Second Thoughts on the Ideal Cruising Boat

“It’s interesting to pay attention to what one does differently the second time,” writer Kevin Patterson recently observed before an audience at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. As first-time voyagers outfit their boats, said the author of The Water in Between, they’re focused on storm sails in preparation for the two days in 40 when they might see heavy weather. But second-time voyagers have other concerns; they want light-air sails to keep the boat moving through those 20 days in 40 when the wind’s otherwise too whispery to move the boat. “Despite my neophyte’s preoccupation with imagining heavy weather and my responses to it,” he said, “I never once used the storm canvas I brought on my first trip.”

When it comes to second-guessing his first-timer’s choices, Kevin’s not alone. Over the last several months, I’ve held a series of conversations with cruisers, exploring the decisions they’d made before they first set off and the ways they’ve changed their minds about their boats and all they carry.

An Oxymoron
In March 2003, several crews in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, gathered to talk about their notions of the ideal boat and how those notions had changed in the course of their years aboard. While those discussions served as the baseline for this article, I’ve included the results of interviews with other seasoned cruisers as well. Everybody I spoke to has been living aboard in the Caribbean for five seasons or more; some have been sailing for well over a decade.


At the outset, folks were quick to set the record straight on one score. “The ideal cruising boat is an oxymoron,” said Carrol Turner of the Tashiba 40 Trinity. Many sailors felt that boats adapted for the Caribbean–where the breeze is dependable, where good shade and ventilation are a must, and where water, fuel, services, and parts are plentiful–aren’t necessarily the best boats for other destinations. Several folks said they’d have chosen something different for the South Pacific or the Intracoastal Waterway. Still others, given the benefit of hindsight, would have chosen an altogether different boat for the way they’re living now.

“If we were to do it over again,” said Roy Romine, “boy, it sure would be nice to have a playpen in the back.” Roy and his wife, Carol, are 83. They retired in 1986 from jobs in the Midwest, moved aboard a DownEaster 32, and sailed to South Africa and back. They spent most of the 1990s in the Caribbean.

When the Romines began shopping for a boat, their dream was a 50-footer, but two things happened along the way to change their minds. “We cruised on a 38-foot Cabo Rico, and my wife”–who was 66 at the time–“found out she couldn’t handle the big chain and the big 45-pound anchor, even though it had a manual windlass,” said Roy.


The second thing came from the power of the pen. “We read the Pardeys’ Self-Sufficient Sailor and found out they went everywhere in a 29-footer.” Armed with that knowledge, Roy and Carol found a 32-footer they could comfortably handle and afford, and they set out across the Atlantic: 42 days to Cape Town. While in many ways they’ve been pleased with their boat, the Romines reckon that with an electric windlass and roller-furling sails, they could have handled a boat that was big enough to accommodate the aft cabin and the fore-and-aft queen-size bunk they dream of. If he could do it all over, Roy reckons he’d choose a Prout catamaran or a Morgan Out Island 41. “You can laugh about the slow speeds of an Out Island,” he said, “but that back bedroom sure would be nice.” Aboard their DownEaster, they’ve built a wood-structure “Florida room” around their cockpit, where they sleep when in port.

Carrol Turner said that if he were shopping now, he’d look hard at center-cockpit models. His Trinity is a 40-foot Bob Perry-designed double-ender. “If I wished for anything,” he said, “I’d give a little more space to the engine room. I don’t have a room; I have inches. Our genset sits on top of the engine, and the skinned knuckles and arms and everything else are pretty heavy.”

He and his wife, Joyce, have lived aboard Trinity in the West Indies half of every year since 1995, when they joined the Caribbean 1500. Like the Romines, the Turners defined the size limit of their ideal boat according to what they thought one person could handle alone. That was originally 38 feet, but it stretched slightly when they saw the Tashiba. “For us, the 40-footer is a size Joyce could handle if I fell over and dropped dead,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fun, but it would be possible.” For Joyce, the electric windlass is an essential piece of gear, a sentiment Carrol shares. “I’d almost have two for redundancy,” he said.


