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Simple Big Yacht...Is That An Oxymoron?

Many people feel that increasing the size of a trawler equates to increased complexity, greater expense, and a much higher level of maintenance. A smaller boat is always simpler, easier to manage, and a relative joy to maintain.

But is that always true? And if it's true, is it an absolute?

Look at two trawlers of different lengths and displacements. There isn't much doubt that the larger of the two boats will likely have physically larger machinery, which may be initially more expensive, and it's a fact that spare parts are going to be more costly.

But is larger machinery more complicated, require more maintenance, and more prone to failure? I'm not convinced.

Defining The Playing Field

What exactly do I mean by a big boat? As far as I am concerned, "big" is a state of mind, and one that is different for each of us.

The Jones cruised for years on an Albin 25, and now find their new Willard 30 a much larger vessel...a big boat indeed.

When the Smiths finally retire and buy a Fleming 55, they will remember their Mainship 34 Nantucket as being far less of a proposition in every respect.

Let's also not forget the Spencers, trading down from a 120-foot Burger to a 56-foot custom passagemaking trawler (to rid themselves of professional crew and get back to hands-on family cruising).

And of course our friends with the Boston Whaler, to whom even a 27-footer is an awesome step up.

As you can see, it's simply a matter of perspective, but one which isn't easily reduced to a simple black and white flip chart. And there is emotional elements as well. Two hulls, one large and one small, may represent different purposes...and dreams.

The smaller vessel might be thought of as a great seasonal cruiser, a stepping stone, a weekender, or perhaps a liveaboard cruiser for owners on a tight budget, a family not looking to make tracks towards the horizon.

The larger vessel might be the "ultimate boat" for its owners, representing years of experience and planning. A vessel that fuels dreams of adventure and excitement in hearts and minds.

Or the big boat might merely be a result of last year's earnings, a reward for a job well done. Or the logical next rung on the ladder of boat-buying ownership.

So keep in mind that size is a relative thing. The following comments hold true for that Willard 30, luxury motorboat, or one-off bluewater ocean motorboat. Or the trawler you may be considering as your next big boat.

A Matter Of Choice

I presented the "simple big boat" question to some people around the trawler community. Folks whose opinions are worth listening to.

Personally, I find it a Zen-like exercise in strength and determination to sustain a "keep it simple" policy on a boat, no matter what the size. (I break out in hives whenever I go aboard an electronics and systems-laden trawler that is clearly beyond the skill level of mere mortal trawler owners.)

For some owners it's all part of the program, according to Independence Cherubini's Geoffrey White.

"Big boats have become complicated because of the nature of today's buyer, who can afford such a yacht," Geoffrey told me. It is a matter of choice.

"I find our customers to be in their late 50s to late 60s for the most part, retired from successful careers in the corporate world, or as professionals. Their children are grown and on their own. The buyers own two homes and are likely selling one to be replaced by the yacht.

"Almost universally, these are people who have been there, done it, earned it the hard way, and now want to spend it on what they believe to be quality as well as lifestyle.

"In this case, the 'big boat' becomes complicated by their choice to have it finished in a certain manner. By this I don't mean foolishly-equipped with wasteful spending, but sensible equipment that adds reasonable value to their lives as well as the yacht.

"Years ago, when I owned Hans Christian, I would occasionally meet the ultimate purist sailboat buyer who wanted a stripped-down HC33T 33-foot sailboat with no equipment on board at all-because that was considered real seamanship-and, of course, it was good for Joshua Slocum. You know the guy I mean, the one who always wears a Greek sailor cap.

"That buyer has long since gone, replaced by today's more realistic, pragmatic buyer. Had this Slocum fan survived, he might still be a candidate for a stripped-out 'big boat,' but I doubt it. I just don't think the customer demand is there for the bare boat lifestyle.

"Simply put, today's trawler owners don't want a bare bones boat, and the very nature of a big boat, and how it will be used, demands a 'proper yacht' inventory of extras."

Geoffrey hits on a very good point. Today, more people want a boat with lots of amenities, choosing comfort despite the additional maintenance. They believe it's okay to be comfortable and enjoy modern convenience, even though it may make for more complexity aboard the trawler yacht.

But it is their choice, not a requirement of the boat. People are not looking to drop out, just go cruising, while still staying involved with the rest of their lives.

This is today's trawler owner.

A Matter Of Comfort?

Naval architect Pat Bray also sees the direct link between luxury lifestyle and complexity:

"Big boat or small boat requires the same basic systems to operate effectively as a passagemaker. From there, all the extras become choices between convenience and reliability. What are the necessities, and what are the luxuries?

"Generally, I have found that if you can afford the larger, more expensive boat, than you already have the lifestyle that goes with it. Hence, you have more toys on board and more complicated systems to support those toys.

