10 Things That Are Common On Offshore Cruising Boats…But Shouldn’t Be

A proper mast heel fitting like this, installed with Tef-Gel or Duralac, will protect the extrusion pretty much forever, and the gentle curve machined into the bottom surface allows raking of the mast without balancing it on its aft corner. A great solution, but not a common one.

Do you remember how, when we were children and our mothers had forbidden some activity, our standard response, usually delivered in a whiney voice, was:

But all my friends are doing it.

Which was inevitably answered with:

If all your friends were jumping off the roof, would you jump off the roof?

Or something like it. Surely one of the most exasperating parental responses going...but nonetheless a pretty smart one.

And what does this have to do with offshore cruising you ask? Well, it's amazing how often us cruisers (me included) and aspiring cruisers, when confronted with a poor practice on our boats, and thinking about the fix, will say:

But most all the boats I see out there are configured the same way my boat is, so all is good.

But, really, when we think rationally about this, the fact that a practice is common has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it's the best, or even a good, way to do things.

In fact, here are three reasons why the very prevalence of a feature may be an indication of how wrong it is:

  • Boats are built to make a profit, therefore, it is likely that design parameters and gear will be chosen with low price and easy installation, not functionality, as the primary criteria.
  • The vast majority of boats never go offshore, so fully tricking all boats out to do so does not even make sense.
  • The majority of boat buyers have not spent significant time offshore and therefore many (most?) will be attracted to features like cavernous interiors and cockpits, when in fact both are a bad idea.

Let's look at ten examples of things that are common on offshore cruising boats but are actually undesirable:

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Brent Cameron

Good list John. I agree with most of them although I’d also argue that Items like huge unprotected wheels at the aft end of the boat, open rear transoms, unprotected cockpits, dinky lifelines/stanchions should make the list before an oversized engine (which can be a good thing if having to motor into strong seas to get yourself off a lee shore or out of the Gulf Stream with an approaching gale (although I’d never buy one for that purpose). . I also see lots of boats that are 45+ feet that need 3-4 crew to sail with full canvas in any sort of wind. I’d argue that if one person can’t do 95% of the sail changes themselves in all conditions then it’s a recipe for an exhausted crew or having to drag along 4-5 people on all long passages – with all the baggage and costs that that entails. Which leaves me with the most important one, you should never have to leave the cockpit to make common sail changes. It’s an unwritten rule that the worse the conditions, the more likely you’ll nee to be upfront on a bucking and heaving bow trying to sort out something while getting tons of water thrown over you. You’re far less likely to lose anyone overboard if they never leave the cockpit.

The Amel Super Maramu’s that I’ve sailed offshore three different times on now meet all of those (except for the inner forestay – but they are ketch rigged so have a shorter mast and a triatic stay to lessen the loads – and a few have been subsequently modified to have an inner forestay or be cuttter rigged although I’d not go that route. I would still modify them to have dual preventers Lead to the cockpit as well as the mizzen traveller but those are easily done. I’m aware of one Super Maramu that took a huge wave in the centre of boat in survival conditions in a huge gale in the Gulf Stream and the wachkeeper had water up to his armpits but the huge scuppers completely drained the cockpit in 30-45 seconds. I can’t imagine being on the back end of a pitching and heaving boat in those conditions. I also can’t imagine having to hide 10+ feet behind a dinky dodger to be on the wheel either. Sitting on the edge of the rail while steering looks great in brochures on sunny days but at o’dark 30 in a gale, it’s the last place on earth I’d want to be.

Brent

I totally agree with getting out of the cockpit even if you don’t have to for many of the reasons you suggest (including rig/chaffing inspections and keeping in shape/practice ) and always do this on watch changes (when there are two crew around), I’d always do a walkabout but it seems safest to me that you should avoid doing it in the middle of the night when the rest of the watch is below if you can change the sail configuration without leaving the cockpit single handed. While you could wake up some/the rest of the crew, that leads to a tired crew as it takes time to get back to sleep after getting drenched on the bow. On a passage last winter from Bermuda to Martinique we saw 14 squalls one night that each required reefing in the main, mizzen and Genoa while the “calms” between the squalls were so light that we’d have to go back out to full sail. That would have completely exhausted the crew if we’d all had to have been on deck for the sail changes (or we’d have just reefed down and left it that way making very little progress instead of the 200 miles we made that day. A boat about 50 nm away from us got dismasted while our crew slept easily though it all. (We also didn’t think we’d see 14 squalls, usually you punch through the line and might see 1-2 but we were travelling down the squall line and using the winds to get our southing – luckily there wasn’t any lightning in it).

