Head Over Keels in Love - Choosing a Cruising Sailboat

"Peace is not found in a calmer storm, it's found in a better boat." - Travis Meadows

I don't know what Yachtworld.com's web traffic stats are, but I'm guessing they pull huge numbers from both keel kickers and serious buyers trying to answer one basic question: What sailboat should I purchase for cruising? There's already been a lot written on the topic by sailors far more accomplished than me. For starters, I can't recommend these enough: Charlie Doane's The Modern Cruising Sailboat, John Kretschmer's Sailing a Serious Ocean and Beth Leonard's The Voyager's Handbook.

So I'm not going to reinvent the wheel with this post nor am I going to try to create the definitive source of information about choosing a cruising sailboat. Instead, I'm going to share a few simple tips I've picked up through reading, sailing, purchasing 5 boats of my own, and interacting with online sailing communities and some old salts on the dock.

My pride and joy, s/v Bearly-A-Wake

Ignore engine hours. If you're considering a diesel engine, don't get turned off by the engine hours. It's far more common for a marine diesel to die from neglect or outright abuse than to ever simply just wear out. So, what's far more important than the engine hours is knowing and verifying that the maintenance schedule has been followed. Also, carefully consider how easy it is to access common service points for tasks such as oil changes/checks, impeller changes, anode replacements, etc. This is particularly important if you intend to maintain the engine yourself. The better access you have to the engine, the more likely you (and any previous owner/s) are to keep up with maintenance.

Rule out what you don't want. After you've done your own research and are ready to start looking for the perfect cruiser (Here's a tip - They don't exist!), a good first step is to make a list of things that are deal breakers. Some of these might include your preference between catamaran or mono, aft or center cockpit, rig types (sloop, cutter, ketch, yawl, etc.), and hull material (FRP, metal, wood, etc.). Most the things on your deal breaker list should be things you can't change. For example, you might really want davits for your dinghy, but you can always add them to almost any boat for a fairly reasonable cost so they shouldn't be a deal breaker.

Don't get too up or down over electronics. While upgrading to a new complete electronics package for the helm can be expensive, electronics are also often outdated within just a couple of years, so don't put too much value on a shiny new chart plotter. And don't forget how powerful mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become for cruising. There's a growing array of excellent navigation, communication, weather and planning apps available that can supplement just about everything you need to safely operate your craft and make you feel like you have new electronics.

Fall in love. After all is said and done, I strongly feel a personal attraction to your sailboat is an important ingredient. She might have all the bells and whistles for globe trotting, but if you don't like the way she looks and feels, the dream can whither long before it becomes a reality. You want a boat that inspires you to keep her maintained. You want a boat that beckons one more glance back as you walk down the dock or putt-putt away on the dinghy. I'm not saying your friends and other sailors need to think she's the most beautiful or best sailing boat in the anchorage, but I am saying your boat should stir YOUR emotions.

Our first sailboat, s/v Hannibel. And yes, I fell hard from day one.

Turnkey boats aren't. Sailboats reflect their owner's personality, so even a dock queen isn't likely to be set up the way you'll want it or need it even if it's in pristine condition. Besides, if you've ever owned a boat before, you already know you never finish the maintenance list, you just simply start back over at the top again. So like I said, turnkey boats aren't turnkey.

Some features do add value. Good sails, a reliable motor, a quality autopilot, wind vane steering, an electric windlass and a reasonably speedy dinghy can be important assets for cruising. Some or all of these items can be added (at varying costs), but the point is that these are some of the features I think add actual value to a cruising boat, unlike a fresh coat of wax, newly painted topsides, air conditioning, or a new flat screen TV hung on the salon bulkhead.

