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Size Matters

Should you go big when buying a boat, or keep it small and simple?

Should you go big when buying a boat, or keep it small and simple?

You’re in the market for another boat — new or used, it doesn’t really matter. Here’s the question: What size should you choose? Do you look for the smallest boat that will do the job comfortably, or do you go the extra mile and buy the largest boat you can afford?

Is bigger always better? Consider the flip side. Does it make sense to buy a 28-footer if you and your family are going to be kicking yourselves at the end of the season for not getting the 32? When was the last time you spent the night — or a weekend — in the cabin of a small boat? Will you be satisfied with boat “camping,” or does your idea of comfort include a master stateroom with island berth, hanging lockers and full head with separate shower?

I’m convinced that one of the secrets to boating happiness is finding the right size boat. It’s one of those decisions that can affect everything from the number of days you spend on the water to the amount of money you shell out each season. Maybe most important is the satisfaction quotient. How much fun are you having, and would you have more fun in a larger or smaller boat?

Small boats are more spontaneous, cheaper, require less upkeep time and money, and will take you places that larger boats can’t go, argue their proponents. Big boats offer bluewater cruising capabilities with all the creature comforts in a full range of weather and sea conditions.

When it comes to size, there is no one right answer, of course. There will always be a steady stream of people moving up in boat length. The industry refers to it as the “3-foot a year” disease. We’ve probably all had a bout of it at one time or another.

At the same time, a growing number of graying baby boomers are downsizing, moving to smaller boats that require less work both to operate and maintain. The key is to determine what makes sense for you.

Be honest with yourself

When you’re looking for your next boat, realistically evaluate what you need that boat to do. “It’s very important to figure out how you’re going to use it,” says George Sass Sr., a veteran marine marketing consultant from Annapolis, Md., who in 2003 completed a yearlong 7,500-mile voyage of the Great Loop, including two months in the Bahamas. “People have to ask themselves, Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? How comfortable do you need to be?”

Sass poses another question: Do you want to carry your house around with you? “Some people feel the boat has to replicate the house,” he says. “It doesn’t. A boat is different.”

Sass and his family cruised aboard a custom Thomas Point 43, Sawdust, which the skipper describes as a “small 43,” with no flybridge but a large cockpit. “We always felt comfortable on Sawdust,” says Sass. “The last thing we wanted to be in was an air-conditioned, carpeted environment.”

On the voyage Sass and his wife developed this mantra: The size of the boat is inversely proportional to the amount of fun you have.

“I just saw so many people out there waiting for parts, waiting for this and that. The wife was intimidated about taking the helm,” he recalls. “Most people wind up buying a boat much bigger than they really need, and then everything goes up exponentially. The costs, the systems.”

Sass remembers fondly the simple, seaworthy 26-foot Folkboat he sailed on Chesapeake Bay in the late 1970s. He sold it for a 37-foot ketch. “I look back, and I have better memories and had better sailing on my Folkboat,” he says. “I loved being on the water with that boat.”

If you’ve come to boating later in life and you want to start with a larger vessel, Sass advises new owners to hire professional help to show them how to run the boat and operate the systems.

Define the mission

Former Coast Guard commander Dick Dein recommends people only buy the largest boat they really need, because beyond that the problems multiply.

“A boat is a small city, and you have to take care of it yourself,” says Dein, 61, who has held a masters license for more than 40 years and serves as an expert witness in court cases involving seamanship and navigation. “You’re the director of public works. The fewer systems you have, the simpler it is and the less that can go wrong.”

Like Sass, Dein advises that people in the market for another boat be honest with themselves over how they intend to use it. Make a rational evaluation and write down your thoughts on a piece of paper, he says. Initially, don’t worry about size, power or speed.

“Once you figure out what you want the boat to do, the design parameters fall into place,” says Dein, who helped prepare these so-called “mission needs statements” when developing new Coast Guard boats, including the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat on which he was project manager.

For example, don’t buy a boat with a galley and berths if you’re not going to use them, he advises. “In many ways,” Dein says, “it’s cheaper to stay in a bed-and-breakfast than it is to bring a hotel and restaurant with you.”

Megayacht consultant Mark Masciarotte says buyers ideally would take a lesson from those who purchase airplanes, a process he describes as completely mission-driven: how the aircraft will be used, its range, the number of passengers it must carry, and so on.