"Once you strip away the need for air conditioning and electric heads (both large drains on the electrical system), sophisticated davits and retracting stairways, and state-of-theart electronic computer charting, you have a fairly simple yacht.

"I'm not encouraging oil lanterns, but rather pointing out that conscientious use of electrical power will simplify any boat. Auxiliaries and generating systems add complexity. Managing electrical system and hydraulic systems can consume large amounts of time.

"If you want a simple boat you will have to live a simple life. But a simple life will cost you less, and you will have more time to enjoy it."

A Simple Life On A Big Boat

Jay Benford of Benford Design Group is a real-life supporter of living a simpler life. His comments speak from first-hand knowledge.

"I've been living on a 'simple big boat' for the last four years. In part, this is an economically-driven choice, based on what boat we could afford, and in part because it's right in line with the philosophy of the designs we do.

"It's a great way to live, and we have plenty of room for a family of four, plus one shaggy dog, to spread out.

"For the last decade, we've been designing simple big boats that are ideal for living aboard. They don't have spaces that are cramped, with narrow passageways and doorways. Instead, their spaces are more like what one expects in a house. The beds are standard-sized mattresses and we buy off-the-shelf sheets for them.

"Our galley systems use household appliances, with service readily available from Sears or other common source. The refrigerator and freezer units work very well, at a fraction of what cold-plate systems cost. True, they are not squeezing the last bit of efficiency out of the power consumed, but the difference in their lower price will buy energy for a very long time.

"Even on deck, we use gear more common on smaller sailboats. Our boat has a manual windlass, and, yes, we sometimes have to power up to the anchor if the weather pipes up, but we always have the power on tap, and I get exercise in the bargain."

Benford refers to his popular large coastal liveaboard boats rather than vessels heading offshore to go around the world. It makes a difference...or does it?

Heading Offshore?

"If you plan to run a cruising boat far offshore, then your boat darn well ought to be simple," naval architect Chuck Neville told me in a recent conversation of the simple big boat paradox.

"There are complications to this, however. All of the bigger offshore cruising boats are (in real dollar terms) very expensive. In addition, many owners, and potential owners, have the financial wherewithal to buy all the toys.

"My suggestion is: Don't.

"If you are heading offshore, the required boat systems (the ones that make the boat function as a boat and insure safe passage) should not be any more complicated than your ability to fix them. Stated in another way: consider any system that you cannot repair under way to be totally expendable. Don't risk your life on any systems that you cannot 'think your way through,' fix if necessary, or circumvent when required.

"Part of cruising about unassisted is problem solving. If you are buying a production boat or commissioning the design of a custom one, try not to buy into problems that are beyond your own ability. The best engineering solutions are ALWAYS the ones that are simplest. "Also, appreciate that what is appropriate for one owner may not be appropriate for another. Don't consider this a competition. One owner may be able to handle a manifold with fifteen valves, while for another the equation 'tank plus one valve' may be the best solution.

"Avoid the tendency to make things foolproof. Doing so may be nice in theory but leads to the trap of making things irreparable in a hurry, and possibly disastrous in an emergency.

"Any system that is too complicated for the owner to understand or override must be considered expendable. Remember, the primary function of the vessel is to move you and yours in a designated direction, providing water and other sustenance and a degree of comfort while you and the vessel seek safe haven.

"That is the essential part. All of the other is simply the fluff on top."

Go For The Gold

How do you ensure that the equipment on board will be up to the task? Naval architect Steve Seaton's opinions mirror those of his peers, but address this issue square on.

"Go for quality. If it is too much money for now, then don't buy it. Above all else, do not buy a lesser-quality piece of gear just to have it. Design a space for the best you can find, and plan to install it at a later date, even if it is years in the future.

"Bad planning is a major source of making a vessel complicated. A full design package is most important. That may sound self-serving as a designer, but too many times I've seen things get complicated because there were no drawings available to the builder.

"Buy commercial gear at all costs. Most yacht gear is too complicated. Commercial operators have to make money with their boats, so the fluff and looks suffer. To my mind, this is an advantage.

"Keep systems simple, even they become a bit more complicated to use. The type of clients who builds my type of vessel have the smarts to use these systems.

"Oversize all equipment if you can, and run at something less than full speed.

"Build a big engine room where it will be easy to maintain things, and don't fill it so that it is difficult to work in.

"To keep something really simple, just don't buy it!"

Steve Seaton was enthusiastic about another point: How to determine what stays and what goes.

"People should follow the 10% Rule: If it isn't used 90 percent of the time, it stays off the boat. And don't try to keep up with the Jones. Look at your own needs and find good, simple solutions.

"After all, you don't really need roll-up windows in a boat. Don't approach a trawler like a car.

"I've also found that the amount of stuff on board is inversely proportional to the amount of experience at sea."

