I look back on many years of exploring the proper yacht, and the ideal passagemaker for cruising under power. Are you planning to go over the horizon for months at a time? If extended cruising is in your plans, trust me, some boats will work better than others.
Spending summer months in Southeast Alaska, or winters in Mexico or the Bahamas or the Caribbean, remain cruising goals of many couples in North America. Immersed in crystal clear waters and sandy beaches, or surrounded by natural beauty and wildlife, they are unique aspects of cruising that capture the imagination.
I’ve hosted countless seminars and panel discussions on hull shape and finding the right boat. While I don’t intend to present you with a dozen PowerPoint slides and pro/con talking points, I will cut to the chase and state that for the majority of people planning extended cruising, there is one hull shape that offers the most flexibility.
And that is the semi-displacement cruising boat, whether it is a trawler style or other kind of cruising motoryacht.
Sleek, Downeast-inspired, planing boats are great for weekends or longer vacations, where the ability to travel at higher speeds makes short work of getting from Point A to Point B. But they come up short when a couple attempts to live aboard for longer periods. My wife and I have done it, as have many friends, but it is more like camping, as there is just not enough storage or living space. Given the choice, it is not my recommended path. People live on 28-foot sailboats, too, but most of us are beyond the romance of that experience.
On the other end of the spectrum are full displacement trawlers, the salty and romantic go-anywhere ships that inspires confidence. A full displacement boat can be well suited for offshore passages and living aboard, with enough tankage for thousands of gallons of fuel and water, and tremendous storage of provisions, toys, and gear. That is why they have great appeal to many would-be passagemakers. But the reality is that very few people voyage across oceans in powerboats, and even fewer do it more than once. It is now common practice to ship the boat home, or on to the next cruising destination, as the transoceanic passage wasn’t as much fun as expected, or as satisfying. (With additional crew needed for a long passage comes the need to feed the crew, do laundry, and keep the boat clean.)
Weeks at sea also do not guarantee fair winds and calm seas, despite great advances in weather forecasting. (I will interview a professor of oceanography at the U.S. Naval Academy after the holidays on this very subject.)
Weaving All the Good Traits Together
The elements of a semi-displacement boat were once considered to be the ultimate set of compromises. As one builder says, they are neither fish nor fowl, as if this somehow invalidates the hull shape. But today I believe it is quite the opposite, especially with modern engines and stabilization systems.
For that extended adventure, the semi-displacement cruising boat offers the best of all worlds in terms of performance, economy, storage, and accommodations.
One can cruise a semi-displacement yacht at trawler displacement speeds, enjoying great fuel economy, taking the time to smell the roses while gunkholing in exotic waters. But the beauty of this boat is that one is not limited to six or seven knots, and there will be times when it is preferable to throttle up and go faster. Forget the doomsday “outrunning bad weather” reasoning. There are real-world situations when running at higher speeds is safer and just makes more sense. I remember approaching Wrangell, Alaska in a full displacement trawler. We could see the town off in the distance and the crew was ready to be there. I would have loved pushing up the throttles to 15+ knots to cover the distance in short order. Instead, we plodded along for what seemed an eternity.
Or how about crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas, or transiting the California coast? I’ve made the Gulf Stream crossing numerous times on many different boats, and the differences from my experience were startling. On one full displacement trawler, we planned our overnight watches, complete with each crew member checking safety gear and liferaft. I compare that to another trip where we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in West Palm Beach, then made a quick run over to West End at 16 knots, clearing customs in time for lunch. Weather forecasts and Gulf Stream reports are accurate for a three- or four-hour window. Ditto crossing Rosario Strait or the infamous run up or down the coast of New Jersey. Talk about removing the stress!
(Seen below: The Alaskan Yachts 57 MKII is a new project with Seattle Yachts that uses the benefits of a semi-displacement hull to its advantage.)
The ability to manage one’s fuel consumption is a marvelous thing, and balancing fuel economy with your boat speed to fit the moment is quite satisfying. This is especially true with electronically controlled engines, which offer great flexibility, while providing the helm with accurate fuel burn rates. One can use the sweet spots on the speed curve to match boat speed to the situation. Crossing the Gulf Stream at 15+ knots may burn lots of fuel, but only for a short time. Then one can slow down to cruise the islands at a relaxed pace.
This flexibility is not as easy to achieve with many deep-V or planing powerboats. They can be quite squirrely at trawler speeds. They are not designed to go slow as they gain stability from speed. My friend is currently replacing both of his high-horsepower engines’ turbochargers and wastegate valves as they were extremely clogged from years of the previous owner running his planing boat at slow speeds. It will be an expensive repair to say the least.
While a full displacement hull will always win in the ultimate storage comparison, with huge fuel and water tankage and space for everything, a semi-displacement trawler can still take on an enormous amount of gear, water, fuel, and supplies for that big adventure. Food and provisions can be properly stowed without burying cans in the bilges as there are usually numerous lockers and cabinets to take it all.
Having just two drawers for my clothes in a planing boat was a minimalist experience, whereas I can have a hanging locker and a set of drawers all to myself on the typical semi-displacement boat.
I know the “tiny home” movement has its supporters, but when living aboard and cruising for extended periods, most people will agree that even a boat built for two should have dedicated accommodations for sleeping, cooking, relaxing, and entertaining. A pilothouse is a marvelous place to work on ship’s business or write a journal, or simple read a book. And it is important for each crew member to have private space. Living for weeks on end with just a helm chair, settee, and folding saloon table for every activity gets old.
Today, modern, semi-displacement cruising boats are built with enough tankage to go the distance, and with stabilization, can provide owners with all the offshore capability and comfort they need for enjoyable boating. I know people have done amazing trips on semi-displacement trawlers and motoryachts, and we published many of their stories. Round Cape Horn? You bet. Cruise from Maine to Alaska or the other way around? Yup. I even know a fellow who brought his Grand Banks 42 home to Seattle from Hawaii. No stunt, just careful planning.
(Seen below: The salon of the Endurance 658 makes it easier to live on board for weeks at a time if needed.)
But I think you will agree that these trips are simply not on the cruising agenda of most couples, not by a long shot. The adventure is supposed to be fun.
We call it pleasure boating for a reason.
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