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Small boats, good cigars, the art of simple pleasures

A small boat, a good cigar, pleasant conversation with an old friend, fish on the prowl, a warm breeze - that's about as close to heaven as this old Yankee can hope to get when I leave the slip and follow the tide down the bay.

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I've long been an advocate of simple pleasures when it comes to boats. Don't overcomplicate things. Stick to the basics. Focus on the journey, the moment, not the flat-panel TV or your smart phone or some other distraction better suited for life back on terra firma.

For me, anyway, small boats have always provided that magic, as they have for scores of others. Our lives are difficult enough without making our boats overly complex, too. Simple, seaworthy and efficient. That's a pretty good mantra - and a proven formula for racking up days, years, decades on the water.
Small boats take us places where our larger brethren with their deeper underbodies and bluewater pedigrees cannot easily venture. The flats, the shallows, saltwater creeks and tide steams - places off the beaten path. Not for everybody, but that's what makes our watery world go round. You find the boat and the places that work for you.
When it comes to boats, size is relative. One man's primary boat is another man's tender - literally. It used to be that a small boat was, what, under 20 feet, 25 feet? That old measure has changed some. If you're fishing well offshore in a 30-foot boat, for instance, you're fishing a small boat.
One yardstick sometimes used to define the parameters of a small boat is any craft you can easily single-hand. But that's really more applicable to sail than it is to power. You can handle a pretty fair-sized powerboat alone. Small is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
One observation I will make is that, foot for foot, small boats over the last two decades have gotten progressively "bigger." By bigger I mean deeper, wider, heavier and faster. Small boats today are able to carry far more horsepower and weight than their forebears. They can run smoother in snotty conditions thanks to more sophisticated bottom designs. Increased fuel capacity has provided them far more range. And the advent of powerful, affordable small-boat electronics - from plotters to radar to EPIRBs - has given their operators the confidence and ability to disappear over the horizon, which at times is something of a mixed blessing.
In short, small boats have gotten more capable. Most small craft, as long as they're well-designed and well-built, will take more wind and seas and punishment than skipper and crew are comfortable with. If you pick your weather carefully, you can cross some big water in a reliable little tub.
Several months ago I wrote about Chris and Maureen Carsel, who completed a 3,000-plus-mile voyage from Brooklin, Maine, to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in a Duffy 26 they had bought in the Pine Tree State.
"Most people thought the boat was too small for the journey," Chris told me. "However, most of them waited, while we waited, for the same window of weather."
You need to know your vessel's capabilities as well as its limitations. That's true of any boat, but especially a smaller one. And when you do get caught out in more weather than you bargained for - and trust me, it's not a question of "if" but, rather, "when" - slow down, put on your life jacket and carefully work your way to safer waters.
At the end of the day, the size of the craft often is not as critical as the experience of the skipper - think Shackleton or Bligh. In the right hands, small boats can do remarkable things.
There are plenty of folks who subscribe to the theory that you can't have too much boat. They're happiest with 50 or more feet beneath them. Depending on how the boat is used, that makes perfect sense.
Plenty of boaters (at least prerecession) had a chronic case of "3-foot-a-year disease." They were always looking ahead to their next vessel - and it was invariably larger. I'm not so sure that's as widespread as it once was. I suspect a fair number of graying boomers are downsizing for reasons that include everything from economics to ease of use and maintenance.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question, Should you buy the largest boat you can afford or the smallest one that will get the job done? It's really a matter of how much you want to spend and what works best for you and the type of boating you do. One of the keys to longevity on the water is finding that right boat - and that certainly includes size.
A veteran Great Loop cruiser once told me, "There's no reason to rush. You get more of the essence if you're not on plane all the time."
Isn't that what we want from our time on the water? More of what used to be called the "real thing." Good friends, good talk, a good dog, a smart little boat. Getting closer to the essence all the time.

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"Islanders have the same respect for the sea as sailors, for what is an island but a huge moored ship breasting the blue water stream, the ebb and flow of the tide." - Ray Kauffman

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.