Marine electronics expert and experienced ocean cruiser Chuck Worst concurs with Seaton, and adds his own pearls of wisdom.

"The more time you spend at sea, the more you appreciate simplicity.

"In the philosophy of recreational boating, the word 'need' really doesn't fit into the discussion. Replace the word 'need' with 'want.' We're talking about pleasure boats, not workboats.

"Weather is everything. Boats are called pleasure boats for a reason. Don't go out in bad conditions.

"Simplicity is certainly a factor coupled with the physical size of the boat-the length of the boat, how many cabins it has, and the intended use of the boat. There is no question that the bigger the boat, the more complex it virtually has to be, with more creature comforts.

"If I needed heat on my boat, I'd keep it simple. I would go with a diesel-fired furnace, such as a Webasto hot water circulating system. And I would also have electrical heat onboard as well for when I'm at the dock. That's the way I would do it for heating my boat.

"To me, that's very, very simple."

The choice of comfort over absolute simplicity got a chuckle out of Steve Seaton during the same discussion with Chuck Worst.

"How do you tell a guy with a brand new Grand Banks 49," Steve pondered, "that he can't have air conditioning because we're trying to keep it simple?"

Good point, and reaffirms Geoffrey White's earlier comments that it is all about lifestyle and comfort. And choice.

Tempered With Experience At Sea

Trawler Corporation's Peter Sever recalls an experience at sea that set the stage for his later thinking.

"When I was thirty years old, I worked on a tramp steamer across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship was 300 feet long, owned by Germans, with German officers, Yugoslav crew, and under Liberian flag.

"It was the picture of simplicity and got us safely through a Force 9 storm off Newfoundland in March.

"The hold was a giant, empty pit into which they dumped a lot of Idaho potatoes and took them to Portugal. No fancy hatches over the hold-just big steel plates and a large crane on deck to open and close them.

"One big mother engine, one big mother screw, one big mother genset, and one big mother Yugoslav mechanic to keep it all lubed. He had a gopher who wiped oil drips all day long. I think the ship had a bilge pump.

"The cabins had the luxury of a light bulb on the ceiling and one by the bed, plus a wallmounted fan. Trust me, the heads were also a picture of simplicity.

"The wheelhouse had all the stuff of course, but the ship being German, I can assure you that there wasn't one thing more than necessary to run a tight ship.

"This ship ran all year long. When I signed on, it had just come nonstop from Nigeria, spent a week in Maine to load up cargo, then off again. No one babied the 20-year old ship, it just ran and ran-because it was dead simple and very strong.

"So what's so complex about big boats? The owner is what's complex. Before he is done adding all the toys, creature comforts and other stuff, he needs a bigger boat."

Making The Case For Simple

Yacht designer George Buehler is a vocal exponent for keeping thing simple. One design study he showed me a couple years back was for a long (LOA 102'), slim (beam 17') world cruising passagemaker. She was designed to be a comfortable and safe passagemaker-for two people.

The boat featured large, open cabins for privacy and space, yet the hull looked able to run comfortably across any ocean (for almost 10,000 nm) with 5,000 gallons of fuel, using just 100 horsepower. It was definitely planned as a simple big boat.

Interestingly, while he has long been a champion of reliability and simplicity, Buehler's work is often wrongfully considered as going "on the cheap." This misperception seems to track well with what we've been hearing from others-mainly that experienced buyers, who have the budget for a big boat, simply want more luxury on their boat than is strictly required for safe passage. They don't want to go without.

It's Up To You

As you can see, the decision about whether a big boat will be simple relates to the personal choices of the owners.

Naval architect Lou Codega summed up the subject for us.

"First, owners have to be their own advocates in the 'keep it simple' struggle, if there is to be one. As I see it, if clients want to travel with all the luxuries of home, they have to deal with the complexity of the required infrastructure.

"And luxury is what all of the boatbuilders and designers must sell to be competitive in the market place, as none of us are in the habit of telling paying customers that they can't have what they want.

"Owners need to make their desire known up front and choose a designer and builder who is willing to work with them to this end, as simplification is, in fact, hard work. (We have to differentiate between simplification and leaving something out. Simplification, to my mind, means finding alternative ways to perform most functions, with the understanding that a few will be left behind.) Owners must be willing to pay for the effort required to work simplification and accessibility into the boat.

"Further, they must be willing to make the decision to do without something that is not worth the complexity (by the owners' definition) of bringing it along. Clearly, resolve and consistency are called for."

Codega couldn't help but also interject a personal pet peeve about cruising boats.

"Second point, unrelated, but I can't pass on the opportunity to rant: I am appalled by the lack of competent bilge and fire fighting systems on boats capable of sustained cruising. Small, electric bilge pumps are bad jokes when used in spaces as large as those on the boats we're talking about.

