot in the sailing community, compelling sailors to buy ever larger boats until ownership is onerous and/or sailing is no longer fun.

How do you guard against this? I don't know. If there had been a WalMart on Dole's Pacific island, I have little doubt that most of the natives there would still be working today. Most, but not all.

The ploy I favor is to own a boat substantially smaller than what you can afford. It is almost certain to be more fun to sail, and the money you save allows you to equip it as lavishly as you can imagine—without a long-term commitment to the plantation.

The real pleasures of sailing are, after all, never encountered ashore. Between time and money spent on your boat, time always gives the greater return.

Suggested Reading:

How We Define Seaworthy by Don Casey

Rebuilding a Damaged Boat  by Don Casey

You've Bought the Wrong Boat by John Kretschmer

Buying Guide: Anchor Rollers and Mounts

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