Over the years, I’ve conducted a number of surveys to try to find out if there’s such a thing as an ideal cruising boat—only to conclude that the ideal vessel is a chimera. While a particular boat may be perfect for one sailor or one particular voyage, the same boat might be totally unsuitable for another. Besides using the surveys as the basis for my books, including my newest, World Voyage Planner, the purpose of the voyage-planning survey was to find out the essential features of a boat fit for sailing around the world.
The 57 cruising mariners who participated sail vessels measuring 33 to 74 feet in length and fashioned from plywood, fiberglass, aluminum, and steel.
Among the group, 27 had sailed around the world, several of them more than once. Their ages ranged from the late 20s to the early 80s, while their cruising spanned the entire world, from the tropics to Antarctica, the Mediterranean to the Northwest Passage.
The boats were as diverse as their owners, from production boats to state-of-the-art yachts, including both monohulls and multihulls; in all, a perfect sample of today’s cruising scene. This was also reflected in the makeup of the individual crews, with 32 boats being sailed all, or most, of the time by couples. Their rich fonts of knowledge and experience made them ideal informants on all the essential aspects of voyage planning.
There’s no doubt that the choice of boat can seriously affect the quality and enjoyment of sailing around the world. Many factors can make a boat unsuitable for a long voyage, but size—a boat that’s too large for easy handling by a shorthanded crew or too small to be comfortable—is the most common problem. Other factors include limited storage capacity and a lack of speed on long passages. Comfort is indeed a major aspect, and this has a bearing not only on the wellbeing of the crew but on safety itself.
As important as size and comfort may be, the most essential consideration when choosing a boat for a long voyage, such as sailing around the world, is safety. Many boats on the market may be perfectly suitable for weekend sailing or short cruises but may not be up to the demands of a voyage in tough ocean conditions.
A common reason for some people setting off with what would turn out in the long run to be an unsuitable boat is that it was the boat that they happened to own at the time, and, whether for reasons of finance, lack of foresight, or sentiment, they decided that it would do. By the time their mistake became obvious, it was too late to put it right, and they either chose to carry on regardless or ultimately cut short and even abandoned the voyage.
As the choice of the right boat is such an important factor, participants in the voyage-planning survey were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their boat. They were also asked to point out any design features missing on their boat that would’ve made a considerable contribution to the quality and enjoyment of their voyage and to name any specific piece of equipment that they would’ve liked to have had. To complete the section on the choice of boat, they were asked to make a comment or give some useful tip to someone preparing for a long voyage.
A few owners complained that their boats were smaller than ideal, although one skipper was happy with his decision to buy such a boat, as it allowed him to enter tinier ports and marinas. What some owners found to be a more serious handicap on long voyages than actual size was the lack of storage space, a deficiency they blamed on the fact that many current boats are built for charter, for which storage capacity isn’t a priority.
Regardless of the size of boat, the most common feature that people wished they’d had was a comfortable, sheltered watchkeeping position. Several mentioned the importance of a protected and ergonomically designed cockpit, one possibly outfitted with a hard dodger, that would make passages more comfortable in both hot and cold climates.
Asked to specify any design feature that would’ve made a considerable contribution to the enjoyment of their voyage, several owners mentioned shallower draft, which they said would’ve extended their cruising range. Other features mentioned were better access to the engine room for maintenance, a compact and safe galley, comfortable sea berths, but also provision for a double berth when in port.
The list was even longer for such outside features as a well-designed stern with dinghy davits and a platform or scoop with a folding or retractable ladder for easy dinghy access, swimming, and landing fish.
According to Mike Dorsett of White Princess, a Renegade 43, an important feature on a world voyage is “a larger-than-standard self-draining gas locker with space for additional tanks for cruising in areas where refilling them can be a problem.”
Suggested improvements at the bows were a retractable bowsprit, quick and easy access to the chain locker with a vertical drop to avoid the chain getting snagged, and a powerful and reliable windlass. For sailhandling, many considered essential a well-planned reefing system with lines led back to the cockpit, ideally to an electric winch.
The three most commonly mentioned pieces of essential equipment that some sailors had acquired under way or were planning to buy at a later stage were: a watermaker; a strong autopilot preferably backed up by a wind-operated self-steering gear; and an automatic identification system, or AIS.
