All sailors eventually reach a stage in life where they desire more amenities than their current sailboat provides. They find the boat they bought a half dozen years ago now lacks in some respects. It might be little things that set the mind thinking, and it different for each of us.

I always smile when I see a cruising sailboat with a full cockpit enclosure. The owners are clearly trying to add protection from the elements, although at the expense of reduced sailing ability where it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the sails under way and properly manage sail trim and adjust lines. No matter, really, because as we all know, cruising sailors spend 85 percent of the time cruising under diesel power. So, a fully enclosed cockpit is justified as it makes life more comfortable for everyone.

For me, it came with the realization that an ice machine was now more important than a self-steering vane, especially as we motored on our way south, where a cold drink was important to make it a good day on the water. Gin and tonic served neat had lost its appeal.

(Below: Full-sized appliances become more important when cruising for long periods and are a benefit of trawler ownership.)

galley on a trawler yacht

Whatever the tipping points, sailors begin to think in terms of moving over to power. But that is a problem for a lot of sailors. For years, the powerboat was viewed by sailors as an almost obscene form of boating. Sailors call them stinkpots, and for good reason. They tend to always run at high speed, throwing large wakes as they pass close by a sailboat that is slowly making its way. Sport fishing machines are notorious for this. Sailors quickly tire of having to deal with these wakes. Also, the obnoxious twin diesel exhaust leaves a strong, stinking cloud as it passes by, hence the stinkpot moniker. And no surprise to anyone, the owners of these stinkpots are focused only on getting to the next destination as quickly as possible. The journey is just a necessary evil.

Compare this to sailing. Sailboats, know to powerboaters as ragbags, are viewed as cheap transportation that is slow as a snail, and depends entirely on the wind to move them on their way. But, to no one surprise, sailors enjoy the simple pleasures of sailing, tweaking the sails to find the groove. It is an art, a sport, a passion. The journey is every bit as important as the next destination, maybe more so. There is something to be said for the thrill of harnessing the wind to make the next landfall, and if the wind is light, it means traveling at slow speed.

But there is a third kind of cruising boat, and it shares qualities of both stinkpots and ragbags. It is the trawler. It can make landfall under its own power, but instead of blasting along at high speed, throwing a huge wake, the trawler is more sedate, much like a sailboat, but with the amenities and comfort of a powerboat. And, most importantly, the trawler may split its time between anchoring among the sailboats and tying up in a slip with the other powerboats, plugged in for shoreside service.

Depending on the whims of the trawler owners, they may dawdle along with the sailboats, enjoying the journey, or may set their sights on the next destination and aim to get there by early afternoon. The trawler affords its owners with a bit of both worlds.

Now, to be honest, the work “trawler” has been grossly overused for marketing purposes by boat builders to cover a wider range of boat designs and capabilities than when this trawler thing first got started. But I find that okay, because today, when people ask me what a trawler is, I am quick to tell them a trawler is now simply a metaphor for the trawler lifestyle, which it is, and applies to a great many boats that do not share the traditional features of a trawler. No matter, the owners enjoy their boat in similar ways as owners of a traditional trawler.

Making the switch from a sailboat to a trawler may be the best option to allows cruising sailors to stay in boating for many years to come. Let’s look at why this is so in more detail.


A Great Fit for Aging Couples and Comfortable

Health and related issues often dictate when it is time for a change, when it becomes uncomfortable or otherwise difficult to sail and handle even a mid-sized sailboat. People become less able to maintain their balance as they age, and a host of related issues become facts of life. Arthritis, joint replacements, back problems, and an overall weakening of upper body strength make sailing much more demanding and even a little scary when it is blowing.

A trawler doesn’t require athletic strength, and with handholds pretty much everywhere, even a older person with balance issues can move about a boat safely, whether to grab a mooring, bring lunch up to the flybridge, or assist coming into a fuel dock. Taking things slow on a slow trawler keeps life in slow motion, which is inherently safer.

I remember coming through the anchorage near Jewfish Creek, in the Florida Keys, enjoying my morning coffee during a light rain on my Downeast cruiser. It was pleasant enough in the anchorage and I soon spotted a couple on a Krogen 42 anchored off to the right. The woman was giving the man a haircut in the Krogen’s covered aft cockpit. I remember how starkly different that was compared to the sailboats anchored around this trawler, all buttoned up in the rain except for the small cockpit space behind a dodger. It made a lasting impression.

