by Jeff Gilbert

Cheap Passagemaking under Sail
Myth or Real Possibility?
by Jeff Gilbert

1. Re-size your thinking
(or An Ode to the Middle Size Yacht)

The most frequently asked question I encounter over the little catamaran Hot Chili I designed is “Can I travel Offshore” and the answer to that is invariably “She’d usually be fine, but she’s not designed for the worst of it. For that you need to spend a bit more on a bigger boat”. But the fact that some boats are just too small for a combination of safety and comfort on passage does not imply that bigger and bigger is better and better. In ocean boat sizing, not much increase is needed before you have more boat than you can handle – many good drivers would not go near a semi-trailer. The sheer horsepower thrumming through a 40-footers rig can be terrifying, and the forces at play on such running rigging can turn your cockpit from an imagined place of pleasure to something akin to a sawmill. The level of complication rises with the forces, ie rapidly, and if a yacht can’t be single-handed one needs two, but one also needs rest, so immediately you need five, two crews and a spare/cook. Three people on a single handler will achieve more rest and harmony, and here we see a natural pointer to middle sized boat. The only other crew should be Audrey the Autopilot or Wanda the Wind-vane – self steering mechanisms should have names as they do more work than any person aboard, and assist your passage in an almost human way. They even steer like errant humans, over correcting constantly! Self-steering is a safety issue - attempting to steer a whole passage can be literally deadly.

7ton Lyle Hess Bristol Channel Cutter 29’9‘ LOD.
The greatest midsize passagemaker?

There are natural upper limits on yacht size. The biggest sailing yacht in the world, Mirrabella V, who just had her 300 ft, 42 ton mast stepped, approaches the stress limits the best construction materials known can handle. Stepping down, the Multihulls for THE RACE are arguing that a 120 ft hull at speed may be too long for ocean wave patterns. But in the world of the wage/salary earner, those fine humans who work hard but cant come at being anyone’s “boss”, cost is the upper limiting factor. Can an ocean crossing be afforded by such people? As one of them I think its possible but not easy, but I also believe there are so many solutions to the problem that it will take me several of these articles to touch on them. Furthermore if you have the whole range of possibilities laid out, one of them is more likely to fall into place for you. However I say its not easy because while the cost can be curtailed, it can never be cheap because in this scenario if we ain’t safe we ain’t going! One cannot achieve the ratio of igloo to a conventional house out on the heaving ocean, the most unfamiliar and hostile environment of all.

So you say, you need a strong safe middle sized boat, and that still costs a bomb to get ocean ready. Throwing bank money at the problem is just Jim Dandy, and works every time, but who wants to take off with the albatross of debt around their neck. So you need money for the boat, and you haven’t got it. So you wait. You wait till you are about to retire, and you retire as early as you can. You move to a cheaper area and trade down to a cheaper house, ditching any mortgages. This gives you a year’s salary (before tax) to spend on your boat. This amount feels OK. Its an amount that sits okay. It may not be enough but after slaving for what little you have you simply cant come at more. You need to be able to live with the total loss of that amount. You are unlikely to, but you need to be ready to. So lets say that leaves us with 40 k US, of which we would only spend 2/3 on the boat, or less depending on its state of ocean readiness.

There are other ways to earn the money on a salary. Saving hard is out of the question. You’ll do it so hard you won’t want to spend the money even if you do put it together. You can trade up to a bigger home and gain equity, you can buy land in an out of the way place. But I think the simplest is in the word itself, learn to live simply.
Ignore advertising and what others want and consume only wht you need. If you consider wealth as the measure of what you can do without, and that includes this boat itself, you might just get it. It means waiting, it means not having more than a canoe in the meantime, it means cups of tea on a beer income. It means catching the bus if you are being ripped off for parking. It means recognising that there are too many motorcars in the world, therefore you can get a reliable one cheap. Use these things. Stick to your job , youll enjoy it more once you’ve stopped watching adverts. Pour the little excess into higher super payments or your mortgage and you may just step into retirement with enough for a real reward. By this time living simply, not to be confused with being a miser or a wowser in a miserly manner, will also enable you to enjoy retirement without having to go back to work to make ends meet. Evey hobby and pastime has a cheaper and more satisfying equivalent. Exercise your mind instead of your wallet. Few movies are better than a book, and libraries are still free. (how did they miss that one!!?).

