Which Is The Best Boat For Offshore Cruising?

Our friend Wilson living the cruising dream.

A few weeks ago we hosted two other cruising couples here at Base Camp and, as we were settling in for a pre-dinner glass of wine, it struck me that it would be hard to imagine three more different boats than those owned and cruised by the group.

Let’s look at that.  I will start with a short cruising bio for each couple.

Marilyn and Steve voyaged fulltime for over 25 years, including crossing the Pacific from Mexico to New Zealand and then recrossing the Pacific to B.C. (the hard way), before transiting the Panama Canal to cruise both sides of the Atlantic. A few years ago they sold their boat and are now land-yachting.

Thelma and Wilson have made extensive voyages in the North Atlantic, and Wilson singlehanded their boat from Newfoundland to Scotland and then returned doublehanded, with their son, to Nova Scotia against the wind in April—probably the toughest passage any of us have taken on.

And, of course, most of you know about our own voyages, over the last 26 years, on Morgan’s Cloud.

Now, let’s lift the curtain on the boats each couple own, or owned, in the same order.

Marilyn and Steve: a 40-foot steel replica of Joshua Slocum’s Spray. They had the hull built and then finished her out themselves.

Thelma and Wilson: a 38-foot wooden cutter designed by Atkin before World War II, but updated with a Bermuda (Marconi) cutter rig. Wilson self-built the boat some 20 years ago, all the way from a pile of lumber.

(Given that build project and his against-the-wind passage across the Atlantic in April, you must be wondering about the advisability of hanging out with Wilson, but having done so quite a bit over the last few years I can testify that he’s not actually that crazy, and really perfectly safe to be around.)

Phyllis and John: a 56-foot aluminum McCurdy and Rhodes-designed cutter with a modern—at least in comparison to the other two—fin-skeg hull form.

Three very different hull forms built in three different materials.

So what’s my point? Well, so much discussion in the cruising world revolves around what’s the best boat for cruising. (And a lot about the best hull material too.) And many, perhaps most, of those participating in that debate lean toward whatever boat type they own or have had the most exposure to. (I know I have been guilty of this confirmation bias.)

Never mind my wise cracks about too much varnish, this lovely snug interior on Thelma and Wilson’s boat would make any cruiser happy.

But really, all of that is pretty much a waste of time, because what really matters is what kind of boat works for each of us, is safe for our intended purpose, and, most importantly, makes us happy. And there are nearly as many different answers to that question as there are cruisers.

So, while I think it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I prefer this particular kind of boat for cruising”, saying that a given boat type is best is just plain silly.

For example, in the past I have been pretty harsh about modern lightly-built wide-sterned mass-production boats with huge interiors. But really, if the owner plans to primarily cruise inshore, doesn’t need a lot of gear storage, and, most important of all, likes that kind of boat, then the type can make perfect sense—writing the whole genre of boats off was definitely a mistake on my part.

“Christina Grant” is surprisingly powerful to windward, which is a good thing given Wilson’s difficulties with reading pilot charts.

That said, it does make sense to think about and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different boat types, because this debate can help those looking for a cruising boat decide what’s best for them, as long as we remain non-judgemental.

And that’s going to be my New Year’s resolution for 2018: More of the former (analysis) and none of the latter (harsh judgement).

That said, having as much varnish on a boat as Wilson does is just plain nuts.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

38 comments… add one
  • Daniel Frey Dec 29, 2017, 5:31 pm

    😂😂😂

    John, I had to laugh a lot about the end of the article.

    I really like your fine sense of humour and self irony.

    I found it in many articles before, but now it is really time to mention it.

    And I completely agree with your conclusion. It is useless, to discuss which cruising boat is the best one. Tastes and needs are so different. And sailors are probably the most individualistic people on earth.

    But let me finish with telling you, that my AMEL Santorin is the best cruising boat in the world… 😉

    Happy 2018!

    Daniel

    • Francisco Moreno Dec 30, 2017, 9:36 pm

      Daniel,

      You are completely, absolutely, irremediably wrong. Every Amel owner ought to know the Amel Super Maramu is, quite of course, the best cruising boat in the Solar System.

