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Small boat vs. large: It's hard to go wrong

I’ve got kayaks. I’ve got a 12-foot aluminum dinghy. I’ve got a 12-foot inflatable. I’ve got a 53-foot motorsailer. I’ve got a 20-foot Mako. I’ve got two sailboards. I’ve got some inner tubes. I’ve even got an 8-foot sailing dinghy that doesn’t sail very well after a tree fell on it and I tried to fix it. But, hey, it floats.

Tom's Gulfstar with four of his little boats aboard (kayaks, sailboard and inflatable bags).

And I’ve got a hole in my head where my brains should be. And to make matters worse, I don’t really “have” all of these boats. They have me. I just get to keep them on top of the water. At least I try. And I’ve got a real problem. I like them all.
All my life I’ve wanted bigger boats. I even want to get a battleship, but I don’t think I will. My first boat was only 12 feet, so I had a long way to go. Like a kid lifting weights, I struggled mightily through the years to increase my sizes. As I write this, I’m sitting in a 53-footer making a passage down the coast. I still think I’d like a battleship. But I know my next boat, if there is one, will probably be smaller. I’ve had a revelation.
The revelation began as I was hanging out in the Bahamas in my 47-foot motorsailer. We got to know some very special people on one of the islands, and they had a 22-foot Mako with a 200-hp Yamaha. We used it well. We fished in it far out in Exuma Sound. We used it to explore the island chain. We used it for diving and snorkeling and spear fishing. We used it to carry people from island to island and to fetch groceries and supplies. Once we even used it to carry the extremely heavy business end of an ancient Lister generator down island to put it on a mail boat to take to Nassau so it could be repaired.
During these trips, it wasn’t unusual to encounter bad weather. One day we saw 11 water spouts. And we regularly had to deal with wild and unpredictable breaking seas in inlets. The fun we were having with this boat began to remind me of something. The revelation was really a reawakening. I realized I was enjoying a type of fun similar to what I had when I was a kid with my skiffs. They had usually been around 12 to 18 feet, always wood, and nowhere near as fine or fast as this Mako. But I’d had so much fun in them. There’s nothing like taking off in a well-built boat that’s small enough to go fast, but not so big you have to run from fuel dock to fuel dock and fix something every five minutes.
There’s the wind in your hair and the spray in your face. There’s a different closeness to the water because you are closer and you feel it more. The spray is right beside you, flashing out from under the hull. And when it gets in your face you enjoy it, rather than worry about it ruining electronics. And there’s this feeling of freedom that’s hard to explain and not quite the same as the freedom you feel with a large boat. It’s a whole different deal.
It’s not just the freedom of going fast, although that’s part of it. There’s more. You don’t have to pay so much money to do it. It’s much simpler and less complex than a big boat. But even more important, you can explore places like creeks or reefs where the water is shallow and the channels are tricky and you’d never dare take that big boat. And you can beach it to walk alone in the sand or wriggle your toes in the mud where probably nobody has walked before, where there’s a wide expanse of marsh separating you from civilization. You can go places no one else can unless they have a small boat. It’s a very different world.
But then there’s my big boat. It’s an ego thing, sure. But it’s a whole lot more. With a big boat you can live on the sea. You’re not limited to taking a ride or just visiting. You’re able to be a part of it 24/7/365. You’re an intimate part of that world. That world dwarfs you because something like a storm can take you without mercy, because something wrong in a black night in the middle of the ocean can spook you like you’ve never been spooked, because you feel lost in infinity, far more than you do anywhere else. And you also feel an unfathomable sense of helplessness, yet at the same time you’re feeling a pride of power because you’re master of the sea and master of your ship — although you know you’re really not.
And it fulfills you because you love the sea, the sun, the wind and, yes, even the storms because of their majesty and the way they put you in your place of terrifying insignificance. In some ways you have less freedom than when you’re ashore because you can’t control the weather by resetting the thermostat on the wall. But in more meaningful ways you have much more freedom. If the seasons get inhospitable you can go where it’s better. If you don’t like your neighbor or what’s going on around you, it’s no problem to go somewhere else. And the world is two-thirds water.
There’s something else about a big boat. You can muscle the seas and weather more than with a smaller boat. I used to love watching “Victory at Sea” and marveling at those warships punching through the ocean and throwing off storms. You feel like you have more power to deal with the sea, and that’s an incredibly heady experience. But this is only as long as things are working, and a big tough boat has a lot more things that must work than my center console and outboard.
So that brings another issue with big boats. If you can master most of the maintenance, you feel really good. If you can’t, you feel really bad. I like to make complex things work and to feel good, and I try very hard to feel good, but I don’t always make it. So I take a ride in my simple Mako that can so easily outrun storms and that has a hull form that can handle many storms when she must.
As you can see, I’d have a hard time, if pressed, to say whether I like large or small boats. There are similarities and very distinct differences. From what I’ve seen, many of us have this same problem. Let’s examine some, and maybe some of us will be able to better sort out our split personalities.
Let’s define a small boat, just for the sake of the discussion, as no more than, say, around 25 feet and open or with only a small cabin. Let’s also assume many will have outboards, although some will have inboards. Let’s define a big boat as anything above that, but probably considerably above that, leaving it to you to figure out how you want to classify whatever boat you’re thinking about. You make the final call. This is the way it should be, because boats are personal, and I’ve got no business establishing rigid categories for you.
And let’s also recognize that there are a million exceptions to any rule when we’re talking about boats, so there will be crossovers in these comparisons. And because we’re talking about boats, this is good.