Consider the resume. Find a boat that has already done the kind of voyaging you have in mind or was at least equipped to do so. If you're planning a milk run through the South Pacific, a sailboat that's already done that might have good downwind sails and rigging and extra tankage for reserve fuel and water (or even a watermaker). Similarly, if your adventurous spirit is leading you to high latitudes, a boat that's already cruised there could have a diesel heater installed or insulation added to the interior hull sides. A lot of the extras are expensive and depreciate very quickly, so it's a bonus if you can get a quality hull/motor/sails with life left in options that are on your upgrade list anyway.

Condition trumps age. It's often said, but is worth repeating - Condition and quality are much more important than how old a boat is. That's good to remember for resale too. Regardless of how old your boat is, if you keep her in good condition, you'll flatten the depreciation curve considerably.

Ask the pros. If you're still lost in a sea of sailboats to choose from and want professional advice, consider consultation from Bob Perry ($500) or John Neal ($750).

Our second sailboat, s/v Island Bound

The Sailboat Reviews page here at SFLF has tons of free, useful information and articles on sailboat design (rigs, keels, hull shapes, hull materials, etc.) from heavyweights like Bob Perry, Ted Brewer and Chuck Paine. Give them a read. At the very least you'll be entertained and more than likely gain some new knowledge.

If you've found a boat you're ready to seriously consider or want to make an offer on, you'll find some help in this post: Sailboat Inspection Tips for Prospective Buyers

Ready to browse cruising sailboats for sale? Here's a shameless plug for our grassroots sister website, SailFarYachts.com, where "we make your dreams float".

I know many of you are already veteran cruisers and have a wealth of knowledge and more importantly, experience to share. Feel free to do so by dropping me an email or simply leaving your thoughts in the comments below. I'll do my best to keep this post updated with new information as it comes in from the cruising community.

These Sunglasses want to go Sailing

"Always look on the bright side of life." -Monty Python

And what better way to literally do so than with a quality pair of sunglasses that are built for life on the water? After all, some of the most intense, bright light you'll ever encounter will be sun glare reflected off the water while sailing.

I've recently been trying out Hobie Polarized Cruz sunglasses and Gill's Sense bifocal sunglasses. The first thing you'll notice about both is that these are from companies that knows active watersports and sailing in particular, so already I'm feeling a connection. But are they worthy of respected sailing brands?

First lets start with the features. Both are a wrap style frame, meaning they're a bit curved, sleek and form-fitting for your face, as opposed to other styles that "sit" on your face/nose and don't offer much in the way peripheral protection from glare and wind. Both Hobie and Gill market these as multi-use for watersports, which I think is appropriate since the wrap style keeps them planted.

Hobie Cruz
Gill Sense Bifocal

Both sunglasses are polarized, which is something I highly recommend for any sunglasses used while sailing. The lenses on the Gill's are of the hydrophobic variety. They do a good job of repelling water and sweat (and likely sunscreen, though I haven't tried them with sunscreen yet) and resisting water spotting. The lenses repel water as long as there's some wind or motion to keep the droplets moving, otherwise they'll still accumulate water spots if the drops are allowed to stay and dry on the lenses. The lenses on my Cruz's are copper-colored w/ sea green mirror exterior, which adds a coating to enhance color contrast and reduce glare. They provide very good crispness and natural color tones, but I went for that lens because I shamelessly like the aesthetics. If like the look of the Cruz, but want the added on-water benefit of a hydrophobic lens, check out the Cruz-R.

As I mentioned, the Gill Sense lenses are hydrophobic, but also have a "sandwich" construction featuring a polarizing light filter at the center with UV light absorbing layers laminated to both sides. Next is a shatter-resistant cushioning layer. Lastly, the very outer coating is the scratchproof, hydrophobic layer. Lots of layers, but they appear as one solid lens with no noticeable distinction between layers.

