There are many reasons people decide to go cruising. It is a wonderful lifestyle for those who like to travel, meet like-minded people, and experience the world on a different level. We’ve talked before about one’s style of cruising, but no matter what your approach to the cruising life, the one common requirement is that you need a boat.

A cruising boat is one large enough to live on while traveling from place to place. It may or may not involve crossing an ocean or other large bodies of water, it may be for a couple of weeks each year or it may be full time spanning years.

Walk the docks of any boat show and the diverse number of cruising boats is overwhelming, in terms of design ideas and how best to get everything into such a small space. For young couples aiming for the “experience,” they may be willing to accept the compromise of small living spaces and minimal creature comforts. Many successful cruises have been made in pocket cruisers.

But for today’s experienced and mature cruisers, there are certain necessary requirements in terms of living space, storage, and comfort in a hull shape and size that is safe, stable, and more than simply livable.

Since the beginning of recreational cruising, the boat of choice has been a sailboat, as big or as small as one could manage and make work. Sailboats are seaworthy and well proven. Properly outfitted, they can be comfortable to live on at anchor, at the dock, and safe under way while exploring the world. A look around any coastal anchorage is proof they are also a popular choice for full-time liveaboards as well.

I love sailing. It is a fabulous sport, but I admit it is not the most efficient way to get somewhere, and only really works if one has lots of time. Yes, a trade wind route around the world with steady winds blowing from astern is the perfect scenario for a sailboat, but let’s be honest. The number of people who pursue that level of cruising—world cruising—is relatively small.

No, most cruising people are more interested in coastal cruising. Two people and a cat or dog, intent on living aboard for weeks or even months at a time. They may be headed up north during the summer, or to tropical islands and warmer seaports during the winter season. For East Coast cruisers in the U.S. and Canada, at some point it includes the annual, 1,200-mile trip down the ICW to reach South Florida in the fall as either the destination or as a jumping off point over to the islands. With a return trip up the ICW in the spring to head north. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve done this ICW marathon. In my experience, it is the rare couple who leisurely “cruise” up or down the ICW. For most of us we go into delivery mode to get away from the approaching cold weather, or the motivating smells of spring pulling us north. Either way, it involves many long days of travel. But that is another subject for another time.

(Seen below: For coastal cruising, downeast-style boats make an excellent option for a couple. Legacy Yachts are among the best in the industry.)

legacy yachts downeast boats 

Camping or Comfort?

When one is young, the ability to put up with compromise is amazing, especially looking back with older eyes. In the 1970s, I lived aboard a Tahiti Ketch in Seattle. I was single and working my way up the corporate ladder. In the winter, my leather dress shoes lived in my car trunk, and putting them on each morning is a chilly memory.

Ten years later, I bought a brand-new Baba 30, a sweet sailing gem designed by Robert Perry. It was less money than real estate prices in the Annapolis area at the time, and as I was still single, the boat allowed me to combine my love of living on the water with a romantic studio apartment. It was before the rage of the tiny home movement, and I loved it.

When I now look back at those days, the forward V-berth was impossible to properly make the bed, a far cry from the island queen berths on my later boats. And she had a wet head rather than a dry head with a separate shower. The all-in-one head concept isn’t a compromise my wife would tolerate today beyond a weekend. There was no dishwasher, washer/dryer, or air conditioning. At the time, it didn’t matter to me. Today, it would.

And then there is the issue of being exposed in a sailboat under way. Long days in an open cockpit are tiring and can really wear you down if you are on the move day after day. Can you imagine driving a convertible cross country, the top down the entire way, night and day, rain or shine? So, it is no surprise to see so many full cockpit enclosures these days, great structures of Sunbrella and eisenglass, surrounding the aft or center cockpit on cruising sailboats.

These enclosures offer great protection from the elements, but also make it difficult to go sailing. Guess what? At this point in their evolution as cruisers, these people no longer sail their boat. It is common knowledge that coastal cruisers routinely motor 85 percent of the time. I’ve heard this time and again for years from guys in the industry and fellow cruisers. Living aboard full time, it is just easier to start the engine when getting under way. Things don’t have to be put away or secured down below, and what about the solar panels, wind generators, bikes, SUPs, and other cruising stuff?

As one builder of performance sailboats says when comparing its line of light air performance models, if you motor most of the time in the conditions you cruise in, buy a motorboat.

There is another thing you’ll see on the decks of your typical cruising sailboat, the collection of diesel jerry cans tied on the side decks to the lifeline stanchions. Portable containers of diesel fuel are a standard addition to every cruising sailboat. There are two reasons for this. First, in many anchorages we buy fuel on land and transport it back to the boat in the dinghy. It allows us to refill our fuel tank at anchor.