I agree that many boats will cavitate on big waves but I’d never buy one for long term cruising that did. The Super Maramu has a very deep prop well protected behind the keel so never happens with them. That said, if the boat is flying off the tops of waves, it isn’t at all comfortable and very hard on the boat (even if they don’t whisper a creak) so should only be done as much as required to get the needed headway. I’ve noticed that about 30% of the fleet has re-engined with a 100-105 HP Yanmar from the 78 HP Volvo (and Amel added it as a special option so even old Henri – who was famous for not compromising or allowing options he saw as not necessary) thought it wasn’t a bad addition even though the smaller engine can drive the boat at hull speed through most conditions just fine. Most cruisers don’t run their engines at peak HP/hull speed but throttle back to most efficient cruise speed which is often outside the turbo zone and therefore should run them hard for a few minutes every day to clean the carbon out of them even with a properly sized engine.

Anyway, that’s the great thing about sailing… there are thousands of possibilities for us to each find our (as close to) perfect for us boat!

Jim Ferguson

Great read John, we passed with flying colors except for #’s 2 & 3. Both of which I agree with, but had never considered. Our mast is a heavy ‘85 Kenyan and we’ve had it off 7 times and so far so good.

My list might have included proper rode and anchor storage. We’ve cruised many of the same places in Eastern Canada and Northern Europe (you’re books still on board) and everything is consistently true regardless of boat size.

Charles Starke MD FACP

I agree on all your points. Twin rudders on monohulls are especially good at snagging twice as many lobster pots. Also:
~ Big window or ports that could flood the interior if breached.
~ Knee high lifelines
~ No rail in front of the stove
~ No backing plates on cleats
Best wishes,
Charles
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Good article. It sort-of makes me say “and let me count the ways…”. The list could go on and on: and should as the suggestions from readers are all pertinent as well.
Which brings me to a common thread: this stuff is not a deeply hidden conspiracy that you have sussed out through deep under-cover forensic investigation. It is relatively common knowledge among those whose life is the maritime world. The pervasiveness and persistence of these practices in the commercial maritime world speaks to a certain acceptance of dis-honesty. This dis-honesty is not in the evil-intentionally-hurtful realm, but rather in the neglectful “I won’t speak poorly” realm. But it is none-the-less just plain dis-honest and quite detrimental to the flourishing of sailing as a recreation.
So, twin rudders get public accolades for their control, shoal qualities and their depth/control in the water when heeled while no mention of their drawbacks and that they were designed to deal with a design flaw: too wide sterns. Similarly, with swept back spreaders have their major appeal being cheaper to build as there are only one set of chainplates needed.
This may be academic except that people stay away from areas where they feel misled and/or poorly treated. So, a boat with a wide stern that rounds up dangerously in a gust and almost tacks, scares the s— out of owner and guests and drives them away from the maritime world. Not to mention that some practices are just plain dangerous to not be flagged by the maritime media, short lifelines being a good example.
Boatyard practices could also do with examining similar to the above, again also to the benefit of the sport. When things are difficult, misleading, unexpected etc., the sport suffers.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John, Well put. I reserve my greatest ire for maritime journalists and surveyors, whose job, I believe, is to tell it like it is. I also think that a poorly educated consumer is a salesman’s perfect target. There are very few sources for good cruising/sailing information (such as AAC provides), so the average sailboat buyer is going into it with less idea of what makes for a good seaworthy boat, coastal or offshore, than I believe used to be the case. Hard not to get wowed by interior volume etc. when you do not know what to look for,
My best, Dick

Christian Henry

John, I enjoyed the article. I want to put the most emphasis on your key point, “Each of us must think about our needs and what we plan to do with our boats, not slavishly follow what others do.” This is especially true for those that are new to cruising and ocean passages. As you point out, every boat is a compromise and one really needs to think through what they really will be doing with the boat. Your website, this article included, really help us understand what compromises we are making. For that, I thank you.

