Are Trawlers the Safest Platform for Cruising?

The DeFever 49 is a popular cruising boat and liveaboard. Nice side decks, high stanchions and comfortable flybridge for running the boat.

The DeFever 49 is a popular cruising boat and liveaboard. Nice side decks, high stanchions and comfortable flybridge for running the boat.

I have been thinking about this for awhile now, actually for a number of years. And I am still very curious about the cruising lifestyle.

I recently had a chance to go sailing on a cruising sailboat. The sail reminded me of the lack of flat deck surfaces, the constant up and down movement in and out of the cockpit, and the many obstacles, cleats, blocks, tracks, sheets, boom, and winches one must safely navigate around. The potential risks of tripping or hitting something on a sailboat really stand out if you haven't been on one in awhile. I remember driving up to Portsmouth, Rhode Island to visit Ted Hood some time ago, and while I was there, John Clayman gave me a tour of the Little Harbor operation. After climbing a ladder to go aboard a gorgeous Little Harbor 62 inside one of their storage buildings, we both joked about how much attention was required to move safely around the deck, both at foot and head levels. So much stuff, compound curves, and hardware everywhere! Compared to the Krogen 48 I was on the previous week, with wide side decks, high bulwarks and covered cockpit, the Little Harbor was a daunting landscape. I will never forget the comparison.

And size doesn't make that go away. A couple of years ago, we sailed to Bermuda on an 83-foot Camper Nicholson sailboat. Despite its huge deck layout, there was plenty to step around, over, or duck under to move about. And sitting in the cockpit, watching and hearing the strain and groan of the sheets on the huge winches made it clear that if anything broke on this boat it would be a big deal. The forces at work to move a large yacht at hull speed are significant.

Which got me thinking once again that perhaps a trawler is the safest vessel to cruise on. I am not talking monster rogue waves, perfect storms, sea monster attacks, or hurricanes offshore, but rather the kind of boating most of us enjoy. We call it pleasure boating for a reason.

The word "trawler" has certainly changed over the past number of years, and I still maintain that today the word is a metaphor for our lifestyle rather than a specific hull shape. Fast trawler, power cat, sportfish, and variations of motor yachts are quite different from the Grand Banks style trawlers so popular around the world. The full displacement production Krogens and Nordhavns and many custom designs add to the mix of mostly semi-displacement hull shapes, and continue to cruise the oceans of the world.

Compared to gybing booms, rig and hardware failures, and sloping decks adorned with tracks, lines, gear and fittings, trawlers seem much safer for the crew, who are often just a couple and their dog. They don't have the potential issues that result from running at high speed, either. Debris or deadheads can be seen well in advance of hitting them at speed, and owners have plenty of time to make reasoned decisions whether avoiding objects or navigating tricky waters. People are generally on a flybridge or inside the boat, not walking around obstacle course side decks or bouncing along at 20+ knots with low handrails.

When I think of the handful of accidents (and fatalities) within our trawler community, the boat usually is not the problem. And this appears to support my point that this kind of boat is a pretty safe way to go cruising. I asked around and came up with the following examples of accidents involving trawlers. It's not a very long list, and I know it isn't complete, and I left out Zopilote. Let's take a look.

Many people have seen the images of that Nordhavn 62 wrecked in Mexico with loss of life (if you haven't just Google it). Running in rough weather close to shore (the delivery captain's decision) the Nordie hit a rock, crippling its running gear. The wing engine's asymmetrical installation made matters worse, and turned the boat into shore, where it grounded on the rocky shoreline. A man perished trying to swim a line ashore (he realized it was hopeless but was thrown against the boat when he tried to get back aboard).

A Krogen 42 hit a reef coming into an anchorage late afternoon in the Bahamas. The couple freely admit it was their mistake, attempting an approach with the sun in their eyes, as everyone knows never to enter through a reef late in the day when the sun is low. They got off the boat okay, but locals quickly stripped the boat of everything.

A Nordhavn 47 was headed to the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally, but the wife was crushed by a sailboat's bowsprit when the N47's fin stabilizer snagged a neighboring sailboat's nylon anchor rode, pulling the boats together. Very sad, caused by relatively inexperienced operator error.

