Choosing for Cruising

Choices in  Boats for Bahamas Cruising                                                                                     back home


Last year, I wrote a two part article about Boats for the Bahamas. This time, I will take a look at choosing a cruising sailboat not just for the Bahamas. Realize that one could fill an entire bookshelf with volumes on this topic so we will not get into every detail. We will examine factors such as size, cost, design, and age. My overall approach to selecting a cruising boat favors getting out there for a reasonable cost. If you have half a million dollars to purchase a 40 foot boat, you can find lots of people to show you why theirs is the best boat, but if you are considering an older boat, a “value” priced boat or a fixer upper so that you can be cruising while others are working to pay for their new yacht, read on.

Size Wise

While there are single handers and families out cruising, the majority of cruisers are couples. In the Bahamas article, we concluded that the preferred boat size for a couple is in the 38' to 42' range. Some couples manage fine with less boat and some choose to go larger so let's consider some of the ramifications.

The interior volume of a hull varies with the cube of the length, all other things being equal (meaning the same hull shape). To demonstrate this, lets compare two boats that are shaped like a house trailer - one 40 feet long and one 50 feet. To calculate the volume of the 40 footer, multiply length x width x height, or 40 x 8 x 8 = 2,560 cubic feet. The 50 footer .....50 x 10 x 10 = 5,000 cubic feet. You can see that the 50 footer has close to twice the volume of a 40 footer of the same design shape. If you cube 40 (40 x 40 x 40 = 64,000) and cube 50 (50 x 50 x 50 = 125,000) you will see that the result for 50 is close to twice the result of 40 - the same ratio.

So what we can conclude is that volume increases rapidly with length and that to compare the volume of two similar boats, we can cube the overall length of each and obtain a ratio of one volume to the other. For instance, how does the volume of a 42 compare to the volume of a 38? Roughly 42 cubed divided by 38 cubed which equals 1.35, meaning there is 35% more volume in the 42.

In 2006 in the Bahamas, a casual survey of cruising boats reveals that about 15% are catamarans. Catamarans typically have considerably more interior volume than a monohull of similar length, although the volume may not be as usable. A 35 foot catamaran may have as much space as a 42 foot monohull, but the capacity to carry weight will be less if sailing performance is to be maintained. Catamarans often have huge cockpits and salons and narrower staterooms in the hulls. For instance, the staterooms on a Lagoon 410 have a queen size bunk athwartship, but there is no space around it. The cockpit however could seat a dozen people comfortably.

So how much boat do you need? Well, the largest possible while sailing rough waters or entertaining guests, the smallest possible when docking or renting a slip or handling sails. How about when servicing the stuffing box or changing the oil? At least big enough to physically get your body in a position to do the work. How about one with standing headroom in the cabin? We know a tall captain who constantly banged his head aboard his Tayana 37. Some designs look roomy at first glance....and then you lay on a bunk and discover it is not long enough. Many modern interiors look spacious at the boat show because lockers have been sacrificed. The main salon has been pushed outward until there is little room left for storage. Some older designs featured deep drawers and cabinets that would hold a lot of cruising supplies but the space left for humans feels cramped. I was on board a beautiful 41' vessel from 1969 recently and it seemed half the size of our more modern 42 footer, mainly due to its narrow beam.

Some people will tell you that a particular interior is too large or open for making safe passages. The reality is that most cruising vessels are stationary 90% of the time when that same openness is a plus. My preference is for openness with sufficient handholds, lee cloths, etc. for safety.

Cost Factors

The bottom line is usually the major influence on boat size so lets take a look at costs. Some costs are independent of boat length, others vary by boat length, and some vary by the square or cube of boat length (in the same way as volume discussed previously). In general, the bottom line is that bigger is much more expensive.

Equipment such as instrumentation, charts, radios, solar panels and of course provisions, are pretty much independent of boat length. That says that you can spend as much outfitting a boat that is too small as one that is too big! It also says that if you buy a small boat and then decide to move up, you will have to spend as much again on outfitting!

