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Cruising Criteria: How to Pick the Best Cruiser

The eternally fascinating mental exercise of choosing, equipping and organizing priorities on my ideal cruising boat has kept me awake on countless night watches over the last 30 years and 300,000 miles of bluewater sailing and coastal cruising. No matter where I sail or how ambitious my plans, there are a few things on my dream boat that are not negotiable.

The eternally fascinating mental exercise of choosing, equipping and organizing priorities on my ideal cruising boat has kept me awake on countless night watches over the last 30 years and 300,000 miles of bluewater sailing and coastal cruising.

No matter where I sail or how ambitious my plans, there are a few things on my dream boat that are not negotiable.

I don’t want a boat that takes forever to get anywhere; she has to be relatively quick, and if she’s not fun to sail I might as well get a powerboat.

She must have a good light feel on the wheel, and she has to do what I ask her to without hesitation—if I’m sailing into some inlet in large following seas, I want to know that when I put the helm over she’s going to respond. In light airs I would much rather sail quietly into the evening than turn on the engine to make port, so she has to be fairly easily driven by her sailplan. That having been said, she must also motor well; much as I hate to admit it, sometimes you have to use an engine to get to get where you’re going.

My boat must be well-rigged and strongly built. There will be times during coastal hops when I will reef late or not at all, just to revel in the sheer joy of pushing the boat hard in a breeze. These days it’s hard to find the lonely places; in trying to search them out, I’m sure to tap the bottom with my keel—sometimes hard.

I would rather anchor out than tie up at a dock, so I need a good windlass and an all- or mostly chain rode. Copious lockers belowdecks will ensure everything has a place; I hate having stuff fall all over the place when I tack. I prefer to sail in warm weather, so there must be plenty of natural ventilation below. On deck, a bimini will shade most of the cushion-lined cockpit. On cool days, a stout dodger will provide shelter, and some kind of heater will keep the cabin cozy when it’s raw on deck.

Horses for Courses

Your home waters should influence the type of boat you buy. If my coastal-cruising grounds were in New England, I’d want my boat to be able to handle offshore conditions, as many parts of the coastline are exposed to the ocean. In the Pacific Northwest, because of the logs and logging debris floating around, I’d want a stout rudderpost and a protected prop; a tall rig would be a boon in the light airs so often found there in the summer. If I lived near the Florida Keys, there’d be no point owning a boat without a centerboard.

A coastal boat can be a fairly light design, because her cruising gear will amount to a smaller percentage of her total displacement than a bluewater liveaboard boat. However, you don’t need to sacrifice sailing performance to go offshore. Bob Perry’s iconic Valiant 40 is a perfect example. Its moderate displacement, good performance under sail and comfortable layout make it an ideal choice for long-distance cruising; you can say the same about many other modern designs.

I Can Dream, Can’t I?

What would my ideal cruising monohull look like if money were no object? She’d have a tall, well-supported carbon-fiber ketch rig, with slightly swept-back spreaders (to eliminate the need for running backstays) and a staysail and 120 percent genoa on electric roller-furlers. Lazyjacks would gather the main and mizzen into a Hall Spars “V” Boom. A furling asymmetric spinnaker would be set from a short sprit.

Electric primary and secondary winches would flank a low-profile center cockpit with high comfortable coamings. Square corners make lounging comfortable and provide a spot to wedge into on rough days. Main and mizzen sheets, halyards and reefing lines would all lead through rope clutches to another pair of electric winches beneath a hard dodger. I’d want big rope bins to eliminate cockpit spaghetti. I’d also like a bimini that retracts into the dodger so I can gaze at the stars during night watches.

On the bow, an oversized windlass would handle the all-chain rodes on both a Danforth and a CQR anchor. In a large, shallow forepeak locker there’d be stowage for downwind sails, fenders, docklines and assorted spare sheets. Aft, lockers in the quarters would house cleaning supplies and other items I want handy. Steps in the reverse transom will end at an integral swim platform just a little below dinghy-gunwale height.

Belowdecks I’d like a standard layout for a big center-cockpit boat. The aft cabin would have a centerline queen-sized berth, a comfortable chair, a large desk, and plenty of storage space. The head would have a shower stall large enough to hang two sets of foulweather gear without touching. A door would lead forward to the nav station in the port aft corner of the saloon, where two multifunction displays would show radar, charts and other sailing data. Communications equipment would include a VHF radio, a single-sideband radio and a satphone. Manuals for each piece of gear and schematics for each system on the boat would be stored in a computer.

In the saloon there’d be a large U-shaped dinette with squared off corners for comfortable lounging. Another settee opposite would have a leecloth and would be long enough to be used as a sea berth. Below each there’d be drawers for spares and tools. There’d be hatches overhead for light and ventilation, ports in the cabinhouse and a couple of diner’s-eye-high ports in the topsides. Water and diesel tanks would be below the cabin sole, to keep weight low.

Forward I’d like a pair of cabins, one with upper and lower berths, the other with a large double. They’d share a spacious centerline head and shower. A large watertight hatch in the bulkhead would allow access to the anchor chain.

My mind’s-eye boat is constructed of fiberglass and carbon fiber with Kevlar reinforcing in the bow. To keep weight down, cored composites would be used throughout the interior, covered by varnished wood veneers. Systems would include reverse-cycle air conditioning and heat, immense battery banks with high-output inverters, and a watermaker good for 100 gallons an hour.

My dream boat has a nice spring to its sheer, a reverse transom and a nearly plumb stem. A three-foot sprit would keep the anchors well away from the topsides and the asymmetric spinnaker forward of the rig. Its low-center-of-gravity Scheel keel would draw about seven feet and be much deeper than the rudder in case I run aground or want to let the boat dry out for a bottom scrub or repairs in a foreign port.

