Skip to main content

There’s more than one way to downsize

I keep reading about “downsizing” in boat magazines these days. A few years ago, all you’d read about was “upsizing.” Sometimes I don’t know whether they’re talking about boating or Viagra.

With a smaller boat, it's easy to enjoy a summer afternoon at a beach.

In the past, things were simple. There was a universal goal: Get the biggest boat possible. And then get an even bigger boat as soon as you can. There were reasons for this, most having nothing to do with sex.

One of the best reasons is that everybody else in the harbor always believes that the guy with the biggest boat knows the most stuff about boats and is the best hoary seaman. If the guy with the biggest boat also has a captain, he’s elevated even more in the opinions of fellow yachtsmen because they figure that with a captain he doesn’t have to actually do any of the things he knows so much about.
Another reason is that everybody else in the harbor thinks the guy with the biggest boat has the most money. It’s nice to be thought of as the richest guy in the harbor; that makes it easy to borrow money from other boaters. Another reason is that big boats don’t rock and roll as much as smaller ones (except during parties), and so the owner can take ocean voyages when others can’t — unless he prefers to fly in on his jet.
In addition to these high-road factors, there also was that other reason, perhaps not loudly spoken but always floating around. Every guy in the harbor thinks the guy with the biggest boat gets the most, uh, shall we say “desirable” women. If you think I’m sounding sexist here, you’re wrong. I happen to know that the reverse is not true. Most women I’ve known have more sense than to think that a big boat will get the most desirable men, and they also have enough sense to know that if this were true, even the most desirable man isn’t worth anywhere near the cost of a big boat.
But these days there’s an entirely different wrinkle. Actually, it’s more of an Alpine landscape than a wrinkle. Have you ever sailed off the Continental Shelf? Your depth finder goes from whatever it’s showing until it’s suddenly reading thousands of feet down, and then the bottom falls into infinity. Like the stock market in freefall a couple of years back. Which is why, despite all the excellent reasons for having big boats, lots of folks are into downsizing when it comes to boating, as well as everything else.
There are many ways to downsize, and it doesn’t have to be painful. One way is to get a cheap boat. No, I didn’t say “inexpensive.” That’s the politically correct thing to say. I’ve heard that boating magazine writers aren’t supposed to admit there are cheap boats out there. But I know and you know there are. What makes a cheap boat? It could be lots of things, and it’s not necessarily the price.
There are plenty of expensive cheap boats, but if I wanted a cheap boat I’d want one with the cheap price, too. An exceedingly thin fiberglass hull is one clue to cheapness. I’ve been appalled at the lack of substance to some of the hulls I’ve seen after they’ve hit rocks, sandbars, other boats, beer bottles, etc. Cheap equipment is another. Take the head, for example. Some heads, such as my favorite, the Raritan PH II, last forever and are easily repairable. Others, often found as original equipment on cheap boats, are essentially throwaways.
There are other things that make a boat cheap. I’ll never forget seeing the coffee running down the side of the cabin on a boat for sale. I thought the owner had spilled his morning cup up in the flybridge. I told him, thinking he’d like to clean it up before the next prospect came walking down the dock. The discomfort on his face prompted me to say, “Well, old buddy, do you want me to climb up there and clean it up for you?” “Nah,” he said. “It’s not coffee, it’s coring. It’s all rotten in the superstructure, and that’s just rot water seeping out the seams.” The boat was less than five years old.
Other construction methods can offer clues to cheap boats. These include trim tab supports screwed into unreinforced hull sections, stanchions screwed on and deck cleats hardly big enough for shoestrings.
But, hey, don’t write off the cheap boat. If you know it’s a cheap boat and you know why it’s a cheap boat, you might be able to buy it within your budget and have a great time anyway. And considering that some very expensive boats have deficiencies similar to those in cheap boats, you might be coming out better than the guy who spent a ton. At least you know you got a cheap boat.
Just don’t buy a boat that’s so cheap it isn’t safe — and there’s the catch. Any boat has to be able to do well and safely what it’s intended to do. Of course, this can be a stretch, since you never know what the waters you use it in are going to do in the next storm. But plan on using it within the parameters the builder had in mind when he built it (hopefully he had some parameters in mind). Just for kicks (and some long pregnant pauses), ask the builder to describe those parameters.
Next let’s consider the “inexpensive” boat, which are what we’re supposed to call “cheap” boats but, to my mind, are several steps above. The builder doesn’t want to make a “cheap” boat, nor does he want his boats to have that sort of reputation. But he does want to make boats that somebody can afford. So he tries to compromise.
There are many things a builder can do to make a relatively inexpensive boat that isn’t “cheap.” He may not use much more of that expensive glass and resin than is found in the paper-thin hulls mentioned above. But he might use better coring and better construction techniques. He’ll install smaller engines as standard. He’ll opt for cheaper methods of running a windlass and bow thrusters than, say, a hydraulic PTO and all the plumbing.