Bullshit you say, in reality it can’t be done. Sorry but it can. Ten years ago I decided I could cook better than most restaurants, and haven’t eaten out since. I wouldn’t have a clue how much its saved, many people have enjoyed a feed at my place, and I don’t need a credit card. But best of all, living simply and waging mild war on rampant consumerism will enable you to enjoy your cruising. If your hobby is shopping, and you are hooked on consumer goods, you’ll never afford a yacht, and even if you do get one for $79,999 and no payments till Easter, you’d probably dive overboard and swim for the nearest Macy’s. (Note that the consumer bullshit has even extended to DIY. If repairing your boat, don’t use shops to figure it out. They don’t know and don’t care. Use the computer, email or library to do the research, use the phone to do the legwork, and make a rapid stop to fill your list. Or they’ll get you!! You’ll come home with a 4-speed chisel-sharpening router for sure)

This sort of money, a years pay, pretty well precludes a new boat, but much can be learned from boat shows nonetheless. The first thing you’ll notice at the boat show, is that you are at the wrong address for minimalist cruisers. For showing off high-speed power turns, for entertaining gregariously at the Marina, you have come to the right place. Few of the boats look real keen on a hard days work. Nevertheless one thing you will see is that there is a sudden violent rise in price somewhere around the 8 to 9 meter mark. This is the point where boats get really serious, and this is where your second hand bargains really lie. At around twenty eight to thirty feet there are many many second hand boats to be had at the right price –simply because they are not long enough on deck to impress the punter as real “blue water” jobs. They are frequently underpriced as though the owner were apologising for the fact that they have not attained the magic 10 meter mark – some unwritten errant rule has convinced many that this is the smallest safe cruising size. A weight of 5 tons would be a better if one insists on a single measure. However the truth is a proper 29er can make brilliant passages, and a well set up and designed one can provide the lot. Seven knot cruising speed, full headroom, comfortable motion, ghosting ability, incredibly economic motoring, ample load carrying, shoal draught, good tracking, easy sail handling, a safe cockpit, a head, a chart table and galley, and safety. The basis of this is not too many berths. A few, a very few, have achieved fame for this Tardis-like demeanor, the most notable being the Lyle Hess Bristol Channel Cutter and the Laurent Giles Wanderer Series, the latter made famous by the documented journeys therein of the gentle natured Hiscocks. Eric mentions casually of an Atlantic crossing “the distances made good during those (first) 3 weeks were 558, 661 and 880 miles, nothing very remarkable”. I beg to differ.

Teak 9 ton 29’8” Laurent Giles “Wanderer”Class –
fame has raised the price

If one can make 80 percent of the Atlantic in 3 weeks, why would one need a bigger yacht than Wanderer’s 29 feet. You certainly wouldn’t pay for it by working the days you saved on faster passage!

Though fame has boosted the cost of these yachts out of the price range we discuss, the same fame has spawned similar designs, even by the same designers, which can be bought for a fraction of the price, leaving money for an upgrade which will see her adequately prepared for the ocean. Generally older wooden boats, a surprising number will have had one owner who has looked after her like a baby. Such owners are no longer young, find their boat a bit of a handful, and consider they have had their moneys worth. If you find such a boat, you are likely to have found a rewarding friendship as well as a bargain. I wouldn’t shop for one unless you know and love classic wooden boats, or you will surely resent the attention she requires.

Laurent Giles ‘Normandy’ Class 28ft, Pitch Pine on Oak , Volvo, New rig 2001. £10,500 - Seaworthy & adequate, you need one that’s been loved like this.

