The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

You May Need a Bigger Boat Than You Think

I was having breakfast with Mitch Neff, then president of Sparkman and Stevens and one of the most experienced and knowledgeable offshore sailors of his day, or any day for that matter—twenty Bermuda races and countless other passages teach you a thing or two about boats, and hanging around with the Stephens brothers (Olin and Rod) for a few decades doesn’t hurt either.

Mitch had just shown me a boat as a possible replacement for the first Morgan’s Cloud, an ill-starred Fastnet 45, and he was now patiently listening to all the reasons I didn’t like either boat, as well as my plans for the new boat: living aboard and fairly aggressive cruising.

When I finally ran down he said:

John, you need a boat that’s about 10 feet longer than you think you need, and you need a boat with a basement.

There’s huge wisdom in that sentence. Let me explain:

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

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  18. Cockpits—Part 1, Safe and Seamanlike
  19. Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics
  20. Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning
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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Nice article.
All, or most, of your arguments for a larger boat were what attracted me to a Dashew sailboat, the Sundeer series back in the day (80s): longer waterline for higher boat speeds, narrow easily driven hull with a small-ish sail plan, separation of accommodations from systems allowing good access etc. For various reasons it was not to be, but I still think those arguments hold, as you demonstrate.
That said, we have made our 40-foot hull work for 17 years now, 12 of them full time live aboard (and nothing would have worked had we not been able to sell home and vehicles and concentrate expenses on living and the boat). I would support your observations, but I would probably more strongly emphasize the importance of having the room to adequately address chores, maintenance and repairs. I would suggest that my work is about 30% more time consuming, much of that the un-gratifying work of unpacking lockers for access, getting out tools from their various hidey-holes and making sure that my “work” areas minimally impact the “living” areas that get taken over in the process.
That is about my only ongoing irritation of being on a smaller boat, the rest have been merely compromises (such as shorter day hops when coastal cruising to ensure getting to anchorages in daylight).
Another consideration for those buying a cruising boat at around the age of retirement pushing for a larger boat. My 40-foot hull is getting more challenging for a soon to be 70 yo to wiggle into (and lever myself out of) the various nooks and crannies that occasionally need access. Larger boats mean fewer gymnastic contortions and less recovery time for the strains that accrue in the process (and some of these nooks should not be ignored and benefit from regular inspection such as the steering quadrant).
As an aside, it is my casual observation that the appeal of some of the “labor savings” devices on a boat are to those who have never experienced a well set up boat. Furling mainsails, for ex., have far more appeal to those who have never sailed with “slippery” sail track, whose turning blocks are old and the lead serpentine. The difference in ease of use, reefing etc. is night and day between a well set up main and one using 20+yo ideas and equipment. (And the down-side of these “labor saving” devices to a bit of in-attention or an in-experienced crew is profound.)
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Edwin Chamberlain

I wish I had met someone like Mitch Neff when we were boat shopping. I have been lusting over a Valiant 42 for years and coming from trailer sailor boats they seemed plenty big. I was finally able to retire and purchase our Valiant 3 years ago and although I think she is a great blue water boat, space has become an issue. We have considered a bigger boat but it seems a daunting task to sell this one and find the next, not to mention time off the water to do so. Given the time and money we have spent to get her up to our standards for offshore sailing, I think we will be satisfied with the space we have and be vigilant about not loading on more “stuff.”

Dick Stevenson

Hi Ed,
Having lived aboard a V-42 and wandered widely for almost 2 decades, I know of what you speak. And a Valiant makes fewer compromises to its blue water heritage resulting in far less internal volume than most modern 40-foot hulls. For example, I was once rafted off a similarly sized HR (I believe) and was struck by the need to step up about 18 inches to achieve their deck height from my deck. That 18 inches, spread out over the whole boat, makes a huge difference in interior volume.
It took/takes discipline to not turn the aft cabin into a garage and generally overload the boat. For ex., one continuing regret is not carrying bicycles which shortens our on-land range. The plus side is it is easier to “sniff the roses”, chat with neighbors and notice the nuances at the slower speed of walking.
That said, there are not too many times I have held onto the wish for a larger boat for very long. I wanted a boat that was much stronger and smarter than I am and which forgives a multitude of errors: The V-42 has fit that description. And counting my blessings just being “out there, doing that” usually softens passing regrets over the compromises pretty quickly.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Richard Elder

The solution to the “too much stuff problem.” From a woman friend who emigrated from East Germany and has since risen to a senior executive position while living in one of the most expensive locations in the US. “Once a year I put everything I own in a pile in the middle of the room. If it hasn’t been used in the past 12 months I throw it out.”

