"Easy does it." That's a mantra most current and would-be trawler owners would do well to keep in mind.
We asked a dozen owners what they saw as the elements of an ideal trawler. These are people with different boats and different cruising lifestyles, so from that limited perspective readers might be surprised at the consistency of their responses.
Nearly everyone seemed to be saying "easy does it." Ease of access, ease of maintenance and comfort were right up there with seaworthiness. Asked why they rejected the boats they did not buy, several came back with a variation on the same theme: too much work to refurbish.
The lesson to anyone wishing to sell a trawler should be clear. Much of your market does not want to spend the time and effort catching up on your deferred maintenance. For the most part they are couples, retired or about to be, with an acute sense that the clock is ticking. Conventional wisdom describes the trawler demographic as nearly identical to the cruising sailboat crowd, just a little older and a tad more affluent. We used to joke that the difference between cruisers under sail and those under power was "second marriage, first major medical procedure."
While researching this article, it happened that a Marine Trawler Owners Association group was enjoying a cruise up the St. Johns River near my home in Florida, so I inveigled an invitation to one of their dockside happy hours. Seven (of an estimated 1,000 association trawlers) were lined up at the Outback Crabshack docks on Six Mile Creek. The fall weather was splendid, and everyone was in a good mood. I arranged interviews with the owners later because cocktails and a serious exchange of information often do not mix well.
One association owner who chose not to comment for the record seemed less happy than the rest. He had purchased a fixer-upper and complained more than once of having been overwhelmed by the work and expense of bringing his boat up to snuff. In hindsight, the bargain he thought he was getting had been no such thing. A third of the owners interviewed for this article - some from the association, some not - say they rejected boats because they were poorly maintained by the previous owner or were otherwise devalued.
"Most top-brand trawler yachts are reasonably well engineered at the time they are delivered to their new owners, but the older a boat is, the greater the chances that systems have been added, modified or compromised," says Milt Baker, who cruises six months of the year aboard his Nordhavn 47, Bluewater. "Often additions and repairs are done with no regard for the impact on other yacht systems. Buyer beware." (Baker had a lot more to say, and you can read his essay on the elements of a good trawler in this package.)
Many couples, having been sailors once, have come to the trawler market with a different dynamic. The wives were determined not to be fooled again. To be sure, wives play a part in any boat purchase, but when you listen to the voices at an owners association or Trawler Fest event you will better appreciate the high level of female engagement in what once was largely a male undertaking.
It would be easy to assign the emphasis on comfort in our group's responses entirely to the influence of wives, had not several of their husbands also stressed the importance of easy access to engines and systems. What is that, if not wishing to be comfortable while changing filters?
And Tom Hollinger, a retired associate professor from the University of Florida, used the word "livability" to describe the appeal of his Nordic Tug 42, which he and his wife cruise part time. "I like the idea of sailing, but as I get older I enjoy less standing out in the sun and rain day after day. The trawler is economical enough and reliable enough to let me not feel guilty about the small amount of fuel I burn," Hollinger says. "My wife likes to know she can have a nice shower without standing next to the toilet or having to leave a door open so that she can turn around. We both enjoy being able to have a cold drink and sit and read in comfort at the end of the day."
The children of most cruisers are grown and gone, but in their place are four-legged executive vice presidents in charge of security, so boatbuilders ignore the canine element at their peril. Dogs love walkaround decks and are famously bad at ladders, particularly in the going-down direction. Jeff Siegel is the man behind the Active Captain online cruising guide and cruises the East Coast with his wife, Karen, and their two big Labs. For the Siegels, a walkaround deck was not enough. Their ideal trawler had to have inside stairs to the flybridge.
What about all that seamanship and seaworthiness stuff? Most of the 12 owners genuflected to the notion of seaworthiness, but besides Baker, only Rudy Sechez and Joe Pica in our group put much emphasis on it. Sechez and Pica talked about the desirability of a hull designed for initial stability. Sechez built his 34-foot wooden "troller" himself, and Pica puts a lot of miles on his Great Harbour N37 as a full-time cruiser - more than 16,000 in three years. Again, much of what they said came back to the notion of comfort.
"To our way of thinking, a boat with a comfortable motion is important, and the boat should have scantlings that will stand up long-term to the use the boat will be put to," Sechez says. "This is something that must be established in the design phase, as it is usually not possible to alter a boat significantly enough once built, at least not inexpensively." (By scantlings, Sechez the shipwright means timbers, but the concept applies to any structural element of a vessel.)
"If the boat is to be used for offshore work, especially long-distance offshore work, it must be designed with that in mind. If it's to be used for coastal cruising, just about any design can work, though a comfortable motion may suffer," he says. "The importance of a boat inherently having a motion that is as comfortable as possible is that it can negate the need to install some form of a stabilizer system."
Pica, who cruises with his wife, Kathy, and their dog, says he would not consider a trawler "prone to pendulous rolling without active stabilization, which is not effective when at anchor. We are very pleased with the stiff self-stabilization of our hard-chine N37 hull."
Bob Kovach and his wife, Helen, both retired from electrical sales, are full-time East Coast cruisers aboard their 50-foot Marine Trader, Allez. With a saloon as homey as an English cottage, full of freestanding furniture, I pressed Kovach on his definition of seaworthy.
"Seaworthy to us was a boat that would let us leave the dock and handle wind and sea conditions with small-craft warnings," he says. "We wanted a boat that would handle some wind and sea conditions to about 35 knots and seas of 5 to 7 feet. Our high bow, heavy displacement and Portuguese bridge fit the criteria."
The Kovaches have an unusual arrangement in that Helen, with her 100-ton master's certificate from the Coast Guard, is captain of the vessel, and her husband serves as engineer. "We have no bow thrusters or stabilizers, so we watch the weather, sea conditions and wind direction closely. Helen has become very proficient using spring lines during docking maneuvers," Kovach says.
Most of what we call trawlers are used exclusively in inland waters and for short coastal passages. You see many chugging up and down the Intracoastal Waterway. During the annual winter pilgrimage to George Town in the Bahamas, however, fewer than 15 percent of the hundreds of vessels anchored in the Stocking Island, roadsted are powerboats. Go farther down island and their numbers thin out even more.
Clearly from their history and responses, that same three - Baker, Pica and Sechez - are the owners in our group most likely to venture the farthest. Baker's ambitions have taken him across the Atlantic. Each loved their comforts but also dwelled on the importance of offshore performance. For the rest, a leisurely schedule and superb modern weather forecasting will keep them safe in port - with all the comforts of home - until the squalls clear and seas subside.
Peter Swanson is the former communications director for Great Harbour trawlers and current editor-in-chief of PassageMaker. He also has done legs in the Nordhavn Around the World voyage and Nordhavn Atlantic Rally. While Peter has cruised some 20,000 nautical miles under power, his own boat is a Morgan Out Island 41 ketch.