      😉😉😉

      Here’s to a great 2018,

      FM
      currently Herzliya, Israel

  • Hans Dec 30, 2017, 9:12 am

    Daniel, very well said ! I agree to everything you write, except the one about the best crusing boat, which undoubtedly is my 33ft. steel Reinke Taranga sloop… 😉

  • Stein Varjord Dec 30, 2017, 10:04 am

    Hi John.
    There are reasons to believe that some dinners and such with the mentioned people have had much laughter! I like it.

    All will agree, of course, with your statement that there is no boat that is the perfect boat, and it all depends on what It’s intended use is and personal preferences. Thus, there is an endless number of right boats. That makes it hard to get to useful conclusions. You have already narrowed it down quite a lot in the title, as that suits the purpose of this site.

    I assume you’ll get into the topic either way, but I’ve often found that discussing this type of issues, it’s easier to not discuss solutions at all, until the “problem” has been sorted out completely. Not what type of boat is the best, but
    What would you like to do with it,
    Where would you like to go
    How many will sail it
    What type of sailing do they like
    Which comforts do they want
    Which price level is realistic
    How long will the boat be used before sale
    Which type of style boat do they tend to fall in love with
    How many showers do they need, (and why so many???)
    And so on

    Then move on to prioritizing. Which single issue is the most important. And then the following numbers up to maybe five issues that are all essential. Then look at the other issues. Is it acceptable that any one of them can be not satisfied? If not, put it somewhere on the priority list.

    With that priority list and the supplementing wish list, one can look at rough categories of boats and the sizes and rough price levels. That process will normally immediately show that the emotional priorities are not the same as the theoretically evaluated priorities, so the list needs to be developed some, since emotional needs are just as important as practical ones. Buying a boat cannot be done well without some love.

    After this, things narrow down gradually by testing the list on boat types while adjusting the list rigorously. If one boat type is liked over another and the list doesn’t explain why, the list must be edited. The effect of this is mainly to get aware of ones own wishes and emotions. Also the process normally changes some of those items. Sometimes the whole thing is changed upside down. I’ve seen catamaran fanatics (I’m one) decide they’ll go for a monohull and visa versa.

    This type of process is personal and develops over time, but I think it might be useful to discuss here some different rough generic usage profiles for long distance cruisers and how they may fit specific boat types. I think that could help many new sailors a lot.

    • John Dec 31, 2017, 12:01 pm

      Hi Stein,

      I think that’s a very good analysis of an idea selection process. It’s interesting that we both came to much the same conclusion about limiting the number of issues that should drive the process, although I called them “vital capabilities”: https://www.morganscloud.com/2014/08/05/the-right-way-to-buy-a-boat/

      As to your suggestion in the last paragraph, I think that’s a very good idea and will give it some thought.

      • Marc Dacey Jan 1, 2018, 3:34 pm

        Another fruitful way to analyze the pluses and minuses would be, I think, to take a hard look at current production boat trends in light of intended use. A lot of sailors start inshore/coastal on a boat fit for that purpose and want to take the same boat offshore. It’s not the same, as many here know, and it’s not always advisable to do so, but it’s hard to explain to those with an intermediate skill set why they should perhaps rethink their boat selection. I know I can usually spot the passagemaker visitors in any given marina or YC, and it’s got little to do with fin- or full-keel underbody and everything to do with the way their decks are organized and “state of readiness” I can discern.

        • John Jan 2, 2018, 11:43 am

          Hi Marc,

          Yes, very true, often the boat that we think is idea early in our cruising lives, turns out to be anything but once we have more experience and want to go further afield. We already have a lot of posts that will go a long way to help with that, but I will give thought to more.

          • Marc Dacey Jan 2, 2018, 1:53 pm

            You do indeed, but maybe not as directly as “Signs it’s time to change boats” or something along those lines. And, of course, I don’t necessarily mean “bigger” or even “better”, but “fit for purpose”.

