You Can't Have Offshore Sailboat Cake and Eat it Too
Build me straight, O worthy Master!
Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from "The Building of the Ship" (1849)
I've been on a mental journey through the world of bluewater sailboats over the past couple of years. These staunch and sturdy sailing vessels seem to be an integral part of my longing to explore the watery part of the world and see islands, cultures and lands in far off places.
So far I've examined my top ten favorite bluewater sailboats, written about some of the pocket cruisers and bluewater budget sailboats I'm familiar with and learned a ton by having some of my favorite designers such as Bob Perry and Ted Brewer share their perspectives in guest posts. Today I'm going to further my journey by attempting to make a generalization about bluewater sailboats.
As with so many other things in life, choosing a particular sailboat means making some trade-offs, because the perfect sailboat does not exist. With this in mind, I'm going to make the assertion that cruising sailboats can only be two of the following, but not all three: bluewater capable, fast, affordable. In other words, pick the two attributes that are most important to you because finding a sailboat that meets all three criteria is very difficult at best.
In order to play my "2 of 3" game with sailboats, I first need to say a bit about each of the three attributes given above. This is where my logic gets very subjective because I'm sure we each have different definitions and criteria for each of these terms. Anyway, here goes...
Bluewater capable: There are many definitions and literally hundreds of threads on sailing forums that attempt to define bluewater sailing. We're essentially talking about offshore sailing where help is not instantly available if disaster strikes. Some people say this isn't until you sail off the continental shelf, others choose an arbitrary distance from shore (say 35 miles), and still more think any mutli-day passage qualifies. The definition I currently like the best for bluewater sailing is this: Any sailing that is done beyond the reach (either distance or time) of a reliable weather forecast where you can not simply return to port if a storm comes up. Essentially, you're risking the merits of your craft against the unpredictability of future weather.
So what does it mean for a sailboat to be bluewater capable? This question deserves a long and complex answer, many of which have already been given by much more authoritative sources than I, but my research has taught me that there are some tangible design factors that play a role. Hull shape, keel type (full, fin, or modified), and rudder protection (skeg hung, rudder hung, transom hung) are three that seem fundamental in my mind. A cockpit that is able to quickly self-bail and/or is small, a protective bridge deck and small companionway hatch, gasketed and lockable lazarettes, and metal ports and hatches that dog down tightly are all important for keeping water out of the cabin during rough seas or during a knockdown. And then there is the rigging (is it strong?) and the sail plan (A few big sails or several small sails? Storm sails? etc.).
There are even more factors to consider below deck. For example, is tankage (fuel, water, waste) adequate for a long passage? Is there a safe sea berth available for off-watch crew? Does the cabin have appropriate handholds for moving about? Is the galley usable at sea? As you can see, there probably isn't a good one-size-fits-all definition for bluewater capable, but you get my drift. (If you're interested in an authoritative look at bluewater sailboats, I highly recommend Beth Leonard's The Voyager's Handbook.)
Fast: Speed is relative and its' importance on a bluewater sailboat is much debated. Some sailors reckon that being able to outrun the weather is more important than having a full-keeled tank that can ride out a gale while lying ahull. I also consider pointing ability (how close to the wind can the boat sail?) as part of the "fast" definition. A sailboat that goes well to windward will have to make less tacks and/or cover less ground than a sailboat that doesn't point as well while cruising to a windward destination.
Sometimes it seems funny to even think about speed as a factor because the difference between 5 knots and 7 knots feels trivial. However, if you change your mindset from thinking about weekend cruising and beer can races to ocean passages and use miles per day as the unit of measure instead of knots, you'll start to see a difference. For example, over the course of a 3,000 nautical mile crossing such as that from Mexico to the Marquesas, a boat averaging 5 knots will make the crossing in about 25 days while a boat averaging 7 knots will make the same crossing in about 18 days. That's a difference of one week at sea! Clearly, speed matters.
Affordable: Since this is my blog and I'm not pandering to the wills of any editors, I can arbitrarily define affordable in my own terms. In this case, I'm going to say any sailboat that can be had for up to about $50k is affordable. For me, I think $50k is a reasonable and attainable price for a bluewater cruising boat. I'm sure there are many people who consider the price far too low to be able to find a true world cruiser, while others are perfectly content attempting offshore passages in a $15k Albin Vega. In any case, I had to set some sort of price point to go with my "2 of 3" game.
