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Choosing a Cruising Boat


Finding the right cruising boat is no easy task even if you're a lifelong sailor.
The e-mail read:
Subject: Choosing a Cruising Boat.

“Hi Sue & Larry,
We’re friends of Sue’s sister and we want to go cruising.  We’d like to get together next week if you’re still in the Florida Keys and talk to you guys about what to look for when shopping for a cruising boat.”  We responded that we’d be glad to meet with them, but then we started wondering just what specific advice we should we offer.

Larry and I have learned many things from the time we first began looking for a cruising boat.  That was eight years ago and since that time we’ve owned two cruising boats and logged thousands of miles on each.  Although we were both lifelong sailors at the time, we really had no clue what to look for specifically when we started shopping for a boat that would take us cruising.  In order to best help my sister’s friends with what we knew was a difficult decision, we brainstormed and then jotted down what would be important to us today if it was we shopping again.  

A significant thing that we’ve learned is that no single person can concretely define what constitutes a good cruising boat for someone else.  There are many different styles and sizes of boats that can adequately fit the bill.  The responsibility will lie with each future cruiser to consider certain elements that are individual to only them.  Among these is the amount of money available to spend, the anticipated cruising destinations, and the inexplicable emotional aspect of which boat style tugs at the heart strings.   

It’s Larry’s and my opinion that too many folks get caught up in preconceived notions that only certain hull designs or brands of sailboats are acceptable for cruising. Much of this myth stems from too much dock talk and not enough personal experience on the water in those different brands and designs of boats. Once you get out cruising you’ll see almost every make and model possible, and not just on protected waterways, but in many faraway bluewater destinations. 

We arranged to meet our new wannabe cruiser friends three days later at a marina in Key West to look at a boat that was for sale.  Once aboard and down the companionway, we pulled out some notes about interior living spaces.  I explained that our take on wide spacious main salons and interiors is that they seem a real attraction initially and are great for living on the hook.  They do, however, have some serious drawbacks if you ever plan to cruise long distances.  A large main salon is usually attained by manufacturers reducing the amount of cabinetry that lines the side of the hull.  This leaves room for only open narrow shelving which is of little use to a cruiser with a plethora of gear, books, and equipment to store.   


The ideal interior has cabinetry in locations to facilitate bracing when underway and provides adequate handholds so you can move about even in rough seas. 
A voluminous main cabin can also reduce the opportunity for bracing oneself when heeling, and may limit the location of handholds.  The preferred interior layout for cruising utilizes many interior cabinets and drawers, places cabinetry in locations to facilitate bracing when underway, and supplies the cruiser with adequate handholds to move around below even in sloppy sea conditions.  You may at first feel that there is less space below in a main salon with lots of cabinetry, but the added storage and enhanced safety will offer a more functional cruising boat.

After getting a feel for the space down below we all returned to the cockpit and checked out the seating for comfort and practicality of sailing the boat.  “Larry and I spend 90 percent of our waking hours in the cockpit,” I explained to our friends. In addition to comfortable seating, we’ve come to recognize the value of good protection from the elements.  A bimini and dodger is not an option, but a necessity.  Many cruisers we know take it one step further and add side curtains to protect from wind, rain, and spray.  We also think this is a good idea.  I guess the point that we were trying to make with our new friends was to spend adequate time checking out the cockpit.  Avoid boat designs with mid-cockpit travelers or other disturbances that do not allow for the use of a bimini and dodger when sailing.  Also, check whether the cockpit provides good forward visibility when seated. If you have to stand up all the time to see forward over a poorly designed dodger or cabinhouse, your turn at the helm will quickly become a chore rather than a pleasure.

Our friends asked what sort of sail plan we thought worked best for a cruising boat. Larry started chuckling as it reminded him of a poor decision we made regarding headsails on our first cruising boat. As past sailboat racers, both Larry and I naturally gravitated toward speed and performance.  We maximized the size of the headsail from its original design and lowered the headsail furling drum so that the foot of the sail would be closer to the deck.