            Because I was sentimental and our offshore-capable boat was on the hard in refit mode, I kept our first boat for a few years in shared deals just to have something to sail when we chose. It was very informative on a number of points, like I suppose having a Fiat 500 and a Land Rover is informative during a Nova Scotia winter.

  • Wilson Dec 30, 2017, 11:46 am

    Well, John, I will be happy to teach you the joys of varnishing if you think you can show me that there is any joy to be had in unravelling marine electronic and computer interfaces. I will go first: your hands on lessons can start as soon as you are back in the jurisdiction …

    That aside, I agree with your thesis. It would be a very boring world if we all decided to go on the same voyages and agreed on the “best boat” in which to do them. And, if we did, AAC would not be the interesting and useful site that you and Phyllis have created.

    Wilson

    • John Dec 30, 2017, 12:02 pm

      Hum, I think this may be a Tom Sawyer type move to get me into sanding your varnish and then sorting out your electronics. I was born in the morning, but it was not this morning.

      Seriously, I kind of agree with you about the horrors of fighting with marine electronics, and thanks for the kind words.

  • Robert Dec 30, 2017, 1:05 pm

    Great article! Brought a chuckle from a lot of people. Thanks again!

    Rob

  • Chris Dec 30, 2017, 4:11 pm

    Excellent points, John, including the last one (smile.)
    But have you noticed that these boats are not just a reflection of their owners, but a cultural reflection of where they come from as well. I’m obviously generalizing here, but we all know the French like to go light and fast, the sterns are wide and the keels are thin (ok, sometimes even lifting keels), while the English go heavy and deep. The Scandinavians have exquisite interiors of high quality, while the French like to hose theirs down after a passage? The Italians are stylish and luxurious, while the Finns are reliable and conservative? Americans going big on everything, while Europeans prefer a more Spartan set-up? And us Canadians with our skinny C&Cs, graceful and fast despite their age…
    Diversity is such a gift even in our nautical world, and despite the industry’s tendency to “uniformize” everything, it’s so great to see all these different boat shapes and sizes when cruising around the world. It’s proof of individual thinking, originality and ingenuity to meet different needs for different purposes.
    Still, the amount of varnish on some boats is ridiculous indeed. Is that an English thing, by the way?

    • John Dec 31, 2017, 12:16 pm

      Hi Chris,

      That’s a good point, although, as you say, there are lots of exceptions to the national stereotypes. And yes, I agree, the diversity is a lot of what makes offshore sailing so interesting.

  • rene Dec 30, 2017, 4:28 pm

    Hi John et al,
    The best boat is probably the one your wife is happiest in.
    Now we can discus who is the best spouse?
    Rene

    • John Dec 31, 2017, 12:17 pm

      Hi Rene,

      Not going there!

  • Westbrook Murphy Dec 31, 2017, 12:17 pm

    “. . . My New Year’s resolution for 2018: . . . none of the latter (harsh judgement).” Be careful: We would not want you to become overly frustrated.

    • John Jan 1, 2018, 11:33 am

      Hi Westbrook,

      What a terrible thought. I will guard against it.

  • Drew Frye Dec 31, 2017, 12:43 pm

    Nice article.

    Given the number of articles and entire books on the perfect cruising boat, the number of dreamers, and the number of boats just sitting in marinas, cruising what you have, within the limits of its capabilities and your own, is the place to start. Much is said about the importance of seaworthyness (basic dependability goes without saying), but for the beginning cruiser, sailing near home, I’v always thought getting the systems dialed in well comes first; if you can’t handle the boat and all of its gear fluidly, you are not going to handle trouble well. Additionally, the process of tuning the equipment leads to understanding sailing and trouble better, and avoiding the latter.

    Getting it dialed in always takes longer than expect. The reason is that it takes time to really learn a boat. Oh, you can learn to sail and cruise it in a few days. But it takes months to get inside the designer’s head and synthesize that with the way you look at sailing. I’m only happy when the two meet up. And then in a year I’m ready to sell the boat and move on. Isn’t that just pitiful?

    I’ve always found I could be happy with whatever I had, so long as I had it dialed in to suit the sailing I was doing.

