Sailing the Big Seas – Choosing the Right Boat

Sailing the Big Seas – Choosing the Right Boat

The first step towards the Great Journey has been taken. Last time I wrote about how we decided to put our plan into action. The first phase has been completed – we have sold our house and most of our worldly belongings. There are a million steps to go before we get to stand on the deck of our sailboat, waving goodbye to the cheering crowds on the dock. Firstly, we’ll need a boat. Secondly, we’ll have to be nice to our friends so there might actually be someone there to see us off! This time I will concentrate on the boat search, which might prove to be the easier task of the two.

Finding the Right Boat is a process involving both sense and sensibility. The decision must be based on a lot of research and at least some experience – but the boat also has to feel right for us! What works wonderfully for someone else might not work for us, and vice versa. The boat will be our home for (hopefully) many years to come, so it definitely has to feel like home!

The budget, always the budget…

As well as having a great effect on the level of luxury we might expect from our lifestyle as we cast the lines, our budget also defines the size and standard of our boat and all the equipment that comes with it. 

We will be travelling on nothing short of a shoestring budget, so the ultimate shoestring decision would be to keep our little boat and forget about upgrading. ”The best boat is the one you have” is a phrase you often come across in the replies to someone asking the sailing forums for advice about the best boat for crossing oceans. But I don’t really think anyone would offer that advice to a middle aged couple sailing a 25 foot boat. That would be pretty extreme, to say the least! I’m not saying our little lady couldn’t do it – after all, she was built for offshore. Most boats will endure much more than their crews ever could.

Still, we came to the conclusion that we would need a bigger boat. But how much bigger? And what other, just as important factors to consider?

Does size really matter?

Running and maintenance costs escalate rapidly with the size of the boat. If you double a boat’s length you don’t end up with a boat that’s twice as big – it will in fact be six times the weight and volume. The sails will be six times bigger, and so will the engine. The systems will be more powerful and complicated, and it will be much more expensive to maintain or replace them. For someone on a budget, bigger is not better, as there is not a place on Earth where the maintenance costs will not follow us. So the question is not about how big a boat we can afford – it’s how small a boat we can (relatively) comfortably live on.

Old or new?

From the very start of our boat search we agreed on the most important features of our future boat. First and foremost she has to be safe, seaworthy and strongly built. We want a boat designed for offshore and long distance cruising so we completely ruled out light, flat bottomed daysailor types, as well as any kind of boats with long, thin keel stems and delicate rudders. Many such boats have successfully crossed oceans, so it definitely can be done, but we would like our boat to stand the test of time – a long time!

Strong, seaworthy boats are still in production today, but not exactly within our financial reach, so the question about the boat’s age pretty much solves itself. Our future boat will have her teenage years well behind her – we’re talking 1970’s or 80’s vintage.

So we will be missing out on the vast interiors of modern boats, with light flooding in through large windows. But there’s a drawback to them that we wouldn’t like anyway – a wide, flat hull is not as sea kindly as a more traditional, deeper hull, and the big open spaces can be unsafe when the boat gets tossed around in rough weather. Not to mention what else could be flooding in through those large windows…

Older boats have tighter interiors compared to modern boats of the same length. But they often have more storage space and tankage for water and fuel because of the deeper hull shape. That suits us very well!

Fast or slow?

Modern boats are lighter and therefore faster in light winds. The prevailing winds along popular cruising routes are fairly light, so we wouldn’t want to make too much of a compromise in light air performance. 

We hope to be spending most of our time in pleasant areas, sailing in benign conditions. But at some point we also want to explore places that are not so pleasant. I’m sure there’s a middle ground that can be found – a boat that sails reasonably well but can still stand up to a blow. After all, a boat that’s too heavy, slow and sails poorly is too dependent on engine power, and we just love to sail!

And finally – how to find such a boat?

Our location is not exactly ideal in terms of finding a large selection of seaworthy boats with all the necessary equipment. It would be a lot easier if we lived in, say, Marseille, Florida or the Chesapeake Bay. In those places you can find more boats for sale in one single marina than in our entire country. Ocean going sailboats are not a very hot selling item in the northern Baltic Sea for a very natural reason: it’s not an ocean. Even if suitable boats could be found, they’re seldom equipped for much more than daysailing in the archipelago. Only a handful of boats leave Finland for a longer voyage each year. 

Travelling abroad to look for a boat is, of course, not a bad idea. But to stay in budget we would have to have a very succesful first attempt – it’s no use spending money on multiple pilgrimages and possibly ending up being tricked by some broker, unsuspecting as we country folks often are. So, wouldn’t it be great if the Right Boat could be found in Scandinavia, or at least somewhere in the northern Europe?

Will we find our boat? And what compromises will we have to make? Soon I might be able to tell you more!