Tom's 53-footer comfortably under way in the ICW.

Small boats

A mothership and her eager charges - a couple of PWCs, a RIB and a center console in tow.

1. They’re much easier to haul out for work. A good trailer is an excellent investment because you can haul them yourself for painting, cleaning and storage. Storage on a trailer means less bottom growth, less electrolysis, less likelihood of water permeation into the laminate (assuming it’s fiberglass) and a better chance of surviving hurricanes and other bad storms, assuming you anchor them down properly. Also, you can get lower deductibles for storm damage with some insurance (such as BoatUS) if you take your boat out of the water and anchor it properly. It’s so much nicer to be able to trailer your boat to a safe place rather than spending a day or more rigging a spider web of lines around a big boat in a marina, wondering when the guy in the next slip is going to come to do his.

2. While you can’t travel to, say, the Caribbean or the South Pacific in your small boat, you can explore waters far and wide by trailering it. Some people use smaller boats with cabins to camp as they travel to boat in distant areas of the country.

3. Not only can you explore far reaches by trailer, you can also explore places you can’t go in a big boat. I’ve spent many glorious days going into creeks up into marshes, tilting the outboard and even poling or paddling if needed. I’ve also visited beaches, marshy shores and wooded shores that only a small boat could reach. (Today, of course, I often do this from my larger boat by taking off in the dinghy.) When I was much younger I would sometimes stay overnight, pitching a tent on the beach or even over my bow. I would never have seen these places if I’d only had big boats. And I wouldn’t have visited them by big-boat dinghy because many of these creeks are in areas that don’t have good anchorages for large boats. These places weren’t far from home, but they were isolated, desolate, untouched and very distant from civilization.

4. Obviously a smaller boat is cheaper, though not in just the purchase price and fuel used. If, for example, you must get a major overhaul on your engine, an outboard is easier to pull and repair than an inboard that has been shoehorned and built in down in the bilge. If the small-boat engine is inboard, usually it’s not as deeply buried and, thus, is more accessible. Maybe all you have to do is to remove the box over the engine. There are exceptions, but generally this is true. Also, there are fewer systems and, therefore, fewer things to go wrong. And if a system, such as the steering or engine control, does break, the components are usually easier to access than if deeply buried under cabinetry, panels, decks and other equipment.
Large boats are expensive to buy and maintain. Yards, for good and bad reasons, charge huge labor rates (often these are unavoidable because of circumstances beyond their control). Products designated as marine grade automatically cost more whether worth it or not, and many surveyors and insurance companies insist on that designation. Fuel today is over the top. You have to steel your mind and pretend it doesn’t hurt.