He could use manual davits to launch the dinghy, rather than a powered telescoping crane. That flat-screen TV that’s de rigueur these days (or used to be) might be stationary instead of sliding down out of sight at the push of a button. The beer cooler may not be permanently built in (and hey, maybe you can use it for a dinghy).
Having said all that, I’ve got to make a disclaimer, but it’s one I believe in fervently. You never know what the water is going to throw your way, even if it’s a pond, creek or river. So when thinking about cheap or inexpensive boats or any other boats, think extra hard about the safety factor.
The next downsizing possibility is the used boat with the “motivated owner.” That term has been overused to the point of nausea, but it’s one that has real meaning these days. Just as there are upside-down mortgages and foreclosed houses, there are lots of boats out there with very anxious owners. Start making offers and you could be pleasantly surprised.
When buying a boat, especially when the seller is financially distressed, it’s very important to get a title check. There are businesses that specialize in this. This is usually easier and more clear-cut if the boat’s documented. If it’s not, there might be more than one jurisdiction with which you should be concerned. But a qualified professional in this field can help you.
Another way to get a more affordable boat is to get a simpler boat. The more complex the boat, the more expensive it’ll be to buy and the more expensive it’ll be to maintain. I’ve written many times that I want to be comfortable on my boat. It’s as true today as it has been in the past. But I live aboard. And I might be more of a wuss than you.
The degree of comfort can significantly add to the degree of complexity. Air conditioners, sound systems, water makers, stabilizers and generators are just a few of the components you might not need. Their absence will save money now and later.
I had a friend who had many years under his keel on a nice sailboat. He got tired of the issues and found a yard in Alabama that built steel-hulled shrimp boats. They’d been doing this for generations. They didn’t even have plans. They just knew what they were doing because they did it all the time. He had them build him one, about 60 feet long. Compared with a “yacht boat,” it was cheap.
The boat embodied many of the things that enable shrimpers to stay afloat economically and making a living. Steel boats usually have lots of spaces. Weld plates over them and you have tanks. My friend was able to buy huge amounts of diesel fuel where and when the prices were right, store it in his tanks and save big bucks. He also had water tanks that held thousands of gallons. These didn’t cost much extra. They primarily involved welding plate over spaces within the hull that were already there.
He could spend an entire winter in the Bahamas on the hook without needing to buy water or install a watermaker. When it rained, the water washing down from the big decks of the cabin was funneled into the boat’s tanks, after allowing a period of time to clean the decks first. (A good glob of dissipating seagull poo can sure ruin your bourbon.)
The boat’s air conditioning was window units like you’d buy for a house. These were inexpensive and easy to maintain, compared with a dedicated yacht air-conditioning system. Carpentry was much like you’d find in a house. In a house you can usually build to straight lines and right angles. Because of the size of the shrimp boat and the hull lines, they didn’t have to build superstructure, cabinetry and other structures to conform to all of the usual curves of a traditional yacht. This was a great savings.
Windows on the main cabin were regular house frame windows like those you’d buy in Lowe’s or The Home Depot, as were the refrigeration, freezer, laundry and other household equipment. No, it didn’t look like a fine yacht. It looked like a shrimp boat. But this man had a great time for many years on his boat, living comfortably and relatively frugally. And, in my opinion, shrimp boats are beautiful.
But one doesn’t have to go to this extreme to get a more affordable boat. It’s not unusual to see a boat for sale at a great price, but you walk away because it just isn’t suited for what you want to do or it might burn far too much fuel. But there are things you can do to convert that boat into one that’ll work for you. This can involve installing new equipment. But you can tailor the equipment to the size of your boat, the size of your budget and the comfort level you desire. All of it adds value and gives you cheaper boating options.
Modifying your type of boating can save money in itself, and it also can enable you to downsize, perhaps to a “deal” boat you can modify to suit your new boating style. For example, compared to running a large sportfishing yacht offshore most weekends, or a large cruising yacht from resort to resort or up and down the coast and over to the islands, you can save big bucks if you begin local short-term simplified cruising.
You might really enjoy finding a quiet, isolated cove and anchoring out for the weekend, rather than spending a small fortune going to a resort and into restaurants. Or maybe you’d rather spend Sunday afternoons at a beach instead of racing about in a large, fast hull, underwriting OPEC. There are things you can do to a boat that can make even a fuel-guzzling marina queen suited to less expensive cruising.
Let’s play with one type of boat as an example of what I’m talking about. There are a fair number of smallish express cruisers on the market today. They were purchased when money flowed and fuel was cheap. They were typically made to go fast from marina to marina. Now the owner can’t afford that sort of boating. If you can get a good deal on one of these boats, what can you do to make it work for you in a less expensive boating mode?
Here are suggestions for changes you can make to this type of boat. If you already own this boat, these changes will allow you to downsize how you use it and reduce your boating expenses — perhaps keeping you on the water without your even having to get a smaller boat.