If you’re interested in more details about our requirements for the boat, I’ve made a list of all the must-haves, like-to-haves and if-we-lived-in-a-perfect-world-where-everything-was-possibleand-money-was-not-an-issue-haves that we’ve managed to come up with. They are roughly in the order in which they should appear on our boat.
The boat, our requirements, hopes and wishes
First of all, the boat has to be… 
1  Safe
There’s no wiggle room here. The boat must be safe, capable of crossing oceans, well designed, stable and solidly build in every aspect: the hull, keel, rudder and rigging.
2  Seaworthy
This is partly the same thing as the safety I just mentioned, but in a somewhat broader sense. The boat must perform well and be comfortable in big seas and heavy winds – sea kindly, as the term goes. It shouldn’t pound windward and should track well. This usually means the boat is in the moderate to heavy end of the displacement spectrum, but it doesn’t have to mean it’s a total slug. The boat mustn’t have excessive weather helm and can be easily steered with a windvane.
3  Well sailing
Again, this is partly the same as the previous point, but the emphasis being on performance. We can make some compromises when it comes to speed, and the first two points kind of rule out light air performance, but the boat should be able to sail reasonably well to windward, not to mention all the other points of sail! Otherwise we’ll end up motoring too much, and that’s not something I enjoy at all. Besides, it’s fun to sail on a boat that can sail!
The hull
Steel or grp (fibreglass)
We prefer a longish fin keel with a skeg hung rudder (the skeg might not protect the rudder in a big collision, but it certainly helps to keep fishing nets, crab pots and seaweed from getting stuck on the rudder). Modified long keel is also possible. The rudder attachment must be strong. Solid hull, no core.

The rig
Preferably cutter rigged with a keel stepped mast. Solent rig is just as good, and a Solent stay can be added to a sloop. Both headsails on furlers would be the best option. Ketch rig is also possible, but more complex and expensive to replace, and more clutter in the cockpit. Good size winches, at least two of them self tailing. Lines lead aft would be my favourite personal choice, so that I wouldn’t have to crawl about the deck in bad weather. And I really like the stack pack – lazy jack system we got for our little boat.
4  Plenty of space
For living
Enough space for two people for permanent, comfortable living. The boat will be our only home for many years to come! There should be:
– a good, well ventilated sleeping cabin with a proper sized double bed
– at least one but preferably two good sea berths for sleeping underway, and lee cloths for other bunks as well
– good galley (kitchen), preferably U-shaped so you can wedge yourself against something while cooking underway in big seas
– toilet with a shower (a separate shower stall would be a real luxury, but not absolutely necessary)
– spacious saloon with a good size dining table
– good ventilation, opening ports and deck hatches, dorade vents for bad weather
– good heater
– lots of handholds and a well designed seagoing interior
– preferably a good, separate navigation table
– room for 2-4 guest, converting salon settees can make up part (or all) of guest berths
– an aft sleeping cabin would be the best thing ever, but not if it means the living areas are cramped (works better in a 40+ foot size boat)
– two separate sleeping cabins would be super
For storage
– decent tankage for fuel and water. We’ll probably invest in a water maker, but the tank water has to suffice for an ocean crossing in case the water maker decided to quit.
– lots of storage on deck for lines, fenders, gas bottles etc. Good place for the life raft and dinghy.
– lots of storage for food!
– good place to store large items such as spare sails, (folding bikes, kayaks) and a tent sauna. Yes, we’re absolutely going to bring a tent sauna. Some Finnish boats have real, built in saunas in them, but we don’t have to go that far. Although… it wouldn’t be such a bad idea!
5  Well equipped
Of course we can always upgrade and add things later, but it would be great to find a boat already well equipped. It would be a cheaper way to acquire all the equipment, too, than buying all that stuff separately. Here’s a list of all the things we would like to have onboard when our journey begins:
– general safety equipment
– life raft
– good ground tackle
– storm equipment such as storm sails, drogues and such
– windvane
– good autopilot (system pilot)
– radar
– plotter
– vhf radio
– ssb radio and (or) sat phone (once we start crossing oceans)
– solar panels for self suffiency (+ other ways to produce electricity)
– water maker
– good sails, also a cruising chute or similar
– a good sprayhood (a rigid windshield would be great)
– bimini (possibly a full cockpit enclosure)
– hard bottom hypalon dinghy
Additional wishes, if the above are already there 😉
– toilet close to the companionway, so you don’t have to walk through the salon to get there, and to easily hang up wet foulies to dry
– center cockpit: means there will be a great aft cabin, and plenty of space to hang out on the aft deck (much more comfortable than the foredeck) fishing, sunbathing and so on. The downside is you can’t have a decent servo-pendulum windvane, but you can have a Hydrovane type, which might be good as well. Also, some people claim that the rolling of the boat feels worse because you’re sitting higher up.
Definite no-no’s
– saildrive
– spade rudder
– bulb keels at the end of a long stem
– balsa core in the hull
– any kind of core in the hull
Preferably no
– teak deck. Especially if in bad shape. If in good shape (at least 10 years of life without a big repair) and there’s no balsa underneath, then maybe.
– in mast furling. Stack pack with fully battened mainsail would be our choice.
– centerboard / lifting keel – another mechanism and a hole under water to worry about

2 thoughts on “Sailing the Big Seas – Choosing the Right Boat

  1. All the best in your boat search. I remember when we started our search for our current boat (we had previously been living on a 26′ boat – way too small for the long-term). It was a frustrating period, but in the end we found the right boat for us and I’m sure you will find yours too.

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