5. Usually, if a major hull repair is needed (collision, wood rot, delamination), it’s cheaper on a small boat. This is a function of the size of the damage and because you can haul it yourself on a trailer and take it to a repairman of choice or do it yourself, rather than be limited to whatever yard can haul it.

Having a big boat and a little sibliing multiplies your options.

6. Smaller boats are more easily converted into workboats or, if not converted, temporarily used for working purposes. While still a naïve early teen (now I’m just naïve) I thought I could make a fortune in the scrap metal business. I’d tie my skiff to the timbers of old barges, schooners and steamboats abandoned along marshy shores and pry out rusty metal, filling up my boat so that my patient and loving mother could take the mess to the local junkyard. “Mess” is the right word for this — something you’d never want on a larger boat, even if you could get it into the shallow-water resting grounds of old hulks. I’d also make money crabbing — easy to do with a skiff.

7. Many of us love to fish. I’ve fished from million-dollar monster sportfishing boats, tricked-out center consoles and in my little 12- and 18-foot skiffs. Depending on how you feel, it can be much more pleasurable sitting in a skiff fishing than doing it in a huge, powerful machine made just for the purpose — even when you’re offshore after big-game species. I don’t know why this is, but I expect it’s true for many of us. Maybe it’s because of cleanup. I would spend only a few minutes hosing out my skiff or sloshing it out with a bucket. Job done. I’ve regularly seen hours spent by two- and three-member crews cleaning up after a day’s angling aboard one of those big fishing machines.

8. We’ve noticed that smaller boats seem to get much more use than big ones. It isn’t hard to figure out why. It’s less expensive to run them and it’s easier to get away if you’re already at a dock. The hassles of trailering are less discouraging as you get your techniques down. Dry rack storage with fork-lift launching makes it really easy for both smaller and midsize boats, and from what we’ve observed it’s hassle-free, although it can be expensive. Unfortunately, it has the disadvantage of lulling the uninitiated into thinking boating is turnkey and go. This can be a fatal concept.

9. It’s easy to take your small boat out by yourself. Large boats usually require at least one crewmember — not necessarily a professional but a spouse or friend. There are numerous reasons for this, including two good ones: It’s very difficult to deal with lines docking a large boat unless you’re blessed with one or more good dock people, and it’s often necessary to leave the helm station to check out machinery below.

Big boats

1. I know I shouldn’t say this. I know it sounds smug. I know it’s a bit unrealistic to even think it. And I know I could get in serious trouble with the weather gods by even thinking it, but … It sure feels good to hear the National Weather Service issue small-craft warnings and then say to my wife, “We’re not a small craft.” It just feels good, dammit, and that’s one thing I like about my big boat. And true, I’m close enough to being a small craft that I should still be concerned, and even big craft should take heed of these warnings, but I like the feeling — even though I have that good feeling only briefly because my wife quickly sets me straight.

2. To be macabre for a moment but totally realistic, a big boat gives you a bit more of a cushion in a collision. There have been far too many deaths and serious injuries on the water in recent years. Most of them involve smaller boats. Many things come into play, and often the deaths and injuries don’t involve collisions. But your chances in a collision in a large yacht usually are far better than if you were in a skiff — unless your large yacht is hit by a much larger yacht. Or a battleship.

3. Many say they want a small boat because it’s easier to handle. We haven’t necessarily found this to be true. With the wider deck space and additional stability of a larger boat, we’ve found it easier and safer to work lines, sails, the anchor and do other jobs involving everyday seamanship. I fell off my Tartan 27 sailboat far more times than I’ve fallen off my 41-footer, 47-footer and 53-footer combined, which, thankfully, is none.

