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Coming of Age

The mystique of trawlers.

There’s a mystique to trawlers. The very word implies rugged commercial fishing boats with tough crews, fighting the sea. Trawlers are usually “shippy” looking, and people who love boats love boats that look like that. Pleasure boats called trawlers often emulate, to one extent or another, that look. It makes you feel good to see them, and it makes you feel even better to own them. While each type of boat has its own special allure, it’s hard to ignore the sense of well-being that you get while standing behind the helm in a wheelhouse, feeling the power of a large engine under your feet and knowing you can take your own special kingdom to very special places.

Many boating backgrounds

Despite the common denominator of a love for the concept, people have different reasons for buying a trawler. Some are aging sailors. The popular trawler magazine PassageMaker once sagely noted, “Sooner or later, we’re going to get you.” I’ve always felt that this is particularly appropriate to sailboat owners.

Many find that cruising under sail becomes more difficult as we age. Living spaces, comfort, the ability to get into small spaces to fix things, and clambering about the deck to deal with sail adjustments all become issues. Trawler cruisers often do the same things and go the same places as sailors. But trawlers usually can go faster and have more power available to push against adverse current, wind and sea. Many trawler owners carry sailing dinghies and sail when they reach their destinations.

Since 1969 we’ve had two cruising sailboats and two cruising motorsailers. We’ve enjoyed as many friends on trawlers as we have on sailboats, and we’ve probably visited aboard far more trawlers. (There’s more room for parties.)

And it’s obviously not just sailors turning to trawlers. Many people who are accustomed to zipping about on weekend trips in fast, light cabin boats decide to get trawlers when they retire. They want a more leisurely pace. They want to smell more roses. They feel that their former lightweight, engine-packed fast boats may be less amenable to crossing the Gulf Stream and less conducive to the do-it-yourself engine room gyrations often necessary with long-range cruising.

And then there are those who get a trawler just because it’s what they’ve always wanted. And why not? This is well-demonstrated with the tugboat-style trawlers. So many of us have always loved tugboats. If you compare a 42-foot tug-style trawler with a similar size Marine Trader or Grand Banks-style trawler — with their square sterns, broader beams and fewer curves — you’ll probably find that tugs have less living/comfort room and less engine space. But hey, it’s a tugboat, and that’s what you’ve always dreamed of.

Built for using

Most trawler owners do far more than just sit around and admire their boats. A strong feature of many trawlers is that they’re very practical. They may not take you “free on the wind” like a sailboat (this is largely a myth for most cruising sailors anyway) and may not take you at great speeds, but they can take you long distances very comfortably.

In general, there are some characteristics common to trawlers:

• They usually have large capacity tanks for fuel and water.

• Fuel consumption is low compared to most faster powerboats.

• They have the interior space for good living arrangements.

• Their machinery space is relatively easy to work in.

• It’s easier to move about on them because of wider decks and lack of stays.

• Running them is more comfortable than boats with only outside or even Bimini enclosed helm stations.

The importance of the comfort factor can’t be overemphasized. For example, it’s easier to walk through a “door” to get inside than to climb down a sailboat companionway to go below. It’s nice to travel on a relatively even keel, as compared to heeling in a sailboat. It’s great to look at the scenery through windows while you’re sitting down, rather than having to stand up and peer through a porthole. It’s nice to have space to make the bed, rather than having to do it by climbing on it.

Many trawler owners jokingly refer to their boats as their floating condos. While this sounds like a derogatory comment, it usually isn’t intended as such. They have a boat aboard which they can live very comfortably and conveniently, and they can take it with them to many perfect harbors. Because of these and other features, trawler owners usually use them a lot, and do much of their own maintenance and repair work. It’s much more fun to work in an engine room where you can actually get to things without major surgery to the boat and major follow-up surgery to your body.

Another typical feature is that trawlers usually are set up for living at anchor. They have the space and weight capacity for large battery banks, usually have generators and inverters, can carry heavy anchors and chain in the bow, and have deck space for serious anchoring gear. The ability to live for periods of time at anchor saves large sums of money that would otherwise go for transient slips in marinas and, when done well, it adds exponentially to the pleasure of being on the water.

Trawler owners typically spend weekends and vacations cruising about, hanging out in favorite spots, stopping at marinas as a matter of choice, not necessity. Many buy trawlers as retirement boats, and when the time comes they put them to their ideal use and head down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida, the Bahamas and perhaps to the Caribbean. They become part of the snowbird fleet, joining other trawlers and sailboats heading south, usually in October, and migrating north in the spring. Some make the trip around the Great Loop, the circumnavigation of the eastern portion of the United States. Interestingly, many of these folks look for a retirement house as they go, in anticipation of the day when they feel the need to go ashore.

