This is a popular question in boating circles, especially for new sailors dreaming of heading over the horizon. Lacking experience, it is difficult to know fact from fiction when walking the docks.
The truth to this simple question is a lot less intimidating than one might expect. Small boats routinely go sailing offshore. Beyond stunts to grab the title of smallest ever, a lot of legitimate sailors have enjoyed cruising on small boats. (There is an interesting book for those wanting to know more about the smallest ocean crossing sailboats: A Speck on the Sea, by William Longyard.)
I knew an architect in Seattle who told me when she was younger, she and her boyfriend decided to sail his Piver 25 trimaran to Bermuda from Charleston. They had limited resources, and with minimal accommodations and storage, they intended to exist on bags of popcorn. Unfortunately, the winds were not favorable, they soon ran out of water, so they turned around.
However, Arthur Piver, one of the pioneers of trimaran design, built a 21-foot boat named Nugget that he sailed down the California coast in the late 1950s. That same boat later cruised down to Mexico. Subsequent homemade boats in the early 1960s were sailed across the Atlantic as well as to New Zealand.
So, the question about how big your boat needs to be to sail around the world has more to do with design and construction than just overall length. Indeed, there are many cruising boats that most would find too small, but are strongly built and well made, such as the pocket-sized sailboats from Pacific Seacraft. The 20-foot Flicka is by no means the mainstream image of a bluewater boat, yet many have crossed oceans. The 400+ Flickas out there are rugged, much loved, and bluewater capable.
(Seen below: An example of a 20-foot Flicka sailboat.)
The same can be said for the slightly larger Pacific Seacraft 24-foot Dana, designed by Bill Crealock. Only slightly longer than the Flicka, the Dana took small boat sailing to another level, as the increased volume and interior allow a couple to comfortably live aboard while cruising, which include making ocean passages.
The adventures of Tania Aebi, who circumnavigated the world in her Taylor 26 (the Canadian version of the Contessa 26) captured the imagination of many sailors. The Contessa is a small but seaworthy little boat with sitting headroom, similar to the legendary Folkboat. Yet its capability is well established. Her slightly larger sister, the Contessa 32, was the only small boat to finish the stormy 1979 Fastnet Race, where 24 boats were abandoned, and 15 lives were lost.
(Seen below: An overview of Tania Aebi's travels by sailboat.)
I once asked Canadian naval architect, Ted Clemens, what he thought the minimum size boat one should consider for going offshore. He smiled and said that it is difficult to say. He then told me about Ben Carlin, an Australian who was the first (and likely only) person to circumnavigate in an amphibious vehicle. After World War II, Carlin bought a surplus Ford GPA (an 18-foot version of the well-known, Army DUKW) and added a cabin and towable fuel “barge” to increase its suitability for crossing an ocean. He named it Half-Safe. (Interestingly, Rod Stephens Jr of Sparkman & Stephens worked on the design of both the GPA and DUKW.)
Carlin successfully crossed the Atlantic with his wife in 1951. Over the next ten years they continued around the world. At the completion of his world travels, Carlin had driven Half-Safe 11,000 miles across oceans and 37,000 miles across continents. Half-Safe is now on display at the Guildford Grammar School in Perth.
To frame the other side of the same question, I once had an absorbing conversation with Ed Monk, Jr in Ft Lauderdale . I asked him what he felt was the ideal size boat to sail across oceans with a high degree of confidence. He told me it was a favorite subject he shared with his father, who was fascinated by rogue waves. The Monk father and son duo spent a lot of time researching available data. They finally concluded that a vessel of 83 feet overall was the ideal smallest and safest yacht to survive all things at sea, including rogue waves.
I’ve since concluded that boat size is perhaps a trifle less important than the quality of its design, construction, and outfitting. Even the small yachts I mention from Pacific Seacraft are nice sailing boats and can sail along smartly in general ocean conditions.
But to say these small boats are ideal for sailing and cruising across large bodies of water would be silly, even if one does bring along enough popcorn. A small boat does not have the storage, the tankage, or the living space that is required for successful cruising.
Having said that, YouTube channels are full of young couples sailing and living the dream in boats that are small, old, minimalist, and cheap. Sailing and living aboard a boat that is 50 years old is not something I look forward to. The Allied Seawind, original Valiant 40, and Alberg 30 are all classic boats that have a long history of successful cruising and offshore sailing. Ditto larger popular boats like the Stevens 47, Passports, and Peterson 44. Yet boats of that vintage are in constant need of rebuilding, refit, and fixing things in exotic places.