4. A large boat gives you more of a platform for equipment and machinery that helps you deal with problems afloat. True, many of those problems won’t exist with a skiff, but they might crop up on a 27-footer as well as on a 60-foot boat. But the 27-footer might not have room for bow thrusters, stabilizers, power anchor windlasses, dinghy lifts and other equipment that does things for you, gives you more control and makes your life easier.

A boat is a boat and should be fun regardless of size.

5. A large boat gives you more of a safety margin should the stuff hit the fan and you get caught out in really bad weather. Perhaps with that outboard skiff you could scoot into a creek or speed home, but we all get caught. I don’t like having my body as the tallest thing on the water as rain cascades down and lightning flashes into the waves around a skiff. I could lie down in the bilge, but I’m still mighty close to the top should we get hit and, considering the typical shape of my bilges, I’d probably be grounded. At least in a larger boat I can find a safe area, away from metal and other ground, and hope I’ll be OK.

6. A larger boat may (should) have better access to equipment. This might not sound very significant when you consider that, for example, a center console doesn’t have many systems, but I’ve crawled under some center console control panels to do work and thought I’d never get out alive. Paradoxically, the same could be true for that larger boat because it has so many more systems. However, if it’s been designed and built well there should be better access to even the additional equipment. But many who build boats don’t work on them later. If you plan to purchase a larger boat, this is an important thing to consider. There should either be good access or enough wiggle room for you to move things around and easily and painlessly get yourself in and out. This will make it easier for you to fix things and less expensive when you hire help.

7. There’s something esoteric you can have with a large boat that’s difficult to appreciate until you’ve experienced it. It’s called independence. We’ve spent months at a time on the hook and under way, never coming into a marina except to buy fuel. Once you work your way through coral reef and into a perfect anchorage, you don’t want to leave. We bought very little fuel because we had wind generators and sails, and we lived sparsely, though comfortably. We made our own water, as well as caught rain. We grew our own vegetables (sprouts), caught our own meat (spear fishing) and traded with the locals, using our dinghy to reach the villages. We had to fix everything that broke to do all this, and the fixing was sometimes extremely difficult, but it was worth it. We were uniquely independent … a feeling few people really know in today’s world. A large boat, equipped properly, can do this for you.
A small boat can also give you a feeling of independence as you explore creeks and rivers. I’ll never forget the feelings of freedom and independence I had when I learned how to row and was allowed to untie the long rope keeping me safely attached to shore. And I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first traveled the 40 miles down the York River in Virginia in my 18-foot outboard skiff and first saw Chesapeake Bay opening the entire world before me. The feeling of freedom and independence in small boats shouldn’t be underestimated, but it’s very different from what we can do in our big boat.

8. Large boats need a larger and usually more expensive place to stay in the water, such as a larger marina slip or a waterfront home with a dock. Related issues include security, soundness of pilings, checking and changing lines, and concern about electric power and potentially damaging electric leaks from your boat, a nearby vessel or the marina wiring. But many owners like the convenience of being able to leave a larger boat in the water and avoid the hassle of towing, launching, parking the tow vehicle, and then redoing the same at the end of the day. They also like being able to simply go down to the marina and get on their boat and be in another world, although it is tied to some pilings.

* * *
What’s right for you is for you to say. And it might take some serious soul searching and research. The research will be fun. But if it’s a boat, I think it’s hard to go wrong, large or small or in between. And if you think you’re going wrong with whatever you have, just relax and figure out a way to enjoy it anyway. With any boat, you don’t have to go so far and you don’t have to go so fast and you don’t have to use all that fuel. Small or big, you can leave the shore, run slowly to some place nearby, throw over the hook and enjoy the afternoon or the weekend. Now that’s a hell of a problem to have.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.