Is It a Need or a Want?

Chapter 1 of 20 in the Online Book How To Buy an Offshore Voyaging Boat


For us offshore sailors who are trying to get out there voyaging, it’s really important to distinguish between our wants and our needs. Sounds simple, but is it?


In some cases recognising which bits of gear just satisfy our wants is obvious, or at least should be. Here are some:

  • Just about anything to do with iThings.
  • Gimballed satellite TV antennas.
  • Huge barbeques capable of roasting an ox.
  • Air-conditioning and the generator to run it.
  • Complex instrument systems.


And here are some obvious need satisfiers:

  • A strong and stable hull that stays the right way up and keeps the water out.
  • Easy to deploy storm survival gear, tested and ready to go that will not require steering and will allow us to rest below in any weather.
  • A rudder that won’t fail us.
  • Lifelines, jacklines, harnesses and tethers that will keep us and our crew on the boat.
  • A mast that will stay up.
  • Good reliable rigging system that allows us to set the right amount of sail safely for any conditions.
  • A reliable diesel engine.
  • A reliable self-steering system.
  • A good well engineered anchoring system.
  • Clear uncluttered decks with great non-skid.
  • A comfortable and safe berth to sleep in at sea.
  • Proper clothing and foul weather gear that will enable us to stay warm or cool, and dry, so that we can function effectively on deck in any conditions that we may be exposed to on our voyage.
  • A GPS (with backup), charts and navigation instruments.

Needs or Wants?

But this is where it gets tricky. Which of the items below are just want satisfiers and which are really needed so we can go voyaging safely and in reasonable comfort? (Note that I am assuming “normal voyaging” not voyages out of season or to the extreme high latitudes.)

  • A plotter.
  • A reliable underdeck autopilot.
  • Halyards and reefing lines run back to the cockpit.
  • A cockpit enclosure.
  • An electrical system capable of supplying all of the loads on the boat through an extended ocean crossing.
  • Wheel steering.
  • Refrigeration.
  • Mainsail roller furling.
  • A RIB.
  • An outboard for the dinghy.
  • A metal hull.

OK, let’s look at one of the above in detail: You can find any number of experienced, smart, ocean voyaging sailors, who I respect, who will tell you that the halyards and reefing lines on a voyaging sailboat should be led aft so that you can reef from the cockpit.

On the other hand, many experienced sailors, including myself, Hamish Laird, and the late Hal Roth, actually prefer to reef at the mast.

Question: So, faced with this conflicting information, how do we decide which is the right way to rig our boats?

Answer: It really doesn’t matter, because reefing from the cockpit is a want not a need.

The Test

How can I be so certain? Is it just that I prefer to reef at the mast? No, the reason is that the three sailors listed above, one of whom is an avowed wimp, have safely sailed over half a million miles reefing at the mast. And countless others have made successful cruises rigged that way too.

So, applying the above test, we can quickly see that all the items on the questionable list are, in fact, want satisfiers, not needs.

Don’t Use Outliers

One caution with the above test. Don’t use an outlier. For example, don’t assume that the storm survival system, that I have on the needs list, is, in fact, just a want because Bernard Moitessier was able to steer in storm force conditions in the Southern Ocean for days at a time; or that a reliable diesel engine is a want satisfier because Lin and Larry Pardey manage without one—we need to apply the test using average people and a reasonable sample size.

Why Does it Matter?

If you are spending a bunch of money and time running all your halyards and reefing lines to the cockpit, that’s OK. After all, we have six of the items on the questionable list on Morgan’s Cloud. (But only one on the want list.)

But if we:

  • are adding things to our needs lists without applying the above test;
  • or constantly delaying our departure dates while we install systems to satisfy our wants;
  • or insisting that we will only consider buying a boat that satisfies a big list of our wants, while ignoring our needs;
  • or blowing our cruising budgets on gear that satisfies our wants;

…well, we are not going to be successful and happy voyagers and some of us will never even get out there.

