If you’ve ever tried to decide which is the best cruising boat to set off on that perfect round the world decade long voyage then surely you’ve found there is no right answer. At best every article, or book settles eventually on ‘it is a compromise, choose what works for you’. Well, this is a little different, I’m going to draw on my experience of well over 100k sailing miles, and having sailed plethora of different boats to conclude, or at least narrow what I think is the best cruising boat for the open ended voyage to destinations unknown.
Firstly, consider where do you want to cruise? And where might you likely end up? For example, any cruising on the Caribbean, then to the Med, may well involve spending a season in the Bahamas, if you are from the East Coast, the Bahamas is likely going to be where you cut your teeth as a cruiser, as thousands have before you. It is a great cruising ground for learning, off the grid enough to find remote places, yet close to support if you need to. If you hope to enjoy the Bahamas and not just pass through it, then an important consideration is draft.
Draft: I feel that a boat for flexible cruising must have a draft of 6 feet or less. If your draft is 6 foot, then in 7 foot of water, you’re hardly going to sailing at speed or motoring full power. However, with 2 feet of clearance, why not? Some of the most pleasant sailing is in smooth shallow water.
Should you find yourself in the tropics during hurricane season, the safest place to be is up some mangrove area, as shallow as possible, and tied to the trees, a shallower draft is going to help you, and may make the difference between surviving the storm or not. For example, Paraquita Bay, a well known hurricane hole has an extremely thin entrance in the BVI, has an entrance with depths quoted about 4.5 feet. (It did suffer a direct hit in IRMA, but is generally very well protected.) Or, in the ‘Out Islands’ up the river by Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island (and save a few hundred bucks in dock fees also!).
What about arriving at an anchorage and finding it is quite full? A shallow draft will help you squeeze into a place near the shore, or as I’ve done several times, motor into the anchorage slowly and just 150′ from shore, lower anchor and chain, then about a boat length and half from shore I put the helm to port, and put engine in reverse, the boat ends up stern to the shore and pulling on the anchor chain that is a hundred feet outward from the shore (L.H. prop). Then, after adding a shore line I am tied up tight for the night, and not in anyone’s way.
With regard to the Bahamas, I’ve cruised around the Exumas and Out Islands, to Turks and Caicos and back to Ft. Lauderdale, and I found an excellent book about navigating your way around and managing the shallow areas is by Bruce van Sant. Complete with harbour sketches and good advice managing weather, tides, and currents.The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward
It isn’t just abroad that a shallow draft is useful. Close to Toronto, I’ve had most of an entire cove to myself on long weekends, because the depth is 5 foot, and no problem for my 4.5 ft draft. You’ll also find that a few places in Ontario, such as Pickering French Man’s Bay are notorious for shallow patches, a poorly dredged harbour entrance, and a Yacht Club that has trapped boats for weeks or months on end when the water is down just a few inches. So, a shallow draft boat may just let you be able to actually use it.
Our Doxy has a draft of 4’6″. What would I gain by a deeper draft, or any vessel for that matter? Well, the answer is less leeway, and therefore better windward ability. However, the rest of the boat isn’t designed with that in mind.
Windward ability: There is no doubt that going windward is marketed as what makes a boat the ‘best boat’. It is undoubtedly what wins races as well. But is that what we want in a cruising boat? I’ve done numerous passages from the East Coast to the Caribbean, and I can say, very readily, I would not undertake that trip as part of a cruising voyage. Going upwind, my toerail in the water, 10 days on port tack, the toilet seat breaking off, no one can walk safe in side the boat, we need to heave-to just for cooking and eating a decent meal, bounding up and down ocean swell making precious progress windward…Nope, a cruising boat should head to Bermuda, take a break, then head almost due South to the BVI, so when she enters the trades the wind is on the beam or just a bit forward. 60 degrees to the wind is as close as one should desire to travel when cruising, and falling off to 65 or 70 is even better, downwind is best. I didn’t even mention sleeping on the sole because life in the forcabin is untenable, and that beautiful island Queen berth in the centre of the aft cabin, forget about it.
Some one will always say, “What about the ‘Lee Shore’ argument”, which is where the wind is strong and pushing a vessel towards a certain rocky demise, well if a boat can sail 60 degrees off the wind, it can sail off a lee shore. And most traditional boats, shallow draft, or multiple masts can sail 60 degrees of the wind quite well, and quite easily. Where, your fin keel, deeper draft and tall sloop with multitude of controls doesn’t actually sail the 45 degrees unless it is skilfully handled. The adage ‘Gentlemen don’t sail to windward’ exists, because it is a truth.
Before someone reminds me of Challenge 67′, I’ll remind them we are talking about family or shorthanded cruising boats – not professionally handled fully crewed vessels. I did a February ‘cruise’ of the Channel Islands in a BT Challenge vessel, and if I recall correctly it took 5 people to tack, and 6 to gybe.
So, when one touts that a boat is the perfect cruising boat because it gets 45 true or 30 apparent, I have to wonder what compromises are made elsewhere for that advantage. Can it sail that with a full load? A few boats really are good cruisers, and sail like a performance race boat, for 900,000 Euros you can get a decent Amel 50, but we’re talking affordable cruising boats for the rest of us. The Amel 50 is a fin keel boat with twin rudders and a pile of electronics, and besides, it was designed by Ikea or maybe was – decide for yourself.