Matt Marsh

The last time I moved house, we found a box labelled “Assorted Random Crap”…. still sealed with the packing tape from the previous move 4 years earlier.

It is *really* easy to collect stuff that serves no useful function, brings no joy, and just rots in a closet somewhere. That leads to bad situations on shore, but worse – even dangerous – ones aboard ship.

Brett Eaglen

We are one of the fortunates to have a Dashew Sundeer 60.. Great boat; access is excellent; it’s most redeeming feature however is that it is actually much easier to sail at sea than either the previous 43ft or 54ft boats. We have now had her for 10 years and appreciate her more every time we sail or work on her.

Brett Eaglen

have you thought of these …

Mark Sinn

Thank you for mentioning your YouTube channel. I just discovered it and downloaded several videos for my next flight.

And thanks for the encouragement, I’d rather get a sensible boat than pinching pennies.

John Tynan

You need an Amel Santorin. 46 feet for 4 people.

Physical strength is not required : everything powered with manual redundancy.

No wood outside for maintenance.

Known in France as the RollsRoyce of boats for the quality of its construction, yet maybe half the price of a similar aged and size Oyster.

Enormous storage : world wide servicing.

Drew Frye

I’ve always felt that junk on deck and solar racks (at least on cats) are signs that either the boat is too small or you have too much stuff. Every time I had something on deck I cleaned out a locker!

People vary enormously in their need for stuff. It may have been years as a mountaineer and traveling engineer that trained me to select flexible gear and tools, and to know exactly what I had, so that nothing was wasted or superfluous.

I agree; size can be arbitrary if you don’t understand what you need. In fact, downsizing has helped me better understand what my needs are, if and when I move back up… which I may:

* Better motion. In some ways, my 24′ tri moves better than my 34′ cat did. Always do sea trials in a seaway.
* Sail handling. Both are easy to reef in a blow, which is major when alone. Accept no compromise.
* Anchor handling. Who would have thought a 24′ boat with a 13# anchor would be more physical to anchor? The bridle is awkward, storage was poorly conceived, and of course, no windlass. Since I mostly day sail now, no big deal. But this boat can be a challenge to raise anchor in 15 knots, while the cat was easier in 30 knots. That could be a problem, to say the least.
* Ease of movement on deck and around the cabin. I have bad knees. Both boats required some modification. But it wasn’t about size, it was about step height.

Matt Marsh

I’m very much in favour of the “larger, longer, simpler” approach, and shopping with this in mind can be really frustrating.

I wonder if a large part of the problem comes from slip space being sold by length. Here in Kingston it’s $100 a foot. Seattle is $200 a foot. In Boston it’s something like $325 a foot. So by the time you’re looking at 45, 55, or 65 footers, and paying a five-figure sum for annual docking, your market is limited to people with a *lot* of disposable income. That whole market segment is going to be loaded down with expensive high-margin luxury options.

The vast majority of listings I see for used boats over 45 feet are either:
– Really, insanely, obscenely expensive (because of all that luxury stuff), or
– Basically falling apart.

I would like to think there’s a market for large, long, robustly built boats with simple systems, efficient non-fancy interiors, and modest price tags, but they seem to be very, very difficult to find.

