Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of boats, do yourself a favor and spend some time at a local launch ramp. My experience has been that most sailors will be delighted to tell you all about their boats, which can be a great help in sorting out what works in your area and what doesn’t. You will undoubtedly gain some great insights simply by watching and listening. For example, you will soon discover the advantages and disadvantages of things like centerboards, swing keels and water ballast.
The centerboard on a trailer-sailer is similar to one on a sailing dinghy, although it usually hinges up into a shallow keel box rather than coming straight up into a centerboard trunk in the cabin. A centerboard reduces leeway but does little to increase stability—something to keep in mind if you plan on sailing on unprotected waters or in areas with strong winds. A centerboard boat is easy to trailer but does require additional internal rigging to raise and lower the board.
A swing keel is basically a weighted centerboard that, when it is in the lowered position, provides stability while minimizing leeway. The mechanism for raising and lowering a swing keel must be both powerful and simple to operate. There must also be a fail-safe mechanism that locks the keel in the down position, so it won’t fold up like a jackknife when you heel over.
Water ballast is a relatively recent addition to trailerable sailboats, and the concept has pros and cons. Water ballast involves a tank, or tanks, built low in the hull that can be filled with water. However this form of ballast only provides stability, which means that a board is still required to prevent leeway. Some water-ballasted boats don’t have centerboards, relying instead on hull shape for windward ability.
On the positive side, these tanks can be emptied easily once the boat is out of the water, which reduces overall towing weight. On the negative side, the hull shape-ballast combination is not as effective in developing stability under sail as a swing keel.
Cockpits come in all sizes and shapes, and you’ll want to take some time to just sit there for a while and see how it feels. You’re going to spend most of your sailing time in the cockpit, so it makes a big difference if the backrest is set at the wrong angle or the seat height is off.
While you’re butt-testing the cockpit, check out the drainage: the cockpit should be self-bailing underway. Ideally, there should be gutters around the footwell leading to large drains to quickly get rid of rainwater or spray. If you have cockpit lockers, they should have large troughs so water won’t get below and—ideally—some sort of gasket and a way to lock them shut.
Many boats come with either a tiller or optional steering wheel. A tiller is a fail-safe system because it attaches directly to the rudder. On the downside, its sweep can take up valuable space. A wheel, on the other hand, takes up less space in the cockpit, but reduces the skipper’s “feel” for the boat under sail. A wheel’s cables and steering pulleys also add a level of complexity. Personally I prefer tillers; I grew up with them, I like the feedback they give the skipper, and at the end of the day, I can tilt them out of the way for cocktail hour.
Finally, there must be an aggressive anti-skid surface on every place you might possibly put your feet. This applies to sidedecks and the cabintop as well. Melted butter doesn’t even begin to compare with the slipperiness of a coating of dew or spray on smooth fiberglass. Don’t take chances with your safety.
It wasn’t long ago that you could literally hose out a trailer-sailer cabin after a weekend cruise and not hurt a thing. The cushions were thin, fiberglass was everywhere, dcor was nonexistent, electrical systems were by Duracell and the galley made camping at Yellowstone look like a Michelin restaurant.
But that’s all changed. Today’s builders know that owners want a lot more than just somewhere to stretch out at night or get out of the rain. When it comes to wood trim, supple upholstery and workable galleys, a modern trailer-sailer can now run with the best of them.
The standard layout used to be a V–berth forward, a pair of settees with a console for the galley and a Porta-Potti tucked in…somewhere. Today an enclosed head isn’t unusual. Neither is a galley with a built-in cooktop, AC/DC fridge and pressurized water.
When it comes to sleeping arrangements, don’t even think about buying a boat until you’ve stretched out on the bunks—all of them. You’re longer when you’re lying down, so lie down, wiggle your toes and don’t forget you need room for a pillow. Your bed at home is somewhere between 75 and 80 inches long, so use that as a yardstick, pun intended.
Headroom is another consideration. Some trailer-sailers have “pop-tops” that raise the main hatch enough to give you room to stand up and pull on your pants. However, these hatches are more complex than standard hatches and provide additional opportunities for leaks, so choose carefully.
No matter how simple the galley may be, make sure there is adequate counter space so you don’t find yourself making peanut butter sandwiches one at a time. Some boats have a sliding galley that tucks under the cockpit when it’s not needed. That’s a good way to save space, especially if it is something you don’t use very often.
A dinette is another feature you need to decide on, given the limited interior space in a trailer-sailer. How often will you really be sitting there? Would you be just as happy with a pair of settees and a folding table in between?
When it comes to the head, one that’s enclosed is a wondrous thing, as long as it isn’t the size of a breadbox. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but it’s another feature you should try before you buy. Or at least fake it. A portable toilet under a cushion with a curtain for privacy has been the trailer-sailer standard for decades. Before you decide to travel along this path, though, make sure everyone in your crew understands and agrees with the program.
Opening ports and hatches to provide fresh air and light are essential on every small boat, and they should be sturdy, watertight and easy to open when needed.
Another bit of advice: in my view, a proper trailerable sailboat should drink six, eat four and sleep two. Think about it, and then write it down.
So there you have it. Trailerable sailboats are not only a cost-effective way to get on the water, they’re also a lot of fun. Take your time, consider all the choices and then start looking forward to your first weekend cruise