“Define the mission,” says Masciarotte, president of DSG Associates of Vancouver, Wash. “It applies to a picnic boat or a Dyer 29.”

A longtime boater who grew up sailing a Stone Horse pocket cruiser with his father, Masciarotte says he believes people typically buy more boat than they need, at least until they’ve owned several boats.

“And the reason is they miscalculate what their real needs are going to be,” he says. “They think they’re going to go farther than they do, stay aboard longer than they will, and carry more people.”

And while he’s often working with clients building boats greater than 100 feet, Masciarotte’s personal favorite was an 18-1/2-foot Maverick flats boat that he and his family used for fishing and dayboating.

“We had more fun with that boat,” he says. “We took it all over Florida. It was great. I like boats you can run yourself or with your spouse. I think that’s what boating’s all about.”

You can’t have too much boat

Capt. Barry Kunst of Boca Raton, Fla., is a strong advocate of the bigger-is-better doctrine. “You can never buy too much boat, and there are two good reasons for it,” says Kunst, who’s been on the water for 35 years and holds a 100-ton master’s license. “First, there’s never enough room for stuff you want to put on it. And second, you never have enough boat when you’re out in 8- to 10-footers in the Gulf Stream.”

Kunst advises people buy as much boat as they can, even if it’s a little more than they think they can afford. “You’ll be happier with it,” he promises.

Kunst, who has run boats up to about 105 feet, admits small boats are simpler. “But I’m thinking as a professional, and my profession says the more boat the better,” he says. “If I have 45 to 65 feet of boat under me, I’m pretty happy.”

There’s no question that today’s well-built small boats are more capable than their predecessors. They can go farther and faster with more comfort and safety, thanks to improved power, sophisticated navigation and communications electronics, and better construction and hull designs. On the right day, a small sportfishing boat can be right out there side-by-side with the big boys.

“If you watch the weather and pick your day … you can do the same thing in a smaller boat and be just as happy,” says Frank Longino, a managing partner of Southport Boat Works of Leland, N.C., which is building a new 26-foot center console designed specifically for today’s V-6 4-stroke outboards. “The 26-footer gives you the range to go offshore, with dual engines. That’s not to say I don’t like a big boat. They’re nice. They’re comfortable.” But, Longino adds, “It’s a lot more efficient to keep a small boat.”

Dollars and sense

Whether you’re looking for a large boat, a small one or something in between, Longino says it makes financial sense to purchase the boat that will make you happy in the long run. Don’t try and “sneak up” on it, he says, by buying an interim boat — selling it in a couple of years just when the depreciation on it is greatest, then buying again — because you may wind up losing money.

“Buy a boat that you will be happy with in five years,” he recommends.

For someone with a fixed budget, Sass recommends buying a smaller, higher-quality boat with a good reputation rather than a larger one that isn’t as well-regarded but costs the same. “I’d rather be on a smaller, better-built boat,” Sass says.

And be careful about taking on more than you can either afford or handle comfortably. “You can find some big used boats for great prices relative to newer boats of the same size,” says Doug Logan, editor at large of Practical Sailor. “But generally those boats are on the market either because the owner couldn’t afford the ongoing costs for dockage and storage, parts, maintenance, fuel, insurance and so on. Or it was just too big a boat to manage by themselves or with whatever crew they could find — and they rarely got out on the water. Most often, it’s both of those problems.”

If you buy a big boat without the cash to support it or crew to run it, Logan says you’ll be saddled with those same problems, which will only eat up what you saved on the initial price. “It’s like your eyes being too big for your stomach when you pile food on your plate,” says Logan, who owns a handsome diesel-powered 26-foot Oldport hull finished off Down East style.

Beyond economics and crew problems, Logan says there’s another strong argument in favor of small boats. “They get you a lot closer to the elements that, presumably, you’re out there to enjoy,” he says. “As long as they’re well-designed and well-built, and you’re not foolhardy about weather and sea conditions, you can cover a lot of water in a small boat, especially shallow water.”

How small is small?

So just what constitutes a small boat? The definition is in the eye of the beholder. One loose parameter is the ability to operate the boat alone, but even that lends itself to a pretty broad size range.

Sass, for instance, has no trouble running the 43-foot Sawdust by himself.

“I like being able to hop on my boat without a crew,” he says. “Go out and handle it comfortably alone.”

