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What is a comfortable sized sailing vessel for a cruising couple

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What is the issue?
The potential for an extended cruise is always dogged by the scale of the project budget. Central to that budget is the vessel itself. When the total finances are viewed against boat prices that increase exponentially with each foot of boat length an obvious compromise is highlighted; go smaller on the boat. Set living expenses plus a 24-foot (7.32 metres) vessel’s price tag against the budget and you get cruising possibility. Set living expenses plus a 36 footer’s price tag and you get a pipe dream.

If you ask an experienced sailor can you sail around the world in a 24-foot vessel, they will automatically scoff and brush you off. However, if you persist and pin them down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, they have to say ‘yes’. Albeit followed by an instant volley of ‘but you would not want to do that!’. It is far from a clear answer. Yet if your dream is to sail around the world, as was mine at the time I was asking that question, and you know little or nothing about boats, as again was my situation when asking these questions, you typically only hear the word you want; ‘yes’.

But that ‘yes’ is far from correct; particularly so for me - a 24-foot was acquired and sold post haste the next season. Boat selection for someone with limited boating experience and who wants to sell-up-and-set-sail is very unclear.

Why address this?
Getting the right sized boat for cruising will dramatically impact your comfort, personal relations aboard, sense of security and safety. Getting it right from the start, will also save you time, purchase and disposal expenses.

How to address this?
It took me some time to get there but with time and experience I found the ideal boat for the cruising couple is 35 – 45 feet (10.5 - 14 metres). Go smaller, or larger, than this cruising sweet-spot and you start to encounter problems.

A 35 - 45 feet vessel with a draft of about 2 metres, 6' to 8’, to help the vessel sail in most weather conditions, with plenty of sail area for light winds, and easy reefing for when it pipes up, is I believe the ideal vessel size for a cruising couple.

A Swan 38 that is a popular size cruiser
Photo: Yachty4000 via CC BY-SA 2.0

Vessels of this size have a good sea-keeping ability, steer well, assisting self-steering arrangements, have good storage capabilities and an acceptable sailing speed. Critically they can be easily arranged so that a single person may perform all the required tasks to sail the vessel completely unassisted.

Below decks, they will typically offer a comfortable seagoing sleeping berth for each person, plus an arrangement for the occasional guest. Gallies in these sized vessels are both workable and safe for continuous use and they have a permanent table below decks. They typically have an independent and comfortable navigation station large enough to enable a chart to be laid out flat permanently plus storage for a suite of charts beneath. This leads us to the central defining point of the sizing choice; storage.

Although often overlooked storage is perhaps the most important determining capability of a successful cruising vessel. All yachts, and particularly long distance cruising yachts, require a mass of ancillary equipment. For instance a dinghy, oars, outboard plus fuel storage can, anchors, anchor rodes, secondary chains, warps, life-rafts, lifejackets, EPIRBS, grab-bags, spare sheets, spare shrouds, sails, spare fuel in jerry cans, additional batteries, storm anchor, trysail, engine spares, storm equipment, tools, pilots, almanacs, etc. etc. the list is endless. Then there comes the personal items; heavy weather gear, clothing, bedding, books, cameras, music players, laptops, printers, personal hygiene, medical supplies etc. Finally, on top of this, the vessel has to accommodate food and water provisions to last the crew for up to two months or more.

The equipment load of a cruising yacht silently aggregates into being an enormous mass that catches you entirely by surprise. If you take it all and set it together it easily weighs in excess of a ton. A typical forty footer, however, displaces twelve tons and as such this gear weight is about one-tenth of its mass. This makes it more than manageable for a displacement vessel. In addition to this, the roomier vessel has the shelves, internal and external wet and dry lockers that can swallow up all this kilter and still remain in a liveable state.

With multi-hulls, however, this gear weight needs to be evaluated much more carefully as this type of sailing craft is not fond of weight. Consequently, a particular focus on the weight carrying load is required in the selection of this vessel. Nevertheless, a vessel of 35-45 feet long should have no problem dealing with this storage requirement.

These are the primary points as I see it that make the 35–45 feet sized boat, a great vessel for the cruising couple - if I have missed any points, good or bad, please feel free to edit them in, or to comment. Indeed the same sweet spot also applies to the solo sailor. Notable examples being in Joshua Slocum’s 1895 to 98 circumnavigation on the 36 feet, 9 inches long ‘Spray’ and Harry Pidgeon’s 1921 to 26 circumnavigation on the 34 feet long ‘Islander’.

Going smaller
Going smaller than the 35 to 45-feet cruising sweet-spot, it is primarily the storage maths that starts to go against you.

A twenty-five foot boat typically displaces four tons. If we take the above-mentioned ton of gear and place this on the twenty-five-foot boat it represents a quarter of the vessels overall weight. Of course, a proportion of the boat gear will be lighter than would be the case on the larger vessel, but not that much. Plus the weight of provisions will be heavier on a smaller boat offsetting this. This is due to the boat speed being a mathematical determined function of its waterline length. The longer the length, the faster the boat speed, the shorter the seagoing passages. The shorter the length, the slower the vessels speed, the longer the seagoing passages. Slow, longer seagoing passages means a shorter vessel must carry more food and water provisions.

The requisite volume of storage required to accommodate this amount of gear also overwhelms a smaller vessel. It has to be jammed in wherever possible making operations challenging. Almost every chore aboard will involve as much time involved in moving kilter from one side of the boat to the other in order to uncover what is required for the task, than the chore itself. I cannot express how wearing this is. Doing this day-in-day-out, when you are far from at your best due to a seagoing motion, and that very motion rolling everything about in the process, is quite simply unbearable.

