Monday, March 2, 2009

Finding the ‘Right’ Boat

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...
In the business of molding thoughts into the reality known as a boat, the foundation of the process is what is called a ‘mission statement.’ Detaching this element from a rather martial sounding name, the idea of use definition should also be central to the selection of a boat, new or used. We arrange our daily lives from shopping to vacations, meetings to job interviews, yet frequently buy boats with far less preparation. Organization of thought and concise definition of purpose is the key to reaching the goal the first time. As expensive as boats have a reputation to be, none costs more than the wrong one for the intended objective.

One size doesn’t fit all.
Ours is a society of ‘one size fits all’ equipment. We want our SUV’s to corner like sport cars and our sport cars to climb mountains like goats. Trawlers, once synonymous with heavy displacement, low power and reasonable fuel consumption are now expected to plane. Every cruising sailboat is a ‘performance cruiser,’ while few racing sailboats are without amenities previously unimagined. In part, technology may be thanked for this new order. The balance results from the expectations of a culture that wants and feels entitled to ‘get it all.’ Here it must be recognized that some features will conflict directly. Design and construction trade offs are fairly permanent. Prioritization will help to match expectations and candidate boat properties.

Choose your theme.
Since a cruising or live aboard boat is a microcosm, compromise in the selection process will remain near at hand. The more clearly the use of the boat is defined, the less regrettable those compromises will prove. Start by expressing the true focus of the dream. Spell it out clearly and consider having it and framed and hung in a conspicuous location. How often the central theme is revisited will be in proportion to how close you come to achieving it.

Where, when and how?
By definition, your boat is intended to take you places. Outline what those places might be and how you will reach them. A world cruise and a coastal sojourn are very different goals and should lead you toward different candidate vessels. While it is more dangerous to overestimate the strengths of an inshore cruiser, it is far more common to overstate the application of the boat you are seeking. If you do not know from experience that ocean wandering is to the tastes of the crew, then pursuing this capability can make for a very expensive and inefficient coastal cruiser. Volunteer as crew to temper your ambitions with insight. This phase begins the process of narrowing the field from which you will eventually choose. The boats you cross off the list are as important as the ones you leave on.

Sleek or Voluptuous?
Fashion changes, but the laws of physics do not. I like to say that some boats are meant to go fast and some are meant to go far. Nowadays the lines of distinction are blurred. Research the performance properties of your candidate boats by talking about and sailing on them. If voyaging is your intent, remember that your concept of speed will change from knots to miles per day. Momentary speed is secondary to the range of conditions under which reasonable speed can be maintained. Many of the design principles that enhance performance also increase acceleration responses and stress concentrations on the structure. Not least of which will be your own stress when the bottom rises to find the keel. ‘Sea kindly’ is an antiquated description of a boat of gentle response. Older, ‘slower’ boats whose designs incorporating large radii in place of sharp angles and flat surfaces are better suited to harmless distribution of unexpected loads. Speaking of loads, nothing adds weight to your boat like moving aboard. Performance types suffer most because the added weight is likely a larger proportional increase, and because light displacement is critical to their speed in the first place. If performance is your inclination, pay special attention to weight in your other considerations.

Power to Choose:
Whether power or auxiliary sail, limited options exist for alteration of engine power and fuel capacity. Consider where you plan to go and research tidal current strength and fuel availability. Brokerage listings often have most or all of the information you would need to evaluate a boat against these criteria. A seemingly undersized engine will usually compensate with lower fuel consumption and therefore extended range versus capacity. Conversely, reserve engine power is a strong comfort when you decide you’re not having fun anymore. Under sail, the question of power is really a question of rig size, type and handling systems. Golden-agers are handling large sails later in life than ever thanks to all manner of reefing and furling systems. Provided they can spare the gold to buy and maintain them, that is. Otherwise, physical limitation must be a consideration in your sail plan decision.

How much?
Too much boat ends the dream more often than too little a boat harms the crew. Because individual expenses related to boat ownership are often indexed by length, newcomers may be deceived into concluding a linear proportionality. Nothing could be more dangerously incorrect. The relationship between length and cost is more likely exponential. Outfit quantity, size and complexity comprise the main difference. It is simple truth that more of the long term cruisers and liveaboard folks I’ve encountered have phrased this evaluation not as “How much boat can I afford?” but rather as “How small a boat can I accomplish my purpose in?” Finance and crew needs generally top the concern list of disillusioned new cruisers. An initial theme of simplicity trending gradually toward intricacy is less shocking to the system than immersion in vast complexity without austere beginnings. Within the limits of prudent seamanship, consider that the cost of the porthole doesn’t alter the view it frames. As one cruiser taught me, “Big boat, big problems. Little boat, little problems.”

