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There is No One Perfect Cruising Boat

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My family has been living aboard and cruising full time since 1979, averaging several thousand miles each year. Our cruising and lives have been enriched by people (and their boats) we’ve gotten to know. It’s always great to see someone else join the community, and sad to see people drop out and go back to the unreal world—ashore.

We’ve noticed that one of the most common causes for dissatisfaction and even cessation of the cruising dream is that a couple finds they have invested funds and time in a boat that is ill-suited to their needs. Careful selection of a cruising boat is critically important to the success of what well could be the best part of one’s life. The following suggestions are based on our observations, but also include comments of hundreds of cruising people with whom we’ve talked, and whose boats we’ve visited.

Before searching for a boat, decide who you’re buying it for, and the kind of cruising you want to do. This sometimes is difficult, because we’ve been steeped in the lore of craggy cruising heroes bashing across oceans in boats built to climb Niagara Falls. That’s just one type of cruising and cruiser. There are a lot more choices. If you don’t want to be a cruising-magazine hero, that’s OK.

Begin the search for a boat with some serious introspection. Answer a few questions. Are you doing this to fulfill a dream, which, like those at night, are a bit too hazy to describe? Or, to impress friends at the yacht club; or, to lie back and smell the roses and have fun; to prove that you can; because you love the sea and think you’ll love its challenges; or because you love “messing about in boats” and gunkholing in quiet creeks and coves, with a whiff of the ocean blowing over the marshes as, “quite enough, thank you?”

Think about the type of cruising you may be doing. Do you plan to cruise for perhaps half a year and then return home? Or move aboard and cruise indefinitely and have the boat serve as your primary home?

If part of a couple, it is crucial this decision be made as individuals and as a couple. By the time you decide and can afford to go cruising, you’ve probably spent some time together and have insights about what you like to do together.

Talk about it before you buy in, because two people cruising on one boat can mean “togetherness” like you’ve never imagined. You’re living in a much smaller home. Both go to the same places every day. Neither will be able to jump in the car and get away to the mall or the office, and each must be able to rely on the other in the everyday running of the boat and in unfamiliar crisis situations.

A difference with a plus is the fact that, perhaps for the first time in many years, you are doing something together that both want to do —sharing a common goal and making it work. It’s like starting out young again together.

Things To Consider

Talk about what you’d like. Consider:

• ‑Would you like to head for other countries and spend considerable time offshore with overnight passages and often no port to duck into in a storm?

• ‑Would you rather explore coasts and nearby islands, stopping and sleeping every night with less risk and perhaps less stress?

• ‑What’s going to make each of you happy and unhappy?

• ‑Are you going to worry about children, grandchildren or elderly parents and want to be able to get back quickly if needed, and not go far away?

• ‑Will you want to see old friends frequently or want to hang out in cruising community areas where there’s lots of company?

• ‑Have you had enough social life for a while and want to get away?

• ‑Do you yearn to fulfill lifetime dreams of striking out alone to explore new and distant places?

• ‑Would you rather cruise in familiar waters?

• ‑Does at least one of you feel confident in his or her mechanical abilities?

• ‑Does either feel sheer terror at the thought of your mate handling mechanical emergencies because you know that he or she doesn’t know one tenth of what he or she thinks he knows, and usually creates a medical emergency every time he or she picks up a screwdriver?

• ‑Does anyone get seasick when in the ocean?

Find help with these threshold issues by talking at length with those who have done it, by reading candid accounts and attending talks at events such as PMM’s TrawlerPort. When you read books and talk with the experienced, remember your cruising interests may be different from theirs. Listen to them all, but listen especially for experiences common to whatever cruising you intend.

Spending money to charter is fun and can be a worthwhile investment in answering some questions. Chartering allows boaters to check out different types of craft, cruising and cruising areas. Most charter companies won’t allow long-range offshore passagemaking in their boats, but you still can learn a lot. And maybe, some friends will invite you to visit them for part of their cruise. (If invited to visit a friend in far-away, sparsely civilized areas, remember the Golden Rule: bring good chocolates.) Do as much self-exploration as you can before buying the ultimate boat so you more likely will purchase one suited to you and how you want to cruise.

