Picture your perfect cruising boat
Posted on 01 September 2009
Written by Tom Neale
You’ll want to consider hull material, power, equipment and seaworthiness, but don’t forget about comfort.
We, like you, dream of buying another new boat — the perfect cruising boat. We’ve owned dozens of boats, from sailing dinghies to our current 53-foot motorsailer. We’ve lived aboard since 1979, averaging 3,000 to 5,000 miles a year. We’ve lived on the hook in the Bahamas for months at a time. And we raised a family aboard.
If we could buy another boat, we’d look for specific features that are important to us, and we’d avoid hidden pitfalls that we’ve seen over the years. Your perfect boat may be very different from ours, because we may like to do different things. But there are fundamentals that are important for any good cruising boat, and hopefully our experiences will be helpful to you if you decide to go for it — or at least be helpful to you as you dream for your future.
What kind of boat?
During our early days in the Bahamas, a good friend sold his beautiful cruising sailboat. We next saw him in the Bahamas with an express cruiser of around 45 feet. Rightly or wrongly, the cruising community associated the brand with the type of boating centered around Sunday afternoon trips roaring up on plane to nearby fake Tiki bars, with little or no concept of seamanship involved.
Our friend removed the name of the boatbuilder from his boat and attached the name “Exuma,” which he got from the Bahamas Exuma chain. But it turned out to be a great cruising boat for him, and he continued cruising in that type of boat for years. Today, we see many people using that genre of boats for serious cruising. There are different kinds of cruisers, different kinds of cruising and different kinds of boats.
A threshold example of this is the ocean crossing vs. coastal dichotomy. Many who decide to go cruising buy a boat specifically built for transocean passages, because this is what they think they want to do. But when they begin cruising, they find they’re having so much fun along the coasts, in the lakes, in the Bahamas, the Great Loop and other not-so-far places that they never go to Tahiti or the Med. Others dream all their lives of crossing an ocean in their own boat. This dream has been a vital part of humanity’s heritage from our very beginning. And when the time comes, they revel in their ability to do this, in command of a masterpiece built for the purpose.
Most of us need to figure out what we really want to do before we buy our dream boat. Most of us are quite limited as to the number of boats we can buy, and a boat built for one type of cruising may not suit well for other types of cruising. We can see examples of this in the transocean vs. coastal characteristics.
A transocean boat may not have those large “windows” that give that panoramic view of the Bahamian anchorage, but their ports and smaller windows should be able to take boarding seas. It may not have that flat, square stern that gives so much space aft, but its stern will be able to better handle following seas. It may not be able to reach destinations in short enough time periods to accommodate college breaks for kids or vacation times for friends, but it will have much more range. Its living spaces may be much smaller, but you won’t get thrown around as much during a storm at sea, and you may have much more room for storage.
All boats should be built to take the worst for their intended use, and no shortcuts should be taken as to seaworthiness and safety. But a boat built to cross an ocean, where it may get slammed for days by prolonged storm-force weather, is going to have different characteristics from a boat that’ll probably only be in the ocean a day or so at a time, when the skipper has carefully chosen a good weather window. But we see many people doing coastal cruising in boats designed for ocean crossing, and loving it. They know they can go if they want to, and they’re happy with what they have. So it isn’t necessarily a dichotomy after all.
The perfect cruising boat for you could be sail or power, fast or slow. And there are compromises. We love our motorsailer. We’re seeing more of these, not only because people don’t want to completely give up sailing but because of other benefits, which I discuss on Page 30. But we’re reaching a stage in our lives where we’d prefer a smaller trawler that would go around 15 knots when we wanted, but would cruise well and economically at 8 knots, too.
Before you buy, try to learn what you want, not just by reading but by experiencing. Bum rides with friends on different types of trips, sign up as crew on safe and well-planned expeditions, and charter different boats in different circumstances.
We like a solid fiberglass hull, but not without some regrets at not being able to afford steel. We’ve seen many boats on the reefs. A good steel boat will survive for years on a reef when fiberglass, wood or even aluminum would be fatally holed in minutes. The many haunting views we’ve seen of fiberglass boats with their guts strewn out over the ocean bottom are hard to erase. The barrels and trees and containers we’ve seen barely awash cause us to slow down at night in the ocean. With a steel boat, we’d feel much better. But you must be able to spend large sums down the road to keep that steel free of debilitating rust.
We’ve also admired unpainted aluminum cruising boats. These can be very tough and practical. With any boat, we’d want watertight — or at least water-resistant — bulkheads. And with that feature, a tough, well-built fiberglass boat is hard to beat.