… and then there are trawlers

I’ve said a lot about general trawler characteristics, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed the term “trawler” is being applied to all sorts of boats these days. Some feel that this is more of a marketing tactic than an accurate use of the word. But within what most consider to be “real trawler” pleasure boats, as compared to the commercial fleet, there are many variations. This is good, because not all folks who are interested in this type of boating have the same wants and needs.

I don’t mean to characterize any brand or builder with the following generalizations. Most builders try to produce what they think boat-buyers want, which affords several broad categories from which to choose. For example, there’s what I call the traditional “boxy” trawlers, such as the older Marine Traders and Grand Banks yachts, with a squared stern, wide beam, roomy hull, flybridge, raised saloon over the engine room, and often an aft cabin. I don’t use the term “boxy” in the least uncomplimentary sense. That general shape gets you a huge amount of creature comfort and these boats — enjoyed by people for many years — can be very shippy looking and attractive. They are usually seen in coastal and tributary usage.

There also are the offshore passagemaking types of trawlers, much closer to the original concept. Nordhavns are an example of these. The hulls, spaces for living, machinery and steering in boats of this category reflect their design intent. These types of trawlers typically have less open living space than the aforementioned boxy boats of the same length, but for reasons having to do with comfort and survival in the open ocean.

And then there are the so-called “fast trawlers,” some of which actually plane. This is sometimes achieved simply by loading huge engines into a displacement hull. You can tell by the tsunami wake they throw. Many consider these a bit of a stretch to be considered a trawler. There also are fast trawlers that are built lighter and have hulls designed for speed, rather than displacement powering.

We’re also seeing more of the “lobster yacht/picnic boat” type of fast trawler. These typically have sleeker hulls than the more traditional types, go faster, have much less storage and weight capacity, and often are smaller than 40 feet, although some are larger. They can be quite comfortable, convenient and fun. I don’t understand why some refer to them as trawlers, when the lobsterboat hull is such a successful concept on its own.

Obviously, you have a lot of choices when you start thinking about a trawler, including how close you want to stay with the original time-proven concept.

You can’t have it all

As is true of any type of boat, whatever you get will have its downsides. A major negative of many pleasure trawlers, both boxy and offshore, is that some roll considerably, both under way and at anchor. The fishing trawlers from which they came roll badly and often need to drag their “birds” for stabilization. This characteristic is one of the tradeoffs with the hull type. But passive and active stabilizers can greatly help with this problem while under way, and these are time-tested and proven.

Another negative we’ve often seen is that some of the coastal trawlers do very poorly in large, following seas. This is in part a function of that flat stern, which allows much more interior space, and bow heaviness resulting from the wheelhouse and other structures forward. We’ve often seen these boats tacking down-sea to avoid problems. But when used as intended, in protected waters and good weather at sea, they satisfy their owners immensely.

I mentioned above the sheer pleasure of being able to look out those big windows. When you’re looking out at boarding seas, however, that pleasure can quickly turn into horror. We’ve known these nice windows to implode inward with the force of waves, with the results you’d imagine, including sinking. But if the boat is used for its intended purpose, you’re far less likely to have this problem. And if part of the boat’s intended purpose is to be offshore in weather, there are ways to substantially beef up windows.

Many of the boxy trawlers, as well as the large offshore vessels, have a lot of windage, and even with twin engines they can be blown about while docking or maneuvering in close quarters. But practice with twin screws can give you a great deal of control, and bow and stern thrusters can turn potential maneuvering disasters into pieces of cake.

There are other potential downsides, but they usually have to do with the design purpose. It’s the old tradeoff nemesis that we boat owners have always dealt with. You can’t have it all unless you’re very wealthy, and if you are, well, would you like a friend?

The not so good and the good

The trawler lifestyle isn’t without the need for a lot of work. To travel far from your home marina and do it well and safely, you need to be self-reliant. You need to be able to fix things, from diesels to water pumps to electric motors. You need to learn how to anchor well and invest in the right equipment. You must learn how to provision your boat so that you have what you need for long periods of time when there are no shopping centers around. You must learn seamanship skills, such as handling weather, using paper charts and plotting courses (even though you have electronic chart-plotting equipment, as you should), and handling your boat in adverse circumstances.

In short, you need to learn how to live perhaps as you’ve never lived before — where there isn’t Mother Infrastructure to succor you and tell you what to do and how to do it at every step. You may be largely on your own when you head out to distant cruising grounds. But as I see it, that’s no problem, mon. It’s just a part of the fun — and it’s beautiful out here.



The RIB Comes of Age

A ride offshore aboard a Ribcraft 9.0 shows how RIBs have evolved to become great all-purpose boats.