It’s just the way it is, even for owners with the big bucks, because trying to satisfy too many wants burns time and detracts from reliability, as well as costing a lot of money.

It’s the needs satisfiers that get us out there, and keep us safe, and the wants satisfiers that keep us tied to the dock.

The Photograph

That’s Phyllis visiting with Tony and Coryn Gooch on their lovely and beautifully maintained aluminum sloop Taonui. Tony and Coryn are masters at focusing on their needs and have some amazing voyages under their belts to prove it.


I used the collective “we” in this article, because over the years I have certainly got my needs and my wants confused on numerous occasions. What about you? Please leave a comment.

The Adventure 40, A Boat to Satisfy Needs.

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{ 25 comments… add one }

  • Dave Benjamin February 2, 2013, 7:38 pm

    I think there is an omission in the “Needs” category and that’s a set of properly constructed offshore cruising sails. With proper construction goes proper design and choice of materials, preferably executed with by a loft with proven experience in bluewater cruising sails. We’ve seen sails built by lofts who make terrific racing sails that simply don’t hold up to real world cruising.

    We’ve seen many people load their boats with all manner of electronics and other toys, ignoring the need for proper sails. In many cases this results to trying to repair or replace sails in rather inconvenient locations.

    Many cruisers lack proper light air sail inventory and motor incessantly. Often we’ll meet people with fantastic storm sails that will likely never find their way out of the sailbags, but nothing in the way of light air sails. Light air is much more of a frustration than heavy air for most cruisers.

    • Jim N February 2, 2013, 11:54 pm

      Where would put radar in this equation.

      • John February 3, 2013, 10:21 am

        Hi Jim,

        Good question. We consider radar the most important piece of electronics on the boat.

        Having said that, I think it depends on where you are intending to cruise, for example: Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland = need. The Caribbean = want.

    • John February 3, 2013, 10:15 am

      Hi Dave,

      Just to clarify, I never intended the lists in the above post to be exhaustive, only representative.

      I certainly agree that sails are extremely important and a good set of working sails, as well as appropriate storm sails come under needs, and well before electronic toys.

      One thing I would say, is that by applying the test in the post, light air sails, like spinnakers and code sails, are probable wants, since for most cruising they are not really required if you have a good reliable engine. I know this is heresy, particularly coming from an ex-sailmaker and racing sailor, but none-the-less, I think it’s true. In fact there is even a strong argument that says that once it gets really light it is cheaper, on a per mile basis, to motor. The point being is that us died in the wool sailors should not impose our standards on other cruisers that may be more interested in getting there as the goal.

      On the other hand, if you are contemplating a voyage like the one that Colin just completed, in a boat with small fuel tanks, light air sails could be classified as a need.

    • Marc Dacey February 4, 2013, 11:39 am

      I concur fully on the need for proper sails, and I am outfitting a steel motorsailer, which I operate as if it’s a sailer-motor. That means attention to sail handling, trimming and a willingness to lay off hitting the start button if our SOG drops below 4 knots. It also means that I’ve just installed a four-bladed feathering prop to reduce drag…yes, even on a full-keeler.

      We are always conscious that our boat should sail to its performance potential, and that means being conscious of hull trim (and in our case, being able to pump internal ballast to the high side), and having a varied enough selection of sails to make use of any and all wind we find. Because if we’re not sailing, even in a heavy displacement boat, there are far better ways to travel.

      Lastly, carry the means and have the skills to *repair* your sails underway. Most sail damage starts as chafed bits or tiny rips. It’s cheaper and less disruptive to fix them underway than to wait for a major sailcloth failure.

  • Paul van Oss February 3, 2013, 4:29 pm

    Hello John,

    Do you need or do you want to sail?
    If you want to sail then you need…

    The needs and wants of a sailor are as diverse as the collection of sailors is. It is not possible to formulate a universal list of needs for sailors. Sailors are an opinionated group of people. You need that if you are on your own and you have to move on.

    I want to sail, but for that I need the best configuration that works for me. In general it comes down to what is specified in the discussions about the “Adventure 40″ with some minor but not unimportant adjustments.

