Saturday, November 14, 2015

Things the Seller Won't Tell You About Boats

Okeechobee Waterway, Florida

If you plan on cruising some day, one of the first things you'll need to do is to buy and equip a vessel to suit your needs.  New or used, there are lots of things the salesman (or authors of cruising articles) will neglect to mention that are not obvious until you have the cruising experience.  Here are a few tips.


  1. The phrases blue-water, coastal-cruising, weekender, and day-sailor, describe classes of vessels.  The definitions of what those things mean are loose, and not universal.  But in general, most people cruising on the USA east coast will do best with a coastal-cruising type vessel.  

    Libby had her own ideas before we started in 2005.  She rated safety above all else, so we chose a blue-water boat.  Tarwathie, a Westsail 32, is famous for being probably the safest cruising vessel for two people ever made.  But Tarwathie's blue-water features mean that we sacrifice some conveniences.  Foremost, are the small cockpit that we can not enclose, and the lack of a swim platform.
  2. Tankage is of critical importance to cruising sailors.  By that I mean the capacity of fuel tanks and water tanks.  Daysail and weekend boats often have too small tanks.  How much do you need?  I would say 40 gallons of diesel and 80 gallons of fresh water minimum.

    You often see many cruising sailboats (including Tarwathie) carrying jerry jugs on the deck.  Sometimes many jugs.  Blue jugs for water, yellow for diesel, and red for gasoline.  That is a sign that the tankage on that vessel is inadequate to suit the captain.
  3. Size of your vessel.  For full freedom to cruise anywhere on the USA east coast, you must set certain maximums on critical dimensions.  If you exceed these dimensions, your freedom is reduced and your costs increased.  Even billionaires can't have full freedom with their too big megayachts.
  • LOA 45 feet.
  • Beam 14 feet.
  • Height of the mast+antennas 49 feet.
  • Draft 5.5 feet.
  • Sail area > ???

    Those most frequently caught by surprise are those with masts 63 feet or more who cannot travel the ICW in all conditions, and catamarans with beams more than 20 feet which can not be accommodated in many marina slips.  For example, today Tarwathie will pass under a RR bridge with 49.28 feet clearance.  90% of our cruising friends are unable to choose that route because they can't fit under that bridge.

    I'm unsure on the numbers for sail area.  Just remember that the motivation for making larger vessels Ketch or Yawl rigged is to reduce the maximum size of any one sail to make them easier for the crew to handle.
  1. The price of a new boat usually does not include canvas or davits. You need at least a dodger and a bimini.  Fully enclosed cockpits are highly desirable.  You need comfortable cockpit cushions.  These add-ons can cost many thousands of dollars unless you can make your own.
  2. Electronics.   Everyone knows about VHF radio, compass, and depth sounder.  Beginners sometimes don't appreciate the need for a chart plotter, SSB radio, and battery monitor.    They may also not understand that a TV and an AC suck down so much power, that you need to be connected to shore power to use them.
  3. Manufacturers of daysail and weekend boats, provide inadequate insulation and refrigerator systems.  If you only cruise two days at a time, you really don't care about the efficiency of your refrigeration.  It becomes a huge issue when you cruise full time.
  4. Access to your engine.  You should plan on needing to remove your engine for repair or replacement sometime during the life of your boat.  Some vessels are not designed for that, and they require that you destroy the decks and/or carpentry to do that.  Avoid them.
  5. Selection of a dinghy.  That is a very big subject.  Too big for me to discuss here.  But you need to research it.  I my opinion, the finest dinghy on the market today is a Portland Pudgy; but that costs nearly $5000!!! That is 500-800% more than you might plan to spend.
  6. Ways to get the dinghy on board for transport.  Davits are the most common choice.  But davits can be very expensive and not all of them are good.  Research that thoroughly.
  7. Visibility.  You need excellent visibility in all directions (360 degrees).  I chose this subject today because I saw a vessel that was blind to the rear because of his dinghy in the davit.  The captain could not see me approaching from behind.  A sharp helmsman frequency pivots 360 degrees to see what is around him in all directions.  If you can't see clearly, you are a hazard.
  8. An arch.  Arches form a combination of davit, and a place to mount solar panels and electronics.  Not all vessels (notably Westsail 32s) lend themselves to adding an arch.  A well built arch will also cost you thousands of dollars that you did not plan for in your budget.
  9. Deck storage.  You'll need places to store lines, and buckets, and mops, and fenders.  You'll probably need more than you anticipated.
  10. Propane:   Most cruising boats use propane stoves.  Tarwathie has a propane stove and a propane cabin heater.  Some people use alcohol.  That works well and it is very safe, but alcohol can be too expensive.   Propane is the only ubiquitous and affordable cooking fuel.

    Tarwathie carries two 20 pound propane bottles, of the type that can be filled or exchanged almost anywhere.   When one tank runs out, we have four months to find a place to buy more propane.  If you have only one bottle, then you'll be unable to cook until you get it refilled.

    Propane tanks must be stored safely.  A propane explosion on a boat can leave nothing bigger than a matchstick remaining.  You can use and store the propane safely, but propane safety is the most deadly serious technical issue you'll face.

    Propane safety means if the tank springs a leak that 100% of the propane leaks overboard and 0% leaks into the cabin.  (In real life, three times in 10 years I bought small propane tanks to use with a blow torch.  All three of them rusted out and leaked all their contents. I had stored them safely so there was no crisis, but if I hadn't we could be dead by now. The same applies to small propane bottles used for camp stoves and BBQ grills.  If you have one or more on board your boat, you must plan on it leaking.)

    The easiest way to safely store propane bottles is to strap them to a stanchion, but steel tanks corrode rapidly that way. You'll need an expensive aluminum or fiber composite tank immune to salt water corrosion.  Those cost a lot and can not be readily exchanged.   Many of them are too small because of the high cost and thus run out of fuel too soon.
I also advise new cruisers to not rush to spend their money so fast in the first months buying every imaginable gadget and convenience.  Not only do you empty your wallet, but you can clutter up the boat with things that you ultimate don't use very much, but will need your maintenance attention and conflict with simplifying your life.  The above list of 12 items are the exception to that rule.  Think carefully about those before starting your cruising life.

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