The Perfect Boat
May 19, 2006
It's often said that the perfect boat doesn't exist; all boats are compromises. If you want to cram your boat with liveaboard amenities, it probably won't do so well on the racing circuit. If you really hate the drudgery of boat maintenance chores, you'd better not have a traditional looking vessel with loads of exterior wood (unless, of course, you have a budget for hiring someone else to do the bright work). A bigger boat will give you more living and storage space, but will be more expensive to maintain and more of a challenge to operate shorthanded. The tradeoffs are endless.
While no one owns the perfect boat, many claim to own the BEST boat, at least as far as they're personally concerned. This is not too surprising when you think about it. Most people put a good deal of research into buying (or building) a boat. They've thought through what design features are most important to them. And even if it turns out that they've overlooked a few shortcomings or defects in the decision making process, few boaters would care to admit that they've invested their life savings in a floating disaster. They'll bravely defend their choice of watercraft rather than confess they got taken to the cleaners by a fast talking yacht broker.
This brings us to a theory we've developed over the years: boatowners are generally in love with their boats. Sure, you will hear boaters occasionally complain about the expense and hassle of maintaining and operating their boats, but this rings a bit like the tycoon who publicly laments the extravagant excesses of his high maintenance mistress. He still delights in having her hanging on his arm. We had ample opportunities to test our theory this winter when we were in George Town in the Bahamas. You'd be hard pressed to find a broader range of cruising boats in a single location. While anchored in George Town, we made a point of talking to several of our cruising friends and asking them about their boats. They didn't need much encouragement. ALL boaters love talking about their boats.
Charlie and Lee Kristofs are fixtures within the George Town cruising community; they've been coming to the Bahamas in Windstar 4, their Morgan 41 Classic, for the past 11 years. They can't imagine cruising on a different boat. Built in 1990, Windstar 4 exemplifies the traditional fibreglass cruising boat: heavy displacement, commodious interior, easy to handle. Lee said, "We're definitely going to stay with a heavier monohull boat. It nicely accommodates everything we need to live aboard full time." Do they ever wish they had a bigger boat?
"No, 41 feet is just the right size. Our boat is big and heavy enough to give full liveaboard comfort and to be sea kindly in heavy weather, but small enough so one person can handle it."
In terms of equipment, Windstar 4 is comfortably -- but not extravagantly -- outfitted for living aboard full time. Lee and Charlie have refrigeration, basic GPS navigation, and a high frequency transceiver, but no watermaker, chartplotter, radar, or satellite phone. To power their onboard amenities, they have a wind powered generator, two solar panels, and a portable gasoline powered generator. Lee commented, "We once thought about getting radar, but we don't sail where we really need it. In Nova Scotia, where we're from, you might need it, but not down here."
We first encountered the Albin Vega 27 sloop Oreneta when we were anchored in the channel leading into the protected Red Shanks anchorage, about three miles southeast of George Town. We had relocated there in anticipation of an approaching cold front. We weren't alone: all afternoon a stream of like minded cruisers had been filling up the remaining sheltered spaces. As the sky darkened ominously and the wind began whistling in the rigging, David went on deck to secure any loose gear. One last straggler rounded the cay at the entrance to the anchorage -- Oreneta. David dropped what he was doing and stared in amazement as the tiny boat tacked up the narrow channel against wind and current, expertly dodging Little Gidding and the other parked boats in its way. A young woman was at the tiller and her partner was at the bow, swinging a lead line and calling the depths as they scudded along. They found the last vacant spot, rounded up, and dropped the hook. "We've got to meet those people," David called down to Eileen. "They're true sailors!"
It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, however, that we managed to meet the crew of Oreneta. The morning after the frontal passage they had weighed anchor under sail and slipped away before we were up. When we finally caught up with them, we learned that Christine Carter and Xavier Macia had been cruising for three years with their daughters Natalia (now ten years old) and Danielle (seven years). Their boat is about as basic as they come. They don't have furling sails, an anchor windlass, or self-steering. Their small auxiliary diesel engine is basically ballast because it broke down a week after they left their home port of Toronto in July 2003; they figured it wasn't really necessary and never fixed it. The only electrical equipment they have on board are a handheld VHF radio, a short wave receiver, and a handheld GPS. Theirs is the only cruising boat we've met that isn't equipped with a depth sounder. Their cabin lights, running lights, and anchor light burn kerosene. Having no electrical appliances, they have no need for any expensive charging devices.