    I need an Alu or steel boat. My boat will be my home. I want to survive a bump with a reef or an UFO. It is cheaper and better then an insurance of the boat. Repairs are quicker done without the itch and poison too.
    I will buy a second hand boat. I’ve more time than money and a schedule of working 6 months , sailing 6 months is what I’m used to.

    Light-air sails are a need. I’m amazed that you say that it is cheaper to motor. Would love to see a calculation. Not to impose anything, but the nicest sails are with hardly a breeze of wind, gliding. Oppose that to going forward, noisy and with more heat then is comfortable. The need to motor is a last resort.

    An iPad or Android-alike is going to be a very cheap and flexible tool. It can be watertight, a repeater for almost everything anywhere and a logbook. The good part, it almost doesn’t consume energy. Something to consider. Will give you my insight/solution in half a year.

    I still have at least one battle to go on the needed/wanted level. My wife thinks we need a freezer and I try to argue that it will endanger our sailing adventures with the priorities for energy consumption, investments in frozen meat and all kind of costly repairs with global-warming gasses in poor countries. I still didn’t read of anybody that was successful with a freezer on a 40 ft. boat.
    For sure it is my own fault. I gave her a very rosy view of the difference between a 32 and 40 foot cruiser. But we will have a shower, footpumps and a windvane that can act as a spare rudder.

    • John February 3, 2013, 5:39 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment, lots to think about.

      I guess what we have here, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, is a “failure to communicate”. I never said that you should not have a metal boat or an iPad, or light air sails, if that is what you want. After all, I have a metal boat, a spinnaker, an iPad, and an iPhone!

      But I still say that none of those things are required to go offshore sailing successfully and therefore they are want satisfies and not needs.

      Or to put in another way, people who start with too big a list of must have features and gear, never go. (I’m not saying that you fall into this category, just clarifying the point of my post.)

      There is also a lot of risks in fixing on one want satisfier and being dogmatic about it. Let’s take the hull material issue. Way back when I bought “Morgan’s Cloud” I had never even considered an alloy boat (they were much less popular then). If I had started off by saying that I would only think about or look at fiberglass boats I would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime to buy the best boat for my overall needs at a truly incredible price. So, unless you are planning to cruise the extreme high latitudes, in which case I do recommend metal as a need, you may be turning your back on scores of potential great boats that could get you out there, like the thousands of other people who have successfully cruised in fiberglass boats.

      To paraphrase an old saying, a sailor is certainly entitled to his or her own wants, but not to his or her own needs–the sea dictates those.

      My goal with this post was to give people a simple test, that I wish I had had, that can be applied when the inevitable moment comes that they realize that if they try and satisfy everything on their gear and to-do list, they are never going to sea.

      On the light air sails. A good spinnaker and and say code 0 or genoa will run you say $7000 for a 40 foot boat. On top of that, any time you sail in light air and slop in the ocean you beat the crap out of your sails and rig. There are a lot of different ways to do the numbers, but most come out clearly showing that motoring at say six knots burning say half a gallon an hour is way cheaper than sailing on a per mile basis. Note to self, must do a post on the true cost of sailing some time. Steve Dashew has done some very convincing studies on this.

      So, again, I’m not saying that you should motor, rather than sail, do what ever makes you happy. What I am saying is that it is important to deal with reality when making the thousands of decisions that are required to get out there voyaging and the real cost of light air sailing is way more than most people understand.

      • Paul van Oss February 3, 2013, 8:51 pm

        Cool (hand) John,

        Maybe it is just a matter of different cultures, that often leads to problematic communications. I’m Dutch. We are quite used to build one-off boats with a standard design (in metal, fiber or wood-laminate). This was for a very long time seen as the only possibility to sail around the world (and come back if you wanted).

        Of course one should do a good research, don’t let emotions get in the way, don’t be dogmatic and hold up your decisions until you have researched it all. The AAC website helps enormously with that. It is a trove of knowledge for the curious sailor.

