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Why smaller boats are better

In the December issue, I wrote about the boats that stand out in my life. In the course of writing, a strange thing happened: I had trouble remembering most of the boats I’ve owned or aboard which I’ve sailed. Was this the onset of Alzheimer’s? I went through my old logs, but after reading them they faded into a jumble of names and details that, while interesting, did not affect me viscerally.

The boats I remember with warmth are the smaller ones. Despite handling vessels in excess of 165 feet and 100 tons, I cherish my memories of small boats. Is this because I’m getting old and these were my learning experiences? Maybe, but I sailed more often and had more fun in smaller boats. Note that I don’t define “big” or “small.” For me, smaller boats were up to 35 feet. I could run them on my own whenever the desire arose — which was often.

1. Small boats get used more than big boats. When we lived in Canada, I would come home after work, change clothes, and drive 20 miles to Frenchman Bay to Windigo, my wooden 24-foot centerboard cutter. Sometimes my wife, Lou, joined me, sometimes friends. But I sailed her with or without companions, regardless of weather. I learned a lot about how she handled, about seamanship, and about single-handing, and those lessons stayed with me.

2. I remember sailing a friend’s 54-foot ketch out of Long Beach, Calif. He’d bought it, but couldn’t sail it without me. Now he was selling it, and I was the salesman. Two landlubbers bought the boat, then and there, because I demonstrated how “easy” she was to handle. I took her from the dock to the Pacific and back to her slip single-handed and under sail only. (I occasionally experience a twinge of conscience about that.) The point is I learned how to do it all with Windigo. You can really learn and experiment in a smaller boat.

3. You can use a small boat whenever you choose without a crew. Many big-boat owners give them up because getting a crew becomes a hassle. And many owners are never truly comfortable handling their big boats.

4. We used to drive 200 miles to sail Ten Yo, our beloved Nonsuch 30, on Lake Superior. She had a small fireplace, electric lights and a kerosene stove, as well as an icebox. She could accommodate scads of people, but we rarely sailed with more than five — my family plus, on occasion, our Airedale. I’ll admit that Windigo was light on creature comforts; you could lie down or sit below deck. And there were no lights. Cooking wasn’t an option, though we did have a portable alcohol stove. In late fall, we’d put a terra cotta flower pot over the flame to warm the cabin. Hot drinks came from thermos bottles. Nevertheless, she was fun.

5. There’s no question that bigger boats offer more in the way of accommodations. But just how many people are on board most of the time? The main saloon areas on boats are now designed to appeal to the distaff members of the team. They look like a miniature lobby in a good hotel. Such boats have air conditioning and bedroom suites, not berths for owner and crew. They’re really substitutes for waterfront homes. That’s not a bad thing when you consider the cost of waterfront property. Walk along the docks of any marina or yacht club, and you’ll see all the big ones tied up in their berths. Don’t get me wrong. I’m for comfort and decadence as much as the next guy. For me, however, sail- and powerboats are meant to be sailed — to cast off and go places even if it’s only for a day cruise.

6. If you want a substitute for waterfront property, a big powerboat is the way to go. You may even take her off the dock on occasion and turn her, as they do with Old Ironsides. But if you want a boat to use as a boat, I say go small.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.