Pocket change

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Thinking of changing to a smaller boat? Switching from sail to power? Here’s why pocket cruisers make sense.

Pocket cruisers are gaining popularity for their efficiency and lower purchase and upkeep costs, and their appeal is resonating with baby boomers who are downsizing from bigger cruising boats or migrating from sail.

Connecticut boaters Geoffrey Balshaw (left) and Bill Bucknall each switched from sailboats to a Nordic Tug 26.

The global economic funk, now approaching five years, certainly has added to the appeal of these modestly powered boats under 30 feet, which tend to go lighter on the bells and whistles and are designed for overnighting or weekending.

Bruce Perkins, sales manager for Eastern Boats, a 32-year-old builder of Down East-style boats in Milton, N.H., says customers are clear about what draws them to his lineup, which tops out at 35 feet. “They consistently focus on three things: the Down East design, the fuel efficiency and the fact that they’re affordable,” Perkins says. “Our customers also like the fact that most of our boats are trailerable, which only adds to the affordability aspect.”

Eastern’s newest boat, launched this past spring, is the 27 Islander, a larger and beamier version (10-foot beam) of the company’s most popular model, the 248 Islander. Powered by twin 150-hp Yamaha 4-strokes, the 27 Islander weighs in at 8,000 pounds and burns 9 to 10 gallons an hour cruising at 23 to 25 mph. Base price is $159,995.

“We feel we’re right in tune with what people are looking for,” Perkins says. “All of our customers are talking about fuel efficiency, even the guy in the million-dollar waterfront home. It’s a sign of the times. People don’t want to give up boating, but at the same time they don’t want to go over the top in terms of dollars to get a comfortable cruising boat they can trailer to different cruising grounds.”

The traditional profile of Eastern’s boats is a selling point. “They don’t want a cookie-cutter boat, but one with some style in the design,” Perkins says. In fact, Eastern recently added a dealer in Florida — Wefing’s Marine on the Panhandle in Eastpoint (www.wefings.com) — because of customer demand.

Eastern’s customers tend to be a mix of downsizing tug and trawler owners and former sailors, in addition to first-time buyers, he says. “We’ve converted a lot of sailors. They’re baby boomers, and they’ve sailed to the islands, done The Loop or other long cruises,” Perkins says. “They’re done with that portion of their lifestyle, and now their cruising is day trips or overnighters. They don’t need a big boat anymore.”

Eastern, which also builds Seaway, Rosborough and Sisu boats, offers 10 models from 18 to 35 feet (www.easternboats.com). The Seaway fleet comprises 11 models from 18 to 24 feet and this fall will see the introduction of a wider-beamed Seafarer 27 (www.seawayboats.com). “It will be a classic Down East bass-boat styling, all dressed up with teak and Ultraleather and powered by twin 4-stroke outboards,” Perkins says. “This model will be the new top of the line in the Seaway fleet.”

Eastern Boats introduced the 27 Islander this spring.

Eastern recently bought the recreational line from Nova Scotia builder Rosborough Boats and plans to launch its first RF-246 this year (www.rosboroughboatsusa.com). Tooling for the Sisu 22 came with the Rosborough purchase, and the return of the popular boat — with a pilothouse and likely to be named the Sisu 22 Seaskiff — is slated for the Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show in September.

A tale of two tugs

The Nordic Tug 26 was the first model launched by Pacific Northwest builder Nordic Tugs more than 30 years ago when the oil crisis of the 1970s focused attention like a laser on fuel costs and efficiency. The pocket cruiser was a hit for the times, but it was overshadowed as people began to buy larger boats and was discontinued in 1997. (The builder’s largest model is now a 54-footer.)

Geoffrey Balshaw, of Essex, Conn., bought a Nordic Tug 26 from that last model year and is still cruising in it today. “On seeing the boat, I really fell in love with her and decided it was just what I wanted,” the longtime sailor says of his 2001 conversion to power. “It is a boat which can easily be single-handed. For her size, my West Wind is very seaworthy and, in my experience, handles well in fairly rough seas.”

In 2009, with with fuel prices spiking once more, Nordic Tugs brought back this classic pocket cruiser. The revived model’s standard 110-hp Yanmar diesel delivers a cruising speed of 8 to 10 knots, burning 2 gph at 8 knots and less than 1 gph at 6 knots. Pricing starts at $199,900.