I realize beyond quality lenses, sunglasses are largely an aesthetic purchase. But if extra features are worth anything, both of these sunglasses have them. The Cruz has a Megol rubber anti-fog gasket that provides comfort and function as part of the frame. As for the Gills, they float (all Gill sunglasses float) and are offered as bifocals (+1.5 or +2.5 strength) so you can leave your reader glasses below decks for chart viewing and knot tying. My now 40 year old eyes appreciate the magnification, but the bifocal lens insert isn't blended, so I do notice the horizontal line in the lower half of my field of vision.

Both of these sunglasses are a good choice for protecting and enhancing your vision on the water. Aside from style and fit, the choice between the two for you will probably come down to whether you'll benefit from bifocals. In terms of clarity and lens crispness, I'll give a slight edge to the Cruz. The copper sea green lenses do a nice job of cutting glare but still allowing enough light to let you know it's nice sunny day on the water. The Gill's give a darker view, larger because of the grey color tone of the lenses. Another factor to consider is the Gill's flotation. If you wear the Hobie's with a retainer strap, this might not matter, but if you don't want a strap around your neck/head, floaters are a good idea on the water. Another consideration - price. The Hobie's go for about $80, while the Gill's cost a bit more at $100.

Looking for additional reviews of sunglasses suitable for sailing? Here are some previous reviews we've done:

>> Don't forget to visit SFLF's Gear Review page for more sailing gear reviews/tests. <<

Soft Science Boat Shoe Review: The Fin

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

I began my review of "The Fin" shoes from SoftScience on Martin Luther King Day, and since SoftScience strives for ultimate comfort, I thought the quote was fitting. Are your knees and faith shaken when you're challenged, or are you on solid ground?

But on with the review...

First, let me say that these shoes are different. They look different - like a Sperry/Crocs hybrid. They feel different - like a soft but supportive slipper.

But I suppose the look shouldn't come as surprise once you learn who's behind SoftScience. The top two SoftScience executives have deep connections to Crocs. Scott Seamans is the Crocs founder and former chief designer while John Duerden is Croc's former CEO. Their goal at SoftScience was to create shoes that provide ultimate comfort in a stylish, fun and funky package. They were also striving for simple designs that minimize adhesives and layers of material. If you stop reading the review right here, know that they succeeded.

Check the photos. Yes, these are funky shoes but the look works for me, particularly with the woven, breathable microfiber upper and laces on The Fin, which I prefer to the more plain look of some other SoftScience models. That's about all I'll say in regards to the aesthetics, since you'll have to decide for yourself if you like the styling.

More importantly, particularly for a sailing shoe, is the comfort and grip that these shoes provide. The outsole and insole are both made with a proprietary material called Trileon, a closed cell copolymer developed by Scott, to provide lightweight cushioning and stability. The comfort this provides is outstanding, but the feel isn't as cushy as you might expect based on the chunkiness of the outsole and the "soft" in SoftScience. That's a good thing because it means you'll get a very comfortable footbed without sacrificing stability. I don't know the exact weight of The Fin shoes, but SoftScience says all of their models are between 6-10 oz., which is very lightweight.

One more important feature of the insole - It's self-draining. This is a must for a sailing shoe that's going to see time on deck (i.e. not in the cockpit) as well as in the dinghy and on shore.

I haven't had these on deck yet, but they feel adequately grippy on wood, cement and hard surfaces around my house. The Trillion (Feels like rubber to me!) on the outsole is non-marking and has small nubs built-in, which I'm assuming help with both grip and impact absorption.

So what about the "science" in SoftScience? Well, it comes from "Levelast" [Side note - Shoe companies and men's razor companies are overachievers at inventing new terminology to describe their products!], the footbed design which lies at the heart of all SoftScience shoes. Level = Minimal elevation change from heel to toe, to disperse body weight evenly across the sole and reduce pressure points. Last = A "last" is the mechanical form on which a shoe is constructed and allows for accommodating many foot shapes and sizes. I'm not sure if that qualifies for science, but just go with it.

