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.

This is bluewater by anyone's definition

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.

A Westsail just doesn't look natural at the dock,
they belong at sea!
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 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.


  1. What do you think of the Hallberg-Rassy Rasmus built in the 70s

    1. I'm a big fan of the HR Rasmus. We once considered them as an option for our cruising plans, but with three small children and an aft cabin separated by the cockpit from the main cabin we thought the arrangement just wouldn't work. However, I think they are well-built and capable. I particularly like the ketch versions. Also, they came with 75hp diesels, which is a ton of power for a 35 foot sailboat. If you're interested in hearing some firsthand experiences, contact Scott & Brittany over at Windtraveler.

  2. LOL, aww now you've gone and hurt my feelings ;). Nah just kidding. The Westsail is definitely on the slower side they say, but so far we've never had a problem. We average about 6 knots and have even gone a consistent 6.7 knots over 8 hours! That was a fantastic day.

    We LOVE Westsails, the 28, 32, 42(maybe one day) because the romantic lines, proven capability, and the history. She is also a boat that will keep on steady during rougher weather, when maybe some of the faster and lighter boats get delayed.

    Glad to see the Westy on the list! Love the blog, I read a few times a week. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for response, Dani. It's always good to add some real world experience/knowledge through reader comments. We too are big Westsail fans. Between their good looks, seaworthy design/build, and value, what's not to like?

  3. I offer my Freedom-38, a performance cruiser.

    1. RW - Thanks for commenting. What do you think of the Freedom 38 for offshore work? I'm vaguely familiar with the smaller Freedom models, but not the 38. Does it have a free standing mast? Any pros and cons you could offer would be helpful.

  4. Can I put in a plug to increase the loa/budget a little? Nowadays the average "family-cruiser" is 40-42 feet or so from what we are seeing. You want to keep everyone happy to enjoy the experience!! Modern cruisers like the beneteau often do long passages and have much more liveable space than most older designs for the same length.

    Hope to see you out cruising soon!!

    Kind regards,
    Paul Shard - SV Distant Shores II

    1. Paul - Thanks for the input. Your real world perspective is always appreciated. I was looking through the Pacific Puddle Jump fleet list for 2013 and noticed just what you're point out - that most of these boats are at least 40 feet, many much larger.

    2. In the ARC 2012 fleet we were 6 inches shorter than the average of 50'. But that isn't representative of average cruisers I think. best, Paul

  5. Downeast3218 February

    Downeaster 32 or Downeaster 38.
    Most beautiful blue water voyaging sailboat ever glassed.

  6. I like to say that when she (our Pretorien) was built in 1983 she was a racer-cruiser and nowadays she is barely a cruiser-racer. Certainly faster for her waterline than the sturdy/tubby trad boats and in light air we can often catch larger, longer boats. In heavier air of course waterline rules. Because we like to have the option to go off the coconut milk run we like that she is stout enough that we aren't afraid to do so. If we bought again we would buy her or racist but not stouter. Once we left N America we only see N Americans in the heavy trad boats. Also, one thing that argues against bigger for us is that we left room in our budget to fly away, to play off the boat, etc. Some people put all of their money in their boat and that works, we like the flex of not being boat poor.

    1. Thanks Carol & Livia, I was hoping you'd weigh in on the Pretorien. There's nothing better than getting the perspective of someone who's been out there doing it in the real world.

    2. Tried to type racier not racist :)

  7. Just found your blog and think you are doing a great job of presenting information and outloooks and valid opinions about boats and sailing.....I'll check in regularly......thanks
    Westsail 28

  8. Anonymous28 January

    Contessa 32 fits all three categories. Bought mine for 17k.

    1. A good suggestion, thanks for sharing. The survival of a Contessa 32 in the 1979 Fastnet race is proof enough of her seaworthiness. Prices seems very reasonable. Speed is good, particularly considering the age of the design.

  9. For a family, I would check out the Fantasia 35? I think you will find a nice layout.


    1. Mark - Good call! I love Bruce Bingham designs (Flicka 20, Allegra 24, etc.) and the Fantasia is a beauty. Not sure how fast it would be with that long full keel, but it sure looks salty and seaworthy. Thanks for commenting.

    2. I was reading a blog of a couple cruising on one and they seem to average 5 knots (120 mi/day) over the long hall, but they didn't push it too hard. Like you said, 2 out of 3.

  10. The design I can't get out of my head is the Tartan 34c or maybe the Bristol 35.5. I think performance is over rated unless you are talking about comfort performance. You know, we are out there for the experience. Why are people so enthusiastic about getting it over quickly? Urgency is a mind set not particularly compatible with cruising. Good luck

    1. Good points, Mark. I agree, cruising is a journey best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

  11. Anonymous08 March

    Beneteau First 38, mid 80's boats can be had for around 50k. They have the pedigree and check out Slick52921 on YouTube for some vids of her making the passage from the Galago

    1. The First 38 is an interesting boat to consider that does seem to offer speed, value and offshore capability. I haven't sailed one myself, but I've been told the First series from that era were quite well made.

  12. Anonymous26 April

    V Hull is calculated 1.34*lwl^.5 - so you can get a feel for speed just from the specs (ex. Westsail 32 has a Vhull of 7.03 knots

  13. Anonymous19 November

    I have been sailing /living aboard since 2009, that makes it some 15 years , , used tpohave an endurance ferro cement for 10 years , that was a slow boat if not enough wind, but man she served me well, then I got a westsail, I loved for its features, specially beeing tiller, and having the same cutter rig (same sail area) same water level , though the endurance being biger LOA and maybe more room , specially for dinghy and etc, I love the sailing features of westsail, Sails way much better , well balanced (never had autopilot) avrage speed been 6,5 KT last trip from panama tp st marin with a stop in jamaica, way faster than I had calculated , and a VERY easy trimming and handling , it literally goes alone, I have no engine , so tacking when getting to marigot bay while blowing 25 kt in shallow water with big waves, it was chalenging and fun , of course it has its problem ( chain of the anchor has been rolling itself around itsefl by every wave I have been hitting , so when it comes to anchor was almost impossible to take the chain out , was tough. the westsail is not slow for its size, its just that it needs sail area, and most people reef way to early , up to 25 kt I am only on one reef in main sail, full workng jib and a little of genoa to halp the balance, and that the same except for genoa , from 15 kt to 25 kt , and thats what I love about it ,,, sailing aloe , is much easier even tough you have 3 sails up,


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