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Tips for Finding a Bluewater Cruiser

A Kraken 66 makes landfall in Madagascar

A Kraken 66 makes landfall in Madagascar

Committing to a boat for ocean voyaging is different from choosing one to sail from the local marina on weekends and holidays. At a domestic level, the bluewater craft is home, not somewhere we camp out. On long offshore passages we need an easy motion above all things, plus a boat that can cope with the sort of conditions that some yachts ideal for coasting may find too hot for comfort. We will be examining the liveaboard situation in a future article, but the real secret of happiness when seeking out a bluewater boat is to take a hard, honest look at our objectives. No boat is all things to every sailor. The successful ones are those which have been chosen wisely to suit the character of their owners and the job they will undertake. This article is all about the core values of hull and rig.

North American forecasting is now so reliable that it should be possible to manage a lifetime of coastal cruising without ever having to tackle true storm conditions. We all suffer the occasional hammering along the shoreline, but off soundings there is no port to run to. Despite the advances in weather forecasting, unless your yacht is extremely fast and well equipped with communications gear, she still isn’t guaranteed a ticket to a safe haven. If a storm has your name on it, you and your boat must be able to ride it out.

The Rustler 37 is a fine example of a fin-and-skeg bluewater boat

The Rustler 37 is a fine example of a fin-and-skeg bluewater boat

Fifty knots with a thousand miles of open water upwind is a far cry from a sudden inshore blow under a passing cold front. When the wind veers and drives the church-high waves crazy, a shorthanded crew—the “norm” on ocean cruisers—may well have run out of the stamina needed to look after the boat. This is the crux of long-distance voyaging, not days spent toddling along with a balmy 20-knot tradewind over the quarter. Now the boat must look after her people. Whether she points two degrees higher or has a bigger bed in the aft cabin than the next boat in the show becomes a supreme irrelevance.

Advertising propaganda promises many a seductive craft whose effortless performance is only equaled by world-beating safety at sea. The hard truth is that on the ocean nothing is given for free. A boat that really can care for you when you’re at your wit’s end, perhaps by heaving-to reliably at 40 degrees to the wind and never falling into the dangerous beam-on state, is unlikely to go to windward in flat water as well as one prioritizing internal volume and calm-water upwind performance. The publicity handouts show their products powering along in 15-knots of breeze with a smiling crew having a grand day out. And so they are. They may stop grinning when the boat has spent 48 hours being knocked around in a broken sea with the autopilot failing to cope and the single-line-reefed mainsail overpowered. Such a yacht may put in an excellent passage time on a downwind slide to the Caribbean from Europe. She will deliver exciting sport on daysails between the islands too, but if her luck with the weatherman runs out on the North Atlantic between Ireland and Nova Scotia, it could well be a different story.

Top: Many mass-production fin-and-spade boats make capable bluewater cruisers, but have their limitations. Bottom: Many mass-production fin-and-spade boats make capable bluewater cruisers, but have their limitations

Top: Many mass-production fin-and-spade boats make capable bluewater cruisers, but have their limitations. Bottom: Many mass-production fin-and-spade boats make capable bluewater cruisers, but have their limitations

Hull Shapes

I once bought a traditional yacht from an elderly Scotsman who advised me that “the boat has every comfort, but no luxury.” This is a profound observation. Comfort at sea has little to do with taking our ease in harbor. When people imagine that double bunks in huge aft cabins, armchairs in saloons, air conditioning and dishwashers confer any degree of comfort, they are deluded. These things are luxuries. Comfort is about how a boat behaves at sea, what she is like to live on a thousand miles from land, whether she throws her people off their feet or nurtures them as part of her own innate harmony with the ocean.

