Choosing a safe boat

Five rules For Choosing A Safe Boat

25th August 2000.
By George Day

The adage among boat brokers and dealers runs: The happiest days of a sailor’s life are the days he buys his new boat and the day he sells his old boat. In between lies the years of sailing, cruising, racing and boat ownership. For most of us, the adage misses the mark. The real pleasure is found in the pure joy of owning a sound, seaworthy vessel. And, the ultimate pleasure in a boat comes at the end of a good offshore run, when, with land in sight, with navigation spot on, with gear and crew in good shape, the skipper and owner can say a quiet word of thanks to his stout, able ship that carried him through to a safe landfall.

Finding the right boat for you is not a subject that can be addressed in a general survey of boats and safety at sea. But, it is fair to lay down some broad parameters, beyond the more specific categories outlined above, that may prove useful in selecting the proper sailing boat for you and your family and friends to take to sea. These are the Five Rules:

Rule One: Know How You Will Use The Boat

All modern sailing boats available on the market have been built and designed to fulfill a certain general requirement of the owner. The Westsail 32, which weighs more than a J-40, was never intended to be a day sailer on a landlocked bay. The purpose of the boat was and is to roam the world, downwind, in the Trade Winds. It would be folly to ask a Westsail 32 to beat regularly to windward in a light breeze. In fact, it would be madness to expect such a boat to carry her crew any long distance to windward in any breeze. The boat will carry her crew clumsily off a lee shore in just about anything, and for that the boat deserves credit. But, her purpose and the trade she will enter into most profitably is bobbing like a cork before the winds of the tropics.

If you do not plan, seriously, to drift westward with the trade winds, then a boat such as a Westsail 32 is probably not for you.

When laying down parameters for choosing the right sailing boat, the safe and able boat, it is important to know what you will really need the boat to do. Will you be cruising only during weekends and will you have to be back on Sunday night no matter what? Will you have a week or two to take off during the sailing season? How far will you go? And, will the prevailing wind be against you one way or the other? Or both?

All of these factors will come to bear on how you select the right boat for you and your family.

Yet, another consideration should be given passing thought as well. How do you and your family and friends think about your time away from home? There are some who go sailing to get away from all that smacks of home, away from the phone, the complexities of shore side life, our dependency on comforts and services. For these sailors, the boat is like a cabin in the woods. It should be simple, plain, involve a minimum of maintenance and a minimum of worry. For such sailors, a simple, basic boat offers the one thing they can not find ashore: simplicity next to nature.

For those who feel the need to shower twice a day, who require ice in their drinks and carpet under their feet, a boat is a very different expression of style and use. Using a boat as a waterfront condo, as opposed to the cabin in the woods, requires a different technological level aboard, more complex systems and someone at hand to maintain those systems.

When thinking of a suitable boat to fill your cruising needs, it might well be foolish to think of sailing a floating condominium very far offshore, without first having a good look at the construction of the boat and having run the numbers on stability. But, if you never intend to sail out of sight of land, then it is prudent to select a boat that fills the comfort needs first and sea keeping needs second. A floating sailing condo has much to recommend it over the fixed shore side variety.

If you are looking for a boat in which to sail far and wide, then you must know if you will be sailing often to windward, often downwind or often all of the above. You must know how often you like to pull into gas docks and watering holes, how often you will need to replenish fresh foods, and how much deck cargo — life raft, dinghies, extra sails and so on — you will have to carry when crossing open stretches of water.

Knowing how you will use your boat involves knowing what your sailing and cruising style is going to be. If you fool yourself — Hell, of course I’m sailing around the world — while in fact you and your family have no intention of doing that, then you will end up with the wrong boat for the coastal gunkholing you end up enjoying. Be honest. Don’t buy a dream. Buy the real right boat for the real sailing and cruising you will be doing. If that sailing pattern changes, then it will be time to change boats.

Rule Two: Know Where You will Be Sailing

Rule Two follows closely on the heels of Rule One, yet it has an important difference. As was said above, be honest about where you plan to sail and how you plan to use the boat. Otherwise you can be stuck with a Trade Wind cork that wants to float you to Bali, while you are beating, without much success into your prevailing head wind.

Beyond the simple requirement to be honest, however, every sailor looking for a new sail boat, a new cruising boat or club racer, should first take a long hard look at the charts for the areas in which he or she will be sailing.

If you will be sailing out of Cape Cod and plan to venture no farther than Cuttyhunk and Nantucket, then you will be hard pressed to find any water under you keel deeper than 30 feet. Most of the time the water you’ll want to sail in will be shallower than 15 feet. And, the best anchorages will require depths of less than five feet.