The boat’s length on deck would be about 55 feet, that being about the biggest boat I’d be happy handling with just my wife aboard. It would require an imaginative designer to make all this work, because on top of the above, I need the boat to be able to log 200-mile days regularly, which will give me enough speed to dodge bad weather if necessary. Under power I want at least an 800-mile range at 7 knots, which means carrying around 200 gallons of diesel.

And don’t forget—she has to be beautiful, too!

But Let’s Get Real

Okay, so much for dreaming. Realistically, my ideal bluewater boat would be in the 40-foot range. My priorities are speed, comfort and looks. Because of my budget, my “real” dream boat will no doubt be one of the many beamy fiberglass fin-keeled cruiser/racers from 30 or 40 years ago. She’ll have a later CCA-rule or early IOR hull shape that predates the advent of the flat bottoms and pinched ends that later IOR boats were saddled with. Regardless of whether you’re looking for a new boat or for an older one, the following criteria are timeless.

My ideal boat will have an aft cockpit that keeps me as far as possible from spray coming over the bow. A strong dodger and stout bimini will provide protection from spray and sun. Self-tailing winches will handle jib and spinnaker sheets, as well as the furling line. The mainsheet will have coarse and fine controls so I can get the last few inches of trim necessary to make the boat point well without resorting to a winch. Halyards and reefing lines will lead to winches around the base of the mast.

On the bow, a windlass will handle an all-chain rode attached to a plow anchor. To reduce weight forward, a hawsepipe will lead the rode as far aft as possible under the V-berth. The full-battened main will be flaked between lazyjacks, and the jib will be set on a furler.

Below, a chartplotter and repeaters will top a proper nav desk with room enough to do office work. Working from home takes on a fun new perspective when home is—even temporarily—a boat. A powerful inverter hooked to large house batteries will power my electronic goodies. Because I like to cook, the galley will have a gimbaled three-burner propane stove and oven. There’s nothing like the smell of baking bread and beef stew mingling in a cozy cabin on a cool day in a sheltered anchorage. In the saloon, settees that double as sea berths will flank a centerline table with fold-up leaves.

The head will be forward, with pressure water heated by the engine for showering. A 12-volt watermaker will reside under a bunk where I can easily maintain it. The V-berth will be enclosed so there are bulkheads to prop pillows against. Lockers high on either side will provide extra stowage for linens and personal gear. I’ll keep about 400 pounds off the boat by storing my books on a Kindle or iPad. All the boat’s manuals and diagrams will be on a computer, too.

If my pre-owned dream boat was “rode hard and put away wet” her interior woodwork will be marred by dark water stains, making her seem like a teak cave inside. I’d revert to the classic Herreshoff look: glossy teak or mahogany trim with satin-finished white bulkheads to brighten the interior and ease maintenance. The cabin sole will be glossy teak and holly—I love that look, and I don’t mind getting out the varnish brush to keep it looking good.

Finally, I have to say again that no matter what, no matter how impractical, my boat has to be beautiful. As my old dad always used to say, “There’s no point owning a boat if you don’t pause at the oars and gaze at her every time you leave her.”

Two for One

But what about catamarans? In the last couple of years, I’ve delivered a Leopard 46 from Florida via the Panama Canal to California and later on to Hawaii—a total of about 7,500 miles. They were both successful passages, and I very much enjoyed sailing a cat. The most obvious advantage was the space—I had my own hull! There was a huge berth aft, and a huge head and shower forward. The other hull was marginally less palatial, with double berths in spacious cabins at either end, and a large head with a shower amidships. As on just about every cruising cat I’ve seen, the saloon was comfortable, airy and enormous, as was the cockpit. The galley would be a selling point in a New York apartment.

Stability came into play on our tradewind run to Hawaii; what on a monohull would have been a very rolly passage was like riding on rails aboard a cat. Bunks didn’t need leecloths and dinner condiments stayed put. I like the idea of never having to move out of a rolly anchorage in the middle of the night.

Stowing and boarding a dinghy is easier on a catamaran, as is maneuvering the boat, thanks to the engine in each hull. Access to systems is generally better than on a monohull, simply because gear doesn’t have to be crammed into a few small spaces.

The only real argument against catamarans is that they slam when going to weather in big waves. But during my passages we spent a total of only 12 hours beating, and I wouldn’t have been happy aboard a monohull in those conditions, either. On a world cruise, I’d avoid windward work, no matter what kind of boat I owned. I’d choose a cat with high bridgedeck clearance and try to find one incorporating one of the innovative ways different designers have developed to disperse waves high enough to slam under the hull.

One of the big selling points of cats is their speed. However, few cruising cats will go more than 10 or 15 percent faster than a monohull if piled high withcruising gear. Thanks to a narrow waterline beam and light displacement, catamarans are sensitive to weight, so you have to be very careful not to ruin a boat’s performance by overloading it.

I’ve noticed that few catamarans are set up with a way to wing out the jib. You may hear that if you head up to a broad reach, you’ll make better speed downwind. That’s true in smooth water. However, during a tradewind passage—especially in large following seas—sailing angles downwind is less practical, so I’d rather carry a pole to hold the jib out and let me sail dead downwind.

I would certainly consider a catamaran for cruising. The comfort and convenience can’t be denied; sitting in the saloon with a panoramic view of my surroundings is intensely appealing, and watching from a trampoline as dolphins play between the hulls is incomparable. It’s easy to see why catamaran sailors don’t understand why anyone would cruise on anything else.

Photos by Ulla Lohmann, Abner Kingman



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