"Even the few boats that can use engine raw water pumps for bilge purposes do not have any way of pumping water from any other than the engine compartment.

"Fire fighting systems are worse: typically fire retardant gas inundating the engine room (with one shot only) and a few handheld units scattered around.

"I've done similarly-sized patrol boats that have all had, not surprisingly, good and relatively simple bilge and fire systems. One or two seriously-sized electric pumps, maybe an enginedriven backup, PVC pipe, and bilge suctions and valves located throughout the boat. To my mind, well worth the complication."

Been There And Know What It's Like

Bruce Kessler, who circumnavigated the world aboard a big boat (the 70' Delta trawler Zopilote) with his wife Joan, wants luxury but advocates a keep it simple philosophy.

In their travels in the South Pacific, the Kesslers' enjoyed the comfort of an air conditioned yacht, despite the added complexity. Yet Bruce feels strongly about the choice and alternatives.

"If you have a choice between installing a simple head, such as a jet head, or a more complicated, sophisticated one such as a vacuum flush type, opt for simplicity. The fewer moving parts, the less there is to break.

"Do I need it? Do I need stabilizers, thrusters, watermakers, air conditioning, and all the other systems? If you're out in the open ocean and you want to get some sleep when you're in the trough, by all means have stabilizers, particularly on full displacement passagemakers. The best tip I can give you about stabilizers is to stick with the most proven and oldest established brand. This rule can apply to many different types of gear.

"Thrusters can get you out of many a sticky situation when the wind and current are doing funny things, particularly if your boat is single screw. If equipment like thrusters and stabilizers fail, you don't have to fix them at sea. You can manage without them. Wait until you're in port and call the man.

"For passagemaking, you will need a watermaker. If you go to Djibouti or even Miami, you'll need air conditioning. Whether you embrace this kind of gear is strictly a matter of necessity, budget, and will power.

"So, to answer the basic question, the 'simple big boat' isn't necessarily an oxymoron. If your needs are simple, you could have a 60-footer that has little more equipment and systems than a well-equipped 35-foot trawler. But if you're taking your boat to sea for long passages, 'oxymoronicness' does begin to rear its ugly head.

"Still, if you keep your wits about you, you can operate safely without adding crew quarters and a full-time engineer, who will drink all your scotch and eat all your peanut butter."

So Where Does That Leave Us?

I think it's clear that a boat does not become more complex as it gets larger all by itself. Owners make decisions in the fitting out process that affect the boat and its systems.

Unlike a small trawler, a big boat give you a lot more options. Small boats remain small whether they are fully-equipped or outfitted au naturel. That's not so with a larger vessel.

Yes, it is possible to have a simple big boat. Basic operating and safety gear are much the same as the small boat, and the benefit of the larger boat is that it has more space throughout, a larger engine room to ease maintenance chores, and loads of room for you and your crew...and a good supply of books. (You left the stereo, satellite television, VCR library, and Jacuzzi on the dock, didn't you?)

A big, simple trawler can be proof that you have more by choosing less. Without the complexity and interior volume consumed by a lot of nice-to-have-but-not-essential equipment, a larger vessel can be the ultimate dream machine. Take an "if in doubt, leave it out" attitude, and you'll be rewarded with simplicity.

But the flipside is equally valid, as long as you know what you're doing and accept responsibility for your decisions. A big boat allows true luxury and comfort afloat, and no one need make any excuses whatsoever for fully living the trawler lifestyle. After all, if you worked hard to get to this point in life, why not enjoy it? For some people, having all that stuff is an important element of boating's joy.

As one example of this choice, Steve Seaton suggested that large awnings over the fore and aft decks might keep crew comfortable when at anchor. They might even be an acceptable alternative to air conditioning in some cruising areas, eliminating plumbing, burdensome 110VAC or 220VAC electrical demands, and separate registers wired in each cabin.

But most of today's big boat buyers will still opt for air conditioning and other comforts in their boat. Either way is fine, but understand that it is entirely your choice.

Personally, I like the idea of a simple big boat, without all the frills. I'm not yet sure where to draw the line in this discussion, but I've been down the complex-boat road before and know how much fun it can be to tinker and maintain all those systems. Actually, I like being a mechanic, plumber, electrician, and troubleshooter.

But today, I find simple is more in harmony with the pace of life I want now-one reason I love trawlers so much. I understand that it's okay to be comfortable, but maybe my requirements for comfort have changed. I'm not talking kerosene lantern-simple, but just that my acceptance of "essential" systems requires more introspection these days.

You must choose your own path.

Next time you raft up to a Grand Banks 49, and learn that the owner has no air conditioning, and prefers his gin and tonic without ice, know that you may be looking at a modern day, but rare, breed-maybe even old Joshua himself.

Except this time around, he doesn't live in foul weather gear.