“I think of small as a boat you can single-hand easily,” says Logan, who used to sail a 33-footer alone. “In a powerboat, I guess the sky’s the limit. On a sailboat of any size, you need someone else to be with you. Look at the number of 35- to- 50-foot boats that just live at the dock.”

“There’s small,” notes Longino, who builds the 26-foot Southport, “and then there’s small.”

David Getchell Sr. would fall into the category of “and then there’s small.” A skilled boatman and an articulate proponent of small craft, Getchell is right at home in anything 20 feet and less.

“Cruising in small boats is a lot of fun,” says Getchell, 75, of Appleton, Maine, the founding editor of Small Boat Journal and a former editor of National Fisherman magazine. “With a yacht, you can go about one-third of the places along the coast. With a small boat, you can see the other two-thirds.”

The intrepid Getchell once cruised 900 miles round-trip along the central coast of Labrador from Red Bay to north of Nain in an 18-foot outboard-powered aluminum skiff. One October, he ran an 18-footer from Portland, Maine, to New York City and up the Hudson. And as founder of the Maine Island Trail Association, he spent about a year and a half surveying Maine’s state-owned islands in an 18-foot aluminum Lund.

By virtue of their size, small boats also place a premium on a skipper’s good judgment regarding weather and sea conditions. “You have to have your act together because you can get in trouble,” warns Getchell. “But a small boat will take a lot more water than you want to be out in. If you’re going to cruise in small boats, you’re going to get caught in rough water sometime. I mean rough. You’ve got to find out what your boat will do.”

After being caught out enough times, he notes, “You’ll get comfortable in white-knuckle water.”


As Bob Johnstone’s personal interests shifted from sail to power several years ago, the noted sailboat builder began looking for a powerboat that would fit his vision. He’d owned a pair of Dyer 29s, which he liked, but felt there was a market for something a bit different.

“I wanted a boat that was comfortable and seaworthy,” says Johnstone, 70, a founding partner with his brother Rod of J/Boats, the successful sailboat builder in Newport, R.I. “And one that Mary [his wife] could take out and handle alone. If I couldn’t have come up with a pretty boat, I wouldn’t have done it.”

The result is the diesel-powered 34z, which was designed by Doug Zurn, and built by composites wizard and sailboat builder Mark Lindsay. Launched about a year and a half ago, the 34z is aimed in part at the aging baby boomer who has owned larger boats, and has had his or her fill of racing and extended voyaging.

“As they get older … they don’t want to get out of boating, but they don’t want that 50-footer,” says Johnstone. “They want a high-quality product that they can afford. They want something new that will restore the joy of boating as they knew it, the joy of pulling the tiller on a nice sailboat or buzzing around the harbor in a powerboat.”

This past summer Johnstone was in Newport launching a J/100 when he got the news he’d been hoping for. After church one Sunday, his wife packed a picnic lunch, grabbed her bathing suit, and took the boat alone from Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, up Somes Sound, where she picked up a mooring and settled back to enjoy the New York Times.

“When I heard that, it was: Hooray, mission accomplished,” Johnstone recalls. “A boat like this provides a joint experience. We’re making an excuse to spend time together.”

Yacht designer Tom Fexas thinks he may have a solution to the big boat vs. small boat debate. “Ideally, you need two boats,” says Fexas, a marine engineer and president of Tom Fexas Yacht Design of Stuart, Fla. “The big boat for the cruise you might take, and you need the smaller outboard boat that you can take out easily, go fishing, overnight. Just relax.”

And if you can’t have two?

“I think the smaller one gives you more pleasure,” answers Fexas, adding with a laugh that he hates to admit that, given that he designs large boats for a living. “Irrespective of the money, I think a smaller boat gets used more,” says Fexas, who designed the Midnight Lace series of yachts and owns a 43-foot Mikelson. “A big boat is a big deal. A lot of big boats don’t get used that much down here in Florida. They sit at the dock and don’t move.”

After discussing the topic for a while, Fexas comes to a conclusion. “Maybe the ideal is something midsize,” he says. “Not too big, not too small, with cruising accommodations for two or four. A 32-footer. Something like the [Pearson] True North.”

After all, he says, “You can have the same enjoyment sitting in the sun on a small boat as you can on a 100-footer. The idea is to get out on the water.”



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