A large headsail and a low headsail furling drum may contribute toward speed and performance but are a major hindrance to forward visibility.
Well, we were fast all right, but we created two unanticipated problems for ourselves. First, the now larger sail was very difficult to trim in all the way when the wind reached 15 knots or more, especially for me.  But worse than that, by lowering the foot of the sail to sweep the deck, we had now obstructed our forward visibility.  A higher cut tack and foot would have allowed us to sit back more comfortably in the cockpit instead of having to strain all the time to see around our humongous sail.  On our current boat Serengeti, we did not repeat this mistake.  

A good sail plan for a cruising boat is one that enables a single crew member to handle each sail in most conditions.  Roller furling on headsails does the work of three extra crew-people, and some form of shorthanded mainsail system is also beneficial.  Sloop, cutter, ketch, etc., we think are all OK for cruising as long as the above mentioned criteria is met.  If you plan to do considerable offshore sailing, a rig that provides an inner forestay, like a cutter rig, allows you to easily balance the boat in heavy winds by striking a much smaller sail on that inner stay.

One area of confusion, disagreement, and even sometimes heated debate among sailors is the optimal hull and underbody configuration for cruising.  In our opinion, there’s really no clear answer as each hull shape offers up its own set of advantages and disadvantages.  If you’re looking for spirited sailing performance and great handling under power, you simply can’t beat a fin keel with a spade rudder.  With this design though, one should be moderately concerned that an unintentional hard grounding could result in damage to the keel and particularly to the rudder due to its complete exposure. Exposed rudders and props can further be problematic in snagging lobster pots or other hazardous floating debris.  Owners of fin keeled cruising boats believe that their faster speed under sail will result in shorter and hence safer offshore passages.  There’s also a feeling that the greater speed will provide the potential to “outrun” approaching weather.  

At the other end of the spectrum is a full-keeled hull.  You’ll seldom snag a lobster or crab pot with a full keeled boat as you can usually ride right over the lines under both sail and power.  In grounding situations a full keeled sailboat will suffer the least amount of damage when compared to other designs.  When it comes to sailing performance, a full keeled boat is simply much slower than other designs.  Under power, full keeled boats turn and back up poorly.  Some full keeled boat owners we know complain about an uncomfortable wallowing motion at sea.  Many owners of full keeled boats believe that their sailboat is a safer offshore vessel due to its underbody.   

The middle ground of cruising hulls offers a combination of the two above designs.  The underbody of our current boat, Serengeti, for instance sports a cutaway forefoot yet our prop and rudder are both well protected.  We don’t snag fishing gear or floating debris with our rudder or prop.  When it comes to performance, we’re quite faster than full-keeled boats of a similar size, but we’re not as fast nor do we handle as well as a fin-keeled boat.   When choosing an underbody for cruising, it all comes down to selecting the set of compromises that you’re comfortable with yourself.  


Ultimately, only you can determine what is the perfect cruising boat that will suit your needs and your budget.
Take your time with your search for the right cruising boat.  Look at as many different kinds of boats as you can, even boats you hadn’t considered before.  Each will give you a new perspective on what is out there and what you personally can live with and without. As you visit each boat that even remotely interests you, take a whole lot of photos of the interior, the cockpit and deck layout, and the exterior lines of the boat.  If you’re like us, these will be invaluable later when you are trying to remember what each boat was really like and they’ll help you make better comparisons with other contenders.  

As we walked back down the dock with my sister’s friends, Larry and I were both fully caught up in the fun it can be to search for a boat to cruise on.  We decided to drive around together for a while and check out some other marinas for potential boats for sale.  At the end of the day we had just a few final words of advice to my sister’s friends.  When choosing the right cruising boat to fulfill your dreams, remember that you’re faced with a complex and often frustrating series of making compromises.  Compromises with what you want, with what your partner wants, with what you can afford, and finally with what is available.  Believe me, we all go through the same process, but after a while things will start to make sense and you’ll find one boat that keeps returning to your mind.  That will be the boat for you.  

 

 

 

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