Target Your Money

You may be thinking, “why try to narrow my boat choice? Aren’t there plenty of boats that will do it all?” Of course, but this versatility takes both money (lots of it) and requires feature tradeoffs. It’s easy enough to understand the cost factor. For example, building a boat specifically intended for trans-ocean work probably will cost more than a boat intended for lake and river use, with an occasional jaunt offshore in good weather. Equipping a boat intended to go from marina to marina can cost considerably less than one that will spend a lot of time at anchor, even if both are intended for coastal use only.

Feature tradeoffs are a bit more elusive but often substantially affect comfort and space usage. Take a look at some simplistic, but telling, examples. The lines of the hull of a trans-ocean cruiser may be more rounded to better handle large seas, resulting in less living and working space below than that found in coastal boats with flatter hull surfaces and sharper angles that allow more space.

Rounder bilges of offshore vessels may provide less access around engine room components, while flat, wide underbodies on coastal boats may allow much more access. Larger fuel tanks of trans-ocean vessels give range but consume space. Trans-ocean vessels may not have large surrounding windows giving great panoramic views at anchor. But you probably will be glad not to have that expanse of glass—no matter how bullet proof—in a serious storm at sea.

None of this is to suggest that one type of boat is better than another. And none of this is to suggest that you should ever compromise on safety. Consideration of these factors is just an exercise in the obvious. Cruising boats are built for different types of use and one type may be better for you. Some may want to do coastal cruising in a boat built to cross oceans because of the options and security offered. This is up to you and your resources.

It’s good to have as wide a margin as possible to handle whatever nature can throw at you. But the bottom line usually is that, unless you have huge funds to spend, and can get a boat large enough to accommodate most features, you probably will have a better time if you invest in the type of cruising, and the type of boat and features that suit you best. We’ve talked about some general differences between trans-ocean boats and coastal boats. But there are other issues.

Go At Your Pace

Some may want the capability of greater speed, particularly if not yet retired. This may open wonderful cruising opportunities otherwise not available at that stage of life. You also may prefer a faster boat if interested in coastal cruising and island hopping and don’t want to worry so much about lengthy weather windows.

An 8-knot displacement trawler leaving Fort Lauderdale, heading to the Exumas, normally needs three days of favorable weather. A planing trawler may need only one, although it may be carrying less stores and toys. Many now are cruising happily in smaller vessels such as those built along the lines of the beautiful old New England lobster boats. Most of these may be too small for extensive creature-comfort systems, but they can be comfortable and allow a couple to take trips they otherwise might never have entertained.

If considering a faster boat, think about whether you want one with the running gear hanging outside the keel. Some designs with this feature obtain more speed. But many prefer to have the protection from debris and groundings afforded by a lower keel in front of a single prop and rudder.

Also, a boat intended to be self-sustaining for long periods (the typical concept of a cruising boat) will have to carry more weight and will be relatively slow, maybe 8 to 10 knots. A boat capable of 15 to 20 knots will have a different hull configuration and weight characteristics and probably will not be intended to cross oceans.

Traditional Lines And Spaceships

Visit any boat show, marina, or cruising harbor and you’ll quickly see there is a basic difference in the looks of boats. Some, generally considered to be more traditional, have the shippy curves and lines we all love. Others look more modern and range from—well, “squarish”— in appearance to what appear to
be contenders for intra-galactic speedsters in space battles. Of course, there are lots of compromises between the two extremes, and that sweetens the pot even more.

Probably, most people who cruise are in love with the old lines. Nevertheless, some are happier with more modern looks. The reason gets back to spaces belowdecks, offshore use or inshore use and speed. Compare today’s new cruise liners with the older ones like the SS United States.