This spring, Bill Bucknall, of Milford, Conn., made his own leap from sail to power when he purchased a 2012 Nordic Tug 26 (www.nordictugs.com). His timing was especially good because with that model year, Nordic Tugs designed a new interior liner that reduced production time and cost, and new features, including a redesigned helm, a larger berth, additional storage, an expanded hatch above the transom door, a sliding screen on the transom door and a stateroom side seat.

Bucknall was enthusiastically gaining his powerboat sea legs this spring during sea trials at Wilde Yachts in Essex, Conn., where he purchased the boat (www.wildeyachts.com). “I’m essentially a pure sailor, owning an O’Day 27 and more recently a Hunter 29,” he says. “I never did power before, but I got to the stage where I wanted to be less dependent on the weather and the wind. I was leaning toward a tug or trawler, but for making the switch I didn’t want to move up that big. This was the right size for me from the outset.”

After years of sailing, Balshaw and Bucknall (from left, with Bucknall's brother) both appreciate the comfort of their Nordic Tugs.

Both owners concede that age — Bucknall is 70 and Balshaw is now 82 — was a factor in their decision to buy the 26-footer, but they also knew it was time to make the transition. “I had a Downeast 32 cutter ketch named Almada, which my wife and I lived aboard for three summers, based in Essex, and cruised along the New England coast,” says Balshaw, a retired raw cotton trader from Peru. “About 12 years ago, when I was 70 and my wife’s health was failing, I felt my ketch was getting to be too much work for me. I originally was thinking of a lobster boat, something that did not demand so much work in commissioning and decommissioning. Since I am a bit of a traditionalist, I also wanted a boat that looked like a boat and not a seagoing auto, if you know what I mean.”

A widower, Balshaw says he now stays closer to home on the Connecticut River or makes the short run to Fishers Island in eastern Long Island Sound.

For Bucknall, the timing of his switch to power also was one of comfort. “I had sailed for so long I was ready to move on,” says Bucknall, who retired five years ago from a career in human resources at United Technologies Corp. and has sailed out of Milford Harbor and Long Island Sound for more than 25 years. “With sailing, when a storm starts to come in you have to try to race back to the slip. Now if I get caught out in bad weather I have a place to hide out — a heated pilothouse.”

He also likes the high freeboard and ease of single-handing when he has any of his four grandchildren on board. The sliding door on both sides of the pilothouse make for an easy exit to handle lines.

Comfort and stability

As more baby boomers reach retirement age, builders of these modestly sized, seaworthy, fuel-efficient pocket cruisers are seeing an influx of business. Some boomers are getting out of bigger boats, but many are sailors ready to douse their sails. The attractions include easy single-handing, reliable on-demand propulsion and an enclosed three- or four-season pilothouse.

Wilde Yachts owner Ben Wilde says speed is not an issue for his sail-savvy customers. “Almost every 26 and even 32 we sell goes to former sailors,” he says. “They’re happy to run at slow speeds, 6 or 8 knots, and burn almost nothing.”

Bucknall says that’s plenty fast. “When you’re accustomed to sailing, if you make 5 knots, you’re doing well,” he says. “This [Nordic Tug 26] cruises at 8 knots and can top out at 14. It’s nice to have that steady power behind you.

“I was a fair-weather sailor, and maybe I’ll be a little more adventurous with power, but I’ll still be safety-conscious,” he adds.

Bucknall and Balshaw both enjoy the comforts their pocket cruisers offer. “The interior space and layout for its size was not much different from my ketch. This, of course, pleased my wife,” Balshaw says. “Also what I enjoy is being able to take the boat out on the spur of the moment alone or with one other person and not have to depend on a crew.”

Bucknall named his new boat A Few Bucks as a play on his last name. “The amenities — from the head to the two-burner propane cook top, microwave and mini-fridge — all seem to be well thought out in the layout,” he says. “The dinette also converts to a berth. It’s fully outfitted with electronics. I have the Raymarine e7 electronics package, a Fusion stereo system, much more than I’m used to having and certainly more advanced than anything I’m used to on my sailboats.”

As for the head compartment with a stand-up shower in the forward stateroom, Bucknall says, “By comparison to what I had as a head in the sailboat, this is luxury.”

He says he is comfortable with his new boat and is looking forward to spending time on the water. “I don’t have a goal in terms of engine hours. I just want to enjoy it and get as much use out of it as possible this summer,” Bucknall says.

Balshaw sees his boat as one of the compromises we all must make at some point in our boating lives. “I must tell you that there is nothing like cruising under sail,” he says, “but the next best is cruising with my NT26, West Wind.”

See related articles:

- The small boat fleet

- Moving up to a pocket cruiser

August 2013 issue