  • rene Dec 31, 2017, 6:29 pm

    Hi John,
    Not surprised.
    But many years ago, a friend advised to take into account your wive´s wishes.
    And I did and it paid dividends.
    This in contrast to an old uncle sea captain, who said anyone who can´t pee overboard shoulnt be on board. Happy to see times have changed.
    What ever kind of boat one chooses is the right one to be surrounded in the element
    we were born in …….water!
    Rene

  • Frank Mulholland Jan 1, 2018, 8:31 am

    Happy New Year!!!
    Please don’t become too even-handed in 2018!! We like a bit of harsh judgement and the odd bit of damning criticism doesn’t do any harm either. I suspect it’s why so many readers subscribe to you rather than to the traditional yachting press which has become somewhat anodyne, in fear of losing advertising revenue.
    All the best in 2018
    Frank

    • John Jan 1, 2018, 11:38 am

      Hi Frank,

      Not to worry, I will still feel free to point out weaknesses in boats and gear. That said, I will also try not to write off an entire genre of boats when the weaknesses in question are not fatal for a given usage.

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 1, 2018, 11:23 am

    Hi John,
    I do not believe that you can emphasize enough two crucial elements that go into picking a boat that will work for you: knowing yourself (as you say, what “makes us happy”) and knowing boats (“is safe for our intended purpose”). The questions: what will you use the boat for, and what are the boat’s design characteristics that will lead to you having the best shot at achieving those goals?
    Knowing oneself as a boater is best achieved by experience. That said, the more one reads and absorbs the written history of our sport (The Hiscocks etc.), the more one talks with experienced sailors and reads sites like AAC’s, the more likely good decisions will be made on the road to gaining experience. And, of course, it is possible, even likely that one’s goals will change and evolve over time.
    Looking at (assessing) boat design characteristics is an area, I believe, where real advances can be made in ensuring that a prospective sailor is likely to have a good experience. That and, as important, communicating the assessments to the sailing public. In this realm, I believe AAC comes closest to providing the broadest range of accurate information among all the marine media by a good margin. For that, you should be congratulated: not an easy road to travel.
    Next, I find the marine industry to be more un-disciplined and far less professional than reasonable. From surveyors to dealers to boatyards to manufacturers to the media etc. there are completely unnecessary disappointments and frustrations, poor information or outright lies, shoddy work and cut corners, that even experienced boaters find hard not to experience. We (as participants in the boating community) can push the industry to more disciplined and professional in all these areas and make less likely people giving up the sport early on because of infuriating interactions in these areas.
    As to your being less judgmental, that can be a good New Year’s resolution for many of us. And, while I do believe that we can and should move away from being judgmental, it is necessary to make judgments, take positions, and make assessments and be forthright about the ingredients that go into that assessment: which may be a better word than judgment.
    Happy New Year to all,
    Safe sailing, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Jan 1, 2018, 11:49 am

      Hi Dick,

      I think that’s a very fair assessment of the industry and a good way to move forward from here. I will give some thought to how we can do even more to help those new to offshore sailing to find a decent boat.

      I had hoped that the A40 would be a benchmark, which would have been by far the best solution, but I just checked Kip and Erik’s web site and it appears that is well and truly dead since they have not posted since May and are not even answering comments.

      Hum, maybe I could take the A40 posts and rework them into spec that would be a useful benchmark, even it the actual boat never gets built. That process would also leverage the experience of the many cruisers like you who would comment.

      • Marc Dacey Jan 1, 2018, 3:39 pm

        That’s a good idea, because (as I have a boat and would not therefore be a likely customer for the A-40) the process of conceiving the A-40 and why certain decisions were made was revelatory in a good way and reflective of collective experience at sea. So whether a physical boat ever gets built or not, the intellectual (and sometimes emotional) exercise of devising “the ideal cruiser” was not in vain in the slightest.