Denis Foster

Hello,

I agree with all your points. They are often cumulated on some production boats that end up with no storage flat bilges tanks under setees…

I was wondering why Hallberg Rassy and Frers are mooving to twin unprotected rudders and wide transoms on the new 44. You can understand for boats with shallow drafts lifting keels like Ovnis, Southerlys, Garcia made for beaching, drying up.

One skeg protected rudder is more reassuring. So new designs are not always better. Why are they chose? Marketing pressure ? Search for marginal performance improvements ?

Fair winds

Denis

RDE

The nearly universal trend toward twin rudders is extremely logical if you start from first principles in design.

What is the purpose of a sailboat cockpit in a modern boat? To provide maximum party space.

Therefore twin helms become necessary to open up the aft cockpit area, and twin rudders integrate best with twin helms. Once everybody is well lit up it would be dangerous if they had to climb over a high cockpit well to get to the dingy and go ashore to by more rum, so the designers have thoughtfully eliminated the aft coaming and simply extended the floor straight out to an open transom. This has the added advantage of saving the cost of cockpit drains as spilled drinks simply run out the back. Old fashioned cruising boats like the WestSail had tiny footwells for their oilclad skippers to cower in, but modern boating has eliminated the need for such unpleasantness by providing identical marinas at every cove so there is no reason to ever leave your home berth.

Scott A

Thanks for the laugh, Richard!!

David Pyle

Good article as always. However, it took me a few minutes to figure out what an “internal heads stay” was. Was this something inside the mast? I’ve been sailing for 40 years and had never heard of on “internal head stay”. Then I figured you meant “inner head stay” – at least that’s what I’ve always heard it called.

Ronnie Ricca

I have to say, it took me a few to context clues to figure it out too! I’m reading and thinking, “internal headstay? Mine is internal in the furler foil.. That doesn’t seem right.” Then halfway through it clicked, haha!

Jim Evans

And here’s another one: most of these problems wouldn’t be so severe on a smaller boat. Do you really need fifty feet to sail offshore? Of course not: people have been sailing offshore for more than a century, comfortably and safely, in boats less than thirty feet long.

Marc Dacey

I’ve likely mentioned this before, but for offshore passagemaking, I would have preferred a 45 foot fin keeler, with a metal hull. We got metal, but in a 40 foot full keeler; the pilothouse helps in creating discrete operational and living spaces. But the point was this: my wife is a fit, five-foot-one inch (154 cm) tall woman in her mid 40s. The boat was sized to the safety and efficiency of her ability to work the boat when alone on watch offshore. She can (just) reach everything and haul everything she needs to; where she can’t, we’ve mounted steps, etc. to aid her vertical challenge issues.

My point is this: How many people choose their offshore boat as if it was a suit they were going to wear for several years? While there are mechanical and even electrical aids available, fitness, strength and size are limiting factors (we aren’t all Ellen MacArthur!) that can and do affect the safety and enjoyment of time spent sailing. But I rarely see anyone say “we’re getting a smaller boat than we can afford because we are aging and not particularly fit”. Rationality and vanity are rarely in attendance at the same boat show.

