Internal Volume—Ready For Sea?

Strongly mounted grab handles are necessary throughout a boat

I was once asked to take on the running of a pedigree cruising boat by an owner who didn’t have time to use her. Nice boat, good hull, strong rig, from the outside she looked like a really attractive proposition, but once inside…huge internal volume in the main saloon, round dining table with curved seats, three enormous double cabins, each with a head, and not one single dedicated, usable sea berth.

As far as I’m concerned, the term ‘liveaboard’ means a boat that spends a considerable amount of time at sea, not just in harbour. And that in turn demands that you can cook, sleep and use the heads in safety, and (if possible) comfort when at sea. Many modern designs focus on maximising the internal volume for in-harbour comfort and convenience, and in doing so many vital, tried and tested sea-going features are disappearing.


A classic example is the traditional ‘island’ galley design installed well aft near the companionway. Well ventilated, and with a niche in which the cook can strap and wedge themselves in, and with sinks along the centreline able to drain effectively on either tack. This is a basically sound, working arrangement at sea, the only criticism being that such galleys can lack worktop space. Modern designs (especially European ones) tend to go for a linear galley down one side of the boat, which does allow for more worktop area, but means that the sinks will be well outboard, and that (in some cases) the cook has virtually nowhere to brace against when at sea.

We have just such an arrangement on Pèlerin, which we improved by specifying much deeper sinks, to keep the water in them when heeled, as shallow sinks are hopeless, especially with this galley configuration. We also installed a really solid crash bar with strap at the cooker, and put pad eyes by the sinks and the main worktop, so that the galley strap can be used at all stations, and the galley slave can use both hands. It’s not always obvious but fore-and–aft movement is a bugbear with these galleys, so this has made for a much safer and more secure galley for the cook, and we feel we have a good workable arrangement.

Sea Berths

Both Phyllis and I have posted before about the vital importance of safe sea berths, but this cannot be re-inforced enough. Berths should not be too wide, and be along the centreline of the boat, so you don’t suffer from a sudden rush of blood to the head when the boat is tacked, and must have a really high and well secured leecloth or leeboard. Personally I like the main seaberth to be in the saloon, where I can be up and on deck in an instant, if necessary, but if  you have a round dinette type saloon, that’s almost impossible.

Usable Heads

Another modern favourite is the heads right up in the bow, often amidships. How you use one in anything but the calmest conditions, I don’t know. Aft cabin heads are generally OK on one tack, but if the inlet is mounted too high up the bilge will draw air, leading to an inability to flush or an airlock. As we only have one head, we made sure that the inlet (which has an anti-siphon device installed) and the outlet were mounted on the bottom plate of the hull, and that works fine. We have installed a second grab handle in the heads compartment, right where it should be to keep you firmly in place when using the heads. Many modern boats have all internal GRP head and shower mouldings, which are easy to clean but wide open and slippery—the addition of grab handles can make a big improvement.


And that brings us to open plan saloons—wonderful in harbour but at sea there is a real risk of being thrown around. Grab handles ( if provided) may be too few and misplaced for practical use, so it’s always worth trying ‘the blindfold game’. With your eyes tight shut, move from on deck down the companionway and work your way to the forward cabin. You should be able to reach out and find a grab handle with one hand at all times—each handle should be just where you expect it to be. And if it’s not, then that’s where you put one, mounted really robustly, so that you can put your weight on it when in motion. Repeat this for every member of the family—height will make a difference, obviously, and kids are often overlooked in this regard. Try the same for the route to the heads, aft cabin or wherever you need. At the end of this exercise, you should be able to move anywhere around the boat, able to hold on securely all the way, even in the dark.

And as a final quirky thought, I recently read an account of an older crew sailing a big open plan yacht on a west-east transatlantic who were hit by bad weather and were being thrown around. They dug out some of their dock lines and rigged a cat’s cradle of ropes down below, and so were able to get around safely, and nobody got hurt as the ropes were soft and gave a little. Not what the designer and builder intended I’m sure, but maybe it’s a viable option if some decent pad eyes were installed in advance to rig the ropes to. That it should come to this, though…

Ultimately, it’s about what you plan to do with your yacht, and where you plan to go. If your sailing is limited to long holidays and weekends, then a modern design (with some improvements) might be just what you want. But if you plan to go offshore, then traditional interior design, proven over the years, has so much to recommend it, that I find it hard to understand why it is falling out of fashion.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

14 comments… add one
  • David Nutt Sep 15, 2011, 9:05 am

    These modern boats have layouts that are driven by market demands, not the demands of the sea. Most of them are never sailed on over night passages and they truly do make for wonderful and comfortable hotel rooms. For those who do go to sea they should either modify one of these modern boats to meet the sea’s demands or they should find an old design and get her ready. There really are not that many of us out there and the mass market simply could not exist if the expensive details of a true sea going vessel were built into every boat.

