Q&A, What’s the Maximum Sailboat Size For a Couple?

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Phyllis working the toughest job on "Morgan's Cloud".

What is the largest sailboat two people can comfortably handle?

If your reaction to that question was:

Wow, lots of variables...there's no right answer...it depends;

you and I think alike. That was my initial reaction too when asked the question by Steve and Cindy, new sailors, aspiring cruisers, and new members here at Attainable Adventure Cruising.

But then I thought about it some...and then some more...and it struck me that there's a simple answer:

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Marc Dacey

Phyllis and you both look on the tall side: physical dimensionals play a role here as well. We stopped at 42 feet/16 tonnes (steel) on our “true cutter” because my wife is just a shave over five feet tall. She’s quite strong and just in her early 40s, but just the lack of leverage and height is a real limit for her, despite her better-than-average experience and seamanship for cruising. I have put in sturdy mast steps and triple-blocked purchases in an effort to make the boat manageable for her alone, because that’s the reality, isn’t it? It’s not “how much boat is too much for a fit, tall pair of sailors”, but “how much boat is too much at 0300h when the shortest crew is alone on deck watch-standing and the boat’s hit with a clear-air squall?” Now, you can reef down, you can oversize the autopilot, and you can purchase blocks sized for vast mechanical advantage, but there are limits beyond which it would be foolish to have a bigger boat. Production boats in the 50 foot plus range crewed by fit senior citizens may or may not be “asking for it”, but if you aren’t asking “what in a crisis can I work alone?” in my view you aren’t asking the right questions.

I’m reminded of that very nasty leg break you had, John. Had that happened when MC lurched and you broke it going down a companionway 1,400 NM offshore, could Phyllis have guided MC to a safe harbour (or close enough to shore for you to be choppered off)?

We’ve thought of these things and that’s part of why we have the boat we have. I could have enjoyed 45-50 feet, and would have loved a ketch, but the fact is, deciding on what we could ALL work wasn’t just my decision. At least our son is now bigger and stronger than his mother. That’s actually a form of insurance.

Marc Dacey

Oh, I wasn’t implying a lack of skill sets, more just the physical challenge of handling a big boat solo for days on end…and possibly tending to an injured crew. If the AP went down, for instance, hand-steering gets old fast.

A lot of sailing is also attitudinal, of course: the “stubborn bastard” type tends to do well. I agree Ellen Macarthur is an inspiration and I believe she’s five two at best, although she looks strongly built. I would be interested to see how her race boats were laid out in terms of winch sizes, etc.

Nikolas

Hi John,

My line of thinking towards situations where a relatively large sailing boat cannot be handled for any reason (fatique, inexperience, rough weather, inadequate body strength, injury etc.) is to at least manage to lower the sails and just use the engine. If lucky enough to have a pilothouse or doghouse then retire there or go below decks. This is a very good reason to have a very reliable and efficient (if possible commercial grade) mechanical propulsion system, which should be installed correctly according to well tried practices with as large fuel tanks as possible and bulletproof fuel filtration system.

Nikolas

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I think this is a very well thought through analysis and will be of value to anyone thinking through this question. I would only add, reflecting your previous recommendation, that the couple try to get some offshore experience on another boat and look for some adverse conditions. Maybe even coastal conditions will do. Get another couple (to back you up), and go out in lousy conditions. It is very hard to imagine, foresee and realistically anticipate how dramatically forces increase when nature raises the ante a bit and things go just a little pear shaped.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Drew Frye

It took me a few near to learn that the key to single handed sailing–and I’m sure key to sailing a larger boat short handed–is planning. Do everything a little early. Have sea room for delays. Plan what you are doing before leaving the cockpit. Think all of the steps through. Plan for what you will do if X jams.

It doesn’t mean I can’t press reasonably hard, but I let off a little earlier. I reduce sooner when storms approach. The weather needs to be quite settled for the chute (am I really in a hurry today?).

I would have added injury to the list of failures. Perhaps both of you. There can be no warning.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I think that you put it very well. Single fault analysis is surprisingly helpful in thinking through different scenarios although it does have some serious limitations due to ignoring multiple faults. In the engineering world, it is called FMEA (failure modes an effects analysis).

Your point about mechanical aptitude is very important. A number of years ago, I had 2 deckhands working for me and the 5′ 120 lb crewmember with no prior experience could outhaul the 6’2″ 250 lb crewmember any day of the week despite being much weaker physically.

