SimplySailingOnline.com shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

What Size Boat Should I Buy?

October 20, 2014

In my recent encounters with wanna-be cruisers, the question is often asked, "How big of a boat do I have to have to cruise long term?" Too often, I have heard other "cruisers" give the answer, "The biggest thing you can afford." I offer this more practical answer for serious, long term, comfortable, safe cruising: The smallest thing you can fit in.

I am frequently reprimanded for including finances into the sailing equation. However, not every cruiser is independently wealthy, or willing to wait until they have "enough" money to sail away without having to live within a tight budget. So, if you plan to have unlimited money when you set off cruising, ignore the next few paragraphs and skip down about half a page. I'll get to your situation in a bit. As for the rest of us who DO have to think about money, here are a few compelling reasons to get the smallest boat you can fit in.


Ghosting into an anchorage in Panama, where we never saw another boat.

Size equals money in a dozen different ways. A bigger boat is generally more expensive to buy, but even if you get a deal, it will cost you more money FOR THE REST OF THE TIME YOU OWN IT. Bigger boats pay more in dockage and storage. If you pay to have work done on your boat, such as paint, you will likely be charged by the foot. Even if you do your own work, a bigger boat requires more paint, more sandpaper, bigger cutlass bearings, bigger shafts, bigger props, bigger motors, and bigger sails. Bigger sails require bigger winches until you eventually get to the point where having manual winches is no longer safe. But how safe is having to rely on electricity to trim, reef, or furl your sails? Bigger boats require bigger anchors and bigger chains until you get to the point where a manual windlass is no longer practical. Once again, how safe is it to have to rely on electricity to raise your anchor?

Once you have a boat whose very existence relies on having adequate electricity, you will need to have some way, or more likely, several ways, to make electricity. Enter a generator into the equation and you have to spend even more money: to purchase it, maintain it, and feed it. Fuel is expensive. Even if you buy enough solar panels to keep all your necessities running, the initial investment is outrageous, you have to find some place to put them all, so you end up with an atrocious arch of some sort on which you hang all sorts of unsightly things like plastic kayaks which adds to your windage and makes the boat less seaworthy, even at anchor.

But let's say you don't care about money. (Independently wealthy people can start reading HERE.) You have more than you could ever spend, you want all your creature comforts, dammit, and you want to feel like you're living in a house when you sail/motor around. NOW can you buy the biggest boat you can afford? Only if you don't really want to go anywhere, or you want to put yourself in unnecessarily aggravating (if not downright danger) situations. Every "big" boat (which I will define later) we have met in our 20 years of sailing, has at one time or another, HAD to stay in a port they didn't want to stay in (or really shouldn't stay in because of weather) because of broken "necessities" that weren't really necessary: generators, air conditioners, pressure water systems, water makers, outboards, the list is endless. We have NEVER (and this is not an exaggeration) stayed anywhere longer than we wanted to because something was broken, with the exception of an extra 24 hours in St. John while we replaced a broken chainplate. If you can't fix it within 24 hours and you HAVE to have it to sail, you have the wrong boat.

Big boats attract gadgets. The people who buy them obviously have money and have probably had it all their lives. They feel entitled to have all the comforts of a house when they set off sailing/motoring. But what they seem to be unwilling to admit is that their gizmos are limiting them. They have boats with too much draft to sneak into little coves, they rely on electronics to navigate and when they don't work they don't sail/motor, their boats are too complicated to even be enjoyable to sail. Owners are intimidated (whether they admit it or not) by their big, complicated boats and so tend to not be as adventurous. Or they hire crew, which takes away the feeling of accomplishment and freedom that makes cruising worth all the effort. A customer of Dave's had a 54-foot boat with all the toys. When he finally ran out of things to install and have repaired, and it came time to launch the boat and actually sail it, he suddenly got nervous. It is currently for sale. Or trade for a smaller boat. All that time and money that could have been put into a reasonably sized boat (and into his cruising kitty) wasted. He could have spent the last 3 years in the islands on a 20-something foot boat and been better off.


Eurisko, ready to head offshore.

So what is a "big" boat? It is a boat that is bigger than necessary. So what is necessary? To some extent, that depends on the individual. Our requirements for a boat were simple: standing headroom at least somewhere, 5 bunks (we have three boys), and a separate head (not a toilet under the V). Of course, these were the creature comforts. The REAL requirements were for bluewater safety and capability, but that has nothing to do with size. I repeat. The length of a boat has NOTHING to do with its safety offshore. Do you really think the ocean cares if your boat is 20 or 80 feet long? It makes not a BIT of difference in safety, until you get too big, and then it becomes unsafe to be in a big boat if you cannot handle it properly. There are more loads on sheets and winches, greater loads on lines controlling drogues, sails are bigger and harder to remove, oxygen tents create too much windage. So yes, size does matter in safety. It's possible to get too big to be safe.

We found our requirements in a 34-footer. Our son, now with a family of his own, had similar requirements for his liveaboard boat: standing headroom at least somewhere, a separate head, and a quarter berth for their toddler. A 33-footer met their needs nicely. A couple can easily fit in a 20-some footer and a single person can have a safe, fun cruising boat in the 19-foot range.

A smaller boat is self-limiting. You will be less likely to fall into the "must have" trap that sailing magazines and West Marine set for you. Regardless of what you may be told, you do NOT need: refrigeration, autopilot, radar, watermaker, pressure water, hot water, generator, electric ANYTHING, washer, dryer, air conditioning, or a 50-foot boat.

Be very leery of anyone who gives you a list of MUST haves, including a large boat. It has been our experience that a lot of "cruisers" want to think of themselves as being part of an exclusive group. "Oh no, YOU can't do what we are doing. We are special. You have to have all this stuff to live the dream. Sorry." Bullshit. You do NOT have to wait until you are old and grey to go sailing. You do NOT have to wait until you have a certain amount of money or can afford a certain size boat or all the gadgets.

So what size boat do you need? I think that's the wrong question to ask. It's not a certain size boat that you need to go cruising. It's an attitude. It's a collection of skills, a competent knowledge of how to fix what you do need (like sails and maybe winches), a desire to learn, to explore, to be free. Want to go cruising? Stop asking questions on facebook pages and forums, you'll likely get horrible advice from armchair sailors. Stop reading the advertisements in the back of sailing magazines. Buy a book or two (Pardeys or Hiscock or some other real sailor, not a recent "How I sailed around the world in 3 years" book). But most importantly, buy a boat--the smallest boat you can fit on--and go sailing. We'll see you out there.

Do you believe in magic? With the approach of Halloween, MONDAY we'll share our favorite story supporting the existence of magic.

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