Expect a comfortable ride on a full-keel boat

Expect a comfortable ride on a full-keel boat

A modern bulb-keel flyer can scud across an ocean in half the time taken by a heavy-displacement, long-keeled alternative, but the question to ask is, how desperate are you to arrive before the next guy? Or do you really enjoy just being out there with no need to hurry unduly? You have, after all, paid a lot of money for the privilege and you can always get there quicker by air. That said, we live in a fast world and many of us have an inbuilt desire to cram the pedal to the metal, yet opting for performance as a knee-jerk necessity isn’t right for everyone. If we don’t know where we stand on this we may make some bad choices. What are the trade-offs, then, if we opt for speed?

Hull form has as much to do with seakindliness as the shape of the appendages

Hull form has as much to do with seakindliness as the shape of the appendages

Long keels

Space in this article sadly precludes discussing multihulls and shoal-draft cruisers. The most important subdivision among conventional monohulls is the long and the short keel. There are many varieties of long keel—often also called full keel—but the common defining element is that the rudder hangs from the aft end of the keel itself. The short-keeler’s rudder is separated from the body of the boat and is usually mounted as far aft as practicable.

Long-keeled yachts are generally relatively heavy with deep body sections. This means headroom belowdecks is not achieved at the expense of high freeboard. Lower scores high points in stability calculations. Such boats rely more on ballast for stability than a modern, flat-floored cruiser. This means they need less beam, which in turn makes them steadier at sea, resisting eccentric behavior and broaching in gusty weather.

An unexpected bonus with heavier displacement is load-carrying ability for stores, tankage and the rest. Put 2,000lb on a 12-ton, 40ft yacht and she’ll hardly notice it. Try it with a 6-tonner and you’ll certainly feel the difference.

On the downside, narrower beam cuts accommodation space and, it must be said, not all long-keelers steer well. Some carry their rudders too close to the boat’s pivot point for ideal control, especially downwind. Long-keelers are not generally notably close-winded, but they have an easy motion and their modest beam means their crews are not rattling around inside when the boat falls off every wave. Further plus factors are that they do not slam upwind, and typically enjoy more options in heavy weather survival situations. Storm tactics correctly trashed as suicidal by modern writers assuming light, fin-keeled yachts may still be safe options for traditional craft. A well designed long-keeled yacht can heave-to under short canvas in a gale of wind.

Knowing that this option is always “in the locker” transforms the experience of being at sea. If conditions become so bad that canvas can no longer be carried and running is undesirable for reasons of searoom or crew exhaustion, a long-keeled yacht of heavy displacement with a relatively heavy rig has a better chance of survival lying ahull than her fin-and-spade sister. My authorities for this assertion are my own experience in North Atlantic storms and the conclusions of Olin Stephens in the CCA’s book, Offshore Yachts.

Left: Unsupported spade rudders are now the norm. Middle: An efficient shape, but prone to snagging lines. Right: A conservative fin-and-skeg design

Left: Unsupported spade rudders are now the norm. Middle: An efficient shape, but prone to snagging lines. Right: A conservative fin-and-skeg design

Short keels

For decades now, raceboat development has eclipsed the long keel, simply because a well-designed short keel will almost always out-perform an equivalent boat with lots of underwater area, particularly upwind. If pure performance is the objective, these boats are attractive, but a price must be paid in seakindliness and the boat’s ability to take care of herself in bad weather. On an extended passage, bashing along at 40 degrees to the wind, slamming into the seas all the way is rarely a profitable plan for any yacht. Coming north from the Caribbean bound for the Azores the course will be close-hauled, but old hands will typically crack off to 60 degrees. The boat speeds up, she makes light of the seas and she doesn’t heel so much. As the miles reel off and she works around the mid-ocean high-pressure system, the wind generally frees so that she still makes a decent passage. On the ocean, unless racing, being able to point high isn’t the holy grail, and the sort of empirical performance figures one reads in magazine boat tests rarely tell us what we actually need to know.

Fin and skeg

These boats began to appear when the ever-shortening “long” keel of the classic yacht dragged the rudder so close to the center of lateral resistance that it struggled to do its job. In the mid-1960s, the rudder suddenly left the keel behind and appeared on a separate skeg as far aft as it could go. Raceboat design never looked back.