Setting storage arrangements aside space will by definition be highly cramped. Navigation and galley table will be most likely the same and the galley will be highly compromised. You are most likely to have only a single comfortable seagoing berth causing contention. The possibility of having a friend come visit for a few days cruising would be scarcely possible. If you are tall it may be challenging to get requisite headroom. This is a shortcoming that you need to be particularly conscious of when selecting a smaller vessel. Being forced to continuously stoop whilst below decks is particularly wearisome and it may cause you in time to develop a gait akin to a chimpanzee which is far from a desirable posture.

Worse the smaller the vessel the more violent the motion becomes making it all the more difficult for the body and soul to endure. This is the final straw for the nerves and the level of stress. Wear on the body and soul like this will overfill its boundaries very quickly and spill out externally. The vessel will not be a happy place and if you are sailing with your partner, no matter how close you are, it could end the relationship.

Going larger
If you are unconstrained by finance electing to go for a larger vessel removes all storage concerns and delivers very fast passages with a sea kindly motion. Plus you have ample accommodation to host friends and family for extended parts of your voyage. You would think you cannot go wrong by scaling up but going above the 35 - 45 feet sweet-spot also has disadvantages.

The fundamental weakness of larger vessels is the scale begins to challenge the abilities of a single person to be able to manage and maintain all aspects of the sailing. Sometimes the scale may even challenge two people in many circumstances. Put simply, the larger the yacht the more brute muscle is required to handle the vessel and all its related equipment. You can scale up the equipment with bigger winches etc, but that will not fix the problem as they still require significant strength to crank them in. Dealing with the sails, poles, anchoring equipment etc of a 50 footer plus takes an enormous amount of strength, particularly so when you are fatigued or are not at your best such as in the dead of night. In these conditions a boat of this scale can easily overwhelm a burly man and you simply cannot base the sailing arrangements around the strongest member of the crew. Rather the opposite is the case. One person must be able to entirely control the vessel at all times. Therefore the sailing arrangements have to be made so the least physically strong member of the team can cope at all times.

There are two broad ways of working around this, equipping the vessel with powered devices to take the loads (winches, furling gear etc.) or by having a high degree of boat handling skill accompanied by excellent well worked out handling procedures for the specific vessel. The former introduces a major level of expense and complexity to the vessel. Plus it is far from ideal to add multiple sophisticated devices to an extended cruising vessel.

First and foremost things will break down, the more of them you have, the more you have to break down. A high reliance on complicated supporting systems is not ideal as you may get stuck when they fail and what happens when you have a dead battery? Secondly, the overlapping mean-time-between-failures will detract from the cruise as you will be diverted to arrange competent repairs or servicing, and or shipping of replacement parts - many a tropical cruise has been rechristened 'interesting places to repair a sailing yacht'.

In addition to this you cannot always rely upon powering your way out of problems. For instance, a big engine may make you feel confident but it will not make a 55 foot yacht any easier to come alongside in blustery conditions or indeed get away when pinned on the wharf by a stiff breeze. Nor can you do any physical fending off on a vessel of this size.

A yacht of this scale requires significant skill to accomplish the operations that jostling, pushing and shoving can get away with on a smaller vessel. This, in turn, relies upon a very high level of sailing accomplishment married to an intimate awareness of the nuances of a particular vessel. Each challenging procedure has to be planned and practised, with every required supporting piece of equipment laid out ready to hand, plus an alternative plan if possible. These systems should be applicable in all conditions and have to be perfect. This would take a long time to develop and an unlikely high degree of talent in each individual that makes up the sailing couple. There can be no room for error with large vessels because when it goes wrong it goes wrong on an equally hideously expensive scale.

Large yachts also have a nagging security concern attached. Yachts themselves are scarcely, if ever, stolen as they are not readily transferable and the specialised equipment is difficult to remove and fence. However, a conspicuously large yacht in the eyes of a thief or have-a-go-pirate can only mean potential wealth. The bigger the vessel the more ill-gotten gains are likely to be had - such as cash, credit cards, jewellery, personal electronics and computers. If sailing to areas where security is a prime consideration this has to be factored in.


Our 39-foot Obsession out of the water in New Zealand
Photo: Michael Harpur
The 35-45 boat is the cruising couples sweet spot and hard to beat. After soliciting the advice of a surveyor in my vessel selection we had a wonderful circumnavigation in a traditional shaped 39-foot vessel - although with her extended overhangs I would factor her more in terms of a 35 feet vessel.

Of course, akin to Joshua Slocum and Harry Pidgeon mentioned above, you will find a host of books written by couples and solo sailors who have made phenomenal expeditions in vessels less than 30 feet long. I met and remain friends with many on my travels. But I can honestly testify that these are remarkable people with incredible stamina as they quite simply endured extreme levels of hardship in the process. You can do it on a small vessel, but why would you want to do it?

Smaller vessels are terrific weekend cruisers because you do not require the equipment gear and provision storage. The galley is scarcely used in anger, as you eat out a lot, and they are exceptionally efficient to berth in marinas. Better still they are light enough to be easily lifted out by a low-cost hoist or off the trailer that can easily move them between great cruising destinations. But not one of these is an advantage when living aboard on an extended cruise.

Big yachts are beautiful spacious craft but you have to decide what size can you effectively handle? If you are going over the 35 to 45 feet sweet spot you have to consider this very carefully.

Put simply if you are thinking of going small to save the budget it is worth the industry or time involved in acquiring the extra finance for the larger vessel. Or keep searching for the bargain older vessel that requires time and work to fit up. If you are thinking of going larger, unless you need the extra accommodation it affords for regular guests, I would save the sum and have some more inland adventures on the trip. See also a simple ‘rule-of-thumb’ when selecting a long-term cruising boat.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

Sailing Baby Blue, a couple sailing an Allied Luders 33' sloop

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