Marc Dacey

Exactly. Standing in the way of this realization, of course, is the benefit of familiarity, confidence in the boat’s intrinsic qualities, knowledge of the thousands of hours you’ve put in to improvements and plain old sentimental attachment. You have the benefit that downsizing from a boat the size of Morgan’s Cloud still leaves you with a pretty large boat if you want to do Bermuda to St. John’s until it’s not fun. Not many would see a 42-footer, for instance, as “downsizing”. You have the advantage that Phyllis (I’m guessing here) seems tall and fit and therefore the two of you are closer in strength and leverage than myself and my wife, so the boat you have “fits” both of you.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Your point about size is and comfort often underemphasized in my opinion. Invariably, every forum seems to debate what the smallest safe boat offshore is with some regularity and I feel it misses the point. Probably the single most seaworthy boat you could build would be a steel sphere, afterall several people have survived Niagra Falls in barrels. While the person trapped inside the sphere could survive any single wave, I don’t think anyone on earth would have the stomach to survive a full storm and if they had to actually do something during that storm, they would be unable to due to the motion. Personally, I wouldn’t want to go offshore in something much less than 40′ for a lack of a better way of measuring it but at the same time there are people who have been through really bad weather in much smaller boats. Safety isn’t just about whether the boat can take it, keeping the humans functional can help a great deal.

Eric

Marc Dacey

It’s a trade-off, I guess, as I note that with my birthday next week, I’m in a race to leave the dock with Father Time as much as with my to-do list.

I see with Phyllis’s latest post that the tactic is to keep the big, comfortable boat, but to sail it differently and to avoid situations (like beating to windward or extended passages) that could lead to fatigue and, inevitably, mistakes. Which is an interesting thing to contemplate: we had always assumed we’d sell our steel cutter after a circ, as it looks slightly overkill on the Great Lakes. Maybe the more sensible course would be just to do coastal passages where it looks more appropriate!

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I especially like your point about nothing being perfect. Prioritizing and understanding what is okay to leave imperfect and what isn’t is probably one of the most important things to keeping yourself sane.

Looking at your list, it strikes me that it is often hard to figure out what innovations are good and what are bad unless you have formal training in naval architecture, significant offshore experience and the benefit of hindsight. When fin keels first starting being put on boats for offshore use, there was quite a lot of concern among experienced offshore sailors but now the concept has proven itself and most people prefer them. My feeling is that you are absolutely right on twin rudders, they are a mitigation for a different problem that was created by the use case that near coastal boats are designed for. However, if bow thrusters become the standard, then twin rudders likely will too, not something that I like but a distinct possibility. When I look at swept spreaders, I actually think that they make sense for specific types of boats that tack downwind at high rates of speed but not your average boat. They do have significant benefits in mast stability and can get away without needing the extra support of the inner forestay and running backs. Similarly, the problem with large cockpits can be mitigated to some degree with better drainage, a boat like the Outbound 46 has a nice size cockpit but also can drain the water really quick assuming the bow is not down. It would be interesting to see how all of us felt on these 50 years from now, I suspect that many things that currently horrify us will seem just fine then.

Eric

Marc Dacey

Eric, that’s entirely possible. I happen to be moving house in the next few weeks, and my “nautical library” winnowing is revealing books from the first generation of post-war cruisers, like the Hiscocks, the Smeetons, the Roths and so on. The layout of the galley, the location of the head and the amount of space dedicated to stowage versus “living space” are tremendously different from the choices (and options) available today. One thing hasn’t changed: the tastes and preferences of “the market” do not have the final say. The sea does.

Michael Gallin

Eric,
Your reply resonates with me. Many of these design decisions are nuanced and time will be the real test.

Our current boat has a massive aft arch. We love it! It holds 600w of solar with little shadowing. This is a huge benefit. It also affords quick and safe lifting of the dinghy, outboard, and paddle boards (x2), keeping our decks clear and backs painless. Obviously these toys are stowed away for long passages, but for daily living the arch storage is a huge benefit. So could we have our wide massive arch on a boat with a narrower stern and a single rudder? Perhaps. But, I have not seen one as functional as ours on a narrow assed (aft) boat. So I accept our redundant relatively short rudders with individual quadrants and tie rod happily. We find the boat handles great. And, by the way, she can dry out and anchor in 42″ of water (a whole other huge benefit). Perhaps we are ignorant, but if so we are happy fools.

I do see there are many designers smarter than me designing purposeful offshore boats with dual rudders and swept back spreaders. I don’t believe this is only driven by construction cost and boat show marketability. These are nuanced decisions that impact the entire boat. The results need to be judged in their entirety. We should be cautious about blanket judgments.