        It seems you are a bit pessimistic about a Spi. Just looked at Atlantic Sail traiders ( They offer a ‘very good’ Spi with Luff of 60′ for 2450$US, 1.5 ounce. (used them, never had a problem)
        Hal Roth has a chapter ‘Sail Handling’ in his book ‘How to Sail Around the World…’. He states ‘…50% of the time, the wind strength is 15 knots or less.” He is also saying change your sailing-wardrobe every 20.000 to 30.000 miles.

        You are very optimistic about your engine. I only did 4 knots with 3/4 gallon/hour with a Perkins4108. OK, admit, it was a Westsail-32.

        For true cost of sailing look at Bumfuzzle (, quite a cute way of sailing too.

        I’m curious how you use your iPad (because you write you don’t need it).

        • John February 4, 2013, 10:24 am

          Hi Paul,

          I actually only bought the iPad to use for testing of this site and our Norwegian Cruising Guide eBook, but I have to admit that now we have it, we are finding all kinds of useful and fun things to do with it. It also kept me in touch and from going out of my mind after my recent injury.

          On fuel use, yes I am optimistic, but also pretty confident, that the Adventure 40 will be able to motor at 6 knots, or close to it, burning just half a gallon an hour. I base this on our own experience with “Morgan’s Cloud”. The secret is in in using a smaller than normally installed HP, but higher and better torque curve, coupled with exactly the right prop and reduction all installed in an easily driven hull with a long waterline. Most sailboat engine installations are horribly inefficient. For example a 4108 is way too much engine for a Westsail 32. I would venture to guess that you were never able to use more than half of the power provided and consequently your prop and reduction would have been completely wrong for the hull type, since they would have been sized to allow the engine to reach rated RPM. You can read more about this issue here.

  • Ben Eriksen February 3, 2013, 4:47 pm

    Interesting test. Enjoyed seeing the photo of Taonui. We met them in St. Anthony NFLD in 2011. Great folks indeed. Thanks for your insight.

  • C. Dan February 4, 2013, 12:37 pm

    As always, great content – especially in the comments!

    I look forward to more analysis of the “true cost” of sailing.

    I am a little surprised on the placement of “mainsail roller furling” as a possible need. Am I nuts to think that should be squarely in the “wants” category? I’ve sailing with an in-mast system before, and I can’t imagine spending my own money on something like.

    • John February 4, 2013, 12:54 pm

      Hi C. Dan,

      I placed it in the possible needs column, because some people try to classify it as a need, but the whole point of the post is that every single one of those features placed in the questionable list is in fact a want, not a need, when the test in the post is applied.

      • Marc Dacey February 7, 2013, 7:01 am

        Having seen in-mast furling in action in harsh conditions, I think it’s a split-decision. An electric winch and in-mast mainsail furling allow a cruising couple of non-Olympic physicality to run a bigger, more comfortable and (perhaps) safer boat. Yes, the downside is not-great sail shape, which is an issue on certain points of sail, but it can hold up to rough stuff and certainly is faster than reefing down, again a consideration on a short-handed boat.

        I wouldn’t personally have it, because I need that sail shape, but if I got an otherwise perfect boat at a good price that had it and I wanted to voyage for a couple of years, I doubt I would tear it out. There are far worse compromises.

        • John February 7, 2013, 9:26 am

          Hi Marc,

          I think that’s a very good analysis.

          We did briefly consider in-mast roller furling when we replaced our old mast, but in the end it failed our simplicity test, and also, like you, we like to have good sail shape.

          As to whether or not in mast roller furling is a need on bigger boats, I would say not. We reef and un-reef Morgan’s Cloud very easily with her slab reefing system and have done so for years with no problems and she is a 50,000 lb boat.

          In fact I would go a step further and say that it is a very poor idea to be so dependent on automated sail handling systems that you end up with a larger boat than you can handle without them, since sooner or later something will break, and then you are in a world of hurt with a sail set that you have never struck without the automation.