The second reason, and one of particular significance to this article, is that the cruising sailboats we’re talking about, in the 35 to 45-foot range, are built with limited fuel capacity. This means the boat doesn’t carry enough fuel to provide much range. A Catalina 42 carries 38 gallons of diesel and has a range of 200+ nm if one slows down. Even a proven bluewater sailboat, such as a Hallberg-Rassy 43, carries just over 100 gallons of fuel. One of my favorite cruising sailboats is the Valiant 42, which comes standard with 77-gallon tankage, with additional optional tanks.

Refilling the main fuel tank becomes a frequent routine, not to mention feeding the genset to power the watermaker and other appliances and charge the batteries.

(Seen below: The Moody 54 Enclosed Deck is a cruising option for those wanting protection from the elements. Seattle is a Moody, Hanse, and Dehler dealer.)

Moody Sailboat Enclosed Deck Cruiser

What Is The Ideal Speed For A Cruising Boat?

So where am I going with this? Cruising sailboats have a small diesel engine to push the slippery hull shape at displacement speeds. It is common for a 40-50hp diesel engine to drive the boat, turning a two or three-blade fixed or folding propeller.

While the kind of cruising we’re discussing is not leading up to a circumnavigation, some experts insist that having sufficient range is important regardless. One sailing and cruising authority recommends enough fuel to go 600-800 miles while able to maintain 6 knots. Even if one is not doing those miles all at once, it maintains a degree of self-sufficiency away from a fuel dock.

Now for some quick math. The Catalina 42’s engine, running at 80% load, burns 1.4gph at 7.1 knots. With a 10 % fuel reserve, at that speed the boat has a range of just over 170nm. The Hallberg-Rassy 43 burns 1.2gph at 6.5 knots, for a range of under 500 nm, again with a 10% fuel reserve.

Of course, those ranges can be extended by slowing down but at what point is slowing down to less than 6 knots a reasonable proposition?

Let me introduce an alternative in this range and fuel tank discussion, after which we can expand to other elements of an ideal cruising boat. Let’s take a look at the American Tug 435, a solid choice for a trawler-type cruiser with a single, electronically controlled Cummins diesel engine. The 43-footer carries 640 gallons of fuel. Using the same fuel reserve as before, the calculations for the American Tug show its range is 2,456nm running the boat at 6.5 knots, burning 1.6 gph. Speed up to 7.7 knots and the range decreases to a still respectable 1,777nm, burning 2.6gph.

The popular Fleming 55 now comes with twin Cummins QSC engines. According to its website, running at 7.5 knots, the boat burns 2.4gph for a range of 2,788nm. Speed up to 10 knots (which is a sweet spot for this boat) and the range drops to 1,470nm.

Look at the fuel burn for various versions of the venerable Grand Banks 42 Classic, not a slippery hull shape by any description. These wide and roomy trawlers were built with twin 120 Lehmans, twin Cat 3208s, twin Cummins 210s, even twin John Deere 135s. However, the numbers are similar. At 8.5-8.8 knots, these boats burn about 4gph. Slow down to 6.5-7 knots and the gallons per hour is halved.

By staying close to a cruising speed of 6.5-7.5 knots, even larger cruising motor yachts and trawlers can offer great range without burning hundreds of gallons of fuel each day (costing $$$). They are all capable of running in the mid-teens or faster, but with electronic engines, keeping the speed down is economical and provides serious range for the kind of cruising most couples realistically plan. One can count on consistent distances each day without having to buy fuel as often. While engine companies recommend running an engine at 75 percent load most of the time, the marvels of electronic engines open this up to a wider performance envelope.

This speed will get you where you are going with the least amount of fuss and anxiety. Things happen quickly when you are running along at 25 knots, and it is tiring. There is a sweet spot for every boat, where speed and fuel burn are most efficient.

This brings me back to the value of a semi-displacement cruising powerboat which offers this kind of economical operation and hull form stability while also being able to get up to speed to cross an exposed body of water within a favorable weather window. Having large fuel tankage, yet consuming small amounts of fuel each day, is the secret weapon of the trawler concept. It represents an ideal cruising boat that can cruise without worry about fuel and water as it has enough of both.

If you are in a hurry, buy an airline ticket.

(Seen below: Tartan Yachts builds one of the most durable sailboats available and are known to be extremely seaworthy for cruising.)

tartan yachts cruising sailboats

A Case for The Best Cruising Boat

Let’s expand on other elements that make a convincing argument for this kind of boat, whether you call it a trawler or not. In fact, let’s deal with that issue right now, as it is a recurring question. Just what is a trawler? (Also Read: Buying & Owning A Trawler Yacht.)

The word trawler means different things to different people. When the growth of the cruising world introduced the oxymoron of “fast trawlers” to the cruising community, many people asked me how to define a trawler as the choices blurred any semblance to tradition. Then there were power catamarans coming into the trawler market, and all sorts of Downeast-inspired cruising boats.

My answer is that at some point, the word trawler no longer accurately described a particular boat shape or speed, but rather is best considered a metaphor for the lifestyle. Go to any trawler gathering, and you will see a wide range of boats that may or may not fit your definition of a trawler, but on which its owners absolutely enjoy the trawler lifestyle. Safe, comfortable travel and adventure with all the comforts of home.