Going small doesn't mean you can't go in style.

Air conditioning
Forget racing from power pedestal to power pedestal, while running your generator en route, for air conditioning, cooking, heating water and all those other things you’re so accustomed to doing in your house. Perhaps if you use your boat more like a boat you can be on the water much more cheaply.
Wind scoops while anchored, with a little breeze, can make a huge difference in comfort levels below without generators, air conditioning or dockside power. Also small 12-volt fans help immensely. Modern ones use little power. Caframo, for example, markets a large variety of efficient fans for various applications. Its new Kona Model 817 can be clipped anywhere, including the cockpit. It’s “weather proof,” and at high speed it is reported to draw only 0.37 amps. (
If you have an inboard, it will act like a furnace for hours after you turn it off. Reach your destination in time to let your boat cool down for the evening while you’re enjoying the beach or paddling in your kayak. If it’s practical and safe, open a hatch to the engine space to facilitate cooling.
Do your cooking in a cockpit grill. This is more fun and it keeps the heat from the cabin. If you don’t have opening portholes, you may be able to install some. This can be tricky, especially on curved cabin sides, but some install portholes in the flat surfaces of their large non-opening windows. A permanent or temporary awning, cockpit cover or extended Bimini top will add cooler living space.

Sun showers
You don’t have to have stall showers, a water heater and huge water tanks to get a shower. Sun showers store extra water and give you a warm shower in the cockpit. These are essentially bags or other containers (dark-colored to soak up the heat) with a hose and sprinkler. Leave them in the sun to warm, place or hang them over your head and let gravity provide water flow. Buy them or make your own. I’ve used 5-gallon jugs and rigged a hose and sprinkler to the opening.
If your tanks don’t have enough water and you must bring extra in 5-gallon jugs, store them where their weight won’t affect the boat’s safety or ride. This might be, for example, strapped to the swim platform. When showering, get wet, turn the water off, soap up and wash, then turn it back on briefly to rinse.

Low-cost culinary
With a well insulated icebox, you can keep foods cold for at least a long summer weekend, even if the boat doesn’t have electric refrigeration or the power to run it. Frequently boats aren’t built with sufficient icebox insulation. The type and amount you add will depend on access around the box and what’s already there. Usually, the more the better.
Spray-on foam insulation will probably be the easiest if you can contain it around the box, but there are other materials and techniques. There is plenty of information on the Web. For example, enter “icebox insulation” in the search box of and you’ll get many results. With a well-insulated icebox, it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to install a small, efficient 12-volt refrigeration unit that consumes very little electricity and even includes a small freezer space. See, for example,
If you can’t afford a compressor or the battery power, use block ice in the box. It’ll last much longer than cubes. If you can’t find blocks, use shaved ice, which will meld together and also last longer than cubes.

You never know what the weather is going to throw your way. So when thinking about any boat, think extra hard about the safety factor.