  • Colin Speedie Sep 19, 2011, 7:07 pm

    Hi David

    Sorry for the delayed reply, but we’ve been on the move.

    I hope that I’ve pointed out a few ways in which modern interiors can be improved. I’d agree that ‘custom’ interior design costs money, and that yards are not always prepared to beyond certain levels to meet owners’ demands – which happened to us when we selected our boat. Sometimes you just have to accept that you cannot have it all, and make the best of what’s on offer.

    Best wishes


  • Nancy Fauls Sep 19, 2011, 7:15 pm

    We are redoing the Interior of our 30′ Morgan Out Island and I have to say that Charlie Morgan did a great job with the grab rails in his boats, but after reading your article I’m going to install a grab rail in the head, thanks for the tip!

  • RDE Sep 20, 2011, 4:07 pm

    We can complain all we want about the design of modern production sailboats, but the fact is that they will always be designed to sell at boat shows rather than be used by the minority who actually go to sea. The era when Bob Perry could design something like the Valiant 40 as a evolution of the Westsail 32 and see hundreds of them sold to people who dreamed of ocean voyaging has long passed. So that leaves us with the choice of accumulating a small fortune to allow us to have a custom boat built, or adapting what is available.

    Rather than go down the dead end of trying to adapt a 2011 floating condo to use as a voyaging yacht, let’s look at what could be done with a mid-1980’s style production design:

    For example, if we choose a Beneteau Frers 51 of that era rather than the later Oceanis series.

    1- Purchase price: $80k for a sound vessel with a tired interior to perhaps $115k for the best example in the world. About 10% of the cost of a new Oyster in the same size range.
    2- Fairly optimal combination of reasonable draft, reasonable speed, and proper underbody shape to give a comfortable motion. Far closer to the ideal sea boat than any 2011 Beneteau/Jeanneau/Hunter/Barvaria.
    3- One of the best galley arrangements ever designed.
    4- Excellent hand holds and arrangement from the standpoint of moving about the deck and interior.
    5- Cockpit designed to go to sea, companionway low enough to allow proper dodger arrangement. *see my comments about drop boards vs. watertight doors.
    6- Good water access without the danger of an open stern cockpit.
    7- Proper sail & rig plan, no swept back spreaders or undersized IOR main.
    8- Reasonable construction quality, joinerwork to a level only found in million dollar yachts nowadays.
    9- Bow ex-crew quarters provides voluminous storage for sails, fenders and other lightweight items. Great storage elsewhere.

    1- Undersized, poorly located chart table.
    2- Silly captains chairs to stbd instead of potential sea berth settee.
    3- All three cabins require lee cloth dividers to be usable as sea cabins. Not ideal, but far better than centerline marina berths.
    4- Three heads — one needs to be converted to a pantry or dedicated shower stall.
    5- Partial hull liners interfere with hull access.

    The above noted limitations are not easy to change by major renovation, but lend themselves to the obvious simple modifications. A number of these boats have the two foreward staterooms converted to a centerline master stateroom, but that turns it into a 51′ couples + occasional guest vessel because of the loss of sea berths.

    1- Check/replace iron keel bolts.
    2- Replace all standing rigging.
    3- Add inner forestay.
    4- Replace rudder and rudder post with a bulletproof over-engineered design.
    6- Oversized ground tackle and windlass.
    7- Hire Ed Joy to design one of his exquisite hard dodgers.
    8- Plus the usual gremlins that surface once a project gets started.

    For about 20% the cost of a new deck salon Oyster or 40% the cost of a deck salon Jeanneau you would end up with a safer vessel of fundamentally superior design for ocean voyaging.

  • Colin Speedie Sep 20, 2011, 7:21 pm

    Hi RDE

    Great comment – and as you may have seen from a reply I sent from a previous post, very much in line with my own thinking.

    The First 51 was one of the great Frers designs of that era, a big sister to the Dufour 39 that I owned for nearly 18 years and loved as a great cruising boat.

    I intend to return to this subject in more detail in a week or so, but in the meantime I’ll just add that I’m with you on this one, and thanks for a comprehensive and practical focus on the subject.

    Best wishes


  • RDE Sep 20, 2011, 8:42 pm

    I’ll just briefly add a footnote about head design. Somewhere along the way it became convention to mount toilets athwartship, and every designer follows along without thinking.

    The proper marine head is mounted fore and aft, between a counter and bulkhead about 2″ further apart than a large man’s shoulder span. It can then be used on either tack without having to perform acrobatics like a gecko to stay aboard.

    In my limited experience the forward head in an Oyster 53 and those on the boats I have designed are the only ones that have thought this simple problem thru.

