The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Is It a Need or a Want?


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?

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More Articles From Online Book: How To Buy a Cruising Boat:

  1. The Right Way to Buy a Boat…And The Wrong Way
  2. Is It a Need or a Want?
  3. Buying a Boat—A Different Way To Think About Price
  4. Buying a Cruising Boat—Five Tips for The Half-Assed Option
  5. Are Refits Worth It?
  6. Buying a Boat—Never Say Never
  7. Selecting The Right Hull Form
  8. Five Ways That Bad Boats Happen
  9. How Weight Affects Boat Performance and Motion Comfort
  10. Easily Driven Boats Are Better
  11. 12 Tips To Avoid Ruining Our Easily Driven Sailboat
  12. Learn From The Designers
  13. You May Need a Bigger Boat Than You Think
  14. Sail Area: Overlap, Multihulls, And Racing Rules
  15. 8 Tips For a Great Cruising Boat Interior Arrangement
  16. Of Cockpits, Wheelhouses And Engine Rooms
  17. Offshore Sailboat Keel Types
  18. Cockpits—Part 1, Safe and Seamanlike
  19. Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics
  20. Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning
  21. Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter
  22. Choosing A Cruising Boat—Shade and Ventilation
  23. Pitfalls to Avoid When Buying a New Voyaging Boat
  24. Cyclical Loading: Why Offshore Sailing Is So Hard On A Boat
  25. Cycle Loading—8 Tips for Boat and Gear Purchases
  26. Characteristics of Boat Building Materials
  27. Impact Resistance—How Hull Materials Respond to Impacts
  28. Impact Resistance—Two Collision Scenarios
  29. Hull Materials, Which Is Best?
  30. The Five Things We Need to Check When Buying a Boat
  31. Six Warnings About Buying Fibreglass Boats
  32. Buying a Fibreglass Boat—Hiring a Surveyor and Managing the Survey
  33. What We Need to Know About Moisture Meters and Wet Fibreglass Laminate
  34. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 2, The Boat We Bought
  35. Q&A, What’s the Maximum Sailboat Size For a Couple?
  36. At What Age should You Stop Sailing And Buy a Motorboat?
  37. A Motorsailer For Offshore Voyaging?
  38. The Two Biggest Lies Yacht Brokers Tell
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Dave Benjamin

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

Where would put radar in this equation.


I am extending the need for radar to AIS as well. And I mean a transceiver, not only a receiver – as soon as I transmit my own position I get noticed by the big boats a lot earlier than they might see me on their radar screens, if at all. I consider this way more important than for example an active radar reflector (which would be in the middle between want and need, on my list).

Marc Dacey

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.

Yanick Levasseur

100% agree with this comment. If I’m investing half a million dollars in a bluewater sailboat cruiser, it’s because I want to sail, not motor. I believe most sailors hate motoring altogether. We do it when we have no other choice. A decent Code 0 will work even at 3 knots True Wind, and provide a very quiet and pleasant sailing experience!

Paul van Oss

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.

Paul van Oss

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.

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

George L

Hi Paul,

So how did the battle with your wife go? Did you “win”? If yes, is she still your wife 😉 ?

Considering that 80 to 90 % of the time it’s the guy’s idea to go cruising, that freezer with all the power consequences may very well be the very biggest need and the best investment. ‘cuz it may very well be the difference between single-handing and blissfully being out together.

Just sayin’ ..

Ben Eriksen

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

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.

Marc Dacey

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.

Marc Dacey

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!

Wilson Fitt

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.

Paul Mills

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

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.

R. Todd Smith


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.



R. Todd Smith

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

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.


Hi John,

Could you comment on headroom in a voyaging boat as a need/want and what issues arise a sea from a lack of it? I have looked at several used boats and dismissed them because the because the cabin head room was about 6′-1″ and I stand 6′-3″.

Matthew Archer

At almost 6’7″, my limited coastal cruising (never more than 2 weeks at a time) was uncomfortable but manageable, but three years on a circumnavigation seems like it would downright miserable. Quasimodo move over!

Also, it seems like every unexpected lurch while hunched over in the galley, head, etc. could be a recipe for neck injury.

Peter Hochschild

I sail mostly singlehanded around Maine. I’m considering replacing my Contessa 26 with something a bit larger. I’m wondering exactly how, and how much, to weigh hull shape against Maine lobster pots – and similar hazards.

Insight would be much appreciated. The Contessa 26 sheds lines pretty well; I added a kludgy stiff flap to deflect lines out of the gap between keel and rudder.

Eric Klem

Hi Peter,

I think Maine is a bit of a unique place as a cruising destination and I have different feelings on what an ideal boat can be for there compared to many other places. To me the unique things are that you can do 10-20NM days and have a wonderful cruise dayhopping anchorage to anchorage, you can usually sail in relatively benign sea conditions regardless of what it is doing outside the islands and there are a lot of pot buoys.

My own opinion is that a full keel boat can be quite enjoyable to many here who are not particularly performance oriented and not trying to push a schedule. The major advantage of them is that they are much less likely to hook pot lines. I still would pick one that is more performance oriented and not a complete slug but there are full keel boats that do okay.