The ‘oh wow’ boat … not
Many new-boat sales probably come directly or indirectly from boat show experiences. Small wonder that when you walk inside many new boats you’re often overwhelmed by large, lavishly decorated spaces that make you think, Oh wow! But this may detract from long-term cruising comfort. For example, a huge main saloon may be at the expense of a more comfortable stateroom, galley or storage space. And it may be dangerous in rough weather. We’d look for spaces that are comfortable and practical for everyday living. We want to feel at home in our saloon, not like we’re holding court in a grand ballroom.
Serious storage space is critical on a long-range boat; it’s less important on a weekend boat. There are two basic types of storage space, both of which may be compromised by “oh wow” palace spaces. The first is for storage of items you’re going to need frequently, including food and galley supplies, regularly used engine room items, and “house-cleaning” supplies. These spaces need to be easily accessible without displacing people or things.
The other basic type of storage is for items that are less frequently used. Often these are heavier and larger, such as spares for major engine parts. These areas are typically harder to access lower down in the boat. Storage may be difficult to evaluate during a boat show, but most manufacturers are happy to show you the hidden spaces if you’re serious and make an appointment later.
Machinery space also may suffer when a boat is built to make an “oh wow” first impression. Machinery accessibility isn’t merely a matter of convenience. Things break at sea, and your ability to fix them easily, without hurting yourself, is critical to your safety. You need to be able to safely get your body and tools on all sides and to be able to remove parts. Also, I’d want to see a lot of extra space to accommodate equipment I may want to add later.
We’d also want our boat to separate the machinery spaces from the living areas, as to both intrusion and noise. For example, a noisy air conditioner under a bunk probably wouldn’t make us happy. The spaces should allow access to the machinery without disrupting daily life. Our previous cruising boat had access to the engine and generator only by lifting the floor of the main saloon. It was a great boat, but that was a bad feature.
We’ve had three boats with aft staterooms. We like this because we’re separated from guests, and the noise and ride are better. The sound of prop wash coming through the hull is an acceptable trade-off for us. We’d also be happy with a stateroom amidships (under the pilothouse). Forward staterooms usually have too much up-and-down motion when making offshore passages. And at anchor, the sound of waves on the hull and noise caused by the anchor rode can be bothersome on some boats.
A walkaround bed is important because of the difficulties of making up one that’s against the hull, and the fact that one person must be crawled over when the other gets up in the night. We would not buy a boat that doesn’t have an escape hatch in all staterooms.
We all know that good sound insulation for the engines and generator is important. But there’s an insidious little sound gremlin that’s dismayed many people who think they’ve just bought that “perfect” boat. It’s sea noise at anchor. You seldom hear this at the shows because the boat’s in flat calm water. You don’t really notice it on the sea trial because of the engine. But you do notice it when you’re finally at anchor that first night out and you go to bed.
It comes from steps or washboards, at the bow and/or stern, and sometimes from transom platforms that are too low. When hit by even small wavelets in an anchorage, these can make a loud noise inside. If your stateroom happens to be nearby, it can drive you nuts. When you sea-trial a boat, anchor it in some chop, turn everything off, go below, and listen.
A boat with poor sound insulation between living areas can cause problems ranging from minor irritation to more than you ever wanted to know about your guests’ sex life (or maybe the reverse). When looking at boats, if there are adjacent staterooms, have your mate go into the one next door and cough.
The anchoring cornerstone
Being in your own peaceful world out on the hook, isolated from all the bustle of the world ashore, is of the essence of cruising. We’d want our new boat to be designed and built to do this well. We prefer to have the anchor rode run out from the prow. This helps the boat point into the sea, which makes it ride better and sail about and roll less. Rigging a bridle for a rode exiting from a chock abaft the prow is acceptable, but we’d rather not have to do this.
The boat should be able to carry and easily deploy at least two anchors for those few times when more than one is needed, and it should also have ample room on the foredeck for a heavy-duty windlass that can handle two chain rodes. The chain locker should handle at least several hundred feet of chain, and the boat should be able to handle that weight in the bow. Some boats roll badly at anchor. Extending dampeners over the side is, in our opinion, too much of a hassle. As noted earlier, sea trials should include anchoring.
Beasts for the beauty
We like having all the comforts of home aboard. Roughing it is fun at first, but it grows old quickly as time passes. Equipment such as DVD players, televisions, icemakers and microwaves require the power supply to run them. In the ancient past, we were content with wind generators and big alternators. Today, we wouldn’t consider a boat without a stand-alone generator.
We’d also want a boat that could readily accommodate large battery banks and related equipment. Unless we need air conditioning or heat, we prefer to not run the generator while we’re running our propulsion diesel. Instead, we use a large Balmar alternator coupled with a smart regulator to keep our battery banks charged. We get most of the AC current we need while under way from a ProSine 2.0 inverter/charger by Xantrex Technology. It will run the microwave, an electric frying pan, a crock pot, a vacuum cleaner, tools, Raritan icemaker, television, computers or other conveniences. A Xantrex PROwatt inverter powers my desktop computer station. Both inverters produce true sine wave. The alternator replenishes the batteries as they feed the inverters.