In addition to great weather protection, a trawler lets you keep going, as no one must stand at the wheel or tiller of a sailboat in foul weather gear as rain comes down in sheets. We’ve all be there and done that, and let the younger crowd enjoy roughing it. I’ve even driven a trawler in heavy snow, warm as toast in the pilothouse, something I can’t even dream of doing in a sailboat.

Captain Patti Moore is an experienced training skipper who has spent decades teaching hundreds of couples and women how to safety and properly handle and run their boat. We were talking about trawlers one day, and she shared that in her youth she crossed the Atlantic in a Tom Fexas-designed passagemaker. During that entire crossing she only wore a pair of bunny slippers, as there was no reason to be outside in the elements. That’s an image for sure.

(Seen below: Patti Moore, who founded Sea Sense, teaches others how to boat and sail safely. Image cred: Boating Magazine)

captain patti moore - boat teacher 

There is something to be said for comfortable living on a boat, and it is especially preferred as one gets older. The days of V-berths are over, and couples want an island queen or king that one can walk around. Easy to make up the bed, easy to get in without climbing over one another. These staterooms have deep drawers and hanging lockers to store the couple’s wardrobe, a far cry from living out of duffel bags, which was how we did it for years on our sailboats, as the drawers offered minimal storage.

On some trawlers, with a Europa-style layout, accommodations are on one level, which has its advantages when it is only the two of you. Boats of this type typically put staterooms next to each other, which is necessary for that layout, but that eliminates the privacy normally associated with staterooms separated by a saloon and galley in the more traditional trawler layout. Each has its advantages, mostly depending on whether you have guests.

No matter how many levels one finds on a trawler, there will always be a central living room, the saloon, that offers living room seating and tables for relaxing, eating, and lounging on the boat.

Large saloon windows are typical, and the interior is often bright and cheery. Depending on one’s interior design style, a trawler can be tailored to fit the moods of the owners and transform a plain interior to a very comfortable and compelling interior that draws people in from the elements to enjoy life on either a contemporary or more sophisticated level.

The same is true for the protected outside cockpit and flybridge living spaces, where comfortable and protected seating, grill, and furniture allows a quality living experience. This is true no matter where one cruises, deep in Southeast Alaska or in the Islands, Keys, or Mexico. For the Great Loop, it can’t be beat.

Comfort systems are standard on trawlers these days, whether it is two to four air conditioning units for each zone of the boat, or a diesel-fired furnace to heat the entire boat and keep it cozy.

Spend time cruising the Northwest when it is cold, rainy, and damp, and you will fall in love with diesel furnaces. Dry, warm heat to take the chill out of your bones, despite the dreary weather outside. Most East Coast boaters are not familiar with this system, but when we installed a Hurricane system on Growler, we converted a lot of people, including an experienced husband and wife who deliver yachts up and down the East Coast. Living aboard or actively cruising, there is no better way to cruise in damp and cold regions.

Thinking of all the times I crouched behind a dodger with an autopilot remote while motoring along on my sailboat…again, it was a grand experience when I was younger, today it has no appeal.


A Safe Platform

I once researched which type of cruising boat was the safest out there for cruising. And I concluded that a trawler is inherently a very safe cruising platform. Wide side decks with handholds, lifeline stanchions mounted atop high bulwarks, make for safe moving about the exterior of the boat.

Most trawlers offer good boarding access, in some cases much better than canoe-stern and pinched transoms of older sailboat designs. And the sundeck style motoryacht and others with tall transoms with vertical ladders make boarding an iffy proposition for older people, carrying provisions, and bringing a dog back aboard. Compare that to so many trawlers with wide deep swim platforms with beefy staples that allows easy access through a transom door into a protected cockpit.