Arrangement priorities:
Being often integral to structure, furnishing and arrangement are two very expensive features of a boat to change. I occasionally lament having only one sleeping cabin on my Alberg 35. Guest space would be a great convenience but I have managed without it. More than most features, I can see how this choice impacted my boat size choice and therefore my cruising options over the past sixteen years. Overall I know the decision I made was best. Galley size and orientation will be important considerations to those with culinary inclination. Head and bathing arrangements deserve advanced consideration. Even details such as a permanent or fold away salon table merit thought. Wardrobe stowage space may warrant a ballot line. The good news is that expectations conform to a compromise arrangement better than most other trade off decisions. Provided, that is, the compromise was not an afterthought.

Turn key or ‘handyman special?
The first simple qualifier in this decision is whether or not you are of the ‘handyman’ sort. Self evaluation in this area is discouraged. Ask a trusted friend if they would go to sea in a boat you have altered. If they would not, you shouldn’t either. It can be difficult, especially for men, to acknowledge their potential limitations in this arena, but it is important for both safety and budget to do so. Here again the volunteer apprentice principle will yield the best results. Few boat owners will refuse help with a project and there’s no better way to figure out either how to do your own work, or that you don’t want to. While this will be seen as a decision to impact your initial investment, it is really much more. In this decision you set the stage for your relationship with your boat throughout your ownership. Like the journey, doing your own repair work will only grow easier once you have begun. The frequently overlooked return on the investment of learning to do your own work is the confidence that you will be better prepared when doing so is your only option. Hubris aside, not everyone has the time or inclination to take on a project boat. What really matters is that this decision is made deliberately and with understanding of the real cost of each choice.

Choose your candy.
In a world of gadget junkies, the thought of leaving behind lifestyle toys can be frightening. The good news is that unlike our cars, our electronic trappings have become more compact and power efficient in the last 15 years. Inverters to run household appliances from battery banks have decreased in cost. If your boat target range is such that large generators are not likely, and your use is going to take you away from shore power connections, consider leaving heating element appliances behind. Life without a microwave oven was difficult to imagine when I first moved aboard, but as I shifted into cruising mode, I found the counter space more valuable than the convenience. Computers, nerve centers for information, communication, and entertainment in our world, now travel exceptionally well. Several good books on the subject of marine electrics are available to help you relate your list of intended toys to battery bank size and charging needs.

Expert witness:
Most boat buyers will rely heavily on their surveyor to investigate the condition of a candidate boat. The information you get from the survey generally will be limited to the condition of the boat and not its suitability for a purpose. Remember that surveyors tend to have specialties like other professionals. Ask around and find one with experience in the type of vessel you are considering.

But what about.....?
If by now you are thinking about the countless considerations I have not mentioned here, you get the idea. Just as there are no two identical ‘mission statements,’ there is no standard list of considerations. The process of thinking about your priorities in an organized manner and recording your decisions for later reference is the common thread. Call it ‘doing your homework’ if you like. Making the list is more important that what specifically it starts out including. If you are moving in the right direction, the list will be a living, growing entity anyway.

If this all seems just a bit overwhelming, you don’t have to face it alone. Most people wouldn’t consider filing taxes or making investments without some advice from a professional. As in those cases, free advice is often worth what it cost. Objectivity gives up its place to ego at the yacht club bar. The numbers involved in choosing a boat are potentially large, so consider the possible wisdom of investing in assistance from an independent naval architect or yacht designer. Understanding of the initial design process could prove helpful in the creation of your specific list and evaluating compromises. Directing your choices toward candidate boat types is no different from the early stages of a new design.

‘Move confidently in the Direction of Your Dream....’
‘And find success unimagined in common hours,’ to paraphrase Thoreau. But since we’re discussing boats, not Walden Pond, you will find a few negatives as well. Since adapting to changing surroundings instead of wearing away at the ‘old grind’ is inherent to this lifestyle, taking the glitches in stride will be good practice. Diligence in advance of your decision will reduce the number and significance of regrets. Reference to your own process will often remind you of the reasons for your choices. All that then remains is to enjoy the result.

1 comment:

  1. Choosing the 'right' boat can be a difficult task. I agree that planning should be done prior to purchasing a sea craft. There are certain ocean yachts for sale that will pass considerations like budget, speed and design.

    Also, buyers should consider passing boat standards for transportation if it will be imported. There are companies that offer compliance modifications and ce marking services. They can consult such transportation companies to make importing a smooth process.