Michael Gallin

Isn’t “prismatic coefficient” a three dimensional problem. Not just the width, but isn’t also the depth at the maximum cross section significant. And, doesn’t the “prismatic coefficient” change with healing? Perhaps nuanced is the wrong word, but the decisions are often not black and white.
I tend to be wary of blanket statements. But, I understand why you make them. It fosters thought and debate. This I really appreciate. Along with the vast valuable information you are sharing. Thank you for all the effort.

RDE

Hi John
“a fin keel is fundamentally an advance” I don’t think the crew of Cheeki-Rafik would agree from their vantage point in Heaven. Nor do I think somebody poking through an uncharted reef with an 8′ draft would agree. A fin keel may be an advance for a race boat sailing to weather or a cruising boat out for a fun sail along the coast, but it certainly is no advantage if you hit a floating container or whale. And if you are in mid-passage after three days of rough conditions, not being able to heave to and rest is no advantage.

( Ask any owner of a high performance fin keel boat how well their boat heaves to and they will tell you it is just great. Then ask them what technique they use. “well, we just drop the sails and lock the wheel—–“) Wrong, unless you want to encourage washing your spreaders.

And in between these two extremes are all the other boats created to answer a particular fashion or make a buck!

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Agreed that the fundamentals are what is important. Generally I agree with the conclusions you draw on specific design features derived from these fundamentals and the list here is spot on for 90% of the people wanting to go offshore today. Probably where we differ is in how applicable these will be in 50 years. I see the list here as a set of design choices which have impact on the fundamentals but aren’t themselves the fundamentals. For example, I am not going to rule out that the performance cat or the foiling mono won’t have come of age offshore and only a few people will still be out there with their old monos. Thanks to improved materials, integrated sensor suits, etc it may be perfectly safe to sail these at double digit speeds regularly. At that point, I would also think that it is likely we would not be seeing in-line spreaders, heck we might not even see shrouds at all. Personally, I tend to fall on the conservative side of things when purchasing something myself but I also don’t like to rule out what the innovators will come up with. If we have proved one thing in technology it is that you never know what innovation will be next and some of these innovations are big enough to really mess with how you meet the fundamentals. Just look at the computer industry’s shock when in a few years smartphones really took over.

This is actually a problem that I face pretty regularly at work but from the design side and in a totally different industry. For work, I develop mechanisms for capital equipment and one of the toughest things is always to know how much innovation to put into each design. In the engineering development world, we have to balance time to market, reliability, performance and risk. If we put in too much innovation, we may do great on performance but our reliability and time to market will suffer. If we are too conservative and only make a small increment from existing designs, then our performance is not competitive and people will look to competitors. Also, we sometimes need features for perception even though we can definitely prove that they don’t make sense from a strictly analytical sense. For us, the biggest innovations have been in the software, electronics realm (I am a mechanical guy but interface with them all the time). Stuff that we would have never felt comfortable doing any other way than mechanical 10 years ago is now routinely done with electronics and it is done with enhanced reliability and safety. I attribute some of that to advances in the electronics but also part of that to our understanding of the products and how they need to function.

Eric

Rob Gill

Hi John,
I love the simplicity of a moderately swept spreader rig, and on this site you have many times expounded the benefits of simplicity. We only have and need two sheet winches in our 14.5 metre yacht, and having no need for runners is great. A simple baby stay prevents any possible mast inversion and panting.
We have never felt the need to let out the boom more – attached airflow over the sails is key to great upwind and downwind speed and unless you run by the lee and have the main out so far you get reverse flow (leach to luff), your mainsail will stall out and boat speed suffers surely?
I personally don’t like running by the lee short handed even though we run your simple preventer system, so sailing on a broad reach feels much safer to us. Finally, since fitting a code zero we almost never sail dead downwind!

