Why Bigger isn’t always Better
We chose a smaller boat to cruise Mexico, and we’ve never looked back
As I write this, I am aboard First Light, our Pacific Seacraft 31, in an anchorage at Isla San Francisco, in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. As usual, ours is the smallest cruising boat in port.
In the months since my husband and I took off from Southern California to sail down the Baja Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas, we’ve met a handful of other small-boat sailors. There was one couple, for example, cruising Mexico in a Pacific Seacraft Flicka 20. Another had twice done the Pacific Circle aboard their Alberg 28 before deciding to hang up their ocean-cruising hats and keep the boat in Ensenada, Mexico. They now sail the Gold Coast of Mexico every season, finishing with the Baja Bash back to San Diego in the spring.
Like us, these sailors chose smaller boats for a number of different reasons—and like us they’re all glad they did.
When we began boat-shopping in 2004, we wanted to get the best cruising boat we could afford without going into debt. We could have bought a much larger production boat for what we paid for First Light, but we knew from experience that the initial price isn’t the only cost to consider when purchasing a boat.
Quality construction pays for itself many times over, and we were confident the Pacific Seacraft 31 is a quality boat. During our travels around Mexico, we’ve met many cruisers who were stuck some place, waiting for parts. In fact, we’ve now come to believe that many sailors spend much of each season waiting for parts, their cruising thwarted because their boats are old and everything is wearing out. Granted, waiting for parts in a lovely location is not necessarily a hardship, but it’s also not the lifestyle we envisioned.
If you purchase a smaller cruiser, you are more likely to be able to afford to buy a new or nearly new boat, in which case the systems on board will have lots of life left. Additionally, the parts you do need to purchase will cost less, as will all other maintenance expenses.
Another factor to consider is the availability of slips in the marinas you’ll be visiting. In addition to being more affordable, small slips are almost always available, while larger slips often are not.
In Mexico, we find we spend more time in marinas than we thought we would. For starters, they are the only place you can consistently find readily available potable water, and of course, it’s a lot easier to haul jugs of water to a boat in a slip than at anchor. Mexico also has a distinct lack of well-protected anchorages, so that marina slips for larger boats are often either unavailable or prohibitively expensive, forcing bigger boats to anchor out in deeper, rougher water. We frequently hear people say they’re leaving an area solely because the anchorage is too uncomfortable.
Finally, many marinas in Mexico are affiliated with resorts that are happy to open their facilities to you for a fraction of what resort guests pay. We often take advantage of this, swimming in their pools, booking excursions into the interior, eating nice meals out and even taking yoga classes—all
indulgences that would be affordable if we had to pay higher slip fees for a larger vessel.
We wanted a boat we could manage by ourselves. On our small cutter, the rig is shorter, and we can handle everything on board, just the two of us. We didn’t want to spend time and energy finding additional crew for longer passages; instead we wanted to cruise on our own schedule and not be held up seeking help.
Though not every new boat owner will factor this into his or her decision, portability was a big selling point for us.
In 2006, we shipped First Light to Anacortes, Washington, and spent the next four months cruising the San Juan and Gulf Islands. At the end of that period we shipped the boat back to Southern California. The cost of transporting the boat there and back was about the same as a two-week bareboat charter in high season aboard a larger boat.
Two weeks on charter or four months on your own boat? You be the judge of which is the better value.
The decision to cruise is often framed as a two–sided coin. Option number one has you cutting all ties and spending years visiting far-off destinations; option two has you staying at home, where you rent a mooring and spend your evenings, weekends and vacations cruising locally.
There is, however, a third option that involves selecting a small cruiser that is capable of long-distance cruising, should you wish, but is also just as capable of keeping you happy close to home.
Since purchasing First Light, we have cruised Central and Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and well over a thousand miles in Mexico. We keep a townhouse in Southern California and enjoy having a home to return to. We haven’t crossed an ocean yet, but should we decide to, I am sure our small cruiser will be able to take us anywhere we choose to go.
Have we ever wished we had a larger boat? Heck, yeah, usually when preparing a meal in the all-too-cozy galley or trying to find something in a tightly packed locker. Larger boats come with bigger accommodations, more storage and more space for socializing. I’m sure a large-boat owner can easily rationalize their boat-buying decision. But for us, on board our little First Light, we’re happy being the smallest boat in port.
Photos and story by Paula VanEnwyck-Christie
Paula Vanenwyck-Christie and her husband, Brian, have sailed for more than 30 years in California, Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. They’re now on the hard in Irvine, CA, planning their next adventure