Both make you want to cry. The second group because of the incredible beauty of their appearance; while many in the first group make you want to cry at the incredible ugliness of their appearance. Those older elegant ladies were built in times when weather forecasting and communication were far less helpful, and when they were more likely to be out battering down waves. Recently built cruise liners rely more on excellent forecasting and speed to avoid weather.

The major lessons of this dichotomy spill over into the choice of a cruising boat. The more modern lines may net more inside space and for that, and other considerations, may suit better. Fortunately, you get to choose. We’ve known couples that so loved the traditional beauty of their boat that they didn’t care if they had a little less space. We’ve known others with the opposite reaction. It helps to know before you buy.


The height of the hull above the water intertwines with many issues. Obviously, a higher hull can yield more living space belowdecks, and this makes the concept attractive, especially to those who plan coastal cruising. Depending upon boat design and construction, a high hull also can increase safety at sea, but maybe not. At first blush it may seem obvious that higher sides can keep more waves at bay, but it isn’t that simple. Some roomy trawlers with high sides look shippy, but roll significantly at sea.

You can’t always correct this with stabilizers. Some boats just roll too much and don’t go fast enough for stabilizers to work well. While stabilizers are a great asset for comfort and even safety, they never should be an excuse for not having a well-found hull in the first place. We once heard the captain of a huge megayacht calling for help on VHF 16 because his stabilizers broke in a small gale in Exuma Sound. I never learned whether it was a matter of crystal and china or just flying holding tanks.

Often, you’ll see high bulwarks protecting relatively low decks. This can result in a lower center of gravity while the bulwarks add immensely to security and safety.

High bows are popular on many ocean-going trawlers. Offshore commercial fishing trawlers, regularly out in bad weather, typically have a high bow. But the simple fact of a higher bow (as with a higher hull) doesn’t necessarily make a boat more seaworthy. Again, the overall design tells the tale.

A high bow, if out of proportion to the rest of the hull and to the amount and configuration of power available, can create a substantial windage problem that can hinder docking, anchoring, and even going into a sea. A high bow may create extra problems with anchoring, simply because of the height. While a tough fishing crew might be able to handle this chore easily from far above the water, a retired couple may have a difficult time.

A high bow also can make picking up moorings exceptionally difficult. In some areas, such as Catalina Island, the British Virgin Islands and much of New England, there are so many moorings in some harbors that you are almost forced to use them. A high bow generally provides more space for accommodations, although you may not want to use them during passages offshore. Many owners of trawlers with high bows and high hulls love them in any scenario, particularly if they allow other features they like. Obviously, choice of hull height, like so many other issues, will impact creature comfort and how you do things in the area where you plan to cruise.

How Many Engines?

This issue presents one more fascinating choice. Larger boats often have two engines that give greater maneuverability when docking, holding for bridges, anchoring and during other tight-quarters operations. Two engines usually mean more power and speed. Power is important when you need to shoulder aside big seas and winds, and work against 3-knot currents ripping around reefs in island cuts.

But some prefer only one engine. Bow thrusters greatly improve maneuverability with single screws. One engine allows more space in the engine room for other equipment and for fixing and maintaining what’s there. It consumes less fuel, although many boats with two engines will lope along on one (assuming hull characteristics make this practical) for fuel economy. One engine has a single prop and rudder that are better protected behind the keel than two props outboard of the keel. One engine also is one engine less to maintain.

The redundancy issue is important to propulsion source, and if you opt for a single engine, plan to address this problem. You may find that it is almost as costly as a second engine. Trawlers with one engine often will have a hydraulic power takeoff rigged to their generator and connected to a hydraulic motor that turns the shaft. This also can be done with electricity, but the engine room must have space available for this machinery.

Smaller trawlers also can and should have some come-home device, especially if they are to be taken far from high civilization. This could be an extra outboard or a tender capable of towing or pushing on the hip. The proliferation of towing services recently has led many to a false sense of security. A cruising boat may well be far from the nearest tow service and need, as a matter of safety, to keep moving at least slowly.

In the next issue, we’ll look at specific features of available trawlers, and try to sift through the choices.