I bought a new Baba 30 in 1985. It was a super boat and cozy home for a single guy. I just loved being aboard and sailing this small jewel of a yacht. Yet, a couple of years ago a friend sent me pictures of my former boat, now for sale in Aruba. I shudder to think of the work it now represents. The Yanmar 30GM30F must be tired, the fittings, hoses, and every piece of moving gear needs to be changed, and the rigging surely needs to be carefully inspected and most of it replaced.
To bring her back to my standards would be a costly challenge.
(Seen below: A Baba 30 sailboat.)
So, let’s consider what is involved with buying a used sailboat to go offshore, at least as far as traveling to the islands or Mexico. A boat capable of sailing offshore but not necessarily around the world.
Unless it is new or nearly so, once you buy a boat, you will need to make some upgrades and refit some of the systems. And down the road you will also need to maintain and repair it as necessary. So, when looking at any vintage sailboat, a potential buyer must be alert to the possibility of fiberglass delamination, rot in plywood bulkheads, moisture or blisters in the hull, and leaking hardware and hatches. They are common issues but also why the price may be right.
It might take a year or more to resolve all the issues, and one can spend up tp 100 percent of the purchase price to complete the repairs. Maybe a new engine, sails, mast and rigging, water and fuel tanks, pumps, hoses, fittings, electrical and electronic updating… the list can be long.
And it doesn’t stop there. What is required to get the boat ready and safe for sailing offshore? Consider another 40 to 50 percent of the purchase price for things like a liferaft, heavier ground tackle and windlass, redundant autopilot, wind vane steering, and the necessary spare parts and extras one should have aboard just in case.
And if it is a larger boat, one might want to install air conditioning, upgrade the boat’s refrigeration, perhaps add a bow thruster, a generator, solar panels, and other equipment for comfortable living aboard. Comfort is a good thing, as one can expect to spend 90 percent of the time at anchor, mooring, or dock…not under way. Did I mention a new dinghy and outboard?
For all the above reasons, I am of the school that thinks it is best to buy a new or newer boat, even if it must be in the smaller end of the size range being considered. A five-year old 38-foot sailboat will have far fewer issues than a roomy 45-footer that is 40+ years old for the same general price range. It is just the way it is.
Looking to do more than simply go offshore occasionally? How about crossing an ocean to do the Atlantic Loop between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, or Hawaii from the West Coast?
Most cruising experts agree that a boat between 35 and 45 feet is the most common and works well for couples. The people who run the ARC, the annual event that attracts over 200 boats and 1,200 people to cross the Atlantic from Gran Canaria to St Lucia, keep great records of the fleets from year to year. Couples and families cross the ocean as part of this event and then spend a year or more in the Caribbean and perhaps up to the Bahamas and U.S. before heading back across to the Mediterranean. It is a well-traveled and well documented itinerary and a wonderful experience for all.
(Seen below: An ARC event where dozens of sailboats head for St. Lucia.)
According to the organizers, these days the most popular boats are standard production boats, and the most popular in recent ARCs are Lagoon and Fountaine Pajot sailing catamarans, and Beneteau and Jeanneau monohulls. These and the other European production boats from Hanse Yachts, X-Yachts, Bavaria, Dufour, and Dehler make this trip safely. They are comfortable, easy to sail, and are a good choice without costing a fortune.
An ARC representative said the average water tank size in recent Transatlantic crossings is 500 liters, or 132 gallons. That is fine for general cruising and to do this Atlantic crossing (with a bit of water management), but that would not be the choice for someone planning a three-to-five-year circumnavigation.
Keep in mind that production sailboat builders build boats for the way most of their owners use their boats. And most have no intention of crossing an ocean. So, while these boats may be designed and built for CE certification rating of Class A, the boats are not finished to the level necessary to take on a circumnavigation. And it would be foolhardy for any of these builders to significantly raise the price of their boats to cover the additional and unnecessary effort and expense in hopes of satisfying the desires of only a handful of potential buyers.
Take Beneteau, for example, the largest boat builder in the world. They know their customers very well and how they use their boats. Why would Beneteau intentionally install large fuel tanks when they know the diesel fuel needs of their owners are basically minimal. Most sailors motor in and out of their marina, and maybe motor for a time on vacation when the wind dies. But over the course of a season, they don’t use much diesel fuel. Unused diesel that sits in a large tank over a long time can easily become a major problem, especially if water gets into the tank.
Experienced sailors, on the flip side, know that for long distance cruising, it is a good idea to carry enough fuel to be able to travel under power for 700-1,000nm. That is not a rule, but it is nice to have long legs. It also means one does not have to scrounge around for diesel fuel once they arrive in remote island chains. Owners can wait until they reach a major destination to refuel. Hand pumping diesel fuel out of 55-gallon drums after a long passage into five-gallon Jerry cans to ferry out in the dinghy is not much fun.