Spending time on larger vessels is extremely valuable in terms of learning how to deal with high loads. Everytime I crank on our jib halyard, I think about how I have tensioned jib halyards on boats that are over 125T with no winches simply because I know how to sweat a line. Things like line handling under high loads, docking, and generally planning ahead are all really important on these boats.

While boats get bigger quickly as you point out, there are some things that get a lot easier. I find that working the deck of a boat with a 3′ bulwark where everything is done fully standing is so much easier than working the deck of our 36′ boat where I am always crouching and can never use my full bodyweight.

With a properly setup boat like a sundeer, I would feel safe sailing with wife on something likely as large as 60′ but I have also been on 40′ boats that I find very difficult.

Eric

Jim Ferguson

At 72 and 70, we keep asking ourselves that question. This being our 6 season in Europe, we have watched it happen slowly. Maggie is 15m and weighs 21t in the sling. Docking can been difficult with no bow thruster, so at least we don’t worry about that breaking, but getting off the boat quickly is quite noticeable. We rarely sail without a reef now and always stay ahead on the headsail, including reaching or running without the main. We’ve been sailing her for 24 years and she has been good to us, but having Tony and Coryn Gooch rafted to us in Norway, Taonui’s 44′ looked very promising.

Great article, thanks John
Jim

David Nutt

In March of 2000 Judy and I headed out on a 5 year circumnavigation on Danza, a 60′ steel ketch and sister ship to the original ‘British Steel’ that Chay Blyth circumnavigated solo against the wind in 1969. Our crew were our 4 kids ages 4, 9, 10, & 12. Danza proved to be a phenomenal boat for this voyage and easy to handle under all conditions that we met in those five years. The length actually makes her an easy boat to handle as she is so sea kindly and stable. Her cutter ketch rig is utterly ideal for a boat of this size and a crew of our ages then (and now!). We have few systems on deck to fail. Her 2 roller furling headsails have been flawless and the slab reefing system on the main works every single time. There is no bow thruster, no stern thruster, just simplicity. We actually found her easier to sail than our previous 42′ sloop as Danza was so much more solid and stable in the water and the sail choices were right there in our face. And I cannot imagine a better boat than Danza for our 2010 trip to Greenland.
Yes, her size allowed for but did not require a multitude of systems below decks. Many successfully live for years with minimal systems aboard but our ability to make 120 liters/hour of water, to freeze a significant amount of food, to carry the books, educational materials and toys that the 4 kids required, made our life just plain easier.
With the passage of time the kids are mostly out of the herd and now Judy and I (now in my late 60’s) sail Danza by ourselves here on the coast of Maine. We reef a little earlier, plan a little further ahead, take a little more time than we used to. We would not hesitate to head off shore by ourselves if that option opened up for us again.
So I think the size of the boat is very dependent on the design of not only the hull but of the rig, the sail handling gear, and even one’s philosophy of sailing.
That said, Danza is on the market with tears in our eyes.

Brandon Ford

I know this may be outside the scope of the article, but how about more practical considerations? Even assuming unlimited funds for purchase and maintenance, what about finding a slip in a marina? At 43 feet, most marinas will put Oceanus in a 40-foot slip. Boats bigger than 40 feet have a real tough time getting slips, especially transient slips, in the areas we have sailed. Even assuming unlimited funds to throw at that problem they just aren’t available.
We are currently cruising the Hawaiian islands, so slip availability is not a concern — there simply aren’t any at any price. We are anchoring out and loving it.
Brandon and Virginia
SV Oceanus, 1971 Columbia 43
Currently Ho’okena, Island of Hawaii
http://www.hagothlog.blogspot.com

Prentiss Berry

Hi John,

I enjoyed this article and it is quite timely as my wife and I are getting very close to being in a position to acquire a sailing vessel; so much of what was written is applicable to myself. I agree with your statement “It’s the biggest boat that the two of you can complete your toughest intended voyage in, without hurting or endangering yourselves,…”. It my view it would be safer and more comfortable.

It was with great interest that you mentioned the Sundeer 60, as this is the boat I am most serious about right now. However, you mentioned “low stability” and I’m wondering exactly what you mean by that?

At the risk of being put down for my lofty goals, I admit that I don’t have much experience, but I do have mechanical aptitude and I do have good strength and stamina for my age (58). The same for my wife who is a bit younger. My experience consist of sailing a 26′ coastal cruiser many years ago. I did spend four years at sea in the Navy on a ship, but that’s from a ship, not a small boat. My point being that I have been to sea and I liked it. I have done a lot of reading, but I completely understand there is a huge difference between reading books and being on the water getting the much needed experience. My intent is for the both of us to get instruction (ASA courses/certifications) and then start coastal cruising and a trip to the Bahamas/Caribbean. After that we will figure out what’s next.