Some folks I spoke to have already put their second thoughts into practice. Rob and Dee Dubin produced the video magazine Sailing Quarterly before they bought a new Island Packet 40 in 1995. They cruised the Caribbean for six years, then transited the Panama Canal in 2001; today, they’re cruising the western Pacific. “During our video series,” said Rob, “we sailed on over 50 charter boats,” translating to some 800 days on the water testing boats, gear, and systems, always with the goal of determining what worked and what didn’t. After nearly 10 years, they’re pleased with the boat they chose; still, if money were no object, Rob said he’d look seriously at the center-cockpit Island Packet 485 or a handful of boats from other builders. “We visited the 2000 Newport Boat Show and looked at every other boat over 40 feet from our perspective of living aboard,” Rob said. “We only saw two other boats we liked better than ours: the Hylas 46 and the Hylas 54. Another possibility we’ve seen is the Amel Super Maramu 53.” Of these, he said, only the Island Packets have the shallow draft for the Bahamas.

Stephanie Martin and Tom Lane are out cruising for the second time. They’ve spent the last four and a half years in the Caribbean aboard a Gulfstar CSY 50, Mima–a boat that couldn’t be more different from their first one. In the late 1980s, they cruised the Bahamas aboard a 40-foot ferro-cement boat they describe as a “purist’s” vessel: full-keel, windvane self-steering, kerosene lamps, no shower. Mima has an aft cabin, two heads, two showers, 400-gallon water tanks plus watermaker, a genset, the latest electronics in the cockpit, and a 125-horsepower engine in an 8- by 14-foot space with standing headroom. “I really think there’s no limit to the size of boat you can have once you have the right equipment,” said Stephanie. “At first I thought this boat would be way too big for us, but now I don’t think it is at all,” she said. “We’ve got a furling jib but not a furling main. We keep the slides greased, and I put the main up by myself all the time; you just head it up into the wind and put on the autopilot. With the electric windlass, I can put the anchor up and down. I can get the dinghy up and down on a halyard. I’ve singlehanded our boat, and it’s fine.” She particularly likes the privacy of having doors between cabins. “For what we’re doing in the Caribbean, I wouldn’t change anything about my boat.” If they were going to do more ocean voyaging, and if money weren’t an issue, Stephanie’s ideal boat would be a Tayana 55 or a Sundeer. For cruising the ICW or the Great Lakes, she and Tom would choose a trawler, “probably a DeFever 44,” she said.

Not everyone we spoke to thinks bigger is necessarily better. When I met Richard Johnson in March 2003, he and his wife, Carolyn, owned two boats: the 32-foot custom double-ender they’d cruised in since 1996, and Good Joss, a Slocum 43 they bought in 2001 for future voyages. They’d already spent more than a year refitting Good Joss. “In retrospect, when you look at what we’ve been through, we could have done very, very well just by eliminating some of the extra stuff from our 32-footer. Yes, we have a very nice boat, and it’s a lot more comfortable because it’s bigger. It’ll go faster. It’s drier. It has more amenities. But we haven’t sailed in 14 months because we’ve been working on the boat.” Richard’s advice, delivered in a tongue-in-cheek “Do as I say, not as I do” mode, is: Get rid of the fancy gadgets and go sailing.


Randy and Cheryl Baker have cruised for the last 12 years doing just that aboard Caribee, a 1968 Nicholson 32. “When we first moved aboard, we started out with a 23-footer, so when we went to a 32-footer, that seemed huge,” said Cheryl. In general, they’re happy with the boat they have, although Cheryl agreed with those who wished for an aft cabin and more machinery space, and Randy could see himself in a 40-foot round-bilge aluminum cutter. Caribee’s limited size forces the Bakers to scrutinize every item that comes aboard the boat. “Randy has to have spares for these parts and spares for those parts,” said Cheryl. “Well, OK, but I’ve got to have some things for cooking. So what goes? We start with the rule that if you haven’t used it in a year, it goes.”

“But spares don’t count,” said Randy–exposing the lines of a long-standing dispute that clearly won’t be resolved anytime soon.

Richard Johnson jumped to Randy’s defense. “I think every boat ought to have its own TiG welder; it ought to have its own table saw, drill press, bench grinder, and vise. We have eight or nine different sanders.” And so we move on to the question of what cruisers, upon reflection, really need and don’t need to carry aboard.