We use our generator for a few hours a day — usually at anchor in the morning and evening — to top up our batteries with the ProSine (which outputs up to 105 amps DC charging power), bring down the cold plates in our refrigeration, make all the fresh water we can use, and do various other jobs, such as running a diving compressor, heavy-duty power tools or the galley stove. When we turn off the generator, we still have our AC-dependent creature comforts with the ProSine inverter powered by our well-charged deep-cycle 650-amp-hour house battery bank (two modular 8 D 12 HHG 325s by Surette/Rolls).
Around 15 years ago, during a brisk northeaster in the Bahamas, we heard a 100-plus-foot yacht calling mayday out in the Exuma Sound. The problem? He’d lost his stabilizers. The boat was “rolling horribly.” Our boat would definitely have stabilizers — we think they’re phenomenal. But it wouldn’t roll around like a drunk pig in slippery mud if they died. A boat should be a boat.
A seakindly boat must do more than survive the storm. Its lines should work well with water and wind at all times. For example, it should be able to handle following seas without having to tack back and forth downwind. It should be able to take seas on the bow without zero-gravity hobby-horsing up forward. It should ride well at anchor rather than sail back and forth.
Seakindliness is also important for situations such as maneuvering, including backing, turning and responding well to spring lines when docking and undocking. It should come alongside nicely using an aft spring from midships. It should swing its stern off the dock with a properly used spring line from the bow. It should respond to rudder and prop wash — forward and reverse — to turn and maneuver in tight quarters. All of these things come from a well-
designed hull with engine, rudder and prop configuration done properly.
Bow thrusters are great. I’d never be without them again. But they should be used to complement the rudder and prop, not in lieu of them. Unless thrusters are installed properly, which includes correct placement, they don’t work as well.
Carrying the load
To cruise for long periods of time you need to carry a lot of heavy parts, gear and supplies. The storage of heavy items must not adversely affect the boat’s stability or ride. To some extent, the placement of items (low and amidships or aft) may help. Fast boats, particularly those that travel on plane, won’t be able to carry as much weight and still get up, but normally they won’t need to because they reach destinations quicker and probably won’t be used to make many long-distance passages.
As you evaluate a boat’s weight-carrying abilities, remember that when you look at the boat in a marina, it may not have full fuel or water tanks, won’t be packed for cruising, may not have a full complement of ground tackle, and won’t have all the equipment you’re going to add.
Running gear protection
The running gear configuration that’s best for you depends in part on the type of cruising you want to do. Someone happy with plugging along at 7 to 10 knots in a displacement hull should, in our opinion, insist on a keel that’s solid, not honeycombed to save weight, and deeper than the prop and rudder. We all find the bottom or a submerged log occasionally.
Others opt for the higher speed that may require a flatter bottom with unprotected running gear. This is one of many tradeoffs that should be carefully weighed. For example, many who do the Great Loop choose a planing hull for the speed, but they know their running gear is vulnerable and choose to take that risk. It becomes a matter of preference.
Hull and speed
It’s important to decide what you want in the way of speed and settle on a hull that works well for that. This may be difficult because your tastes may change as you cruise. Many think that slow is fine, but soon want to go faster. We’re in that category. Sometimes you simply want to get where you’re going soon. Sometimes speed adds a considerable safety margin, as when you’re racing a storm or need to get through a rocky inlet in good light.
But more speed usually means more fuel consumption and shorter cruising range. There have been compromise boats that are said to be able to go fast up on plane or cruise at displacement hull speeds. This is a good concept if the hull is designed specifically for the job and the speed isn’t accomplished by brute horsepower. We’ve seen some “planing displacement boats” throwing a tsunami while running on plane. This means that the hull probably wasn’t designed for that type of speed, that it’s using a huge amount of fuel to gain the speed, and that it may use far more fuel than necessary at displacement speeds. Think about this carefully before you buy.
There’s seldom an all-encompassing correct answer. After traveling thousands and thousands of miles at 7 knots, we feel like we’re in a whole new dimension of cruising as we fly along at 10 knots after our repower, which was done by Marine Pro of Cocoa, Fla.
Double the grief?
We’ve always preferred a large single diesel with an auxiliary source of “come home” power. The best auxiliary source, in our opinion, is a generator that has enough power and that’s properly coupled to the shaft. The best way to couple it will vary depending upon engine room configuration.
A sailboat has sails as come-home power but not if the wind isn’t right. Waiting for the wind if a storm is brewing and you’re outside and need to seek safety through a difficult inlet isn’t what everyone wants to do.