Modern cruising boats demand lots of energy, as we prefer the convenience of refrigeration, dedicated freezers, lots of electronics, air conditioning, laundry and other appliances. Even on sailboats these are now standard. Supplying constant energy to cruising boats is often beyond the ability of a solar panel or two. A trip to the BVIs from Charleston on a large sailing cat was an eye-opener. The electrical demands of its systems, computers, and beefy autopilot meant the generator ran 24/7. Who dreams of the silence and beauty of sailing that includes the constant hum of a genset?

Decades ago, the very idea and perceived dangers of electricity on a boat were avoided at all costs. But with today’s cruising lifestyle, the necessity for electricity and all that it brings aboard is significant. Navigation electronics, radar, watermaker, windlass, computer, freezer, refrigeration, autopilot...the cruising sailboat that does not rely heavily on electrical systems is rare to the point of extinction in 2020. Today’s cruising sailboats and powerboats are full of equipment and systems that require constant source of electricity.

(Seen below: The Northern Marine 57 offfers the advantages of a trawler yacht for long distance cruising. Seattle Yachts has a Northern Marine 57 currently in production.)

northern marine trawler yacht

What Does the Best Cruising Boat Look Like?

So, my conclusion is that if one is looking for the ideal cruising boat, it would include the following:

Economical operation at 6.5-7.5 knots, with enough tankage to provide long range. (I don’t mention a specific mile range, as we’re not talking about crossing oceans. We’re simply talking about not needing to be on the lookout for fuel stops or carrying full jerry cans on deck. That 600-800nm range is enough. But for those still thinking about voyaging across oceans, I would argue that it is much easier, cheaper, and less stressful to simply ship your cruising boat over to the Mediterranean or some Pacific island group than to buy a boat that is capable of doing it on its own bottom, with all the necessary and expensive safety and other equipment that you otherwise don’t need.)

Accessibility to all systems and mechanical components. If it can be reached easily, it can be inspected, serviced, and repaired. I would not buy another boat that did not allow me to reach all major systems, batteries, and system components. It is just too important for a cruising boat. You may not be out in the middle of the ocean, but stranded in a remote cruising area you are still on your own.

A boat that is safe, comfortable, and a good shelter for its crew. In places like the Pacific Northwest where cold, wet weather is a fact of life, it is much more relaxing being inside a heated pilothouse than sitting in the cockpit at the helm in foul weather gear, exposed to wind and rain, everyone else huddled under the dodger.

The same protection for the crew is desirable in the tropics where the sun is hot and dangerous from constant exposure. Some like a flybridge for running in fine weather. That is not quite a desired feature where cold and wet conditions are prevalent. Given the choice of an inside helm, a flybridge, and/or a pilothouse, if I had to choose of one, I’d pick the pilothouse every time.

The cruising parameters of the best cruising boat avoids the draft of a large sailboat while also reducing the air draft restrictions of a tall rig. And a trawler will offer larger living spaces and storage for provisions and gear.

Some hull shapes provide stability, and there are active stabilizing systems, which work as well as the mainsail on a sailboat to keep things from rolling from side to side.

Dinghies may be easier to carry, launch, and retrieve from a cruising motorboat.

Unless the boat is going to be one’s permanent home, I suggest finding a boat that is just big enough to fit your needs in terms of living space and storage, but not much more. Avoid extra staterooms if you don’t need them, although there is value to having separate living spaces to get some private time, which is hard to find in a small boat. But a smaller boat will generally be simpler to operate, and less expensive to own and maintain.

(Seen below: The Regency P65 interior is intended for luxury cruisers who also want to entertain.)

regency cruising boats

But Wait…There’s More

There is one final point worth making on this subject. To be the best cruising boat, a trawler of any kind requires a better than average installation of systems that include redundancy in critical areas and systems, which will be the subject of future articles. Trust me, my “blessing” as being the “Trawler Guy” meant I was invited/expected to be on every new launch and every delivery of a new boat model, no matter where or what time of year.

In case you haven’t guessed what that means, well it’s simple. Stuff breaks on a new boat, sometimes important stuff. It happens on every new boat. It is the nature of boat building, essentially putting together a lot of unrelated equipment and systems that are sourced from around the world. The chance of everything working and integrating properly right out of the box, especially on its first sea voyage, is zero.

Not every trip or delivery became an article because of this. (I always thought a book of those misadventures would be a top seller.)

Sailing is wonderful, but it is not always the best way to get somewhere. It highlights the classic balance between the journey and the destination. When I go sailing, it is all about the journey. Finding the groove by tweaking natural forces is a thrill second to none.

Conversely, running a powerboat becomes boring rather quickly if you are just out there and there is no destination in mind. Everyone I know who bought a jet ski got bored after about two weeks.

No place to go is the opposite of cruising.


Read more cruising-related articles written by Bill Parlatore, Founder of Passagemaker Magazine: