Oct 18, 2012

Right size for a sailboat?

"Too many of my friends follow the erroneous belief that a yacht should be as long in feet as the years of your age." -Bill Butler
I often feel that 'boat fever' is merely a permanent state of mind rather than some passing phase in the life! At the moment this 'fever' is fueled by current state on the european boat markets, which is mostly due to the never-ending euro crisis. Therefore prices of the used boats have come down quite significantly and there are some very interesting boats on sale at reasonable prices at the moment. The downside of course is, that selling one's own boat is likewise difficult and you are probably going to get less than what you paid for a few years ago. Well, for me checking boat markets is more like a hobby and we do not have any plans for a new boat worth mentioning at the moment.

However, I have spent some time thinking about the ideal size for the next boat. In general, boats have tendency to get larger and larger as people want their boats to have the living standard more similar to what they have at home. Also the advances in the field of push-button sailing (i.e. bow/stern thrusters, electric winches etc.) make it possible to handle even large boats with a small crew.

The idea for this blog post came initially when reading the book "Back at the Helm" by Arne and Heléne Mårtensson. They circumnavigated the world with a 62-foot sailing vessel "Yaghan". The couple had previously a 46-footer, but discovered that it was actually too small for a crew of two with high demands for comfort! So the right size of the boat clearly depends on who you ask the question.

Arne Mårtensson writes about the impossibility of combining cost-efficiency, speed and comfort:
"You can have speed and comfort if you give up on cost-efficiency. It is possible to achieve cost-efficiency and speed, but then you need to forget comfort."
In my opinion, comfort could be divided further into two sections: comfort at the sea and living comfort in anchorage/harbour. The living comfort is usually affiliated with a modern boat with roomy interior and cockpit. With Dolphin Dance I chose cost-efficiency and comfort at sea over speed and roomy interior. For sure, there would be some faster and roomier boats on the market, but I think that few other boats in the same price/size category can match the comfort at sea of the HR 29.

Pros and cons of the size
"Deciding the size of a boat is not only the most important but also the most difficult part of the entire decision making process and it is here that most serious mistakes are made."     -Jimmy Cornell
In general, the benefits from size can be divided into three S':  Speed, Space and Safety. First of all, bigger boats have longer waterline so they can sail and motor faster (when talking about normal cruising boats). Dolphin Dance has a short waterline and hull speed about 6,6 knots, which means that even in perfect wind conditions the average speed is maybe somewhere around 6 knots. However, usually during longer legs the wind tends to vary in direction and strength, and thus the average speed often fells to around 5 knots. Especially, in longer legs, it makes a difference whether your average speed is 5 kn or 6 kn. Our optimal motoring speed is 5-5,5 kn, while a 40-footer can efficiently motor at 6,5-7 kn. They can also carry more fuel and thus have a longer range.

It is pretty obvious that bigger boats have more space both for living and for storage. However, it is important to compare boats from the same era: a modern 32-footer might easily have more space down below than a traditional 37-footer. One important question is how the space is used: a wide open space in the center of the boat is not always a good thing at sea.

The third benefit from the size is related to safety. However, this is not that straightforward, because safety is the sum of multiple factors. Therefore it is again important to compare boats with similar design philosophies. For example, a 40-foot modern cruiser is not necessarily safer or more comfortable at sea than a 30-foot traditional boat. But the modern 40-footer is probably safer and more comfortable than a similar 30-footer. In general, longer and heavier boats are less likely to capsize in breaking wave encounter (read more about resistance to capsize). Also a faster boat can more efficiently seek shelter from bad weather and make progress to windward.

The cons from bigger yachts are often related to money. However, the purchase price is not the whole story as a 32-34-foot boat from some premium manufacturer may cost as much as as a 45-footer from a less expensive mass manufacturer. However, the operating costs of a bigger yacht are much greater. These include higher harbour fees and lay-up costs for example.

The bigger yachts have higher loads, which make the shorthanded handling more difficult. Furthermore, one drawback from a large size is the difficulty of finding a berth in a congested marina. A small and narrow boat can be squeezed-in basically anywhere.

A cruising boat for two - ideal size?

When I was a kid, we had a small 22-foot Nordship in the family. My first keel boat was a 24-foot Avance with an inboard engine, separate toilet and a small galley and all this felt like a luxurious improvement in the comfort compared to that small Nordship. So the size is relative. Our current 29-footer has basically the same layout than my previous 24-footer, but everything is on a larger scale. I would say, that the biggest improvement in terms of comfort down below is the standing height in the saloon.

With the next boat we would like to achieve the same level of comfort at sea and safety while getting more speed and interior space: navigation table with a bench and proper aft cabin are high on the wish list. Also the galley and toilet could be a bit larger.

The size of our next dream boat is about 31-35 ft. In the lower end of the range, 31 foot is in my opinion the smallest size that still can have all the desired qualities reasonably included. However, the adequacy of storage space and tankage for longer trips is a question. I think that this is a very important aspect. At the moment we can store a liferaft and three extra fuel canisters, among bunch of other things, in the cockpit lockers - a generous locker space is a benefit of not having an aft cabin!

Compact size and ease of handling also singlehandedly is an important factor so I would like to limit the  size to about 35 feet. As cost efficiency unfortunately continues to be an issue, we need to look for boats with relatively small loads. I mean boats, which can still be easily handled without the help of electrical winches and bow thrusters. Otherwise something like this could be quite handy in harbour maneuvers:

YouTube: Side-Power thrusters on HR 412

But it would be interesting to hear your opinion. What do you think is an ideal size for a sailing boat? Do you have a 'boat fever' or have you already found your dream boat? You can also vote your ideal size in Facebook-questionnaire.


  1. 35 feet is just enough.. so that we can enter most of the marinas and other places.

    1. Yes, I think too that your boat has enough size to reasonably include everything one needs even for longer journeys. The underwater profile is pretty similar to ours. Do you find it tricky to maneuver in tight places?

  2. Hard to say what is the ideal size. It depends on deepness of your pockets. It depends where you want to sail. With whom you want sail with. How much time you can spare for maintenance? Are you comfortable with manoeuvring the boat?

    I admit that the bigboatitis is a never ending illness, but I think that you are better off when you have recognised the disease.

    Our 36 footer is just the ideal size for two, but it is a bit of a tight squeeze to accomodate more than that because the interior is about the similar size as in modern 30 footers.

    1. I agree, that this it is impossible to just give a single answer to this question. If the money would not be an issue at all, I guess something around 40 foot might be a "dream boat". But I have tried to approach this question as what is the 'next' dream boat. Because probably after that there comes another one...

      Where you want to sail is indeed a big question. For sailing around the world something between 40-50 feet might be ideal, but in the archipelago you just have problems because of the depth, height and beam.

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It would be very great to hear your opinion or comments. Thank you in advance for commenting! -Antti & Minna