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 1, 2018, 12:39 pm

    Hi John,
    I think that (and A-40 benchmark) would be a very valuable addition to people’s getting good starts at assessing and thinking about offshore boats. I can remember my early years when given the CCA’s Desirable and Undesirable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts and how helpful it was and the time I spent reading and re-reading it. (I suspect some advice is dated–I believe it was published in the mid 1980s–, but much is likely still good food for thought.)
    Another possible article (that I have mentioned before) might be to use your own suggestions and AAC’s reader’s suggestions to come up with the most useful books/articles in the various marine areas: navigation, design, sailing, heavy weather etc. I find younger generation sailors (very casual observation) not as well informed about the jewels that are out there that every offshore sailor would benefit from having under his/her belt. It should be noted as well, that maritime authors, like many mountain climbing authors, are generally quite good authors and make for wonderful reads as well as very informative.
    My best, Dick

    • Marc Dacey Jan 1, 2018, 3:41 pm

      Dick, if you are like me, you’ve read literally hundreds of boat books, but you probably have only four or five increasingly grubby reference works you absolutely insist on having aboard. Only people with a lot of sea miles could explain why such books are perennials for the voyaging cruiser.

      • Paul Rutherford Jan 1, 2018, 7:06 pm

        Marc, I’m sure that will be the case, would you share some of your ‘grubby books’ please for those of us starting out, thanks.
        Paul

        • Marc Dacey Jan 1, 2018, 8:41 pm

          Well, they are frozen into place on the boat, but a few that come to mind are as follows:
          Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual 4th Ed., Nigel Calder

          Marine Diesel Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting, and Repair, Nigel Calder

          Boat Mechanical Systems Handbook: How to Design, Install, and Recognize Proper Systems in Boats, Dave Gerr

          Metal Corrosion in Boats: The Prevention of Metal Corrosion in Hulls, Engines, Rigging and Fittings, Nigel Warren (particular to my situation!)

          The Voyager’s Handbook: The Essential Guide to Blue Water Cruising, Beth Leonard, Evans Starzinger

          The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice: Tools and Techniques for Modern and Traditional Rigging, Brion Toss

          Those five are coming with me.

          I also like the boat electrical references by John Vigor and Charlie Wing and anchoring books by Earl Hinz and Gary Goodlander and weather books by Frank Singleton and Les Chesneau. Lastly, there are several small-boat specific medical references out there, but the best thing you can do is to take courses in that for “hand knowledge”. I hope this has helped.

          • Paul Rutherford Jan 3, 2018, 7:49 am

            Thanks Marc, I’m sure those and a few others will be favourites with many on here.

  • Den Jan 2, 2018, 11:16 am

    “The people make the ship, the ship doesn’t make the people”…… and….
    “there is always more than one way to do things”……

    Observations from 30+ years at sea as a Merchant Marine Officer, life long sailor, and long time sailboat owner.

    • John Jan 2, 2018, 11:46 am

      Hi Den,

      Very true.

  • Francis Jan 2, 2018, 5:46 pm

    Hi John,
    I have no trouble imaging a cruising yacht a lot different from the 3 you wrote of in this article.
    First I would like to say that I am indebted to this site, for selling me on the multiple positives of aluminium yachts.
    Coming up to 3years ago I bought “my ideal” yacht, a 5yo, 48ft alloy catamaran. Since then I have done 16,000 miles in her. Someone would have to offer me a lot more money than she is worth, for me to sell her now.
    I grew up on the sub-tropical Australian east coast, raced dingies and then skiffs all through my youth and then a Laser around the cans in my 40s. This boat with her daggerboards and performance feels just like a big Laser. Nice and quick for making the most of favourable weather windows. We averaged 200mile days for the passage from New Caledonia to Australia a month ago.
    I did the run up from New Zealand to Fiji last May, Catamarans are becoming very popular for cruising the South Pacific Islands. Personally I would not do it in one of the high volume production cats, which are designed primarily for the bareboat charter market.
    How I would heat the interior for cruising the seas you sail in, I have not given much thought to, as cooling the interior is more of an issue here.
    With her pop-up-rudders, daggerboard and folding propellers on shafts, she draws half a metre. Humpback whale number are increasing down here exponentially. Last cruising season there numerous stories of boats having to change course to avoid whale pods. Doing 10-14kts, it is nice to know that the boat would go over the top of one without breaking anything.
    Again thank you for the site, it has majorly reduced my “yacht repairs and maintenance in exotic location”, wasted time cruising the south pacific.
    Cheers
    Francis

    • John Jan 3, 2018, 11:58 am

      Hi Francis,

      I’m a big fan of properly designed cats—relatively fine hulls and high bridge decks— and yours sounds like a great boat, particularly for your purposes.