If there was one mistake sailors unanimously made in their early cruising days, it was overprovisioning. “When we left, we planned to be out for eight to 10 years,” said Richard. “So Carolyn packed eight to 10 years worth of food. Nobody told us that people in other countries eat, too.”

Same goes for stocking books and videos–and tools. “You never know when you’ll need a valve grinder, so you better have one on the boat,” said Richard, putting a handle on the flawed thought process. “And how about a horizontal lathe?”

Randy and Cheryl were in the midst of a once-a-lifetime refit of Caribee as they prepared to cross into the Pacific. “For us,” said Cheryl, “we’ve got to start looking at tools we’ve used for cruising over the years and what we’re using for our refit. There are lots of tools that can probably go. The boat should be in good enough condition [after this refit] that when we haul out from now on, it should just be a bottom job and nothing more.”

To which her husband could only reply: “Interesting theory.”

Sailors debate endlessly–even, over time, with themselves–about the best systems for making electricity, refrigerated air, and drinking water.

“Our boat is an entirely 12-volt boat, with a 12-volt refrigerator and freezer,” said Rob of Ventana. “We believe this is the best system for a cruising boat that will not frequently be dockside.” Estimating their consumption at 120 to 140 amp-hours per day when anchored or 200 amp-hours under way, they were pleased while in the Caribbean with their existing generating system, which included a 125-amp alternator, four solar panels (two 75-watt and two 22-watt units), and an AIR Marine wind generator.

Heading into the Pacific posed a new problem, though. Expecting less wind than in the Caribbean, they needed to make up the extra juice. All their research pointed toward installing a genset. But that meant spending $9,000, adding hundreds of pounds, and losing valuable lazarette storage, where they kept scuba tanks. “After looking at nearly every AC and DC genset on the market and being mindful of space and weight,” said Rob, “I finally thought outside the box and came up with possibly the best solution of any single item on the boat–a second alternator.”

Adding the 160-amp alternator meant modifying the companionway and engine brackets (see details on Rob’s website,, but running Ventana’s diesel auxiliary 45 minutes a day supplies all the electricity they need; at idle, the Yanmar even likes the extra load.

Even sailors with the simplest DC-oriented boats had installed inverters to deliver AC current. “It’s almost essential, really,” said Randy. He and Cheryl use theirs to power, among other things, their sewing machine.

The notion of an “all-DC” boat brings up a fundamental question about how people use their boats. “There’s a big difference between folks who’re going to range off sailing a lot, and another group of folks who’re going to live aboard in various places for specific lengths of time,” said Carrol from Trinity, who places himself in the latter category. He and Joyce spend half of each year on the boat–sometimes in a marina, sometimes at anchor–and the other half at home in New York state.

“That regulates what your needs are and the level of comfort that you strive for,” he said, adding that if they were heading into the Pacific, he’d have a boat that was less mechanically complex. When at anchor, Trinity’s electrical supply is fed by an 8-kilowatt genset that, Carrol said, he runs twice a day for 60 to 90 minutes each time. Because they’re in the Caribbean, where drinking water is plentiful, they don’t have a watermaker. “Obviously,” said Joyce, “if we were going other places, we might install one. In the last two months, going from Trinidad to Martinique and back, our total water cost was only $32.”

Stephanie from Mima likes having a watermaker, not because water isn’t usually available in the Caribbean but because she likes knowing that the quality of water aboard is always good.

Roy Romine wishes he’d installed a different watermaker aboard Morning Wings. He chose his for the low current draw, but it makes only a gallon and a half per hour, Roy said. “Guess what: We never use it because it takes too darn long. We have a friend with a boat that’s smaller than ours, and believe it or not, he has a 15-gallon-per-hour watermaker aboard. It takes more than four amps, but he runs the engine for an hour and he’s got 15 gallons of water. As long as you have an engine or a generator, get a big watermaker.”

Rob Dubin recommends the opposite approach to refrigeration compressors–the difference being that a DC fridge cycles on whether or not the engine is running. He installed a Glacier Bay unit with a 1-horsepower motor, which draws 66 amps and is much larger than other DC units on the market; he wishes he had a smaller motor. His reason is based on the behavior of lead-acid batteries. “A 200 amp-hour battery will gladly deliver 200 amps if you take them out at a rate of 6 amps, as some compressors do,” Rob said. If you take out 66 amp-hours at that slow rate, you only have to replace 66 amp-hours (plus charging inefficiencies) to fully recharge the battery. “However, if you try to take out 66 amp-hours in one hour, the same battery bank will deliver many fewer amp-hours before it’s dead. But to charge it back up, you still have to replace 200 amp-hours.” The nature of lead-acid batteries means that the quicker-discharge scenario requires more electricity to recharge the batteries.

