Shopping for a "Low-Resistance" Sailboat

Copyright 1997 by Kent Multer. 

"I am an engineering designer by profession, and work at a giant electric works. During my working hours, my mind is so constantly on new, complicated electrical and mechanical devices that at times I get disgusted with modern life and long for the simplicities of nature ... I wanted a boat I could have peace and freedom in ... I requested that there be no other iron on the little vessel than was necessary for the stove, frying pan, anchors, and the rigging."

— from The Compleat Cruiser by L. F. Herreshoff, 1956 (Sheridan House)

Last year I bought my first sailboat. I did a lot of research beforehand, and I learned some things that you might miss if you only read slick brochures and big-budget magazines; and I ended up with a fine little boat. Some of what I learned might be helpful to you if you’re getting ready to buy your first boat, or if you already own one and you aren’t having as much fun with it as you thought you would.

In the summer of 1995, I knew I loved being on the water. I had been an avid windsurfer for eight years. One of the nice things about windsurfing is the freedom and spontaneity. Most of the time my gear lived in the car; I was like a modern Minuteman, ready to head for the lake at a moment's notice when the wind came up. All I had to do was throw some drinks and ice into the cooler. After parking the car at the lake, I could be on the water in 20 minutes. Everything was small enough for me to carry by myself, and the only maintenance cost was replacing things that wore out, and an occasional repair for a torn sail or dinged fiberglass.

Gradually, I had been getting a desire to be able to stay on the water longer, and with more comfort. I began to think how nice it would be to sit down while sailing, take a friend along, eat a meal, and even spend the night on the water. A good friend and fellow windsurfer had recently been crewing on a larger boat, and he was enjoying it. And then I saw the movie Waterworld, about which you have probably formed your own opinion. Granted that it had some shortcomings, but the beautiful scenes of that big trimaran cruising tropical waters stirred something in my gut. Shortly after that, I bought a couple of sailing magazines, just to have a look at what was available.

Browsing

I was intrigued by what I found; I read more magazines and a number of books. I went to some local marinas and dealers, asking questions and collecting information. Clearly, I was not going to be buying a 90-foot trimaran; but it did seem that I would be able to find a boat that could do what I wanted, at a price I was comfortable with.

In one of the books I read, I came across the term "low resistance." The author was referring to design features, such as light weight and narrow beam, that allow a boat to go fast without being powerful and heavy (and expensive). But the term went into my mind, and somehow acquired a slightly different meaning. I wanted a boat that would provide maximum fun, with minimum "resistance" in the form of money, maintenance work, or other obstacles.

I became aware that there are two kinds of sailors. One kind likes big boats with lots of furnishings, plumbing, electronics, digital this, and motorized that. The other kind likes a more basic approach, with a minimal amount of high-tech stuff on board. I found myself drawn to the latter type. My career is very high-tech; I go to the water to get a change of pace. I saw that cruising can be like camping: you think of the boat as a floating tent, rather than a floating apartment. I had done a lot of camping and backpacking, so this appealed to me; and I already had some equipment, like a sleeping bag and portable stove, that could be used on such a boat.

As an example of the back-to-basics approach, several books that I read advised against equipping a boat with fresh water tanks and pumps; the authors carry their fresh water in a bunch of 1-gallon plastic jugs. Look at all the advantages this has:

  • They're very inexpensive, sometimes free.
  • They can be stored all around the boat, in order to distribute the weight evenly and fill up unused storage spaces.
  • There is no pump, and no plumbing system: this means lower cost, less maintenance, and fewer things that could mess up your trip by breaking down.
  • They're easy to clean and inspect.
  • Many separate tanks means that a leak will only let a little water escape.
  • If algae or other contamination gets into one jug, it won't affect the others.

Similar trade-offs can be applied to cooking, furniture, sail handling gear, and just about everything else in the boat.

If you want to read about the sailing experiences of real people, as opposed to athletes and experts, skip the bookstore. Go to a boat shop and pick up some of the smaller regional magazines published in various places all around the country. An awful lot of the most frustrating or dangerous parts of their stories revolve around engine failure, fouled propellers, electrical fires, and the like. It seems like all those gadgets that are supposed to make sailing easier may cause more problems than they solve.