(Below: Northern Marine builds explorer-style yachts that perform with trawler-like characteristics and have the luxury accommodations for long-distance cruising.)

northern marine yachts

In addition, there are many situations where there needs to be more than one entry point along the side deck. People on the West Coast are used to floating docks. Boats designed for those kinds of piers and docks will be a surprise to owners when they find themselves coming alongside fixed docks with tides that vary between easy access and difficult. Tidal ranges require boat designs that include several places to get on and off the boat safely. In northern cruising areas, these extreme tides can make for adventurous getting off and back on one’s trawler. And when I see older women with hip issues wondering how to climb over a railing onto a side deck, I always wish the builder was there to see how unsafe that scenario is.

This is something most potential buyers should note when they go aboard a boat at a boat show tied comfortably to a temporary floating dock. And I am not talking about extreme tides as one finds in Nova Scotia and Alaska. It can be difficult enough even in Annapolis, spring tides and all.

I would also note that the safety factor on most trawlers can be improved tenfold by the addition of beefy handholds strategically placed around the boat, especially for boarding and for getting off the boat when one’s must transit a bulwark and stanchion to climb up to a high dock or vice versa. Most builders miss this, and I am always reminded of how a boat can be improved to help an older person with just the right place to grab to make the transition from dock to boat without risk. While an older person may not have the upper body strength to pull themselves aboard, it may be enough just to steady the transition. I’ve seen very few boats that can’t be improved in this way.

Dinghy access is also quite accommodating on most trawlers, where it is expected that owners will spend significant time anchored out, yet still need to take the dog ashore as well as to sample the local cuisine while cruising. A wide swim platform with staples is my favorite solution to boarding and dinghy realities.

Trawlers also offer improved visibility from inside and outside the boat, compared to the sight lines from the cockpit of a sailboat. Running along in the pilothouse of a Northern Marine, Endurance, or Northwest yacht, the watch is both comfortable and situationally aware of the waterways, other boats in the area, even the marine life. In fact, one woman told me that when they bought their DeFever trawler, she assumed she would lose the connection to the water that she enjoyed from their large cruising sailboat, where she was close to the water’s edge. She told me what a surprise it was when she could not only still see dolphins at her bow, but she could now see them coming!

This improved visibility is quite helpful when running ranges along the Low Country, or when transiting restricted waterways with other traffic. Sight lines from the pilothouse may not be quite as ideal as from an upper flybridge, so it is nice to have both.

One final point about the safety of the trawler is the much-reduced possibility of tripping on lines, cleats, and other gear when transiting the length of the boat. In recent years, many trawler builders have recessed their midship cleats, fuel and water fills, and other hardware that once stood proud, waiting to break the toes of bare feet.


Trawlers are Very Capable

As I mentioned before, cruising sailors spend most of their time motoring under way. That is not surprising, as wind is seldom from the right direction and is either too light or too strong. Yet it is tiring and boring to be out in the elements when motoring at seven knots for long days to reach the next destination.

A trawler, on the other hand, is designed to be operated this way, so has comfortable helm seating and a helm console with room for all the electronics, radios, and other gear to run along in total control. Navigation, weather, radar, communications, and AIS provide outstanding situational awareness.

(Seen below: The helm station of this Nordic Tug allows you to cruise long and in more comfort.)

 helm station on nordic tug trawler

Most trawlers have well-designed anchoring gear arranged to be operated by crew members without drama. Whether one is cruising the Misty Fjords or more tropical locations, the ability to securely anchor one’s trawler is no afterthought. Many boats have two rollers for two anchors, and full wash down systems to complete the anchoring process from beginning to end.
And it is worth noting that since so many cruisers have a pet on board, it is no surprise these owners find a trawler ideally suited for living with a four-legged family member.
Easier and Less Work

Today’s thruster controls offer unparalleled close quarter maneuvering ability, no matter if it is a single or twin-engine boat. If the operator does everything slowly, practice soon develops superior boat handling skills that take the stress out of docking and/or leaving a slip when it is time to move on. Modern handheld yacht controllers allow one to act as if he or she commands a much larger vessel equipped with wing stations. Coming into a fuel dock can be a skill easily mastered in time for the Great Loop or other cruising adventure.