Overall, though, Rob remains pleased with the choice of a DC holding-plate system. “We can keep ice cream, make ice, and store that 30-pound tuna we just caught. With an engine-driven system, you can’t leave your boat overnight even at a dock because your food will spoil,” he said.

Regarding auxiliary engines, any changes people had made or wished to make were toward more horsepower and feathering propellers, often Max-Props. Roy said the 24-horsepower engine on his 32-footer provided too little power when they motored into swells; Stephanie and Tom said their upgrade to a 125-horsepower engine for their 50-footer was a good move. “Not that it goes any faster,” she said. “Hull speed is hull speed. But we sure don’t get stopped by stuff very often.”

Umbilical Cords
As cruisers know, staying connected with the world off the boat becomes more important as time goes on.
Joyce and Carrol Turner have grandchildren with whom they like to stay in regular touch. “When we first came down in 1995,” Joyce said, “our communication [system] was going into some town, walking along the streets, going up to a second-floor office, and asking if someone would send a fax for us. That was it. In Grenada, we went into the telephone office and said we’d like to check our voicemail. ‘What’s voicemail?’ they asked.”

How times have changed. As you talk to cruisers who’ve been out for many years, you can almost carbon-date their departure by the contact information they give you–whether it’s a managed mail service, an Iridium phone number, a PocketMail address, or, most recently, a Sailmail or Winlink address. The state of the art on communicating with home has been in tremendous flux for the last decade; for the last couple of seasons, cruisers are virtually unanimous about the advantages of getting e-mail through HF radio.

“Winlink is tremendous,” said Roy Romine. “When we came down here last time, let’s face it, our kids were a little concerned about us rolling around at 82. We were in radio contact with two boats that had Winlink, and they would e-mail our daughter every night as to where we went. It made our kids very happy.”

Winlink ( is a free e-mail service that transmits across amateur-radio bands. Many of the folks I spoke to had recently joined ad hoc study groups to acquire the necessary ham licenses to use Winlink.

Another recent evolution has been in the tenders cruisers use. “In the northern Caribbean, you see lots of dinghy and outboard combinations,” said Rob Dubin. “By the time you get farther south or west or into the Pacific, 85 percent of the cruisers have gone to a hard-bottom inflatable and a 15-horsepower outboard.”

My own limited research concurs: Four of the six crews I interviewed upgraded from 8- or 9.9-horsepower outboard to 15-horsepower outboards on RIBs of 9 or 10 feet; one crew uses a 25-horsepower engine on a 12-foot RIB.

“You need a dinghy that can stand a 3- to 4-foot chop,” said Carrol. When they left, they had a roll-up inflatable and a 5-horse four-stroke outboard; they made the usual upgrade.
Not just the length but also the pontoon diameter is important. “We have 17-inch pontoons on our Apex, and we never get wet,” Stephanie said.

One vital component of staying connected to the world is the anchor. After years of anchoring, the Turners swapped their 45-pound CQR for a Delta 55, a fairly common switch. Said Stephanie, “The Delta is the best thing I’ve ever seen. We’ve never, ever dragged in any condition.”

Generations of cruisers have debated the merits of simplicity and affordability on the one hand versus comfort and spaciousness on the other. Set against the obvious advantages of space in a boat are sentiments like Randy’s: “There are a lot of advantages to small boats, especially with ease of handling,” he said. “And financially, it was easier for us to go cruising at a younger age [mid-30s] with a smaller boat, so size factors into what we’re able to do,” said Cheryl.

At the end of the day, everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing: No matter how hard you try, there’s virtually no end to the quest for an ideal cruising boat. As Richard Johnson said, “Having a boat and maintaining it and getting it just like you want it is like making love: You never really get it right, but you have to keep on practicing.”

Tim Murphy is Cruising World’s executive editor.