If fit properly (All SoftScience shoes are only available in whole sizes), your heel won't rest against the back of the shoe and may ride up and down slightly. That's how mine fit and I'm a bit concerned that this will lead to heel blisters, but it hasn't during the two days that I've worn the shoes so far. The open heel design of my Crocs caused no such worries. If I find blisters to be a problem in the future, I'll update this review.

So to sum things up, The Fin from SoftScience checks all the boxes for a good sailing shoe: self-draining, fast drying, good traction, toe protection. And it manages to do so while providing all-day comfort and support. If you like the look and want better comfort and support than the many flat, thin soled more traditional deck shoes, these are worth a try.

Want more sailing shoe reviews? Check these:

Homeport, sweet Homeport

"Relatively speaking you make me who I am. I need you exactly like the ocean needs the land." 
- John Denver (lyrics from Relatively Speaking)

Muskegon Lighthouse (by K. Walters)

As much as I love being on the water, there's truth in John Denver's lyrics above - "the ocean needs the land". The contrast between soil and sea makes each come alive. You've probably read about a sailor's senses being awakened at the first whiff of land after a long passage. Even miles out to sea and hours or days away from landfall, our bodies sense the contrast. Land is a necessary component of sailing, even for those of us who enjoy the journeys more than the destinations.

And so, I'm giving my homeport of Muskegon, Michigan some blog love.

To the uniformed and many sailors and powerboaters alike, Muskegon is nothing more than a large, safe harbor from Lake Michigan's gales. You can exit the "big lake" through Muskegon's two outstretched arms of limestone boulders and then meander down a dredged channel through sand dunes on into Muskegon Lake. At 4,150 acres, Muskegon Lake is at the mouth of Michigan's second-largest river and is itself a huge freshwater playground complete with dune beaches and at least one quiet anchorage. If the big lake (Lake Michigan) is too gnarly for even the hardiest sailors, the approximately 4 mile stretch to the far eastern shore is still a worthy run. But what about the land surrounding the lake? And the city that is the namesake?

An early spring look to the west from our marina over the expanse of Muskegon Lake.

I stumbled on a chapter in Ron Dwelle's Summer Studies - Retro Cruising on the Great Lakes that stirred my curiosity about Muskegon's history.

Here's a snippet:

"Muskegon was cosmopolitan in those days. There was a large contingent of Dutch Calvinist immigrants who settled there, hoping to indulge their strict religious teachings. But the town was most famous for its sin - particularly the whorehouses and saloons frequented by the lumber jacks, river drivers, mill men, and sailors - the "Timber Beasts" as they called themselves - who normally left their entire paychecks in one or another of the waterfront dives. Among the Beasts, it was said that you could smell Muskegon whiskey 50 miles upriver at Big Rapids. And 25 miles offshore in the Big Lake, they said, you could sniff the first whiff of the perfume on the whores." 

Beasts. Whiskey. Whores. All the makings of a Hollywood classic. I had to know more.

Muskegon, like most port towns, is and always has been largely defined and sustained by its connection to water. The name "Muskegon" is derived from the Ottawa Indian term 'Masquigon' meaning "marshy river or swamp" or more simply "the river with marshes". Human occupation in the area probably goes back seven or either thousand years to Paleo-Indian hunters who lived here after the retreat of the glaciers. Next were the woodland Indians, most notably various bands of the Ottawa and Pottawatomi tribes. Archeologists and history books tell us the area was first used as a winter home for the tribes who would retreat up the river into the thick forests to seek shelter when heavy weather came ashore.  There's also lore that says a great battle took place between the nomadic Algonquins and the local farming Potawatomi, the aftermath of which is said to have left thousands dead near the mouth of the Muskegon River, very close to our marina. The developed shorelines and hundreds of pleasures boats plying the waters here today belie that historic tragedy.

The 'Masguigon' river is shown on French maps from as far back as the late seventeenth century. After early fur traders first began taking up residence in the area in the late 1700's, official settlement of Muskegon began in 1837 when Muskegon Township was organized and the lumber companies moved in. This period was the commencement of the area's lumber industry and what many view as the most historic and romantic era for the region.