Kevin Black

John, THANK YOU for the article on boat size. My wife and I are recent live-aboards. We spent 7 years going from being land lubbers to boat life, most of that time researching and sailing on other peoples’ boats (over 10,000 miles for each of us). We actively spent 3 years searching for the right boat for us and finally settled on a 50-foot custom-built Crowther-designed catamaran, SOBAD. We had read and heard that a 50-foot catamaran is too large for a couple, but the previous owners (who also built the boat) spent 15 years circumnavigating on her. Unlike other high-performance catamarans, SOBAD is built and rigged like a tank. She’s not exceptionally fast, but she’s stable with lots of room. She has three cabins and a large workroom for all my tools. We also have plenty of stowage for spare parts, two 75-hp Yanmar engines, direct drive prop shafts (no sail drives!), a genset, water maker, etc. We are currently on the hard in the Chesapeake getting the bottom painted and updating comm gear, etc. We hope to head south once the hurricane season is over. And in all honesty, although financially, we pushed the limit on what we could afford, we’re so glad we bought SOBAD. The longer we’re on her, the happier we are with our decision! Your article validated our decision to go bigger than what others were recommending.

Kit Laughlin

John, as I read all the arguments for and against the various suggested options for your new boat, I am even *more* interested in why you want to downsize. Morgan’s Cloud seems perfect to me, and If I owned her, I’d be motoring most of the time, for the reasons you gave in another article a while ago: she performs better under engine than many purpose-built motor boats.
Another point you made (that larger boats can be easier to handle than smaller ones) is my experience with my current 40 footer with a single screw: there is more time to make the right decisions when docking than with my last boat, a twin-engined aluminium vessel (that was so light wind and current moved her shockingly fast at times).
This is a most interesting thread, and I thank you.

Jock Beebe

I think you’ve stated your case for “bigger is better” quite clearly, and there are aspects of larger size that deserve credit for contributing benefit for off shore cruisers. The long waterline of a well-designed larger-than-average hull can easily make 200 mile days with lots of benefit when passage making and when caught out in horrible weather, bigger can be better if prudent shortening down isn’t neglected. I ran off in the face of sustained winds over 50 knots with 30+ foot waves when caught in a Pacific high pressure gale for 600 miles to Pango Pango. Under bare poles we still pegged a 15K Kenyon knot meter, and I was very glad our boat had some of the characteristics you mention – a 48 ft. Stan Huntingford design that could lift her skirts and avoid getting pooped by big growlers.
But such circumstances are a small percentage of ocean-crossing cruising. For routine liveaboard cruising, I think a solid argument in favor of “smaller is better” can be made, in no particular order:
1. Sail handling is easier and, in dusty weather, safer. The forces of running rigging, especially 100% or greater headsails, increase logarithmically, and in boats > 40 ft. quickly can become challenging with even moderate increase in apparent wind.
2. Ground tackle is easier to manage, particularly if you favor “oversizing” it, which can be accomplished with better proportions in smaller vessels.
3. Keeping just about everything simple and strong is much more easily (and less expensively) accomplished on smaller off-shore-capable boats than larger ones.
4. The enemies of ultraviolet rays and chafe are managed more easily in small boats. Indeed when moored in a far flung harbor in the company of many different sizes of cruising boats, it has seemed clear to me small boat sailors were off sightseeing more often than bigger boat’s crews still aboard catching up on maintenance.
In your “bigger” argument you justify the need “to carry the stuff…and live aboard full time comfortably.“ That seems like circular logic, perhaps. If you require a lot of stuff and complex systems aboard, then a large boat is needed – QED. I can understand how you easily convinced Mitch Neff, whom I knew, but he was occupationally biased.
Wait a minute, let’s take into account the superb global cruising adventures accomplished in comfortable style by Hal and Margaret Roth, dock mates of mine aboard Whisper in Oxford, Maryland, Lin and Larry Pardey on Seraffyn and most notable of all Eric and Susan Hiscock who set the world dreaming of off shore trips in Wanderer, a 30 ft. gem of a sloop. And none of them lived a Spartan life – let me illustrate.
One day while anchored in Roche Harbor in the Pacific Northwest, I awoke from a midafternoon nap and saw a newly arrived small sailboat. Rowing over in the dinghy I discovered it was Eric and Susan Hiscock who had just completed a 7,000 mile beat to weather from New Zealand, and he invited me aboard “for a bit of tea.” Having grown up reading and rereading Hiscock’s books, I was thrilled by such good luck. In the tiny but elegant cabin Susan served tea in English bone china and small biscuits on a lace doily tray. I remarked at such a finely set table and inquired about how they kept fine china and crystal glassware from damage on a small boat crossing a big ocean. Their response made clear that such finery was everyday normal aboard their boat and has been so for decades at sea. Indeed they brought pretty complete, classic English life style with them without fuss or bother.
So, having made long passages and lived aboard in sailboats ranging from 25 ft. (I lived aboard Wianno Senior with a cuddy cabin for 1 ½ years) to 48 ft. (strong, off shore, double headed sloop with stand up engine room and 375 gal. tanks of both fuel and water) and several in between (including 36 ft. Bruce King cutter), I have come to conclude that it may be true that the fun you have on a boat is inversely proportionate to its size.
Thanks for your fine, informative and entertaining articles.
Jock Beebe