By modern standards, early examples are restrained in form. Ballast was encapsulated and keels were molded into the hull rather than bolted on; beam was moderate and stability ratings promises bad-weather characteristics more like those of a classic yacht than later short-keeled variants. Such a keel is very strong and, lacking the potential weakness of keel bolts, performs well during an argument with a coral reef. On older variants, GRP laminations were often heavy too, with lots of fiberglass between the crew and the final truth. One fine example of this type of yacht is the old S&S-designed Swan 36. Unless distorted by racing rules like the IOR, which for a few years favored pinched ends, these boats deliver a wholesome compromise between precise steering, seakindliness, upwind performance when required, athletic turning in harbor, sound construction and all-round safety.

The cutter rig is ideal for ocean cruising

The cutter rig is ideal for ocean cruising

Fin and spade

Following raceboat fashion, the fin and skeg yacht saw displacement steadily whittled away as the hull morphed into a “canoe body” with a flattish floor and a bolt-on keel. As years passed, the keel has become shorter—sometimes so short that the ballast has to be hung in a heavy bulb at the bottom. These designs have grown steadily more efficient to windward, especially when complemented by a deep, hydrodynamically efficient spade rudder.

Spade rudders are big and often feature a near-vertical trailing edge which makes for wonderful steering astern in marinas. They track well in a seaway too, so long as the boat doesn’t heel too much. Often, they are “balanced” with some area forward of the stock. This delivers lighter steering, though there may be a cost measured in wilfulness when the helm is left for more than a second or two under power. An autopilot will usually deal with this. It won’t defuse the major downside, however, which is that such rudders are unsupported except for the stock with its through-hull cantilever bearings or tube. Although they have largely overcome their early structural problems, and thousands of boats sporting them have successfully crossed oceans, spade rudders are by definition more vulnerable than those supported by additional bearings nearer their lower ends.

A moderate aspect-ratio bolt-on keel should present no special concerns in a quality craft, except for the inescapable fact that a heavy grounding can compromise the fastenings. After any sort of trauma, a bolted keel should be checked immediately by hauling out. This is not always convenient and may prove impossible on a remote island. It has to be said that not all bolt-on keels are as well constructed as we’d like. Some have been lost altogether, with catastrophic consequences, so any bolted keel must be brutally surveyed before purchase. If all the keel bolts are not reasonably accessible for internal inspection the boat may be best sent to the reject pile, even if she does have a lovely aft cabin.

Fin-and-spade craft is often beamy with roomy accommodation. They are great to live in when upright, but often not so fine at sea, so look for plenty of handholds. These are often in short supply. Modern fin-and skeg production cruising boats are usually not designed specifically for bluewater cruising, though there are exceptions. Good examples perform well in terms of speed and pointing. They sail flat downwind but many are usually less comfortable upwind when their flattish forward sections tend to slam on every other wave. Many can become unbalanced when they take a heavy gust of wind, demanding that the mainsheet is eased to keep them under control. I think this is simply unacceptable. Autopilots struggle and are overpowered, and if the sheet is out of reach of a lone watchkeeper it can lead to broaching when a more wholesome boat would just keep tracking along. The only way to be sure how a boat behaves in such conditions is to demand a test sail on a windy day, find some rough water, over-canvas the boat on purpose and see how she behaves.

Further negative elements are that the salient keel and rudder, as well as the propeller which must inevitably be outboard and supported by a bracket, are all prone to picking up ropes and other obstructions that would slide off a long-keeled hull. A bulb or “torpedo” keel is especially vulnerable to this unless the bulb protrudes only at the aft end of the fin. I once came on watch at dawn after a night of slow progress and poor steering to find two large fishing buoys being dragged along by my bulb keel.

Doesn’t sound too good, eh? No, it doesn’t, but there is a payoff. Well-built yachts of this type, so long as they don’t hit the bottom or pick up half a tuna net, can make fast offwind passages. What’s more, they’re roomy, comfortable to live aboard and a delight to handle in the marina when you get there. However, if you choose one with the intention of crossing oceans, you need to be aware of the drawbacks.