With a single engine, we have more space in the engine room to work on all sides of that engine and to work on other equipment. It’s also easier to carry parts. In some dual engine installations, for example, rotation is different, and you may have to carry two different freshwater circulating pumps.
It’s also easier to be closely attentive to the engine. If you hear a strange engine noise while running, you don’t have to guess at which one it’s coming from. At the end of a long day, there’s less to check over — less to go wrong. And routine maintenance is easier. You have to change one raw-water impeller, not two. Also, running gear protection is better with one engine.
But twin engines have a lot to offer. They may give more speed and maneuverability and may provide much more power at a given speed. This is important with head sea or wind. Just the redundancy factor alone — one of the most important things on a cruising boat — makes them the choice of many very experienced people. We’d first look at the boats that best fit our needs. We wouldn’t scratch a boat that we loved in all other respects just because of the number of engines it had.
Tank construction and capacity are very important. Through the years, I’ve come to prefer well-built fiberglass fuel tanks. I’ve seen far fewer problems with these than stainless and aluminum. When a weld or some other weak spot deteriorates on a metal tank, it can be a major disaster. Fiberglass often can be more readily repaired in place than metal. (It’s been widely documented that ethanol in gasoline deteriorates older fiberglass fuel tanks, which can result in engine damage and a tank that leaks badly. I’m referring to diesel boats — with the fervent prayer that the legislators and bureaucrats apparently on the receiving end of the largess of the corn lobbyists won’t extend this disaster to diesel. And I’m referring to tanks built recently that can handle this if they ever start putting ethanol in diesel.)
Regardless of the material, we want the fuel tank to have good baffling and access that allows repair without major demolition, and inspection and cleaning of the interior.
The disaster perhaps isn’t as great if water tanks fail (no environmental issues). Many boats use polyethylene tanks. We prefer to carry a large amount of water in our displacement-hull boat. If we had a planing boat we’d carry less water because of its weight. This is easy to do now because of the reliability of watermakers. With our watermaker, we fill our tanks every day when we run the generator. If there’s a problem with the watermaker (less likely with a good, well-maintained unit), we have reserve to give us time to make a repair.
Where you steer
Visibility around 360 degrees is mandatory, in our view. Video cameras looking astern, while helpful, don’t quite fit the bill. We’d love to have a raised pilothouse. Good visibility can be an issue even with some of these, although it’s less likely. A flybridge with inside access is high on our list, even if we had a raised pilothouse.
There are many areas where the ability to read the water is very important. The higher up you are, the easier this is to do. Visibility for docking also is critical. We frequently see megayachts lumber alongside with nattily dressed crewmembers spaced all around the deck talking over the radio to the captain. This doesn’t work for me. I like to see what I’m hitting.
A pilot berth at the helm is important. Most serious cruisers will make some overnight passages. It’s safer and reassuring to have someone else up there with you when you’re running at night. The person on watch knows help is right there if something is closing in on radar and he can’t get a visual. The person off watch usually sleeps easier knowing the same thing.
We would also want a good area to lay out paper charts and reference books at our steering station. We love our electronic navigation equipment, but we also use paper charts as a backup and plot our position on them every hour or so when we’re at sea. You never know when electronics or power sources will fail.
The position of the steering station can be very important. I’ve been on some very large, very expensive trawlers with the wheelhouse far enough forward that when running into the sea those inside had a tendency to become airborne — along with the contents of their stomachs.
Our ideal cruising boat would have to be able to carry a good, fast, heavy-duty tender without becoming top heavy and without it blocking the view from the steering station. There are various ways to store a tender. The best method for a particular boat will be influenced by the boat itself. This issue should not be an afterthought in the design and construction of the vessel.
We want to be able to launch our tender with a minimum of hassle and a maximum of safety. If the tender is to be carried on an upper deck, launching is an even more important issue. Builders often simply supply a davit system so it can be lowered over the side. This looks great in the pictures, but it doesn’t look great when you’ve docked in a marina and the “side” happens to be the side against the pier. It also doesn’t look great when you’re rolling at an anchorage and are trying to lower the tender as it swings out and back, crashing into the side like a wrecking ball.
Once the dinghy is over, we like to be able to easily climb in and out, as well as lift up groceries and other heavy items onto the mother ship. This is often best done from the stern when the boat is rolling.
We’ve carried our tenders on the stern on our last three boats, from 41 to 53 feet. Our favorite system has been what we have now: a hydraulically operated stern platform that, with the push of a button, raises or lowers the tender and its load and can also be used as a dive and swim platform. There is always the issue of following seas if you’re offshore, particularly if your boat’s stern is prone to being pooped. Once again, this will depend on your usage and the trade-offs you’re willing to accept.
Hopefully your boat will help you to realize your dreams. Perhaps you can use some of these ideas to help you find your perfect cruising boat.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.