Ok, so now you know where I'm coming from when I say sailboats can only be two of the following three: affordable, fast, and bluewater capable. And I think your mind is probably already turning to try and determine if your boat or your favorite dream boat fits my generalization. Let's try a few examples.
Example 1: Westsail 32
Is the she bluewater capable? If you know the W32, you know that she's known almost entirely for being bluewater capable and has served as the foundation for many bluewater sailors. This is definitely a proven bluewater sailboat.
Is she fast? At the risk of annoying a few readers (sorry Tate and Dani!), I'm going to subjectively say the Westsail 32 doesn't qualify as fast for my equation. I've heard plenty of first hand accounts stating that the W32 is not nearly as slow as her derogatory "Wet Snail" nickname suggests, and I tend to believe these sailors more than the armchair sailors who simply believe the W32 is slow because they read it somewhere on the Internet. There are also some TransPac results and Pacific Puddle Jump logs that show the W32 can make a very good days' run. Still, I think I'm safe in saying that people don't buy Westsails to win races. They buy W32's because they want a strong, secure, and proven offshore boat at an affordable price.
Is she affordable? I basically answered this one already. I think the W32 represents one of the best values in a bluewater sailboat. Specific to my criteria, there are numerous W32's that can be purchased for $50k or less.
Verdict: The Westsail 32 is bluewater capable and affordable, but not fast. She fits my generalization.
Example 2: Valiant 40
Is she bluewater capable? Some people claim the Valiant 40 has more offshore miles and circumnavigations to her credit than any other single design. Even if the claims are not entirely accurate, this boat is a proven offshore design and well-known among cruising circles.
Is she fast? From the very beginning, Perry's Valiant 40 was winning single-handed offshore events. Her stout looks and double-ender design belie her speed. You need to look below the waterline to see the full story here...a modern underbody (for her vintage). The V40 is likely a step above most full-keelers in speed.
Is she affordable? Based on my ~$50k standard, no, the Valiant 40 is not affordable. Most seem to be offered in the $100-120k range.
Verdict: The Valiant 40 is very bluewater capable and certainly fast enough for most, but she'll require double the budget of anyone hoping to spend $50k. This sailboat fits my generalization.
Example 3: J Boats J/35
Is she bluewater capable? In my estimation, no. This isn't necessarily a knock, since it was never designed to be an offshore cruiser. Her tankage is meager and the rudder is too exposed for my tastes. Her deck is set-up for racing and lacks the elevated toerail and/or bulwarks I like to see for on-deck safety. Therefore, not bluewater capable.
Is she fast? This almost seems like a rhetorical question when you're asking it in regards to a J Boat. Yes, the J/35 is fast. She was designed from the outset to be fast and quick. This is a racer at heart. Even if you didn't know the history of J Boats, you get clues about the J/35's speed by looking at her sleek underbody and her light displacement (10,500 lbs).
Is she affordable? Yes indeed. J/35's are readily available in the $30k-40k range.
Verdict: The J/35 is a very fast and affordable sailboat, but she's not intended for bluewater passages. This sailboat also fits my generalization.
You get the picture. I could go on and on with a myriad of examples of sailboats that fit with my generalization. So what's the point of this exercise? Well, for one, I'm hoping readers can offer up their own opinions on the "perfect" bluewater sailboat.
So far the closest I've come to finding a sailboat that doesn't fit with my generalization is the Wauquiez Pretorien 35. Well-built, nimble, and proven describe the Pretorien. Surprisingly, a Yachtworld.com search shows several examples available for around $50k. The catch? Many are across the pond closer to their birth place in France. I don't question the bluewater capability or the value of the Pretorien, but I'm not totally sure where it sits on the speed continuum. Maybe Livia and Carol can provide some insight?
Perhaps most importantly, it's always good to be reminded that all sailboats represent a trade-off. To find the perfect sailboat for your needs, you must determine your priorities and also the things that you're willing to do without. Of course the great equalizer here is money. If you've got a giant budget, you can have your cake and eat it too. But the fact is many wannabe cruisers wrestle with how much boat to buy versus how much money to save in the cruising kitty.