One of the major compromises in recent designed sailboats is weight carrying ability. A family of 4, or two couples taking a long cruise will need to be conscious of certain realities. When you read a performance review in a sail magazine, or do a test sail at a boat show the boat is not weighed down, yet it looks to be on her lines. Once you add cruising gear, a few hundred of oversized chain, extra anchor, probably a spare chain in the bilge, enough spare parts to almost have a spare engine, a dinghy, davits, solar, etc…probably a second dinghy (I have a hard sailing pram on the davits, and a small inflatable packed under a berth) the boat will be very weighed down, I almost forgot about a bicycle or two. The boat you pick should designed for that weight, and generally any boat model in a charter fleet, was not made to carry that extra weight and perform as advertised. The buyer will be a tad disappointed when their wide transomed Beneteau isn’t cutting the 40 degrees to wind and easily reaching 8 knots after they’ve added several thousand pounds or even kilos of gear. Make no mistake, a good off-grid cruising boat is essentially a small cargo boat under sail. Notable exceptions, are some older yachts that were actually designed specifically for chartering such as the CSY 44 and Morgan 41, yet work well for cruising.
As I just stated, it is a sail boat. But what rig should you choose for your ideal boat? A tall go-fast marconi mast meant for going up wind, or an exotic oriental looking junk rig? I will say, if you want access to the full ICW then you need an air draft less than 56 feet. Air Draft?! What? That’s the height from the water to the top of the mast. 56ft is the height of a particular bridge in Miami area, the rest are supposed to be 65ft clearance. Be aware of high water caused by tides, winds, barometric pressure extremes.
The CSY44, I mentioned has a solid single spreader mast, with stainless steel rigging, and a sensible upgrade might be to make all wires the same size, and carry two rolls equal to the longest length with a few end fittings that don’t need special tools. I would rule out any rig that is complicated, has more parts than necessary, so no swept back spreaders for me (except on a mizzen), and no double or triple spreader rigs. Upsizing a few of the wires does add weight, but your stores in the hull will counter that.
Many ‘traditional’ boats use galvanized wire, which is common and cheap but prone to rusting if not treated. I use galvanized wire, I can change all the wire in my rig, for the cost of one stainless steel wire on a fancier boat. Which is important, when you consider it is recommended to change a stainless steel rig every 10 years.
Some of the above statements lean towards having shorter masts, but how to accommodate the loss of sail area? Simple, have two masts, or extra headsails. Ketches are extremely popular, or cutters with two headsails. Less popular are schooners, though I feel there are merits that make a schooner a good choice, or I wouldn’t own one. Another way to get more sail area, is to have a gaff rigged vessel. And for the record, I do feel gaff rigs are quite ideal and satisfy many needs of a cruising vessel.
What about the cost of cruising? Kitting out a boat can be very expensive if you want every gadget that the boat show boats have. There is always room to analyze and choose where money needs to go. For example, do you choose to have on demand hot water and what is the energy requirement for that to happen? Or, can I save that thousand dollars and have food for a few months and just heat up water when I need to on the stove? OR, is my boat so large that I need an electric windlass.Five Oceans Pacific 1500 Vertical Anchor Windlass 1500W/2640 lbs – 3/8″ HT-G4 Chain & 5/8″ Rope FO-3444
This windlass has all the specs for up to about a 40 ft boat, but it considerable more affordable than a Harken, or Maxwell. You get what you pay for is all I’ll say. So, if I have that windlass, what do I need in batteries and wires and spare bits and bobs to keep it working always? And then, how much money does that cost and how long can I feed myself instead?
For the record, I don’t have an electric windlass. Doxy uses a Lunenberg #2 manual windlass which is incredible strong and I have two halyards, a 3:1 and a 2:1 which I can use to lift also. Btw: Plenty of boats have a spare halyard in front of the mast and it doesn’t take too much effort to make it a long block and tackle for lifting.
On a previous boat, I installed a 24 volt, Lofrans windlass that used 1/2 chain. Basically a small fortune so I could raise and lower the 110lb Bruce anchor. I did hope it never broke, in case I couldn’t afford the repair! My last boat, 30′, had no windlass but I only used 50′ of light chain, then 1/2″ line.
Here is a manual windlass I’ve seen on boats up to 35′. Not bad for a one off investment, and never needing to deal with batteries or chargers just for the windlass.Osculati ITALWINCH Anchor Manual Windlass Gypsy 8 mm Working Load 300 kg
Well, if you’ve read this far, thank you. This article turned into a bit of a rant and I feel it is time to cut it short. I was answering a friend why I like the boat I have over other ones I’ve sailed and what makes it better for me, so I thought I’d share a few of the points that came up. I’ll probably break this up into some shorter pieces and expand a little with photos and some better illustration of my points, beyond ‘because I say so’.
And of course…not every boat will tick every box, and some of those boxes will be contradictory, thus every boat is a compromise and each will suit each person differently.