But before we charge off to hunt for secondhand boats, lets think a bit more about what we are looking for. Aa a description “a middle-size cheap ocean yacht” isn’t enough, you may waste a lot of time looking at boats which, because of their intrinsic design, will never be more than Coasters. And you’ll see many clapped-out ones.
The fact is that one can enjoy a boat in or near sheltered conditions for a price that most wage earners can manage, but if you wish to travel to other lands, the wind is not quite so free. Plenty of cheap boats will sail well in a seaway, there is no doubt about that, but “Ocean Ready:” means you have looked squarely at the worst that can happen, and believe your boat will be capable after it. Discounting carelessness, most lives are lost at sea by lack of the right equipment, and people lack the right equipment because they go despite the fact that they cant afford it. They think they can replace it with luck and bravado. The sea may let this stupidity by for years, but in the end it will have its say. Anyone who has been in a goodly storm will have had the bravado knocked right out of them, and realise that there is only one level of preparedness for the ocean, one hundred percent. One hundred percent readiness of equipment generates the confidence needed, confidence that is so necessary since a good ocean boat is stronger than its crew. Proper ocean boats are found floating weeks after the crew has been choppered off, convinced the ship was doomed. Proper ocean boats stay afloat in storms that have torn certified liferafts to bits. (this happened to several in the 1998 Sydney Hobart race, and leads me to believe that a correctly prepared boat should be its own liferaft and lifeboat, and need never be abandoned)

The money problem cant be beaten, but it can be beaten down to a manageable size. Just as climbers dream of Everest, sailors dream of the Atlantic, no matter what their budget. And man being an inventive creature, he has found ways to safely do the job on a wage. This is what we are interested in. To be safe at sea you need four things. Each must be covered, but when you look at them closely you’ll see that with commonsense they can be provided without ridiculous expense. You’ll need

  1. an ultra strong skin that can be completely sealed against the elements.
  2. a way to stay afloat and survive if the first fails.
  3. a way to let help know where you are if the first fails.

Obviously there are far more elements to a sea boat than these, such as sustenance and propulsion, but these are the basics you need for survival in the hostile enviroment of the sea, and if these three are attended to all else can flow from them and succeed, if not, don’t go.

To provide this list you don’t need a big boat. The notion that you need a big boat to be safe is so far wrong as to be ridiculous. You need a strong boat that keeps the water on one side, and you dry and comfortable on the other. Comfortable so you are not making errors through exhaustion. Dry so you can get comfortable. The best way have a dry boat is to have an area that deliberately isn’t. Here you divest your wet gear and enter the dry sector of the boat. A good way to fit a shower in a boat, for those among us who insist on one, is to enter the cabin through it. And a good way to stay dry and afloat is to replace your companion way with a sealing door or hatch. Not as convenient, but in the end it may save your ship. The single greatest cause of the Fastnet sinkages was found to be failing washboards and companionways in the myriad knockdowns and rollovers. “Designers take note”, thundered the Investigating Committee, gallantly solving the problem without actually taking prisoners or insisting on anything. The only people Struggling Designers do take note of are the Moneyed Cruising World at large, who need to get their cuppa swiftly, and find such safe hatch arrangements “Too damned inconvenient”. Who can blame them, it happened in a race, and they don’t go racing. Therefore it can’t happen to them, QED. Quite Easily Dead.

A bigger boat is generally faster, but there the advantage to the dollar-strapped sailor ends. To provide a comfortable motion an ocean boat should be relatively hefty for its length, not necessarily long. Nevertheless it should be at least 20 feet on the waterline, and.3 tons or more, or it wont generate the momentum necessary to punch on in heavier conditions. Light boats accelerate fast, sure, but they also come to a halt easily. Besides, you need that much size just to carry your food and water.

A small boat of ocean scantlings is inherently stronger. We all know the ant and elephant theory, and we’ve all seen a cat walk away from fall that would cripple a horse. In the 1998 Sydney Hobart a fine strong old 64 foot cutter was flung down a wave and broken. A half scale identical boat may well have averted this tragedy – because at 1/8 the momentum and ¼ the scantling she would have been better equipped to handle an impact over less than a quarter the area. Why less than a quarter the area when she is half as long and half as wide? Because water slides around the edges of things, and it’s the large central area the water cant get out of the way of that causes the death slap. A very low windage low freeboard small yacht may barely have had an impact area in this situation, it may have dipped under 6 feet and bobbed back. There is a world of difference in stopping in 6 feet and stopping dead.

