How Big is Big Enough?
The question comes often enough, and we've discussed this at length over the years. People getting into cruising often wonder what sort of boat they should buy and how big it should be. Typically they are thinking large, and they can frustrate themselves to no end in the search for the right boat.
(My notes from a three-hour seminar on this subject are beyond the scope of this post, but will likely surface as an eBook one of these days. For now, let's assume a couple is looking to get on the water, perhaps live aboard for several years, as they learn and develop their skills as full time cruisers who migrate with the seasons.)
Years back, one of our readers wrote an article on boat size that followed his own cruising journey. Phil was well versed in the cruising lifestyle, having explored the South Pacific with his wife aboard their cruising sailboat, before they eventually turned to powerboat cruising. And that love affair continued, as their 45-foot trawler provided a safe and comfortable home while they poked into the many inlets and islands of the Pacific Northwest.
But as he explained, at some point along the way, there comes a time when one looks in the mirror and realizes that one's waning abilities match a desire for a simpler way. This can help redefine the dream, and/or the boat. For Phil and his wife, that meant downsizing to bring their cruising agenda to a more manageable level at that stage in their lives. They moved to a smaller, trawler style cruiser, a Camano 31 that had just enough accommodations and useful systems for this couple to keep cruising, and not a stick more.
Phil's acknowledged that bigger is not always better, that simpler is sometimes the preferred course, and that all stuff eventually breaks, three well known nautical truths. He documented his experience over a period of years and it was interesting to see where they were on the cruising spectrum as aging cruisers not ready to give it up. I especially liked his observation that in many of the exciting destinations they visited, larger and more complex boats lived with hatches open, waiting for mechanics and technicians to come fix the many issues that plague complex cruising boats. He commented how owners of such vessels, whether on big sailboats or comfortable trawlers, tend to spend a lot of time in port...and not sightseeing. As he put it, when the cost of ownership becomes greater than the pleasure of ownership, it is time to reevaluate the dream and the boat on which to enjoy it.
That sage advice works just as well today, although the dynamics have shifted a bit. We'll get to that. But that got me thinking of my own lot.
For a number of years, I lived aboard Hull #243 of a Ta Shing Baba 30 cutter which I bought new in 1985. A single guy, the boat was big enough for me, and I adored every aspect of a boat I first saw as a Flying Dutchman 30 at the Lake Union Boat Show in Seattle in the mid-'70s. The creation of Bob Berg and Bob Perry spoke to me, hit all my buttons, and I knew I would own one, no matter what. By the time I bought it, however, I was living in the Chesapeake Bay area and later I would move us to the New Jersey coast, closer to the New York/New Jersey corporate corridor.
I readily accepted the balancing act of a professional career with a somewhat unusual liveaboard existence on the edges of corporate America in the mid '80s. My lifestyle appealed to me, if not my peers, who looked forward to a traditional life in suburbia with 2.5 kids, mortgages, and the precursor of today's SUV, a Volvo station wagon. My female friends thought my life was kind of cool, but they wanted none of it. They were too busy with other priorities and career paths. People go to Hawaii and Bermuda on vacation by airlines. Who doesn't get that? And I've seen dolphins at Sea World.
Fast forward, today I would no longer find that boat suitable, and not just in terms of livable space. After the boats I have sailed and cruised aboard, if I were seeking my next sailboat to do extended voyaging, I would focus on a longer waterline. When you get to about 38 feet LWL, the possibility of making good daily runs is within reach, and I value this ability much more than I did 30 years ago. The munchkin and slow poke cruising fleet is nice, but if I can make 175 or more miles a day, I am a happy sailor. My passages will be quicker, my ability to avoid weather that much more attainable. All things being equal, I would go for a longer boat, no question. And I would resist the urge to fill it up with stuff.
But that, unfortunately, does not translate well to the cruising motorboat market, as larger trawlers...longer, wider, bigger in every way...are universally more complicated, have more comfort and control systems, and are nowhere near the simple machine one might imagine. It is not a function of the boat, but rather a statement of the owners who can afford such trawlers, and who demand a high level of comfort and standard of living when they shop for a larger boat.
Which brings us back to another discussion on the decidedly elusive pursuit of a simple big boat. Yeah, Bill, good luck with that big sailboat that cruises with a minimal level of systems and equipment. You are on your own buddy.
We confirmed over the years that anyone who has the means to buy a bigger boat, has already chosen a lifestyle that values comfort and ease of use over simplicity and minimalism. And we frequently took a look at that equation. Naval architects, Pat Bray, Lou Codega, and Steve Seaton, veteran broker, Goeff White, and noted yacht designers Jay Benford and Chuck Neville all weighed into this discussion at one point or another. People today don't want to rough it, so the comfort, stabilizing, and other systems that go aboard all larger boats are a requirement, whether they are necessary for the safe operation of the boat or not. It is what cruising is all about for these owners, who accept the downtime as part of the experience when things need to be maintained or fixed.