With a family of four on board, the obvious question was whether they'd like a larger boat. Christine responded, "Not really. If I were to win the lottery, maybe I'd buy a heavier boat so I could store more food and water. But nothing longer than 30 feet because it would still have to sail like a dinghy."
She motioned to all the overloaded behemoths surrounding them in the anchorage. "These other boats never sail because they're too big .... but that's us, we love sailing and that's why we're here."
What about their wish list of additional equipment? With the possible exception of wind vane self-steering (which they're thinking of building themselves), there is no wish list. They're quite happy without a refrigerator because they use powdered milk and -- except when they catch fish -- cook vegetarian meals. When we asked the kids if they missed television, both immediately said no. Natalia added, "Well, we don't have TV at home either."
Twenty-odd years ago, when David first started long distance cruising, virtually all the boats out there were monohull sailboats. The most significant changes to the cruising fleet in the past decade or so are the growing numbers of trawlers and multihull sailboats. We did a tally of the boats in George Town this winter. While monohull sailboats still dominate the scene, we determined that 13% of the fleet were catamarans or trimarans and 12% were trawlers. Among those trawler owners are our Montreal friends Michel Lachance and Louise Caron on Marie Antoine, who have been making an annual migration to the Bahamas since 2000. Marie Antoine is 40 feet long and different from most of today's cruising trawlers in two respects: age and construction material. Marie Antoine was built of wood in 1960.
Marie Antoine is well equipped for cruising with a high frequency transceiver, radar, electronic autopilot, refrigeration, and watermaker. To power these devices, Michel has installed an impressive solar panel array on the foredeck totaling 480 watts. He said, "I'm perfectly happy with this boat. I look around and there's not one other boat I'd dream of owning." In terms of size, he thinks a 40 feet boat is more comfortable in the open ocean than, say, something ten feet smaller. In his view, anything larger than 40 feet requires too much maintenance. And on the question of upkeep, he claimed wooden boats are not necessarily more trouble to maintain than fiberglass or metal boats.
Michel feels that in the past many would-be cruisers dismissed trawlers, convinced that they had to go cruising in a sailboat. He believes this attitude is changing. "We spend so much of our time at anchor that other factors such as comfort become more important." There are purists in both the sailboat and powerboat communities. "But people who do a lot of cruising are basically boaters and sail versus power is not the issue -- it's just got to float."
Karl and Pat Scharnitzky are just as convinced that their boat, Ishmael, is the best choice for them. Ishmael is a self-built 37' Braun Searunner trimaran designed by Jim Brown. After spending years racing monohull sailboats, Karl asserted, "I would never own a monohull for liveaboard cruising." He stressed that their multihull boat was specifically designed for ocean passagemaking. He listed its positive features: a centre cockpit for safety, a centreboard for windward stability, and a cutter rig for ease of sail handling. Pat likes the fact it doesn't heel very much.
When Karl and Pat retired from the military in 1992, they thought they were going on a two year circumnavigation with their two daughters, then 10 and 12 years old. They got as far as George Town and ended up spending the next five years in the Bahamas. "We changed our plans from sailing around the world to sailing around ON the world." After a seven year hiatus from cruising so the girls could get established in land based careers in North America, Karl and Pat sailed Ishmael back to the Bahamas on their own two years ago. Some of their outfitting choices reflect their original cruising plans. Anticipating serious ocean passages, they equipped Ishmael with both an electronic autopilot and wind vane self-steering. They're prepared for heavy weather; they have both a sea anchor and a drogue on board.
Curiously, Ishmael is outfitted with a watermaker, but has no refrigerator. The watermaker was a priority because Karl and Pat planned to spend time in remote locations and, with the kids on board, were concerned about the possibility of encountering contaminated water supplies in the developing world. A refrigerator, on the other hand, wasn't essential and seemed hardly worth the expense and trouble to maintain and operate. They've found that living without refrigeration is no real hardship and are perfectly satisfied with how Ishmael is equipped.
The moral of this story? There is no right or wrong cruising boat, only the boat that's best for you.