Some cruising costs vary by boat length. Dockage for instance is usually priced by the foot because it is primarily length that uses up dock space rather than width or depth. This may not hold for a catamaran that occupies a double wide slip so plan on doubling the fee for a catamaran and then feel good on the occasions when a marina does not charge it. Moorings are usually priced by the day regardless of boat size but there is often a maximum size that will be accommodated on a particular mooring. In Annapolis for instance, 45 ft is the upper limit on many of the city owned moorings. In Key West, the limit is 40 ft.

Boatyard work such as hauling out and bottom painting is often priced by the foot but the amount of paint to cover a bottom actually varies by the square of the length so don't be surprised if the price reflects that in some way.

Cost items that vary by the square of boat length are the ones that not only get longer but also taller or wider as the boat gets bigger. Sails of course grow in two directions as the boat gets longer so expect the costs to increase by roughly the square of boat length plus a factor for heavier material.

In addition, there are items that increase in cost by the cube of the boat length because they get longer, wider, deeper and probably heavier as the boat length increases. Included would be the hull, the ballast, the interior furnishings and so on.

Fuel consumption is related to how much work is performed which means how much weight is moved how far and how fast. Engine efficiency and hull drag also enter the equation resulting in a lot of variables. In general, a typical diesel powered monohull will use between 0.5 gallons (35 footer) and 1 gallon per hour (45 footer). At around $4 per gallon for diesel in the Bahamas, it becomes significant.

Insurance on your vessel is generally related to its agreed value, but again there are a lot of variables including age of vessel, cruising grounds, time spent in hurricane prone areas, etc. For a ballpark number, think of a vessel valued at $100,000 costing $1500 to $2000 annually for coverage in Florida and the Bahamas. Get several quotes and read the fine print!

So what does all this mean when looking for a cruising vessel? Well it should explain why a 40 footer costs more than double what a 30 footer costs. It should also be a warning that even though you may find a great deal on a large boat, the ongoing costs associated with the large boat will be substantially higher than a smaller one. A final note on this subject is that many long term cruisers find that the cost of operating and maintaining a boat is in the neighborhood of 10% of its value annually. While a new boat may run less than that, at some point in its life, refits and haulouts will drive the annual average up to the 10% number.

Cruising Features

While it is possible to cruise on a wide variety of boat designs, here are some thoughts on a few features that can affect comfort and safety.

Sailing ability

Some long distance voyagers follow the trade winds and nearly always sail down wind. The rest of us find that we usually want to go wherever the wind is coming from. A good sailing boat is fun when the conditions are right. I love to sail and have a boat that sails well on all points, but I must admit that the amount of time we spend enjoying a close reach or beat is pretty small. If the boat did not point as well, we would simply start the engine sooner. Since cruising boats are such a compromise anyway, sacrificing a little sailing ability for a shorter mast, a shoal draft, or a simpler rig makes sense for a lot of people. On the other hand, there are some motorsailors out there that never sail without the engine running. That would take the fun out of it for me.

Keels and Rudders

Prime cruising grounds like the Bahamas are also home to coral reefs and shoals. I recently followed via SSB radio the rescue of two catamaran crews from their abandoned vessels. A chain of events occurred in which both catamarans were lost because they each struck coral reefs and punctured a hull, one while trying to help the other. I wonder whether a boat with an exposed lead keel would have been damaged in the same situation. I like the idea of a lead “grounding plate”. I also believe the keel should protect the rudder and drive train.

Most new boats on the market today are equipped with spade rudders. Sailing performance is probably at its best with a spade rudder, but be aware that rudder damage is not uncommon in areas where shallow water and coral reefs abound. All other things being equal, a skeg supported rudder that is somewhat shorter than the keel is the better choice, however finding such a boat may prove difficult or expensive.

Draft and Air Draft

We have taken our 6 foot plus draft up and down the Intra-Coastal Waterway, around the Chesapeake Bay, up the west coast of Florida, throughout the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic. We have skipped a few stops in the islands and have run aground a couple of times in the ICW but we made it. If you have a foot or two less draft, you will gain access to more anchorages and have fewer heart stopping moments. You will probably still push the limit and run aground as much as we do, but closer to shore. I would try to limit draft to 5 feet but don't trade boats if you already have up to a 6 ½ foot draft.