          When the time comes that we can no longer handle Morgan’s Cloud we will pass her on to someone who can and either buy a smaller boat or cross to the dark side, rather than automate her sail handling systems.

          • Marc Dacey February 7, 2013, 5:20 pm

            That’s pretty much how I feel. I did not mean to imply that a bigger boat was a good idea only if automated systems were required to run it, but rather that electrical assist and in-mast furling can make a properly sized “couples-crewed” boat of 40-45 feet, say, possible to single-hand on passage, even for the less physical or larger half of the couple.

            An example would be the windlass. On our 33-footer, there is nothing but arm strength, but we just have five metres of chain at the anchor and 3/4 in. rode for the rest. Our 41 footer is all 3/8″ chain, and the windlass is manual and electric. If we are just hauling in in calm weather, I prefer the exercise of cranking, hopefully with someone able to clean and flake chain coming aboard. If we need to bug out in a hurry, we can break the anchor out with boat momentum after hauling up slack chain electrically. Some people, perhaps a little older, just go with all electric to save their backs. These days, I don’t see that as a dangerous compromise or a bad choice, even if windlasses do occassionally conk out.

            My thoughts on “need” and “want” are tempered by a cruising plan that sees us leaving with a 40 year old wife and 12 year old son (good for vigour and strength), but both of whom are circa five feet tall. While the son will very likely get a fair bit larger over the course of the trip, our boat, at 41′ LOA, is sized to what my wife’s arms can reach and what she can reasonably handle solo watchkeeping up to circa 30 knots. Experience tells me that autopilots/self-steering can get overwhelmed beyond that and needless to say, I would prefer to be roused from the off-watch than round up or broach to.

            Had my wife been the same age and strength, but, say, five-seven or eight, I would’ve preferred a 45 footer for stability and stowage. So I think crew size and strength enter into the “want/need” aspect of sail control, unless you are Ellen MacArthur, who is just five-two but can crush a coconut with her ring finger and thumb!

          • John February 7, 2013, 6:13 pm

            Hi Marc,

            Sounds like you and I are substantially on the same page on this. I certainly agree that a smaller crew can avail themselves of assistance from automation. What scares me is when I see short handed crews on boats that they would have no hope of controlling when, and it will be when, not if, the automation systems fail them. It certainly does not sound as if you are in that category.

  • Wilson Fitt February 4, 2013, 10:08 pm

    I endorse your categorization of wants and needs, John. Our old fashioned but not-so-old boat has carried us in comfort and safety for many thousands of miles with pretty well everything on your “need” list but not much else. We steer with tiller and windvane, stumble around the deck to reef and furl, pump water manually and heat it in a kettle, and seem to spend a lot less time than most people trying to fix things. I admit that you would contest our version of a “well engineered anchoring system” (a manual windlass and enormous lump of steel in the shape of a CQR) but it works. A nice big second hand genoa does fine in light air. My purity has eroded and I am now fairly quick to start the engine, comforting myself with the knowledge that the batteries needed charging anyway.

    I am tempted by “wants” but have managed to resist for the most part, although we now have an i-thingy with charts for a large portion of the western hemisphere.

    The only need that I don’t see on your list is a good cabin heater that works reliably at sea. Our Dickenson is about 3/4 of the way there.

    • John February 5, 2013, 1:37 pm

      Hi Wilson,

      Thanks for the comment and real world experience.

      For those that don’t know him, Wilson built his wooden plank on frame boat himself and in the last three years has crossed the Atlantic both ways via the northern route–Atlantic Canada to Scotland.

      East bound single handed, west bound double handed in April–yes, you read that right, April!

      The sum total of his gear failures: a broken pig stick for his burgee.

      Wilson is worth listening to, as long as you remember that he has rocks in his head…April, I ask you?

  • Paul Mills February 5, 2013, 8:05 am

    Hi all,

    Loving this discussion.