The same can be said for water tanks. Even with 80 gallons of water on a boat, if it is not used and turned over, it can develop a nasty taste and smell. Seasonal sailors use water on weekends and on their summer vacations, but it is usually readily replenished when they are cruising. The idea of carrying around a large supply of water is ridiculous to most recreational sailors. Yet it is important to world cruisers.
That is why the boats that participate in the ARC but then continue around the world are built to a different mission statement. They are generally beefier in construction, use heavier and more robust fittings, systems, and hardware, have bigger tanks, and are better equipped for long distance sailing. These boats will be the Oyster, Hallberg-Rassy, Najad, Swan, Malo, Garcia, Amel, and Garcia, to name a few. They are the choice for a circumnavigation.
Having larger fuel and water tanks requires more volume in a boat, which means a bigger boat. On one hand, we might choose a larger boat because it is faster and can cover more miles per day while providing more comfortable living accommodations at anchor. But it will also carry more water and fuel, as well as other storage for provisions, and room for spares. A bigger boat wins in all aspects except cost and perhaps ease of handling.
On the issue of ease of handling, I’ve been particularly interested in the boat choices for older sailors who want to go offshore, but who are not as agile, flexible, or as immortal as someone in their 30s or 40s. For the cruising senior, it is probably best to think smaller, perhaps around 35 feet or so. This will make sailing easier without needing complex gear to run the boat. In my experience it is easier to sail a big boat than a small one, but only with a healthy and athletic crew. Beyond a certain age, I think it reverses itself. A big boat has momentum and is comfortable in a seaway, but a smaller boat is more easily handled (and less stressful) for aging sailors who just don’t have the strength and flexibility they once enjoyed.
(Seen below: The Hanse 348 has a self-tacking jib system so all lines go to the helm for easily sailing.)
I am a member of the Ocean Cruising Club, a UK-based organization of cruising sailors who embody the world cruising community. Its international membership can be found in every corner of the world, including the northern and southern latitudes, experiencing the life many of us dream of. Whenever I am in the company of OCC members, whether manning their booth at a boat show, or at one of their cruising events, I enjoy hearing their stories and conversations between members, such as the best place to buy fuel in Panama, going ashore at St Helena Island, navigating ice fields in Greenland, or which part of New Zealand they enjoyed the most. It is also nice to hear how much they enjoy cruising the Chesapeake Bay.
The annual OCC Members’ Handbook lists the current member roster and what boat they own. I found it interesting while thinking about this article because these people are out there cruising the world and most of the members I’ve met already circumnavigated, or nearly so. So, perusing the handbook about the size and brand of their sailboat, seemed to fit the dialogue perfectly. Very few are production boats.
Randomly opening the handbook to boat names listed alphabetically under “M,” I see Tayana 48, Mason 44, Malo 39, Vancouver 27, Moody 346, Fisher 37, Bristol Channel Cutter 53, Valiant 42, Baltic 48, Bowman 40, Amel Maramu 48, Hylas 49, Sundeer 56, Lagoon 421, Leopard 47, Sceptre 41, Saga 43, Tartan 40, Oyster 55, Hanse 371, Rustler 36, Outremer 45, Catana 42S, Alden 44, and others. These are mostly in the range of boats we are talking about, although given the experience of some of these members, some have gradually stepped in size for a more comfortable home afloat.
Several experienced experts feel that one should look for a boat with a displacement/length ratio under 360, which is a moderate displacement relative to a boat’s waterline length. It is a nice compromise between the ability to carry weight, have a comfortable motion, and sail fast. Heavier boats are slow and harder to maneuver, while boats with numbers under 200 will be limited in what they can carry and won’t be as comfortable when the weather goes south. There are websites that list D/L ratios for most boats out there, and it is just one tool to develop an understanding of how a boat will be out in the ocean.
It is quite possible to enjoy the offshore experience on any size sailboat, but just not on one where the deck flexes under foot, or the size of fittings in the rigging are best suited for lake sailing. With some experience, it becomes easy to pick out the real deal among the less competent boats built to a price point. As a fan of small boat sailing, I am always intrigued by a designer’s ability to fit it all into a smaller package yet robust enough to take on the sea.
Even so, I also understand why so many seasoned cruisers today want a big boat with the ability to make 200 miles a day, which makes for fast passages and being able to sail away from weather systems. That is a valid point as well.
When you decide you are up to the challenge, go out and look at as many boats as you can, and connect with an experienced broker who understands all these factors. And, unless you are intent on making a living publishing your cruising adventures on your YouTube channel, focus on the fun of it.
Making landfall is exciting no matter what size boat you sail. Just hope the rogue waves are elsewhere.
Also Read: Frequently Asked Questions About Sailboats
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- Sometimes It's All About Simplicity
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