      (The problem with cats in the high latitudes is that the hulls tend to gather loose ice between them.)

      • Stein Jan 3, 2018, 9:06 pm

        Hi John.
        As you know, I’m a multihull “fanatic”, but I think I’ll have to agree that a normal cruising cat is probably not suitable for areas where one has to push through ice. To avoid packing between the hulls one could try parallel inner sides of the hulls, as some older designs and many motor cats have, but that gives a lot of resistance so it’s a poor design and might not even help. The single wedge shape of a monohull seems better suited. Also, since most cats have foam cored fiberglass hulls, their resistance to ice is limited.

        However there are possibilities. A fellow Norwegian and long time acquaintance of mine, Børge Ousland, an extremely tough guy, sailed around the North Pole ice cap in one season. They were the first to do that mostly sailing. A Russian sailboat was first to get around, same season, but mostly motored. Børge and two crew were on a 28 foot Farrier Corsair foldable trimaran. Reinforced slightly, but still a small and light boat.

        Their strategy was to use the ability to go in shallow areas along the shoe where the thick ice doesn’t get, and in case of heavy ice, pull the boat over it rather than push through it. In case of serious weather and loads of ice threatening, they planned to pull it up on land. It worked well. This is not at all a boat or strategy suited for even the more extreme cruisers, but maybe light multihulls could have some useful features for high latitudes? Maybe then especially trimarans, as they have just one hull in the water and it’s very narrow.

        I don’t think these types of issues are too relevant for the topic of suitable cruising boats, but as it was mentioned, i just thought I’d offer my thoughts.

  • Paul Jan 4, 2018, 6:16 am

    Varnish inside should be Ok shouldn’t it? The extensive varnish work in my 75 year old house is still fine, although the window sills could now do with a re-coat as they get the direct sunlight. Can I have a Bombigher interior* in a Nordkyn** alloy cruiser please?
    *https://cdnx.theyachtmarket.com/boatimages/resize/b7/a3/41392410gallery_wm.jpg
    **http://nordkyndesign.com/nordkyn/

    • John Jan 4, 2018, 12:57 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Sure, in fact we have quite a bit of varnish trim below in our boat—the classic Herreshoff interior look, which we both love.

      I do caution against all varnish interiors though as they can be really dark and a bit depressing, particularly if cruising places with cloudy and rainy weather.

  • Paul Jan 7, 2018, 6:51 pm

    The same boat can go from being the “best” to being a nightmare, or from being an ugly duckling to the perfect cruiser. It’s a bit like finding a partner/spouse: when you are young, beauty is the priority, but as you get older, you look for more than that. And, if you choose right, the love gets stronger with time. In other words, whether it’s the “best boat” (or the worst) may depend on the point in time that you do the analysis.

    I have to admit that I bought our boat thinking that it’s, well, a bit ugly. (My first mate thought it was cute, or cute-ish.) But I bought it for its other characteristics (for example: NO VARNISH, indeed no wood at all, above deck), and those characteristics are what make it closer to “best” than not. We always thought our last boat was the cutest in the anchorage, and we really admired the hull every time we hauled it out. But it wasn’t what we wanted in other respects (no pilothouse!). My advice, then, is to look past apparent beauty if you can (not always easy with pleasure boats; they aren’t rational things at all). Same for spouses…

    • John Jan 8, 2018, 12:34 pm

      Hi Paul,

      A very good tip. When we bought our boat she was covered in varnished wood and we thought that was beautiful, but over the years the varnished wood either fell to an air chisel or we painted it. Now the boat has a look-the-biz air that we find even more beautiful.

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