A recurring theme in my blog, and life, is that I spend too much time readings sailing and cruising forums and blogs. Hey, there is a lot of knowledge out there and the more I gain from reading is one less mistake I’ll make or something broken that I will know how to fix. (At least this is how I justify my obsession to my Bride.)
One topic that comes up often is what boat should someone choose? What boat is the “best” boat? Is boat A better than boat B?
The bottom line answer to all these questions is that no one can answer this for you. Much of the information that goes into making this decision is personal preference. Everyone makes this decision in a different way.
Experience is the best thing to teach you what you like and don’t like about boats. I think it is unrealistic to go into your first boat purchase with the expectation that you will pick your perfect boat. For one reason, every boat is a series of compromises. But mainly, it is very difficult to know what’s important to you until you have had some experience in a boat. So while no one can answer this question for someone else, I will explain how we chose the right boat for us.
We purchased our first boat, Splash, a C&C 24 from my aunt and uncle. We had been out on the boat and knew it was very well maintained by a good boat yard and knowledgable owners. They had done some fairly recent work to the boat that included the purchase of new sails and reapolstering the interior.
Splash is a great boat and she taught us a lot about sailing. She is still the best sailing boat I have handled. She had a fin keel and tiller, was very responsive, forgiving and fast for her size. You could bury the rail almost a foot into the water and still feel safe in her cockpit. Even without a traveler, she out pointed most boats. But she also taught us some of the things we didn’t want in our next boat. Here are some of the things we didn’t like and wanted to change in our next boat:
- The “head” consisted of a porta-potty under the vee-birth. Not very convenient in the middle of the night.
- The vee-birth was too small. I am a big guy and we couldn’t sleep together in the vee-birth. One of us would sleep on the settee and the other in the vee-birth.
- The galley consisted of a hand pump sink with a two gallon tank, a dry storage box, a cooler and a two burner alcohol stove. When we cooked onboard it was typically on a grill hanging off the back of the boat. Cleaning dishes was a pain and was usually done at the dock or at home.
- The cockpit was small and had the main sheet attached in the middle. With 4 people on board we were pretty much maxed out in the cockpit and we couldn’t easily add shade.
- The outboard engine would cavitate in anything above 1 foot swell. In chop or when there was a lot of wake, it was very difficult to make way and we would also lose steerage at times.
- Folding boat ladders suck. Getting back onboard with the folding ladders that you store in a locker is almost impossible for a big guy.
- You had to go to the mast to reef, raise and douse the mainsail. The chain plates were out near the edges and it was difficult to get there safely in rough weather. We wanted to be able to manage the sails safely from the cockpit.
So from this, we created a list of wants for our new boat. This is what they were:
- All lines lead aft to the cockpit and wheel steering
- Full, separate head
- Walk-through transom or swim platform with a good boarding ladder or at least a permanent fixed ladder on the stern
- A large main birth that didn’t require one of us to climb over the other to get in or out of bed
- An inboard engine, preferably a diesel
- A large cockpit
- A full galley with a refer, propane stove and pressure water at the sink
We also had some things that didn’t matter much to us:
- A large salon. We spend most of our time in the cockpit
- A go anywhere bluewater boat. My Bride has no interest in sailing across oceans. Coastal cruising was our goal
- A deep fin keel. We like to explore areas and didn’t want to be that limited by a 6-9 foot keel. We were willing to sacrifice some performance for a shallower draft.
So with the above in mind, I went out to find our next boat.
Before we purchased Smitty I spent hours every day on Yacht World and other sites looking at boats. There are few boats I didn’t look at, at least clicked through the photos to see if there was anything interesting about a particular model.
I went out and looked at boats in person. Photos can be deceiving and what looks good on the computer, might be totally different. I was a bit of a schizophrenic boat buyer. I looked at older boats, newer boats; 28 to 40 feet long; bluewater to coastal cruisers; turnkey boats to complete gut jobs; everything. I wanted to see as much as I could.
When I found a boat I liked, I than started to try to find out all the problems with that particular model or manufacturer. If there were common problems with a model I really liked I wanted to know what they were. Then I could evaluate if the problem was a deal killer or something that could be worked with. Like I said earlier, boats are a series of compromises. A large main birth would come at the expense of space somewhere else. Having a refer means you need to carry a lot of battery capacity.
A really great site for comparing boats is Sail Calculator Pro. A valuable tool to compare boats. The website Sailboat Data is also a good place to start getting basic data. But I do caution that you don’t get too tied up in the number.
Ultimately I narrowed down my list to about 3 boats: Catalina 310; Catalina 320 and; Nonsuch 30 Ultra. I showed my Bride some good examples of all 3 on Yacht World. The Catalina 310 immediately appealed to her. So I set up a time for us to look at the best one I found locally. Once she stepped on Smitty, then called Norm’s Place, she was sold. We looked a several other boats just to be sure, but we returned to Norm’s Place and made an offer. Eventually we negotiated an acceptable price and the survey didn’t turn up any significant items. On December 20, 2010, Smitty became ours.
So what were some of the key features that made us like this boat so much?
- Centerline, walk-around birth with a real innerspring mattress
- Large cockpit with all sail controls on the cabin top
- Nice galley with all of the wanted equipment
- Stern rail seats
- Under 5-foot draft with the wing keel
- Fairly high displacement for a coastal cruiser
- More robustly built than many of the competitors (i.e. better backing plates, stronger rigging, build quality than Benetaeu and Hunter)
- Very large support group with Catalina Owners and the 310 Specific Forum
Overall the boat seemed to be designed exactly for us. A couple who wants to do extensive coastal cruising in a boat that isn’t too big to fit into the fun spots. Also, at 31 feet it won’t break the bank in maintenance or marina fees. With no exterior wood except the hatch boards and other smart design features, we can spend more time enjoying ourselves and less time on maintenance.
Admittedly, after we had Smitty I started to think about going bigger. After the first year, I was back to spending a lot of time on Yacht World. I definitely had a case of the two-footitis. I was worried about the amount of storage, where friends would stay when we went cruising, being able to carry toys like kayaks and padle boards, if a dinghy on davits would put too much weight on the stern. After all, most of the armchair sailors on the forums argue that you have to be in a 45 to 55 foot boat to have enough space to live aboard and cruise full-time.
After much soul-searching, more reading from those who are actually sailing and most importantly, a charter trip to the BVIs with another couple, I began to really think about the importance of size. But now I was focused on the smallest boat we would be comfortable in. Size = Cost!
Our experience and research has shown that supplies can be pretty readily had in our proposed cruising area. There is little reason to carry more than a months worth of supplies. Even if I have to pay a little more in places like the Bahamas, that cost is more than offset by the cheaper costs for maintenance, storage and overall purchase price.
What’s the point of this entire post? What’s the “right” boat?
It’s the smallest boat you will feel comfortable on without feeling like you are camping. For us, it’s the Catalina 310. There will be some modifications to make the boat better suited to our needs, but I believe you would have that with any boat.
Like the Pardey’s say, “Go Small. Go Now!”