The lack of space in a small boat means more careful stowage, which means no heavy missiles in a rollover. It is harder to be hurt in a cabin in which you can brace yourself against several structures simultaneously. No one in a small boat ever had a stove fall through a skylight when rolled. And speaking of rollovers your 29er is able to achieve full self righting (180 degree stability) off a moderate draught of 5 to 6 feet.. Most commercial 40 footers have but 120 degrees of righting, and one popular model only 105. I wouldn’t take such a boat out of Harbour, and marketing it as a sea boat constitutes criminal negligence in my book. Smaller cruisers fit into hurricane holes where larger yachts must put to sea. Smaller boats can be careened on the beach – one is more intimately acquainted with the state of ones bottom and can even pick up one of the knots you lose on your shorter waterline. All in all small boats are mind over lack of matter, strapped into the bunk of a well designed near-thirty footer one can survive all and more than a yacht twice your size. Smaller boats are easy to get back on if you fall off. Smaller boats encourage people to think of safety issues, where as many who purchase a big yacht feel that their impressive WLL is enough. It isn’t.

As we said a longer waterline means more speed in a displacement yacht design, but the rate of cost increase so far outstrips the speed that you wind up paying, staring from a 25 footer on a 22 foot waterline, 4 times as much as for each successive knot. Don’t believe me? A Folkboat costs 21000 English pounds new and will cruise at 5.8 knots off the wind, many would say more. The design has many circumnavigations to her credit. The price is from a late 2003 issue of Classic boat. The latest Yachting World (or the latest in Australia – they are delivered by Folkboat!) has a test of the “Kay Cottee” 56 which shows Velocity Prediction Polars of which give this 21-tonner a cruising speed of a bit over 8, pretty handsome. Its figures are compared with 3 other similar boats, the four averaging 700 thousand finest English pounds, an incomprehensible amount at over 33 times the cost of the Folkboat. Lets go smaller, the new Cornish Crabber 30, beautiful little cruiser, 100k quid and a knot faster than your base Folkboat. To guarantee 2 knots faster you’ll need a 42er, and that’s 16 times the price.

25ft Folkboat 1964 – 2000 9 hp Yanmar – Intrepid.
This one 5000 English pounds

The speed advantage is even less on passage because in the Doldrums the larger yacht doesn’t get her advantage at all, she slats about drifting at the same speed as you. In fact she may be left behind as your middle sized cruiser of 5 or 8 tons is squarely in the range where she can be pushed along effectively in such a calm by a diesel that runs at one third to a half a gallon an hour. Carry a decent fuel tank in lieu of some lead, and you can motor through calms leaving bigger yachts cursing in your wake. Your bigger boats wont be carrying the fuel they need to motor at will. The four 56 footers we mentioned use 8-10 times the fuel of a 30 footer. The 56ers’ average 120 hp motors and prop pitch are set to run best near half power (close to full torque) as is your small setup, but a lot more water has to be shoved a lot further to clear their beam and “make passage” if you like. Half power in them is 4 gallons an hour and they can motor expensively for but 2-3 days on factory tankage. However they prefer to save fuel for manoeuvring their ungainly bulk around anchorages you can sail off. They cant fend or hand off too well either!

Motorsailing as a method of taking a smaller boat massive distances has yet to be properly explored in yacht design, but when your middle size yacht can motor on not much more fluid and less cost than the than what the crew consumes standing still, you ought to be looking at losing a little dross and fitting a lot more tankage. You’ll have space for it, you don’t need as many berths – mention a long passage and your crew will scatter. So all you need do is balance it, and this can be done by carrying fuel and water in smaller flexible tanks in a honeycomb of spots through your boat.

Diesel stinks, so carry it aft and water forward, consume them at the same rate and balance up with seawater. The diesel need never go forrd of the companionway. Sounds easy? Its not that simple but you have plenty of time to fiddle about, and at least you can see how you are doing at trim from your waterline, without falling off.

Sailing is not about haste, so purchasing a yacht should not be either. Remember its a buyers market, but the camera is often kind. If you think you’ve missed a bargain, pretend to yourself it was ratty. It’s likely to be true! Next month, yak a bit more of other ways of getting on the water without financial horror, and lets go window shopping and see what we can get.

See ya later,

Jeff Gilbert