So, if that’s your sailing region, deciding to buy a boat that draws seven feet — even thought it has great offshore talent — would be an exercise in frustration.

Too much draft is always a concern, particularly for East Coast sailors where several of the best cruising areas are noted for their lack of water: Southern New England; Long Island Sound; Chesapeake Bay; Albermarle and Pamlico Sound; The Florida Keys; The Bahamas. If you can draw a circle around the areas you are likely to sail and not leave the shallows just listed, then it may make sense to look for a boat that offers shoal draft.

Weather patterns are the other major concern when selecting a boat to match a sailing region. In the Pacific Northwest, pilot-house designs have become popular because sailors out of Seattle and Vancouver know they will face both rain and cool winds. In Florida and Southern California, sun is the major concern, so Bimini tops and ample ventilation must play a role in selecting a boat for the region.

Draft and the type of weather that will likely be faced should be major decision points in selecting a vessel for sailing with family and friends. Understanding these two aspects will lead to choosing the right boat for the region and for you use of it in that climate. That boat, the right boat, will be the safest boat you can choose.

Rule Three: Understand A Boat’s Designer Purpose

All boats are compromises. Production boats that are sold on a mass scale, must be designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Limited production boats tend to be designs that fill one special niche in the market, boats that speak to one type of sailor with one special type of sailing need.

Yet, modern sailing boats under fifty feet tend to group themselves into two basic categories: those that are designed to be as light and fast as possible, which have evolved from racing boats, and those which are conceived as load carriers, which have evolved from the wood-build work boats of years gone by.

It is important to keep the two ideas separate. If you intend to carry two tons of personal belongings, 200 gallons of fuel and 200 gallons of water, as well as three months supply of canned goods, you would do yourself a disservice to try to accomplish the task in a light displacement boat that was designed to sail light and sail quickly.

And the converse it equally true. Those who intend to sail only along the coast and near to home, who plan to race in the week night beer can races and might, once a year, venture off for two or three weeks on an extended coastal cruise would be better served by a light, fin keeler than a dowdy load carrier. When coastal sailing, every time you meet another boat on your relative course, it is a race. It’s a important to admit this. Why choose to sail slowly, to carry four times as much fuel as you need, to trundle about vast amounts of unnecessary stores and equipment, when you could be slipping through the water like a killer whale?

Modern sailing boats can do either but few or none can do both. When you are puzzling out the parameters you require in a boat, it is important to match a boat’s designed purpose — the inherent comprise — with your own purpose when out sailing.

Rule Four: Know A Boat’s Numbers

More often than not, a sailor will select a boat in which to spend the next few years enjoying the water, cruising, racing and occasionally sailing offshore, by simply knowing in the seat of his pants what’s right and what’s not. That system, vague as it may be, has worked on and off for years. But, there is a better way.

In this chapter we have discussed stability, capsize coefficients and other fundamental numbers that can be derived from a boats specifications and lines. Although it may not be necessary for a skipper to study these numbers, it may be prudent.

The stability range of a hull, as calculated from the IMS measurements, will give you a very clear idea how a boat will perform in storm conditions. You will also get a good reading on how you will have to handle the boat in given situations, such as running off, heaving to, or lying ahull.

The Capsize Screening Number, derived with the formula given above, will give you a quick and simplified fix on the boat’s inherent stability, its likelihood of capsizing and on it’s initial stability. Although only a general number, the Capsize Screening Number can prove useful when comparing different boats.

Rule Five: Evaluate A Boat Dispassionately

At the beginning of this chapter we discussed briefly the problem most boat owner have with their boats. We all think our boats are beautiful, unless the boat has been for sale for a year. Also, we have heard from friends, brokers and others that we will know the next right boat, the boat that will take us farther than ever before, the safe, seaworthy vessels of our dreams when we see it. It will be love at first sight.

Often that’s just what happens.

But, once the pangs have hit, once the mind has been switched off by desire, once the decision has been made, irrevocably, then it is time to take a long walk. Or a cold shower. Or have a sobering chat with a non sailing friend.

Once the right boat seems to have appeared, the time has arrived to take a long, dispassionate look at what the boat is really all about. The time has come to inspect the keel and rudder, the fiberglass construction and the core samples from the thru-hulls. It is time to look at the rig and assess, frankly, if it is of a size commensurate with your needs for strength, durability and safety.

A boat that fits your sailing requirements is a thing of real beauty. But, it is critical that before you get carried away on the magic carpet, that you stop and look at the boat with a cold eye. Despite its beauty, in the end it will either be a safe and sound vessel for you and your crew or it won’t. If it is safe, well constructed, soundly fitted out and ready for the rigors of the sea, then its beauty will add to that as a delightful bonus.

But safety must come first.


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