Hunting

As I read, and shopped, and thought, I began to form a list of criteria for my boat. I wanted it big enough for two people to spend a weekend on, with simple camping-type accomodations; and I wanted it small enough to fit in my garage. In fact, I wanted it as small as possible (see sidebar). It had to be easy for me to handle by myself. Like my windsurfers, it had to be something I could get in and out of the water quickly, so that I would enjoy taking it out for an afternoon. Even if a boat is fun to sail, if it's a hassle to get it in and out of the water, the thought of doing it will discourage you from going sailing. I wanted the boat's price to be "a few" thousand dollars, definitely under $5000. (Needless to say, I was only looking at secondhand boats.)

As I learned more, a few other qualities began to loom in my mind. One of these was shallow draft. If I'm sailing along, and I see an island or a stretch of beach that looks inviting, I want to be able to just sail right up to shore and step out. It's surprising to me how many sailboats can't do this. Even some very small boats have fixed keels that prevent them from going into water less than 2 feet deep. That seems to be a popular figure with the boat designers. If you want a boat with less than 2 feet of draft, right away you've narrowed the field way down.

Most people assume that they need a motor for their sailboat, to help with maneuvering, or in case the wind dies. But there are a lot of good reasons not to have one. A motor will be the most expensive accessory on the boat, and the heaviest. It's noisy, smelly, and pollutes the air and water. It requires you to have hazardous flammable chemicals on board, and possibly electrical equipment and wiring. (Electricity, water, and gasoline; there’s a great combination!) It will need regular maintenance, and will have a tendency to break down at the most inconvenient times.

If you can keep the boat weight under about 1200lbs., you can consider a pair of oars: you can probably row the boat at a tolerable speed without exhausting yourself. Even larger boats can be cruised without engines, if you’re willing to let wind and tide conditions influence your travel plans.

If you're on a tight budget, you're not going to keep your boat in the water. A slip will probably cost you $100 a month or more, and the boat will need more maintenance when it's in the water all the time. So you're going to put it on a trailer. Go get the owner's manual for your car, and see what it says about trailers. It will probably give a "maximum towing weight," but read the fine print: that maximum probably includes the boat, the trailer, and also the people and other stuff in the car. Smaller cars won't be able to pull more than about a ton; and subtracting the trailer and people means that the boat can't weigh more than about 1000–1500 pounds.

In his book Frugal Yachting, Larry Brown divides small cruisers into four main categories:

Type

Approx. length

Approx. weight

No. of berths

Micro-cruiser 15-17ft. 500–600 pounds 2, usually in two single berths (couples take note)
Compact cruiser 18-20ft. 1000–2000 pounds 2 in a V-berth and one or two more in singles
Family weekender 21-25ft. 2000–2500lbs. 4 in berths and maybe 2 more on a convertible dinette
Maxi-trailerable 25+ ft. 3000+ pounds 4 or more

The two larger categories, I decided, were not right for me. These boats need a big car to pull them, and they won't fit in a garage. They mostly take quite a bit of work to get in and out of the water; you could do it for a weekend, but it would be too much hassle for an afternoon sail. This was a tough choice, because I found that 21 or 22ft. boats like the Catalina and Macgregor are always for sale secondhand, and the prices are sometimes down in my range. But there's a reason why they're so cheap; someone really wants to get rid of them.

One boat that I looked at was a 19’ Starwind. It seemed like just about what I was looking for, and the price was right. Then I got the book Surveying Small Craft from the library. After reading it, I went to look at the Starwind again; what a difference this time! Signs of water in places where there shouldn’t be any, cracks at many critical points on the hull; this puppy needed a lot of work. I’m so glad I read that book. If your library doesn’t have a book like this, don’t hesitate to buy a copy; it’ll pay for itself.

Another category of cruiser that Brown’s book discusses is open boats: those without a cabin. Any sailboat can be used for cruising, if you can rig some kind of tent over it, and if it has enough flat space to spread a sleeping bag. Some open boats are designed especially for "camp-cruising," with flip-up tent covers and other convenient features. As Brown points out, small boat cabins are not much fun when you're sailing; everyone wants to be out in the cockpit or on deck. Why not have a "convertible" boat that's all cockpit during the day, and acquires a cabin when you settle down for the evening? A fixed cabin does give a feeling of security, but after all, I wasn't looking to cross the high seas; I just wanted to putter around in lakes and other sheltered waters. So this approach made sense to me. And of course, a boat without a cabin will be lighter and less expensive.