On the other hand, when it comes to choosing, for example, one head system over another, the nod will be for the most trouble-free of the available choices. But the Pardey's wood bucket stays ashore.
But getting back to the majority of folks looking for a boat that fits their cruising plans, I find the issue is mostly a lack of good information. Let the people with lots of money and experience buy their large yachts. Not to worry. There are choices right in front of you that have all the merit you need. And I can tell you that over the years, these choices continue to be validated. If you want to explore the many back issues of PMM, there are a number of relevant articles to get you thinking in the right direction and help you avoid the common pitfalls of inexperienced boat buying (such as buying a second or third stateroom for friends who will NEVER visit you).
If you are just starting out, and looking for a trawler for the two of you (and perhaps a dog or cat) to taste the cruising life, there is no need to get bogged down by the overwhelming choices out there in ads, broker listings, and sprinkled around any boat yard or marina. Take a deep breath and take it easy.
I want to make a distinction here that I am speaking to those who are hoping to join the cruising community, not those who only plan to complete the Great Loop and move on to another adventure. The Loop is short-term experience, quite different from long-term cruising, and the Loop boat is somewhat secondary to the experience. Buyers of Loop boats are interested in low maintenance and resale value when they complete the Loop. Of course there is some overlap, but generally they are different communities.
We did a piece early on, so early I could not find it in the current PMM search engine. It was the story of Howard and Jane Brubaker from Southern California. They were interesting, down to earth people with a love of history. The Brubakers owned a wood Grand Banks 36, with a single Ford Lehman, which they owned for 24 years before their adventure. When track coach Howard retired, they set out to explore the world on Stormy Petrel, and explore they did. I first caught up with them in Annapolis on their way to Maine. They set out from California, heading north to the Gulf of Alaska. That was one great adventure, but it only fed their appetite for more. So they retraced their steps back down to California and continued on south, and I mean south. They loitered in Mexico and Central America, before transiting the Panama Canal and settling down for a couple of years in Cartagena, Columbia, where local carpenters expanded the aft cabin of the Grand Banks woodie to better accommodate full time living aboard.
Eventually they headed up the east coast of Central America to Cancun, before crossing the Gulf and arriving at Key West. From there they explored the U.S. East Coast, where I first met them. After cruising Chesapeake Bay they went up to Maine, after leisurely enjoying the thrills of Californians seeing the East Coast for the first time. They were blown away by the Boston Pops at an outdoor 4th of July concert at their anchorage. The Brubakers could not get enough of our country, its history and rich culture, so wonderful. When I next spoke with them, they planned to do the Great Loop, which they completed a slower pace than most. In all they visited 38 states and numerous countries. And Stormy Petrel was the perfect boat for them, with plenty of room, simple systems, yet every bit as fulfilling as any big trawler with the latest bells and whistles. An older wood, Grand Banks 36 with a single engine. Imagine that.
When I recall sitting on Stormy Petrel, I also think of a certain Trawler Fest, on one fine glorious day. Light cool breeze, temperature just low enough to warrant a light fleece pullover, one of those days where you relish being outside. All my windows and doors were open to let the breeze flow through the boat, unlike the many big trawlers at the event that lacked opening windows and hatches, and which required air conditioning 24/7 to maintain a comfortable temperature. I will never forget the realization that this too is a choice when boat shopping. The Brubakers felt the same, and the 12-volt fans strategically located inside their boat helped keep things cool. No need to run a genset to power air conditioning when it was most pleasant to just open the boat up. At anchor, this is such a joy.
Take any 34-38-foot traditional trawler and you can have a similar experience, although the inherent quality of the Grand Banks line is well established. But I would feel the same on a Monk 36 or any well cared for Taiwan or other trawler. This size boat is not difficult for two to manage, even in locks or when docking. And the extra accommodations won't be wasted on guests who will rarely join you.
Outfitting this size boat has been covered with lots of helpful advice in past issues (another topic perhaps for the PMM digital newsletter?). Steve Seaton is a big proponent of the 10% Rule. If you don't use a piece of gear 90% of the time, take it off the boat. This is a good thought process. How often do you use that pasta or bread machine?
If you have the luxury of a trailer option, you might go even smaller and check out the Rosborough, Ranger, and Cutwater yachts. They are fine smaller cruisers, and can really expand one's cruising horizons. Trailering is a fabulous option if you can do it. The coastal and inland waters of North America and beyond are within your reach, just a road trip away. For many that is the ultimate adventure.
Buy the smallest boat you can find that is big enough for your needs. That is the best advice of all.