Rigs and rigging

Many modern production boats carry rigs capable of bluewater cruising. This is not, however, a given, and a helping of gritty common sense is worth applying to the dreams of sunshine reaching. Additional gear is usually required to manage extensive downwind sailing and heavy weather, particularly in the headsail department, but so long as the reefing arrangements are sound, there’s every chance that what the builders gave you will serve you well enough.

It is never worth beefing up standing rigging in the belief that it will make for more strength. Heavier wire needs more load to tension it, so it exerts added compression on spars never designed to take it. If the boat has been selected with care, it is enough to verify that the standing rigging is in perfect condition. Unless you know the history of every wire and clevis, the only way to be sure of this is to renew the whole lot. Experts are understandably reluctant to commit to an exact lifespan for stainless rigging, but if you reckon 10 years of coastal cruising is more than enough or one fairly direct trip around the world, you won’t go far wrong. This sounds encouraging and it is, except for the ever-encroaching menace of aft-swept spreaders. These have proliferated, mostly to stiffen fractional or multi-spreader rigs without resorting to running backstays. This is a laudable cause for short-range cruising, but heavily raked spreaders are nothing but trouble on a long, offwind passage. Either the boom has to be kept sheeted too close to the centerline with all the attendant steering problems and lack of power, or it and the mainsail must press against the shrouds for the whole trip. Both are unworkable. Some of these rigs are sufficiently extreme as to disqualify them from serious offshore cruising. Watch out for them and do not be fooled. Inline spreaders, or those that are lightly raked, do the job well. If they mean you sometimes need to set up a runner to stop the mast panting when the seas kick up steep, so be it.

Rig variants

Masthead or fractional rig: In its purest form, on a boat up to around 40ft, the masthead sloop offers the most secure rig available. A single forestay triangulates with an equivalent backstay. Cap shrouds support the masthead via (usually) single in-line spreaders, while lower shrouds running fore and aft from the hounds to the deck hold the rig in column. It’s hard to beat until taller rigs on bigger yachts demand more spreaders. Unfortunately, masthead rigs often ask for enormous genoas and smaller mainsails. On a broad reach or a run in an ocean seaway, the huge booming-out poles which result make this a liability. Fractional rig scores over masthead with a bigger main and smaller headsails, so poles are less of a handful. Sadly, in order to do without the otherwise inevitable running backstays to support the forestay, the fractional rig typically employs aft-swept spreaders. No winners here, then!

Cutters, ketches and yawls: All these alternatives to sloop rig exist to make life easier. Further options abound, but space precludes discussions on schooners, freedom rigs, junks and the rest.

Ketch rig splits sail area positively, which is a winner for weaker crews. It can work on yachts as small as 38ft, but compromise in performance sometimes follows. Yawls, which carry a much smaller mizzen abaft the stern post, perform more or less like sloops. Ketches lose out upwind because the shorter mainmast can’t deliver the same power to windward.

The modern cutter carries an additional forestay inside a main masthead stay. The masthead genoa pushes out maximum power in decent conditions. When the going gets tough it can be rolled away for the staysail to take over. Unlike a deep-reefed genoa which inevitably sets like an old mailbag, the staysail is a complete sail with full efficiency. Sited well inboard, it balances a reefed mainsail and is a genuine stress-killer for shorthanded crews. The inner forestay can make short tacking awkward, but for long-distance work, it’s a price worth paying.

Making a wise choice of boat depends on a calm analysis of cruising intentions, but it is also inevitably affected by the character of the choice-makers. When you’re wearing out your deck shoes between boat shows and brokers’ offices, keep imagining that rough night after you’ve been at sea for three weeks. Happiness lies in deciding what you really want from your ship, then assessing the tab carried by each element against its ultimate value. 

Tom Cunliffe has crossed oceans on all manner of boats in a sailing career spanning 50 years. He currently owns a Mason 44

January 2018



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