If money/time wasn’t an issue, my dream boat would be a Boreal. But I don’t want to wait two years; I want to go now. Plus, I believe I can get a Sundeer ready to go for about $200k US less than a new Boreal… that’s a huge start for the cruising kitty. Before I learned about Boreals, the Sundeer was my dream boat, a boat designed to cross oceans by a couple. I had bought into the Dashew philosophy big time.

My wife and I looked at a Sundeer recently and really liked it. My wife’s comment was “get this boat” (music to any man’s ear). I was surprised that the boat looked better in real life than the pictures I had seen. We were boat surprised at how well made the boat appeared. Granted, it was at the dock, but we both felt very safe on the boat. We were very impressed with the boat we looked at. It is surprising that the Sundeer does not feel like a large boat. I’m sure most of that feel is the displacement, but it is also because the living space is separate from sail/chain locker and the mechanical spaces. The boat feels very comfortable below for a couple.

I admit that there are some things bothered me. This boat has a lot of systems for me to learn. This will not be like buying a new car and driving it on a cross-country trip. Lots of learning to do. Lots of practice doing coastal work before heading offshore to get comfortable handling a 60′ boat. Then there is all lines lead to the cockpit, something several here on this site don’t approve of. I know it is a lot of boat, but I’m confident that we can learn to operate and manage this boat with time and practice.

It had not occurred to me to ask you directly about the Sundeer, maybe I should. None the less, I’m interested to hear what you have to say about the “low stability” and other comments that may come.

Mark

Hello John, And greetings all from the south coast of West Oz. I just wanted to say that the article by Matt Marsh that you linked for us John was well worth taking the detour. I am some what of a newbie but I found relevance to this topic. Further, the read opened all manner of doorsand questions.
I love morganscloud.com , a great read every time.
Best to all, Mark

Bill Koppe

Hi John,
In planning my new yacht the size was set by the accommodation plan desired.
This gave 79ft and 58t , which then led to a ketch rig to keep the sail sizes and loads manageable.
At 72, I believe my partner and I can not only handle her but she will be easier than our last yacht of 55 ft and 14 t which I would not singlehand. I note Dee Caffari sailed a 72 ft cutter round the wrongway and nonstop which shows what is possible if the yacht is set up and the skipper sufficiently experienced.
An earlier cutter I had for 30 years was 45 ft and 20 t and was very easy to singlehand which I believe was due to her being much more sea kindly due to her weight .
So to sum up I belive one can handle a larger yacht if it is a ketch and if it is heavier and so more seakindly.
Kind Regards,
Bill Koppe

David Nutt

In defense of the ketch rig!
Once a certain and unspecified sail size is reached the ketch rig becomes a viable choice. Danza, at 60′ is a what I call a cutter rigged ketch. Rising wind conditions and the shortening of sail starts with taking down the mizzen, tucking a reef in the main (slab reefing at the mast) tucking in another reef on the main, rolling in the yankee jib entirely. Even in a steady 40+ knots in the Med we never carried less than a double reefed main and the staysl. Not sure I would want to see more wind than that. The ease of this process made gives credence to the split rig with the young crew we had and now the old two of us we have.

Andy Gothard

Hi John thanks for a really interesting and thought provoking post.
We will be aiming at Boreal, Ovni, Garcia or similar in a few years time as a size upgrade from our much loved Stag 28 ( feet not metres!) so it’s great to hear expert opinion on this subject.
In the spirit of keeping it simple and staying away from electric winches you might be interested to hear about these new 4 speed offerings from Pontos. I haven’t tried them but those who have seem very pleased indeed. Not cheap but then YGWYPF !

Best wishes
Andy Gothard

Jean-François EEMAN

Hi Andy,
Hi John,

The Pontos winches are produced here in France, close to St-Malo.
The idea and the concept are interesting.
We have now fitted out a Boréal 44 with a first series of POntos winches.
In few months we will have the feedback of the owner on how it works out in practise.
One of the question which only time will tell us : How long will they last…

Best Wishes
Jean-François

Scott Dufour

I just finished reading Rick Page and Jasna Tuta’s “Get Real, Get Gone”. One of my favorite quotes is:

A potential sea gypsy needs to think not, “What size boat can I afford?”, but, “How small a boat can I live on?”