Electricity for less
If that boat doesn’t have a generator and you can’t afford a huge battery bank, you can still spend nights out comfortably. We’ve already seen some examples of conveniences that consume little or no electricity. LED lights, for another, will use very little of your main battery power and can run for many hours on self-contained batteries, such as AAs. New LED technology makes them whiter and brighter than earlier ones.
But if you want much more than minimalist creature comforts, you’ll probably need to add battery power and, if practical, charging power. Even without a generator you can still enjoy many shore-power creature comforts while at anchor.
One or more quality deep-cycle batteries, dedicated to “house” loads, can last for a weekend, depending on the size and your usage, without recharging. Your engine-starting battery normally won’t have the reserve capacity and deep-cycling capability needed for this usage. Even if it does, it’s best to omit it from the “house” circuit so you’ll be sure it can start the engine the next morning.
Many prefer AGM batteries for house current. They are considerably more expensive than traditional lead acid wet batteries, but they are sealed, have a lot of reserve capacity for their size, charge relatively quickly and are less likely to leak harmful acids if damaged. High-quality deep-cycle wet lead acid batteries, such as those by Surrette/Rolls, which also makes AGMs, ( are also used by many.
Different batteries need different types of charging. While you’re under way, the engine should be able to keep the batteries topped up, but it may be wired to only charge the engine-starting battery, which normally has much thinner plates than your “house” battery. You’ll need to add wiring to charge the “house” battery and a selector switch so you don’t charge both types of batteries at the same time, which could harm them. This switch also can allow you to disconnect your starting battery from the “house load” so you won’t find yourself stranded.
If the engine has a car-type alternator, and it might, it probably won’t be adequate to charge a deep-cycle bank sufficiently for overnight usage. You might need to install a more powerful alternator with a programmable three-stage voltage regulator for maximum charging under way. See, for example, those by Balmar ( Buy a good marine multiple-stage charger that can be set to accommodate different types and sizes of batteries for optimum charging when you’re plugged in, or if you do run a generator. Solar panels also are an option.
To get the maximum from your battery, consider an inverter, although you’ll have to carefully monitor its battery consumption. A good one can be somewhat expensive, but with it you can use 110-volt AC equipment such as a TV and music system, rather than more expensive 12-volt DC equipment. Xantrex has a true sine wave “PROwatt” inverter in several sizes. (True sine wave output allows the inverter to power a wider variety of equipment.) Charles Industries and others also offer them (

There are many options for cooking away from the dock and without a generator. A portable countertop Origo alcohol stove can be used in the cockpit if there isn’t too much wind, and this keeps the cabin cooler. You can also use an electric Crock-Pot or other slow cooker for soups and stews. It draws very little current and is easily powered by an inverter.
If you use it under way, a proper alternator should keep the battery supplied for the inverter. A small microwave is also easily powered by a good inverter, as is an electric frying pan. Whatever method you use, carefully plan your meals in advance and budget your battery consumption.

Reliable anchoring is a cornerstone of inexpensive boating. Whether you’re anchoring overnight or just hanging out for the afternoon, you’re spending less money while you’re on the hook. Most anchoring gear is heavy, and some boats won’t perform as designed with a lot of weight in the bow. If your downsizing will mean more anchoring, you may need to improve your ground tackle.
Chain rode is key to successful anchoring — the more chain, the better. But it’s heavy. You might need to buy extra anchor chain and store it in an area where it won’t impair stability or performance. Usually this is down low, aft or amidships. Mark the ends with bright survey tape to save time sorting it out. The amount and size depend on factors such as your boat, your anchor, anchoring depths and how much your boat can safely carry with other loads.
Fortress makes anchors that have very high ratings as to holding, are light in weight (high-tensile aluminum magnesium alloy), and can be stored disassembled in small spaces and quickly assembled (
In some of the best anchorages, your chain will be covered with mud when you pull it in. The upsized folks often install a 12-volt washdown pump with a hose to squirt off the chain as it comes up. Instead, wash the chain as it comes up by grabbing it with your hands and pulling it up a few feet through the water, then letting it go to fall back again.
Pull a short section at a time so it won’t be too heavy. Repeat as necessary for each section of chain. This up-down motion usually removes most mud from the links. Of course, you’ll need to learn good anchoring techniques, and this subject alone could fill a book, but the learning curve can be a good investment and fun.
Whenever you make changes to a boat or add equipment and gear it’s important to be careful to not change the boat’s balance, running trim and other characteristics that could make it less safe. It’s also important to follow ABYC standards where relevant.
If you’re not too rigid in your habits and if you’re creative in utilizing a smaller boat’s full potential, you’ll probably have more fun for less while staying on the water.

You can downsize your boating lifestyle by anchoring in a quiet cove, barbecuing in the cockpit and enjoying the scenery.

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 September 2011 issue.