    • Colin Speedie Sep 21, 2011, 7:59 am

      Hi RDE

      You’re right about head design, and it’s in many ways dictated by people wanting big head and shower compartments for in harbour use.

      With the heads layout we were offered, we opted to mount our loo (Lavac) at 45 degrees so that you are ‘wedged’ into the corner, and installed extra hand holds, and it all works fine – not perfect, but an acceptable compromise.

      The only other boat I’ve seen with the sensible heads arrangement you’ve outlined is the Boreal 44, designed by someone who has spent years living on his own boat, and finding out first hand what works!

      Best wishes


  • RDE Sep 20, 2011, 8:59 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I was referring to the Idylle 51 by Frers, not the First series. The First 51 is a different kettle of fish, designed as a racer/cruiser rather than a cruiser/term charter boat. They had teak decks that now require removal, triple spreader rigs, flatter hull underbodies, and deep draft keels that were great to windward but would not survive a close encounter with a coral head, to say nothing of fetching up to 100k more in the used marketplace.

    • Colin Speedie Sep 21, 2011, 7:23 am

      Hi RDE

      I was including both in my thoughts – although I was of the opinion that the two models shared the same hull, with the Idylle having a longer, shallower fin.

      Unfortunately the Idylle never really took off in Europe, and they are fairly rare here as a result. But on the other side of the water they were very popular in the charter market, and as you suggest are nice boats. The only doubts I’d have would be that many of them will have had a hard life (from charter) and would almost certainly require a refit of (at least) the level you mention, if it hasn’t been done already. The layout (in the charter versions) isn’t ideal, but as you say can be improved upon.

      But I wouldn’t write off the First 51 entirely, either. Many of the boats over here had the winged keel option (so modest draft), and no teak decks. Internally, most had two forward twin cabins that made good sea berths, and the standard of joinery is very high. But it is indeed a big rig, and may be too much for some shorter handed crews. The only real aberration (in my view) would be the twin wheels. Prices for these boats have dropped a lot in recent years and good boats can now be had for sensible prices.

      Best wishes


  • RDE Sep 21, 2011, 2:14 pm

    For me there are a number of design features that would cause me to cross the First 51 off my list as a voyaging boat.
    1- IOR hull design.
    2- Balsa cored hull—combined with polyester resin. My bet is that half the boats will have wet core in the hulls. No direct experience, but the # of C & C’s with this problem certainly is a heads up.
    3- Marginal keel step and ring frame design that will show up if the boat has been sailed hard with the backstay pumped up.

    Like they say, different boats for different folks!

  • Dave Benjamin Oct 20, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Agree with the comments about lack of counter space in some traditional sea going galleys. That’s the one thing we could use more of in our vintage Amel Maramu. All in all it’s a fantastic sea boat and the galley is workable underway.

    As for the Beneteau Idylle series, I’ve long felt those boats can be a good value. They were a mistake from a marketing standpoint as the boat buying public wasn’t taking Beneteau’s efforts at the luxury cruiser market seriously. The end result was a very capable boat that people didn’t buy for image reasons. I think they are worthy of consideration.

    • Colin Oct 22, 2011, 2:16 pm

      Hi Dave

      I’d agree with your analysis entirely, and it was a pity that it didn’t work for them as the Idylle range had a lot to offer as cruising boats. We were recently alongside one of the smaller ones that had been comprehensively (and very nicely) refitted by her French owner, who had bought her for a song.

      But Amels are different again, justifiably one of the great cruising boat ranges in Europe, and popular for all the right reasons, as a growing global audience attests.

      Best wishes


  • RDE Oct 23, 2011, 9:24 pm

    Funny how fashions/marketing targeted Europe & the Colonies so differently! There are usually 4 or 5 Idylle 51s for sale here that arrived originally through the Caribbean skippered charter trade, while I don’t think there are that many First 51s in total in this hemisphere. The one I inspected had suffered a propane explosion that increased the beam by a few inches! Fortunately no one was aboard and it was triggered by a forced air heating system.
    The Idylle 51s are available for under 100k, and were among the few European boat designs with a real seagoing galley. Nice deep V underbody that won’t damage your dental fillings. Far from perfect, but I can’t think of a 100k 50′ production boat that comes close for ocean cruising.

  • Colin Oct 24, 2011, 3:46 pm

    Hi RDE

    Yes, isn’t it strange?

    The smaller Idylles got a big push over here, and sold modestly, but the 51 was nowhere to be seen, and as a result did diddly-whomp in terms of sales, despite the fact that as you point out it was a very nice boat designed by the best designer of his generation. And in many ways they were designed with Europe in mind – good accommodation, better shelter, etc. – the way the market works is sometimes strange.

    A good Idylle 15.50 at the prices you mention could make a great boat for a budget minded owner with some real re-fitting skills – thanks for the heads-up.

    Best wishes


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