Colin Speedie

Hi John
a couple of thoughts on size. A boat up to 50 ft can easily be controlled by a wind vane self steering system, whereas you need to be sure that a boat over 59ft is inherently well balanced to work well with a vane. And it’s getting closer very day to being possible to have a totally 12 volt boat below 50ft, while above that size, again, it’s always harder.
If (like us) simplicity is your goal, below 50ft has a lot going for it.
The second factor is cost. As Lou complains, for our boat (44ft) EVERYTHING cost £1000. For a 54 ft boat make that £2000. Running and maintenance costs go up exponentially with LOA and many a dream ship has foundered on the rock of running costs. There’s a reason why there are a lot cheap big boats out there!
Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

Yes, this was our thought as well. Aside from our aforementioned “smallish wife” issue, I am noticing as I wire the boat up the cumulative costs of tinned copper.

Thoughtful design can ameliorate some objections, however. A pilothouse, which may be jjust six by six feet in terms of floor space (think “elderly elevator”) can break up the interior effectively, giving the impression of “rooms” even when each spot in the boat is pretty snug. I noticed this in particular in a Nauticat 33 ketch…it seemed bigger on the inside than was logical.

Colin Speedie

Hi John

all fair comments, especially concerning complexity.
But at least with a bigger boat installing all of the ‘comforts of home’ allows room to service and maintain them – the real nightmare is when owners of smaller boats (c. 40ft) do the same, when it becomes just about impossible to build in access for servicing them!
Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

Colin, one of the joys of our custom-built metal boat is excellent access to most areas. Knowing we would be adding and subtracting to a high degree prepatory to passage-making affected our selection of an “open” boat significantly. To be able to stand in an engine bay (and to remove the pilothouse roof to raise and lower tankage and the engine if needed) is a glorious thing and it’s frequently what visiting cruisers mention first. I value these attributes far more than the relatively parsimonious sleeping arrangements or the single, modest head.

Prentiss Berry

I estimate the Sundeer I looked at had 10-12 ft of length (aft) for all mechanical gear: engine, generator, water maker, refrigeration compressors, A/C compressors, heater, and hot water heater. Al of it looked very accessible with decent ventilation and reasonable headroom. That’s a big portion of the 60 ft length.

RDE

John, you are absolutely right– the root of the problem is complexity —more so than size. Let me give an example of a boat currently on the market that is “well equipped” by contemporary standards and priced within the budget of almost any dreamer.

Cape Dory 36
27′ waterline
Wheel steering
Cutter rigged, 5 sails on board
Two 45′ CQR’s on a bowsprit
300′ chain
Electric windlass
Sleeps 5
Radar, chart plotter at chart table
Engine driven freezer & refrigeration
Two solar panels
Dingy & outboard
Whale on board autopilot
Monitor wind vane

This is a low freeboard, narrow boat with a small sail plan. Anybody care to guess how much the boot stripe had to be raised?

RDE

Hi John,
To stand your topic on it’s head, “what is the minimum size for a boat designed to take a couple to the places Morgan’s Cloud has visited?

I just came across a prime candidate: http://www.yachtdesign.com.br/ingles/projetos/ki36/desc34-1.php

A lot of things to like with this design, starting with the 10mm bottom plating, rugged swing keel similar to boats designed for charter in Antarctica that contains 50% of the ballast, and ease of access to the steering system and wind pilot.

ps: for anyone wanting an aluminum smaller adventure 40, there is one of the few that exist for sale for 70k.

Paul

If you can’t get the anchor up without a powered capstan is the boat too big? Or is that the one exception?

Marc Dacey

I wanted a 45 footer, but my wife is five feet tall and, while strong, simply can’t reach or gain enough mechanical advantage to safely operate that size of boat. So we went for a 40 foot pilothouse, which “reads bigger” without the need for Lewmar 66s. We went for a manual/electric windlass as well, although until I acquire a big Spade, I’m happy to haul in by hand. The metric in play for us has been “what is the biggest boat the smallest person can work?” Because that’s the scenario if the bigger crew fall ill or injured.

Kenneth McCallum

Our windlass on our Oyster 53 completely died while in gear two years ago while the 99 pound Ultra anchor was deployed in 12 meters with a 15 knot wind. The two of us brought it up manually by turning the windlass with a winch handle in about 20 minutes. I’m not so sure the same procedure can be done in 20 minutes by two 62 year olds on our Oyster 625 hauling up a 135 pound Ultra. But I’m sure it can be done, so I guess a 64ft boat is our personal limit at this time.