Andrew Craig-Bennett

I bought a Nicholson 55 – a Class One offshore racer designed in the late Sixties and built in 75. She had spent her life as an Army sail training yacht. Almost all my sailing friends thought I was insane to buy a boat that had spent forty three years being sailed as hard as possible by crews of twelve fit young men.

But… I don’t have to use the hanked on thousand square foot genoas or the spinnakers. We can sail quite fast enough as a cutter.That means we can have a properly shaped roller jib. And behold, she turns into a docile boat with beautiful manners.

I am regularly delighted by just how well this twenty two ton boat sails. And if I am careful to throw out spare gear (a ton of spare sails!) and keep the ends full of air, she rises to the seas and keeps the decks dry.

If I inhabit the waterline length (41ft) leaving the fourteen feet of ends empty and keep junk out of the four pilot berths and the quarter berth that her 14ft 6ins beam allow, I have effectively a forty footer with ten feet of beam and standing headroom throughout as living and storage space for one up to five people.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Thank you for the compliment, John, and may I return it by saying that your advice to reduce sail sooner on a bigger boat is that rare thing, absolutely sound advice which is rarely given.

As you say, the bigger boat goes upwind faster and generates a faster apparent wind, with all that that implies. It isn’t that the boat will have any trouble – she won’t – but the crew will, as soon as they try to take sail off, because the boat is adding one Beaufort number to the true wind. My old lady goes to windward under staysail only in F6, because she is doing it in F7…

Michele Del monaco

Hello, first of all congratulations for your web service, I have rarely found such a condensation of competence and logic. Very very useful.
I am 62 years old, I live in Italy (Rome) and I am the happy owner of an Alpa 11.50, a boat that follows the lines of S&S with a displacement of 6.5 ton.
My dream when I’ll stop working is to spend a few months a year in the Aegean Sea (in Greece and Turkey), sailing around the different islands very quietly. My family doesn’t like to sail, so I think I would have occasional guests and would have to spend some time alone.
I am considering changing the actual boat, but unfortunately I only like “classic” boats, I am looking at Swan S&S from the 1970s, but they were advised against by my surveyor who tells me that they are very expensive to maintain.
I could orient myself towards Alajuela 38, even if I don’t like boats with a Norwegian stern.
The question I ask is the following: you argue that the minimum size for an “offshore” boat is around 40 feet and 9,000 kg, but this also applies to the goals I have in mind or to go to the Aegean my boat can be more than enough? Or is it a question of “comfort” (which of course is always appreciated)?
Thank you very much for your reply.

Michele Del Monaco

Michael Fournier

Well I can agree with most of this as obviously people have stuff and you need space for that stuff. BUT…. Need and want are being confused here. you can go small and go now as Lin and Larry Pardey advised BUT… you need to downsize your life if you downsize your boat. You also must rethink your comfort level with living with less. Small boats are less expensive. But trying to get all the conveniences you might get on a larger boat into a smaller boat is asking for trouble. And the level of conveniences your willing to live without must be considered if your going to go small. And you must be realistic about this it’s easy to SAY you could live without X but it’s like a extreme diet or a tight budget most people can’t keep to ether.