    My biggest need is to feel at the end of each season that the sailing and journeying I have done, and the benefit to my and others ‘soul’ has far outweighed the cost of owning Sakari, and the time and energy that I put into doing the jobs on her that I would rather either didn’t exist – or were done by the fairies whilst I was asleep….. such as paint on an aluminium boat!


  • Victor Raymond February 7, 2013, 3:09 am

    Very interesting insights and comments. Indeed you hit the nail on the head. This is the main reason I purchased Rajah Laut vs waiting for funds to purchased a brand new Boreal which I went to see in France. Beautiful boat in every way, not denying that, but what do I know about it after purchase? Not much. I have not made the decisions, analysed the options and worked on the installation of my decisions to make it a boat I know inside and out.
    In refitting this old Meta Dalu I have been forced to discover the good and bad of what I have purchased. Incredibly strong thick hull, exceptionally strong rigging, mast, rudder and OK accommodations, lousy electrical and mechanical systems. The importance of all this was driven home sailing from Aruba to San Blas Islands through an area known as the “Cape Horn” of the Caribbean. It was rough with very strong winds and big seas but the boat handled it like it was born for it. In a lesser boat I would not have been able to sleep for fear of broaching. With a retractable keel there was little chance for it plus I always had my Jordan Series Drogue if things got uncomfortable.
    The point being, I sacrificed getting a beautiful new fancy boat for the most raw essentials and I don’t regret it one iota. I never worried at all when the Kuna natives came up in their wooden pangas with nails sticking up along side the boat. I had no paint to be scraped off nor fear of another bruise to the hull.
    Not everyone would be happy with a boat like mine nor would any self-respecting pirate feel we were a worthy target but we feel safe within her 14 mm plate. For us that is the important stuff.

    • John February 7, 2013, 9:15 am

      Hi Victor,

      Great comment, thanks. Sounds like you are well focused on the important stuff, and you are certainly proving that by being out there voyaging.

  • R. Todd Smith February 17, 2013, 6:54 pm


    This is a useful, substantive topic. The 13 needs all hit the mark. On the wants list I was surprised to “Wheel Steering” listed. I own a tiller boat and a wheel boat and have had both for years (no, not rich, just lucky) and honestly, I cannot think of a single reason to favor a wheel over a tiller. Could someone weigh in and enlighten me? I don’t want to create a blue vs. red environment here, but I would honestly be interested in hearing from anyone who has used both and had found significant advantages and preference for wheel steering over tiller in similar use cases and comparable classes of boats.



    • John February 18, 2013, 9:58 am

      Hi Todd,

      Its great to have this input from someone that has real world near simultaneous experience with wheel and tiller steering. I totally agree with your conclusion that a wheel does not have any advantages over a tiller, at least until you get to about 20,000 displacement, and that’s why I put a wheel in the Wants list.

      Even above that size, a tiller can be perfectly practical if the hull and rig are well balanced, particularly if the rudder is of the semi-balanced spade type.

      One place I can think of where a wheel becomes a need, is with a center cockpit boat like ours.

      • R. Todd Smith February 19, 2013, 3:47 pm

        Hi John,
        Ah yes, of course, center cockpit, fair enough. I will say I have have had the opportunity (read: need ) to use the “emergency” tiller on the 2ok disp 42 footer with a wheel and spade rudder rig and found it virtually impossible in even mild seaway conditions. Just all the more reason in my mind to have a bulletproof tiller equipped boat.



      • Marc Dacey February 19, 2013, 7:39 pm

        Interesting. I have a tiller-steered sloop and a two-helm (pilothouse and aft deck) hydraulic-steered cutter. I concur that the bigger boat needs the wheel. I have rigged, however, a hydraulic bypass valve. This allows the transom-hung rudder with a tiller head atop the rudder post to be steered via tiller, which greatly facilitates vane steering. Just to see if I could, I went sailing with this setup and while not ideal, the seven-foot long tiller does in fact work.

        So we will steer generally under motor with hydraulic steering and the AP, and under sail (meaning “windvane” if we are talking about any kind of distance) via tiller. Best of both worlds, and they are entirely separated means of steering.


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