Pay attention to mast height (or Air Draft) when you are boat shopping. The ICW is riddled with 65 foot bridges. There are a few 49 or 50 foot bridges on the Okeechobee Waterway, the Gulf Coast ICW, and the Ashley River plus one 56 foot bridge between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. It is not practical to travel the Atlantic ICW with an overall height above 63 feet. Even though you might slide a taller mast under a bridge at low tide once in a while, you will arrive at the next bridge at high tide with no anchorage in sight. Away from the US East Coast, air draft loses its importance. There are two bridges in Nassau with 70 ft clearances, but few others.


Modern monohulls have beams that approach 1/3 of the overall length of the vessel. CCA style monohull beams from the sixties were often less than 1/4 of the overall length. Combine that with proportional freeboard and the modern boat will have a volume that is near double that of the old design.

The slip where we sometimes store our boat in the summer is barely wide enough for our 14 ft beam, even though it is more than long enough for the boat. Multihulls are slip challenged. With the scarcity of available slips in Florida, finding one for a multihull would be extremely difficult. Also consider haulouts when shopping for a multihull. One friend with a beamy (23 ft) catamaran can only haul out in one of Tampa Bay's several boatyards.

Beam also affects seakindliness or comfort in rough seas. Some attempts have been made to quantify seakindliness but it is difficult to obtain the measurements required to plug into the formula. There is no substitute for a sea trial to decide if the motion is to your liking. Note that while there is some variation in monohull motion, the motion of a catamaran or a trawler is decidedly different. A catamaran does not heel like a monohull but it has a short, sharp motion as the hulls independently ride over the waves.


Sometimes I wish I could sit below in the cabin and gaze out of the ports or windows at the scenery. In fact, I have to stand on tiptoe to be able to see out . Thoughts of a pilothouse or a salon like a catamaran come to mind. Then I notice that all of the large windows on neighboring boats are covered with canvas to keep out the tropical sun and I forget the whole idea!


Second to a hull that remains afloat, the engine is probably the most critical feature of your vessel. Our previous sailboat, a 33 foot racer cruiser, was equipped with a 15 h.p. engine, presumably to save weight and space. That was simply not enough for cruising. 30 h.p. would have been more realistic. Think in terms of 50 horsepower for a 40 foot boat.

Well-maintained diesel engines can last a long time. Problems usually crop up with starters, alternators and pumps before the engine itself wears out. Simple is best. Turbochargers, angle drives, propellers with moving parts, high output alternators, all increase complexity, maintenance requirements, and the likelihood of failure.

Engine brands vary in terms of reliability, availability of parts, and cost of repair. I will only say that we have 20 years of almost trouble-free Yanmar experience. There are some user surveys available from SSCA and others that would be worth checking if you are looking at another brand.

Exterior Woodwork

Teak trim and teak decks look nice on new boats. Teak is seldom used for structural components these days, but a few years ago wooden bowsprits, spreaders and other parts were common. If you are tempted by the looks of exterior teak, picture yourself standing on deck in the tropical sun with a crow bar, ripping up the remains of your worn out teak deck and revealing hundreds of screw holes in the fiberglass underneath and wondering which ones leaked water into the deck laminate. I have seen this process and it is not pretty. Teak cap rails and other trim pieces are less intimidating than decks, but require a lot of regular sanding and varnishing in the tropics unless you like the au naturel look.

Swim Platforms

The walk-through transom and associated swim platform is an innovation whose time has come. Although some circumnavigators will be opposed to such a design, for the rest of us, the convenience and safety of being able to board the boat from the dinghy onto a swim platform far outweighs the alleged dangers. Clambering up the side of a bouncing boat from a wet dinghy is hazardous and nasty accidents have occurred as a result. Stepping from the dinghy onto the relatively stable swim platform is by far safer, especially with groceries, fuel jugs, etc..