The Deal

After a few months, out of all the boats in the world, I had narrowed my search down to just a handful:

  • West Wight Potter 19: surprisingly roomy, and reputedly very seaworthy. Some amazing voyages have been made in its 15ft. little sister. I don't care for its boxy looks, but apparently a lot of people do. You don't find many used ones for sale, and they tend to go quickly.
  • Macgregor 19: a unique little motor sailer, with a number of interesting features. Also very popular; I didn't come across any for sale used, and at that time there was a long wait for new ones as well.
  • Bay Hen: an old-timey-style 21-footer with a single gaff sail.
  • Sanibel 17, Sovereign 18, and Starwind 19: three compact cruisers, all pretty similar, and having drafts of less than 2 feet (although the Sovereign is borderline at 22"). A number of other manufacturers make similar boats.
  • Sea Pearl 21 and Dovekie: these are open camp-cruisers with interesting features. Both are 21ft. long, weigh 600 lbs., have drafts of 6" or less, and use leeboards and simplified sailing rigs. Even so, it's surprising how different they are. If you’re considering either one, be sure to look at the other, too.

Brown points out in his book that choosing a boat is not entirely a matter of logic. Some boats just attract or excite you, even though they may not be the best choice according to your logical criteria. The Sea Pearl, with its slender, graceful shape and cat-ketch sailing rig, just felt like a good boat for me. I saw a picture of one equipped with lug sails, and the Chinese junk-like character of that really appealed to me.

There weren't many of the boats from my short list available in my area (near Dallas), so I began reading regional magazines from other parts of the country. I found two boats that seemed promising: one in Wisconsin, and one in Florida. As it happened, both were Sea Pearls. The one in Wisconsin had a motor, which I didn't especially want, but I could always sell it myself and pick up some cash. The Florida boat came with oars, and had the lug sails and wooden spars. My intuition was leaning toward the one in Florida, but I felt that I ought to learn a little about both before choosing.

I made tentative offers for each, subject to having them surveyed. I called the National Association of Marine Surveyors to get names and phone numbers of surveyors who lived in those areas. Speaking to each surveyor, I explained the situation: I lived far away, and would never see the boat, so I would be very dependent on the survey to make my decision. I asked the surveyors to take pictures, and to evaluate the trailers and the one motor as well as the boats.

When the survey reports and photos arrived, the Florida man had done a fine job (Pete Brown, 813-367-2489). The report was very detailed, and the photos were clear. The Wisconsin report, on the other hand, was a disappointment. The guy had not inspected the motor; he hadn't even unrolled the sails. Most of the photos just showed a jumble of equipment in the cockpit, which hinted that he had not taken the time to inspect this gear carefully.

To make a long story short, I eventually got my money back on the Wisconsin survey, but it took several months and a number of phone calls and letters. I had paid with a credit card, so I was mostly negotiating with the customer service people at the bank. Credit cards are a good way to make expensive purchases for that reason: if there's a problem, you have a middleman who can help you get your money back. It did take me a while to find someone at the bank who could understand the situation: a boat survey is not like a defective VCR. I had to say "let me speak to your supervisor" a couple of times. But I never did actually have to pay the money; I notified the bank of the problem as soon as the bill showed up on my statement. The bank put some interest charges on my account while the dispute was in progress, but they cancelled them when it was resolved in my favor.

Meanwhile, back in Florida ... With the survey in hand, I made a firm offer, which included having the seller pay half the cost of some needed repairs. The seller initally made a counter-offer, and I said, okay, let me think about it; I mentioned that I was looking at another boat. A few days later, the dealer called me; the seller had decided to accept my offer after all. So I had a boat! Now all I had to do was get it to Dallas.

The Boat

I called some boat movers to get prices on having the boat brought to Dallas. It was pretty expensive; $1 per mile seemed to be typical. I realized that for that kind of money, I might as well take a few days off from work and go get the boat myself. While I was at it, I could even stay in Florida for a while and do some sailing on the coast. The result was a very nice little vacation, including three day-sails on the Gulf, and a couple of typical newcomer problems (as described in an earlier article titled "My First Funny Boat Story"). I named the boat Shady Character, to remind me of her friendly but occasionally mischievous personality.

