There’s an almost limitless number of criteria to consider when planning an extended world cruise in a sailboat. Some considerations have more, or larger, ramifications than others.
Perhaps top of the list is the choice of sailboat. Followed closely by the size of the sailboat.
I selected a Cabo Rico for its many compelling virtues for offshore sailing and cruising: ridiculously thick solid hull construction; keel-stepped mast; integrated full keel (won’t fall off!); well-protected propeller and rudder. Just to name a few.
My choice of length was just as deliberate. A Cabo Rico 34—at 37 feet long (the deck itself is 34 with an additional three for the bowsprit)—is on the smaller side for world cruising, but definitely not the smallest: the Pardeys and the Contessa 26 come to mind.
So why did I ultimately say, “Go small or stay home”?
Here are the factors that led me to lean small when planning a world cruise in a sailboat with crew.
- Easier to handle. A smaller boat is just easier to handle, especially when operating short-handed. A boat this size is eminently manageable by one person. If I or crew are incapacitated for some reason, it’s not catastrophic to boat operation. If extreme circumstances arose, a single person would be capable of bringing the boat safely home.
- Lower rigging forces. Rigging forces—that is to say, loads on the sails, standing rigging, lines, and equipment—increase roughly in proportion to the square of the boat length. This means less brute strength (or electric winches) is needed to operate the boat, which is great for crew with smaller physiques. With lower forces, there is less chance for injury; or, at least, injuries will tend to be less serious if they occur. If a squall suddenly kicks the wind from 15 to 30 knots and overpowers the boat, while still dramatic, it is perhaps less so than on a 50 foot vessel.
- More generally manageable. More things can be “manhandled” if necessary. Sails are not prohibitively large and heavy. She can be maneuvered by hand at the docks using lines, without much effort. She can be propelled using the dinghy if needed. The anchor, while heavy at 66 pounds, is still within human range (for lifting, etc.).
- Smaller contrast with locals. In many of the locations we’ll be visiting, showing up in a yacht already places one in the category of relatively well-to-do. However, a smaller yacht may be viewed as less opulent, more approachable, and perhaps less appealing as a potential target for theft in an anchorage of larger vessels.
- Less time working, more time enjoying. A smaller boat has fewer and simpler systems, which means less time spent on maintenance and repairs. Chores like cleaning, inspections, checking for chafe, bottom cleaning, and so on take less time. Smaller boats are less expensive to buy and maintain, which means less time working a job to fill the kitty and more time cruising.
- Forces you to minimize. Research and experience both indicate that happiness doesn’t come from “stuff.” A small cruising vessel requires you to be a minimalist of sorts. I appreciate this for its ability to help me focus on what I truly need (i.e. want what I have, not have what I want) and to be more present, more in tune with nature, and more joyful having fewer distractions. Similarly, voyaging on a small vessel induces creativity, as you figure out how to get by with less and find (or invent!) items which can serve two or more purposes aboard.
- More options for dockage and boatyards. Because she’ll fit into smaller spaces at docks and marinas, it means more options. It also means more boatyard and haul-out options, as some locations have only a crane, which limits the size of vessel that can be hauled.
- Less draft. Smaller vessel means a more shoal draft (generally speaking), which yields advantages like anchoring closer to shore if desired; more options in a crowded anchorage; and more options/less risk when navigating through coral.
- Smaller surface area. When something goes wrong, there’s simply fewer places to have to look for the problem. If there’s water ingress, the search area is limited.
Having said that, there are certainly disadvantages associated with a smaller vessel as well.
- Less carrying capacity. A smaller boat can carry less water, food, fuel, personal belongings, etc. simply due to being small. But also, there’s a certain minimum overhead of “stuff” involved with venturing offshore: tools, spare parts, books and charts, and so on. These things are needed regardless of the size of vessel, and there’s a certain minimum bar for prudent voyaging. Consequently, on a smaller vessel, these fixed overhead items tend to consume a larger percentage of the available space. Managing the available space on Sparklemuffin is an ongoing challenge, and the constant shuffling of stuff to access something buried or deep in a cubby does get old.
- Smaller crew complement. This my be considered an advantage by some skippers; however, on a vessel Sparklemuffin’s size, the practical limit for crew is two. Double-handing can be very tiring at times. Which also could be a safety concern at times, since tired crew is not the most alert or best decision-makers.
- More crowded feeling. A smaller boat starts to feel crowded with a smaller number of crew. There is possibly less privacy, but not necessarily. There may be more contention for shared resources (like the head and galley).
- Slower. Since hull speed is proportional to the square root of the waterline length, smaller vessels have a lower hull speed. Combined with less sail area, this means smaller sailboats are generally slower. Sailboats are not the fastest vehicles to begin with, so this is not necessarily a significant disadvantage. But it could limit options when attempting to avoid a storm, though this risk is manageable with the improving accuracy of weather forecasts and good planning. Furthermore, slower speed means longer passages, which increases water and food stowage needs when space is already at a premium.
- Smaller social gatherings. A smaller vessel is inherently less capable of catering to guests beyond certain numbers. A few is fine, but a large party would be challenging, especially it there’s food preparation involved, given a smaller galley. Depending on your personality and desires, this may or may not be a “con.” For me personally this is not a disadvantage, as I prefer smaller, more intimate socialization anyway. Often there is a larger boat in the vicinity that becomes the de-facto party boat anyway, so that is available if that’s what you’re looking for.
For me the advantages of smaller outweighed the disadvantages.
How about you? What size sailboat would you choose and why? Have I overlooked any pros or cons?