I once asked Bob Phillips of Grand Banks (that dates me for sure!) if any GB had been lost, other than hurricane or other natural disaster. He thought for a moment and recalled a GB that had been lost outside of San Francisco, but no one was hurt. As one of the crew disconnected shore power at the dock, preparing to leave, someone else went into the master stateroom and put a lamp on the bed, just in case, not realizing it was turned on, but without power. When they later started the generator and left the marina, the lamp came back on and eventually started a fire in the bedding material. They lost the boat, although I don't believe it sank.

One of our readers wrote the story of his 66-foot Cheoy Lee LRC, destroyed by fire in the engine room. Old insulation had come loose and was allegedly the cause of the blaze, which engulfed the boat in minutes. A total loss. He really liked the boat, so he had Cheoy Lee build him a new 70-footer with the latest construction and technology.

Another Nordhavn 62 was lost in a fire while sitting in a marina in Thailand. I understand it was an electrical fire, and I believe the owners were in the U.S. at the time.

The overall space aboard a trawler makes for safe and comfortable living. The old Grand Banks tagline said it all: Dependable DIesel Cruisers.

The overall space aboard a trawler makes for safe and comfortable living. The old Grand Banks tagline said it all: Dependable DIesel Cruisers.

But considering the many thousands of Grand Banks, Marine Traders, Monks, Albins, and other vintage Taiwan trawlers that continue to quietly cruise our waterways, it seems we have a pretty good track record of all-around cruising boats, whose use is not inherently dangerous as long as crew understand that heavy boats have momentum. Sailing, while appealing and romantic, seem better associated with the vitality and immortality of youth, at least as sailboats exist today. Perhaps that will change over time. Yes, lines can be led back to the cockpit, making trips to the mast and foredeck less frequent. But the crew is still out in the open, steering and handling the sails, subject to the weather and sea conditions. Efforts to change that scenario typically lead to boats that don't sail very well, which makes nobody happy. You see owners of larger center cockpit sailboats attempt to remedy exposure by fully enclosing the cockpit, but to me they are just trying to turn their sailboat into a trawler. Trying to get back aboard from the water from some of these boats is difficult at best. Most trawlers have swim platforms.

Vintage Gulfstar center cockpit sailboat is getting close to being a trawler. Wonder how often those sail covers come off...

Vintage Gulfstar center cockpit sailboat is getting close to being a trawler. Wonder how often those sail covers come off...

Don't get me wrong, I still love sailing. I think a Garcia or Boreal or Hallberg-Rassy or Outremer catamaran would be a blast to own. (I also love Robert Perry's Valiants since the '70s. For years I tried to get Rich Worstell to build a Valiant version of an ocean motorboat. He did bring some Dave Gerr drawings to Annapolis one year, but nothing came of it.) All make fine cruising boats, but as we age, our knees and backs and various issues make the sailing experience more difficult. And with difficulty comes risk.

Traditional trawlers don't run at high speed, so turbocharger and other potential mechanical problems don't happen often, which lowers stress to systems and crew. While some argue that higher cruising speeds offer a safety net to outrun storms and rough weather, which is true, this is situation specific. When the swells are large and one is forced to slow down, having little rudders makes for squirrelly travel, and while a rolly displacement hull may be uncomfortable, it is pretty seaworthy in heavy seas.

Of course there are steps one can take to make a cruising trawler even safer, which I will explore in future posts. 

I am interested in your thoughts, as this is a difficult topic to validate with hard evidence. BoatUS recently listed the top 10 causes of insurance claims, but they don't offer definitive association of hull shape or type of boat. Lightning, fire, burglary, sinking, and serious storms know no distinction, such as the marina fire that happened yesterday in Marathon in the Florida Keys.

I want to thank Jeff Merrill, Dennis Lawrence, Chuck Grice, Rick Casali, and a few others for their thoughts and comments. I wanted to get firsthand information from within the industry to move this interesting conversation beyond opinion and conjecture. While I imagine I will hear all kinds of comments from seasoned sailors, I pretty much know we are right on this. You guys are right if that is what you think. But most of us mature folks don't choose to venture out in conditions where sailors are out there with double-reefed mainsails and itsy bitsy headsails, huddled in foul weather gear behind a dodger. That is no longer our cup of tea, but if it was, we'd be safe at the inside helm or pilothouse, warm and dry.