Fin keel and separated rudder boats can be enjoyed a lot in Maine as well. If you like sailing a bit faster, covering a bit more ground each day, or picking a route involving more upwind work, they can be the right choice. Most suffer from some affliction to catching pot lines so you need to be someone willing to always hand-steer and keep a good lookout. Note, if you are solo, this means that a trip to the head or to make a sandwich or to reef becomes problematic. On some fin keel boats if the keel and rudder have enough sweep to them and you fit a folding prop, you can basically make the boat immune to pots under sail. This is the category that we fall into although we have a fixed prop so it can catch stuff. We don’t really think twice about steering around pots most of the time but I do get nervous whenever we need to move in the dark. There are occasional times where we will avoid an area at max current where we would be crossing the current.

Finally, I would personally not consider a true high performance boat with a bulb keel protruding forwards, extra appendages, foils, etc. These boats are pot magnets, they are fast enough that it is a burden to sail around pots and all of the zigzagging will drive you nuts as the boat will never be trimmed optimally.

To me, the need is that you can safely transit without getting yourself into a dangerous situation due to catching a pot. Note, often the most dangerous part of this is freeing the pot, especially if someone goes in the water and it can also be problematic if you are unable to use the engine afterwards. For a full keel boat, this still means carrying something like a hook knife to clear a fouling but doesn’t require a shaft line cutter in my opinion. On a fin keel boat, I start to insist on a shaft mounted line cutter (but please try not to use it) and a hooknife. And I think it would be quite hard to meet the need with a true high performance boat without really hurting the performance. The want side of the equation in Maine is performance whereas in many places, decent performance can become a need for safety.

When we sit in an anchorage in Maine, I often look at the little Cape Dory 28, Pearson 30, Hinckley 30, etc and think that the people on that boat are having just as good of a time as anyone else. I am always amazed at how much older the cruising fleet is there and I don’t think it is just a money thing as many of the boats are well maintained, I think that it is the local conditions.


Peter Hochschild

Many thanks Eric and John!

Eric, you perfectly captured all the issues on my mind, some that I was only conscious of.

Short on experience, mechanical aptitude, and project patience, I want to buy new or young.

I’ve found only very few kind-of plausible new options.
Here’s they are, briefly commented, wondering if my “snag sense” is at all calibrated.

a. Contessa 32: Separate keel and skegged rudder, hull shape seems not too snaggy. Not quite enough larger than present boat, though, I think.

b. Rustler 36: Full keel, very safe for Maine, I think. Heavy, surely slow, perhaps also a bit much for solo.

c. Rustler 37: Prop looking for trouble? The gap at the bottom of the half skeg joint might be snaggy too.

d. Ovni: 395 the smallest single-rudder Ovni made anymore. Aside from the complexity and size drawbacks for my uses, perhaps the joint at the rudder fold-up point is snaggy. Otherwise seems not very snag prone.

Are you aware of other possibly-suitable sensible-compromise boats still manufactured somewhere around this size range?

Eric Klem

Hi Peter,

All of the boats you have listed would be acceptable to me (I am not very familiar with the Ovni). As far as recommending boats, most boats made would be acceptable to me from a pot catching standpoint once you fit line cutters and get a hooknife or equivalent. I would look at boats based on things like design, build quality, current condition, etc, and then just check to make sure they don’t have a dealbreaker like a reverse sweep to the keel.

This is about you as much as the boat. If you know you will be inattentive, you struggle to steer around pots in a cross-current, or you struggle to keep up with cognitive tasks sailing in the fog already, then emphasizing design to shed pots is more important but if you can already avoid them on your current boat, it wouldn’t bother me. Do take the time to familiarize yourself with how to use things like propshaft line cutters, you don’t want to learn about needing to reverse to cut or something like that when in the heat of the moment.


Robert Tichauer

Hello John,

We are talking with an aluminum boat builder to design a 50 ~ 55’ DS cruiser. We favor twin keels. Do you recommend installing two drive trains? One would be an electric motor/generator, the other a diesel engine with a motor/generator. The Dutch company COMBI offers solutions like that. 

We value your input!


Robert Tichauer

Robert Tichauer

Thank you, John!
Interestingly, you favor a swing keel over a twin keel. We are afraid the moving parts underwater will get fouled. Pete Goss spoke highly about the system on his Garcia 45, though. Do you have experience with one or the other?

Robert Tichauer

Thanks again, John! I will contact Colin.

In an earlier article, you wrote about why you chose a Perkins to replace your old engine. Looking back, was it a good decision?


Robert Tichauer

Thanks, John!
Beta is also an option when considering a HybridMarine system.

Robert Tichauer

Hi John,

I have a last question for you regarding our prospective aluminum sailboat (50~55′ in length and ~30 tons (probably less) laden weight): is it better to install two shafts with smaller (not computer-controlled) engines or one larger?

Thanks again,

Robert Tichauer

Fantastic advice, John! Thank you!