Old Boats for an Old Salt
An experienced curmudgeon describes the classic-plastic boats that he'd consider taking on an Atlantic Circle cruise.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to recommend a boat with which to fulfill a cruising dream. I’d never give a direct answer any more than I’d advise a stranger about a choice of life partner, other than to say that both should be solid, reliable, and pleasant to look at.
Now, if someone were to ask me, “What boat would you take cruising?”—well, that’s something else entirely. So let’s imagine that my wife bought the right lottery ticket, we were clear to head off, and I was about to start looking for the boat.
First, I’d narrow down the parameters by focusing on a specific cruise—the requirements would be different if I were going to Patagonia or if I fancied hanging out in Tonga. So let’s say I’ll stick to “my” ocean, and the plan would be to do an Atlantic Circle. I’d start in New England and cruise up to the Canadian Maritimes, across to the Azores, over to southern Portugal, and back across the Atlantic via the Canaries, Cape Verde, and Grenada. This might take one year or several, depending on how many sirens—Ireland, Brittany, the Algarve—seduce me along the way.
Right up front I should say that I view boats through rather old-fashioned eyes. I made my first overnight passage on a 55-year-old gaff-rigged yawl that’s now approaching 100 and still sailing. I followed that with two weeks on a real Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter of similar vintage. Tarred marline is my catnip. Back then, we were all youngsters seeking adventure instead of comfort, and while I do enjoy hot water for bathing these days, I’m still not sold on the need to take the accoutrements of a penthouse apartment to sea with me. I simply like a boat that’s built to go to sea. If it has places to sit and lie down that are comfy and secure under way, they’ll be just as comfy and secure at anchor.
Even today I’d countenance a full keel, especially if the rig above it were a schooner or yawl. I sailed Don Street’s Iolaire in her 100th birthday year and was mightily impressed. Don sailed her round the Atlantic a couple of times without an engine, and she’s survived to be 106 years old, so there must be something right about her.
The old gaffers of my youth were both a little over 50 feet long. In the years that followed, I came to think that 45 feet or so was an ideal size—not too big for two to handle, not so small as to feel insignificant in the middle of the ocean, and well provided with space for living and carrying stores. Of course, a 45-footer back then was a different animal than what you see at boat shows today. In reality, I could probably settle for something smaller, and numerous trustworthy designs exist that could induce me to live with 10 feet or so less length. But given my preference for older boats in general, and the reality that I won’t get to spend all my winnings on a custom design, I’ll be looking at classic plastics with proven track records and competitive used-boat asking prices (although they could all need refits). We’ll start my ideal-old-boat wish list with a boat that I was deeply involved in designing when I worked at Camper & Nicholsons in Gosport, England, in the 1980s.
Any 20-year-old boat will need a thorough survey and possibly a major refit. At my time of life, I wouldn’t want to be faced with a three-year project, so I’d look for a boat that had seen some recent upgrades in the key departments.
Hull: If there’s any water in the bilge, I’d like to know where it came from, and I’d also check the integrity of the through-hulls and associated plumbing and eliminate any systems that weren’t mission critical. I’d also want to know the osmosis history. And if the boat has an external keel, I’d like to see a report of when the keel was last dropped.
Rudder: Fiberglass rudders are usually built around stainless-steel backbones, and they often end up leaking. We all know what happens to stainless steel in salt water, so I might want to do exploratory surgery.
Rig: Stainless steel suffers from all manner of ailments as it ages, including fatigue. Standing rigging more than 10 years old probably should be replaced. Chainplates should definitely be pulled, inspected, and replaced if there’s any suggestion of crevice corrosion. Aluminum masts tend to last longer than their rigging (if the rigging doesn’t fail first) but are prone to corrosion where hardware and fasteners have been installed without insulation. The mast heel and step can be damaged by water in the bilge.
Machinery: The engine needs to be sound, but I don’t need a generator. I’d rather carry the weight in books.
Tanks: Boats tend to outlive their tanks, so this would be a topic for considerable research at survey time. What are the tanks made of? Have they been replaced? If not, what kind of project might that be?
Electrical: I’d try to strip the systems to the essentials.
Sails: It’s a sailing boat, so the condition and newness of the sails would be of great concern to me.
Everything else: I could add a whole lot of stuff to this list, but it could get very long. The bottom line is this: If the boat is sound and generally functioning, I’m good to go.
For sure, a great number and variety of classic plastics are out there carrying their owners toward fulfilling long-held dreams. The boats I’ve described are simply a small selection from many that have taken my fancy as they crossed my line of sight. Each of them appeals in about equal measure to my heart and to my head, and I’m comfortable thinking that’s a good way for any sailor to choose a cruising boat.