Another area where the trawler shines is the engine room or space, where the main engine, generator, and systems are located. Most boats dedicate enough room for the systems, and around the equipment, to provide an owner great access for routine maintenance and basic service. Unlike what one finds normally on a sailboat, with a small diesel engine buried under companionway stairs, the trawler’s engine access often includes full standing headroom with lifting hatches in the saloon so there is minimal gymnastics if one has more to do than check fluid levels. In addition, many trawlers have two or more other entry points into the engine space for daily checks before heading off in the morning.

The value of great engine and system access quickly proves itself as one of the important features of a trawler for the owner who plans to do his or her own maintenance. More than one sailboat owner has found, much to their amazement, that it is all but impossible to change the raw water impeller on the engine, as it is on the back side of the engine, with no way to reach it. That is simply not the case in a trawler, especially if it is a single engine trawler with the main engine sitting front and center, with 360-degree access on all sides.

The same is true for getting to seacocks, batteries, generator, and other systems. Even on an older trawler, such as a vintage Grand Banks Yacht, an owner will not necessarily have to pay a yard to perform basic service work if he likes to do it himself.

This roomy engine space is also valuable for the new buyer of an older trawler that was set up using building practices from decades ago. With current thinking about system redundancy, such as dual, switchable fuel filters, there is usually space to install these filter assemblies in an easily accessed space where one can switch the filters under way, or service them when in port. Again, there is limited space for such systems in most sailboats.

(Below: A 5-minute video of the design, capabilities, and amenities of a Northwest Yachts trawler.)


More like Home

What I have always enjoyed, stepping aboard a handsome trawler yacht, is how quickly one grows accustomed to living spaces that rival shoreside accommodations. Comfortable furniture, dining room tables and chairs, and a large working galley make me feel at home, and there are few trawlers I could not live aboard in comfort without feeling compromise around every corner.

Once under way, life goes on without heeling or drama, as no one is strapped into seating to power through large waves at high speed. The opposite is true is my experience. We can do laundry, cook, begin some projects or maintenance, clean the boat, using the central vacuum or portable Dyson to pick up last evening’s popcorn, write a journal—all while the person at the helm is fully engaged in getting us safely to our destination. Other crew can enjoy their private time, without needing to be curled up behind lee clothes, or braced for the next big wave. Rather, it is just running along on a little ship, the steady heartbeat of the diesel engine reassuring that all is well. In Alaska, this private time, which I cherished for myself, allowed the opportunity to focus on photography of wildlife and spectacular scenery. And crossing the Pacific, I dug deep into books of philosophy, and the battle of Gettysburg.

Life is grand when there is a crockpot filled with tonight’s dinner, sitting safely in the galley sink, just in case, and the aroma coming from the galley is truly intoxicating. Let the other go-fast guys blast by at speed, everyone aboard securely seated to handle the motion, and hardly anyone noticing much of their surroundings as they click off miles on their way to the next stop. I prefer embracing the calmer involvement with my surroundings, whether cruising the Northwest, along the Great Loop, or much of the inland waterways where one is tempted to pinch oneself to make sure it is real.

And when we do arrive at our destination for the night, it is very satisfying to complete the day’s run by walking calmly up to the foredeck and set the anchor. The world slows down at day’s end, and there is a marvelous dinner ahead with family or friends. Short ribs with Cabernet, with pearl onions and carrots, served with garlic mashed potatoes and salad, served on china plates on a proper dining room table. No last-minute meal thrown together, it makes for a fitting end to a glorious day on the water…on one’s trawler.

If the above sounds like romantic fantasy, trust me, I’ve been there many times on different cruises with wonderful people living life to the fullest. Watching the other boats in the anchorage over dinner, dinghies zipping back and forth as people head ashore to explore restaurants and nightlife, only to return later in the dark, their tiny nav lights the only evidence, especially with today’s silent electric outboards.

Maybe after dinner, I might go down into the engine room and take a look, while the others clean up. It will still be warm after today’s run, but that might feel good in the evening’s chill. But it is more likely I’ll wait until morning to do my routine, coffee cup in hand. I found a great place for a coffee cup, by the way, right near where I check the engine oil and inspect the machinery. The only thing missing in some engine rooms is a Stidd chair. We kid about that a lot.

In the dispute between stinkpotters and ragbaggers, we all agree that trawlers are the cruising equivalent of Switzerland. Loved and appreciated by all.


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