At the peak of the lumber industry, sometime in the mid-1880's, there were at least 47 sawmills around Muskegon Lake and another 16 or so to the north on the shores of White Lake. By this time, Muskegon was known as the "Lumber Queen of the Midwest". The river itself served as a highway of logs and profits as the forests along its shores and tributaries were cut down and boomed up in Muskegon Lake. Schooners carried the lumber mostly to Chicago and Milwaukee to build those cities and many others to the west in Illinois and Iowa. In fact, it was Muskegon lumber that rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

Dwelle says that during the 1880's, Muskegon mills averaged enough white pine to build a city the size of Chicago each year, and there were commonly 100 lumber schooners in the lake with 40 to 50 departing on a normal day. White pines, and to a lesser extent other tree species, brought riches and all the associated plagues that come with it. During the lumbering era, Muskegon boasted more millionaires than any other town in America.

For those so inclined, you can read all about the debauchery that ensued along the waterfront area known as "Dust Flats" because of the accumulation of sawdust that littered the shore and filled shallow areas of Muskegon Lake. When the trees ran out, the whiskey and whores weren't far behind and the town lay collapsed after a booming period. The city later rebuilt itself as an industrial port, only to collapse again during the rust belt era that followed World War II.

Even today, the bottom of Muskegon Lake is still littered with sunken logs from the lumbering days. I'm sure we're not the only boaters on the lake to have snagged one of these waterlogged relics when retrieving our anchor. I'm told there are still plenty of places where you can dig down through a couple of feet of sand and hit a thick layer of sawdust. History might be sunken and buried, but its not gone.

There's power in knowing history. But there's also affection. Before we switched homeports, I didn't think much of Muskegon or Muskegon Lake. After we moved our sailboat here almost 5 years ago, I found a natural affinity for Muskegon Lake and her easy access to Lake Michigan, but still wasn't too keen on the city itself. Now that I've spent some time there and took a peek back at the history of this place, I have a new respect for how it was shaped and the influence its had on the region. Relatively speaking, the lake makes the city what it is and the city makes the lake too. They need each other, exactly like the ocean needs the land.

Here's more of what we love so much about where the water meets the land in a place called Muskegon (Click the pic for a bigger view):

Looking east from the dunes at the west end of Muskegon Lake on a typical summer weekend

Anchored in our favorite spot on the lake

Looking west at Lake Michigan from the other side of the dunes shown a couple pictures above


Can you believe all that beach gear fits in the dinghy? It does (barely)!

First Look: Mantus Anchor Swivel

You may not need an anchor swivel between your chain and your anchor, but a quality swivel can help your anchor perform its job even better and store more easily. Shifting winds, changing tides, currents and swell can all make your anchor pivot, twist and turn in its set, potentially compromising the ability to hold firm. An anchor swivel minimizes the impacts of boat movement on the anchor set. It also allows the anchor to position itself in the right orientation when you bring it up to your anchor roller on the bow.

Typical anchor swivel design

John over at MorgansCloud actually swears against using swivels because the more traditional designs end up being a weak link when sideways torque is involved. One of the two screws can give way with heavy side loads or quick, jerking motions. Mantus recently introduced a new uniquely designed swivel that is stronger than the corresponding Grade 40 anchor chain, potentially making it the strongest link in your anchor/rode/shackle combo. But more importantly, the Mantus design also incorporates a large bow shackle for the connection between the swivel body and the anchor and largely eliminates the side loading associated with other swivels. The pin on the chain side of the swivel is oblong to further maximize strength and reliability.

Here's a look at my Mantus Swivel

And here's a look at how the Mantus Swivel functions:

I haven't had a chance to anchor with the new Mantus Swivel yet, but I'm eager to give it a try and see how it performs. Anyone else have experience with the Mantus Swivel or others?