Now it's more than a year later, and I am completely happy with my choice of boat. I've taken Shady for numerous day-sails and a couple of overnight trips on lakes near my home. I'm looking forward to more and longer vacations on the lakes, and eventually returning to the salt water.

The boat does everything I want it to do, with a minimum of "resistance." All the electrical equipment on board runs on flashlight batteries. The only fuel is the little bottle for my camping stove. The only plumbing is a portable toilet. There are no winches, and only one block; and no rigging wires are needed to hold up the short masts. Although the hull is fiberglass, when I sit in the cockpit and look around, all the work of sailing is being done by cloth and wood and rope. When the wind dies, I can row her at 3 knots without breathing hard.

She can carry two people for overnight trips, and half a dozen for a day sail; yet I can get her in and out of the water almost as easily as a windsurfer. The only problem is that she turned out to be a little too big for my garage; I forgot that the trailer tongue would add a few feet. I can get her in there, but only diagonally, with no room left for the car. But that's okay. I’ve noticed that nothing in life is perfect, so I settle for mere excellence.

Recommended Reading

Some of the books that I read were extremely helpful, and were returned to many times during my shopping. Note: most of these books can be purchased at my on-line bookstore page.

One title that is not available on-line is the Wharram Design Book (James Wharram Designs, Cornwall, England, 1991). James Wharram is a pioneer of modern catamarans. The book illustrates a range of designs, ranging from simple to luxurious and back over several decades, and contains delightful bits of his sailing philosophy. This book is available for $10 from T. Miliano, P.O. Box 35117, Sarasota FL 34242.


 

"The Smaller the Boat, the Greater the Fun"

Copyright 1996 by Kent Multer

For those of you shopping for your first sailboat, you might like to know some more about why I chose the Sea Pearl. I wanted a boat that was big enough for a couple of people to sleep on, and as small as possible in every other way. How many ways can a boat be small? Well, there's:

Weight

The Sea Pearl weighs only 600 pounds. It doesn't need an auxiliary motor; it comes with oars. Another advantage of a light boat is that it can be towed by almost any car. The Sea Pearl is much easier to tow than a typical 19-to-22-footer that weights two to four times as much. And if you get into a tight spot, like a crowded parking lot or dead-end road, you can always unhitch the trailer from the car, and push it around by hand like the world's biggest shopping cart ... which, come to think of it, is a pretty good definition for a boat trailer.

Draft

Many sailboats, even little ones, have fixed keels that require a couple of feet of water. This is fine for blue-water sailors, but for those of us who prowl lakes and coastlines, it's nice to know that any time you see a beach or island you'd like to explore, you can just sail right up to it and step out onto dry land. And this ability is very reassuring in case something goes wrong when you're a long way from your trailer or marina. Also, a boat without a fixed keel is easier to get on and off its trailer. And it's easier to tow, since it can ride lower. That makes it more stable, and allows you to see something other than boat when you look in the car’s rear-view mirror.

Height and Simplicity

The Sea Pearl has a cat-ketch rig: two masts, two sails, no jibs. The masts are short, so they don't need any stays or spreaders. That makes the rig simple to set up and take down, even by one person. This rig may not be as fast as a modern sloop, especially going upwind; but do you want to win races, or relax and have fun? Going downwind, a cat-ketch is easier to handle than a tall sloop rig; you don't need to mess with whisker poles, spinnakers, etc. The Pearl has no standing rigging, no winches, only two sheets, and almost no blocks or other expensive yachty hardware. Also, when you're trailering the boat, it's nice that the masts are shorter than the hull; they don't hang over the ends.

Beam

At 5'6" wide, the Pearl is quite a bit narrower than many trailerable boats that are designed right to the maximum beam allowed by law. This contributes to the light weight and easy trailering. Also, a narrow boat is generally faster than a wide one. In spite of her low-aspect sails, the Pearl is reported to be quite fast for her length; maybe she can win some races after all. Not that I care; I’m just out there to relax and have fun!

For more information about the Sea Pearl, you can contact Marine Concepts at (813) 937-0166, or (800) 881-1525. They are on the World Wide Web at http://www.marine-concepts.com/ and their email address is sailingrj@aol.com.


Go to Kent's home page Send email
(kent@dallas.net)