On the simplicity theme, what I don’t like is the frightening trend to couple a thruster, the engine and rudder to a computer with joystick for manoeuvring – with the system taking full control of each function. Two new boats I personally know, ran into trouble last season when their “docking systems” locked up and needed a re-boot to restore control, but not before both had hit the something, luckily no great damage done. But then in Noumea, a large Aussie cruising cat coming into the Port Sud marina veered off course and hit at almost full tilt, a French monohull moored on the outside pier. Big mess, with the skipper of the cat shouting he had lost steering control and one of his engines wouldn’t slow down (locked on full throttle). He departed for the outer anchorage leaving me and my schoolboy French to explain the situation to an understandably upset local. We’re pretty content with our naturally aspirated, direct injected simple diesel and no thruster.
But let’s be realistic, companies need to sell “bling” to innovate and be seen to innovate. The key seems to be as you say, don’t innovate beyond your individual “fit for purpose”.
Rob

Christian Henry

On our 52′ catamaran our spreaders are swept pretty far back which really does hinder us downwind. I have to remind myself that we are cruising (sailing around in our house) and not racing. We are in the process of getting a large screecher and an asymmetric spinnaker which will help the situation.

Bob

John and all:
While i agree completely (well almost completely) with this article I want to point out that, if boat builders were to follow the axioms laid out here we would have 5-10 boat builders worldwide and they would be French. Not a bad thig in itself but, oh boy, the cost! HR has changed their build direction for one reason only, stayi g in business.

Ronnie Ricca

Have to admit, we were #4 & #5. We purchased a high speed Yanmar 75hp turbo with ZF miv15 v-drive for our boat initially because it was similar in specs with the one it was replacing, a 72hp Volkswagen Pathfinder with Hurth 150 v-drive. I was still new to sailboat repowering and later found out that the ZF gear was too small for yhe engine and would spew oil out the vent every time I ran the boat. After one technical issue with the engine and not really getting much help from Yanmar, we’re repowering again. I figured if I’m pulling the engine out to put a new bigger v-drive on I’m selling that Yanmar. We are putting a new Beta 60 in with a ZF 63iv with 2.5:1 spinning a 24″ Variprop. Going from a 2:1 with a 17″ fixed wheel is going to be a welcomed change. It took a lot of revs to get the boat to move around the dock and running the engine at optimum RPM made the boat hull speed and higher RPM would burn more fuel and squat the boat.

You live and learn, but my wife and I have good jobs and we can afford the hit when selling the old, new Yanmar. As someone said, this boat is like a good suit for us and although not perfect in every regard we both agreed the new engine setup would pay for itself in the long run. (by the way thanks for the education in the engine posts, it was definitely enlightening and made me realize what I was experiencing)

Two thumbs up for AAC!

Marc Dacey

Ronnie, you don’t say what boat you have (or I missed it) but I gather it’s a bit larger than ours. I put in a Beta 60 with a ZF 25 hydraulic drive to an Aquadrive CV ending in a 19″ four-bladed Variprop for our steel 16 ton cutter-rigged motorsailor (although I favour sailing by far and it’s a better sailing boat than it looks). I am very pleased with the Beta and the Variprop, the whole drive train, in fact, and can maneuver well under power. I think you’ll like the combo and the torquey Beta 60 is a good choice. You’ll want to make notes to determine if the Variprop is pitched properly for your engine’s RPM and “fuel map”, but it’s a fairly easy fix to adjust the “stops”.

Ronnie Ricca

Oh, I sure did leave that detail out! We have a ’84 Kaufman 47 cutter, 30k# dry. Farron at Beta was fantastic in helping us out repowering, something I didn’t really get with the Yanmar. He answered all of my questions and concerns and gave advice even when it wasn’t in their interest. We agree that it should be a much better setup and we’re excited to get cruising after hurricane season here in the Gulf of Mexico. We should get delivery of the engine and gear in the beginning of August. Everything is ready to go, just need to get picked up and pull the old engine out to start the process. We received the Variprop Friday, from Accutech Marine in New Hampshire and it’s a work of art! We got a 3 blade with the advice from Accutech instead of a 4.

A lot of my decision making was attributed to the knowledge and experience of John and AAC, plus the people who contribute in the comments. It really is incredible the environment you created here, John.

Ronnie