The utmost importance of a reliable autopilot was highlighted by Roger Swanson of Cloud Nine, a Bowman 57. “I went for a long time, in fact two circumnavigations, without a good, reliable autopilot, but that was part of the experience,” he said. “Now I have a powerful hydraulic autopilot and use it a lot.”
Steve Lochner of Equus, a 48-foot Nicholson, mentioned these desirable items: “color radar capable of indicating the strength of approaching storm cells,” bow thrusters, and cockpit repeaters for the chart plotter and radar. He also pointed out that some production boats are sold without an electric-wiring diagram, which can make it very difficult to trace a fault.
Since most of those interviewed had spent long periods sailing under trade-wind conditions, several mentioned as important having easily handled downwind sails, such as a cruising chute, an asymmetric spinnaker, or an ISTEC Parasailor. Patrick Canut of Leon, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42, sailed with two genoas and wished he’d had “two poles while running wing and wing, especially when we had to jibe repeatedly with the wind close to 180 degrees. Now I believe that a Parasailor would’ve been a better choice.”
Communication systems weren't examined, although the usefulness of satellite phones was praised. But Steve Moss of Yamma, a Hallberg-Rassy 36, stressed that "in spite of satphones, SSB radio is still essential for emails, voice communications with other boats, receiving weatherfaxes, and the like."
When it came to giving practical advice to would-be voyagers, some sailors pointed out that many of those with limited experience seem to be unaware of the high electricity demands made by all the equipment installed on cruising boats. "Make sure that your electric-power demands can be satisfied with the quantity of electrical storage and generating equipment that you have on board and that you have a diversified portfolio of options available, including engine, generator, solar, and wind," advised Jim Patek of Let's Go, an Ovni 435.
Many praised the usefulness of solar panels. But Alfredo Giacon of Jancris, a Mikado 56, said that "while panels were perfect in the Med, where summers are dry with long, sunny days, in the Caribbean I had to add a wind generator as it was often raining and days were shorter."
Lars Hässler of Jennifer, a Beneteau Oceanis 5000, suggested that cruisers "double your diesel tanks and try to have a 1,000-mile range. This will give you freedom of movement in less-populated areas of the world. If there's no space, sacrifice one water tank, because you can make water with a watermaker, but you can't make diesel."
Hugh Fraser, who built Scotia, his 50-foot steel boat, listed some useful tips that could be easily accommodated on a production boat. "For lightning protection, a spike on the masthead seems to work," he said. "Stow a spare GPS and radio in a tin box in case your boat is hit. For your safety and comfort, make a combined stainless-steel security grate and mosquito screen for the companionway hatch, so you can lock yourself in at night and keep cool. Carry a spare computer and a separate hard drive loaded with all your programs. Among the things to avoid are deep freezers, because they're too power hungry, and certainly spade rudders, because if they break, you may lose your boat," Fraser added.
The safety aspect, more than any other, should be the overriding factor when choosing a boat for an ocean voyage. Yet several people stressed the need to try and keep things simple. Tere Batham, who spent 10 years roaming the Pacific aboard Sea Quest, a Colin Childs, emphasized that "we don't believe that it's all that sophisticated equipment that really makes the boat. It's good-quality winches, anchoring gear, and a reliable engine that are paramount, as they'll give you peace of mind."
While a boat may be perfect for one sailor, that same boat might be quite unsuitable for another. No one put that better than Alex Whitworth. When asked about his own wish list for items that would've contributed to the quality and enjoyment of his circumnavigation via the Northwest Passage on his 33-foot Berrimilla 2, he said, "Nothing. My voyage was sailed on a shoestring. Quality and comfort weren't considerations."
At the other extreme, Kurt Braun, who completed a circumnavigation at about the same time on Interlude, his 74-foot Deerfoot, also answered "Nothing" to those same questions. Instead, he gave this advice to anyone planning to get a boat and leave on a long voyage: "Go bareboat chartering and/or passagemaking on someone else's boat to confirm that you'll enjoy cruising on your own yacht before making the investment in a boat or equipment."
Among those who seemed to have most nearly achieved their ideal were Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger of Hawk, an aluminum Van de Stadt Samoa 47. "Because we'd done a circumnavigation before we built this boat ourselves, we were able to incorporate everything we really wanted in the design," Beth said. "We'd hoped to get it all into 42 feet, but we ended up at 47 feet. If we could've squeezed everything into 42 feet, we would've preferred it."
CW editor at large Jimmy Cornell's World Voyage Planner will be published in September 2012 by Cornell Sailing.