The Phoenix

Some cruisers choose to purchase an older vessel and breathe new life into her. Is this a good idea? Well, it depends. I have seen some refurbished old boats that are beautiful, but the amount of time and money that it took to make them that way depends on how well they were designed and constructed in the first place and how well they were maintained in the second place.

Lets consider the life span of some major boat components:

A lead keel - almost infinite

A fiberglass hull - barring terminal blistering or delamination, perhaps 40 years

Stainless steel stanchions, chainplates, etc. - perhaps 30 years

Aluminum mast and boom - 30 years if not corroded by galvanic action

Standing rigging - 20 years

Interior furniture - 20 years

Running rigging and sails - 10 years

Wiring and fixtures - 10 - 15 years

Hatches and ports - 10 - 15 years

Exterior Wood - 10 - 15 years

Instruments - 10 years

Engine and Generator - 10 - 15 years, depending on hours and maintenance

Propellor shaft and propellor - 10 years

Interior cushions and fabrics - 10 years

Canvas - 8 years

Plumbing - 8 years

This list is admittedly rough but see where your proposed fixer-upper fits. If it is 30 years old, you may be buying a hull and keel with a few stainless and aluminum components and throwing the rest away. Enter your own life spans if you don't like mine but at least consider what you are really getting. The cost of replacing the bits you throw away plus the manhours to perform the installation can be staggering.

Note that certain serious weaknesses appear repeatedly in boats from particular manufacturers or even countries. Examples would be rusted black iron fuel tanks in the bilge and delaminating decks, both of which are problems to run away from at top speed. An internet search will often reveal whether or not the boat you have fallen for is a repeat offender with these or other serious problems.

Building a cruising boat from scratch is an overwhelming undertaking. If you are a professional boat builder and know what you are getting into, then go for it. Anyone else should consider earning money at their own trade and paying a boat builder to build them a boat. Most home built boats take somewhere in the neighborhood of seven years to approach completion and have very little value to anyone else until they are finished. That means that if you work on it for six years and stop for any reason, you will sell it for peanuts.

Repairs and Maintenance

Once you are out cruising, you will be responsible for maintaining your boat and all of its systems. Bear in mind that a cruising boat not only contains the essentials of boating but also duplicates the systems of shore life. An electrical generating plant, a water department, a sewage treatment plant, a radio or telephone company, even a movie theater all appear to some degree on board your vessel and you have to maintain them. Some modern boats are so complicated that they never leave port because it is impossible to get everything working at one time. A surefire solution to equipment failure is to avoid having complex equipment aboard in the first place (think solar panels instead of generator, paper charts instead of chartplotter, separate battery charger and inverter, etc.). I once heard Alvah Simon say that if you add a piece of equipment to your boat, you must be able to repair it, replace it, or do without it when it fails.

Although marine components are touted as being expensive because they have to be such high quality, the reality is that many of them are made in small shops with inadequate engineering and quality control support. Outside of the basic boat, many components are nowhere near as well made as a typical consumer product such as a TV or a car, mainly because the quantities sold do not support the cost of proper testing and development. In addition, the price of replacements for parts that should never have failed is often outrageous.

As an example, I recently saw a piece of well known navigation software that stopped working at the first of the year until a certain file was updated via the internet or a from a new CD. How would you like to be making landfall on a remote Pacific atoll on January 1 and have your navigation equipment abruptly stop working until you go online and update a file?

I recommend installing your own equipment. You will then know a lot about it when it needs repair or maintenance. Label your wiring and plumbing because you will forget how it was installed after a couple of years. Make drawings or notes about the installation and note any setup parameters for equipment like an autopilot. Create binders with equipment manuals, instruction sheets and the like properly filed. Keep notebooks with manufacturers names and contact information, model numbers and anything else that may help with repairs. If you are considering a used vessel, determine whether notebooks and manuals (in your native language) are available for the equipment aboard.

Further Research

As I said earlier, there are many volumes available on choosing for cruising and way too many choices available. I find it interesting that there are cruisers out happily sailing around in every imaginable type of vessel and most of them seem content with what they have. The happiest ones are those whose boats are in good condition and who are not attempting to repair critical components in remote locations. Keep it simple and go now!