Seamanship and the Small Craft Sailor

Posted on Wednesday 3 November 2010

On the sailing forum, there was a thread on the apparent prejudice that seems to exist against smaller sailboats, which seems to show up in some marinas. Over the last two decades, there seems to have been trend towards larger boats for the cruising market.

Now, I can understand why the boat manufacturers have followed this trend—a smaller sailboat is far less profitable than a larger boat, since the amount of materials and labor that goes into a smaller boat isn’t all that different from what goes into a larger boat, but the price that they can charge for the smaller boat is disproportionally smaller.

Unfortunately, the sailing media hasn’t helped the situation much. The media, for the most part, seems to think that it is both unsafe and difficult to sail long distances in anything less than 40′ LOA. What they seem to forget is that people have been sailing small boats for a long time, and that it is only in the past 25 years or so that the size of boats has slowly crept upwards.

If you look at a lot of the newer boats, especially some of the higher production volume boats, you’ll see an emphasis on open interior layouts with huge double berths, high head room, and few handholds. They’re designed with all the modern conveniences of a land-based life in many cases, with stereos, HDTV, refrigeration, hot and cold running water, heat and air conditioning.

However, these boats, while very pretty, don’t have the stowage, the handholds or decent sea berths to make a serious passage in comfort and safety. However, since many of these boats were bought as status symbols by people with more income than sailing experience and were bought for the lifestyle—rather than to be actually sailed—it might not be all that big a problem, since they’re basically floating condos that are for status rather than voyaging.

In fact, my friend Norm and his wife, Elizabeth, told me a story about how, during the delivery of a larger production sailboat, Elizabeth was injured because of the wide open layout and lack of good handholds in this fairly expensive boat.

One thing I’ve noticed is that as the size of the boats has gone up, the average seamanship has gone down. As an example from the last decade, Ken Barnes, David Vann and Abby Sunderland all had to be rescued on boats over 40′ LOA, while Donna Lange, Jessica Watson and Zac Sunderland completed solo circumnavigations in boats 28–36′ LOA. While there are small boat sailors who failed, and large boat sailors who succeeded, I think these six sailors illustrate the point.

One blogger I follow wrote about how she passed her USCG Captain’s license exam while only having experience on small sailboats. Many of the others taking the exam with her failed, even though they had far more experience and often on much larger boats. She sails and lives aboard her 27′ sailboat.

I think one major reason for this is that the small boat sailor often has had more time on their boat than the large boat sailor. I think that part of this is because a small boat is a lot more manageable and can be taken out even without crew.

As an example, one sailor I know has a 50′ schooner. He says he can’t sail it without at least four or five crew. I single-hand my boat regularly. Who do you think sails more often? Also, how many times have you been down at the marina and seen the larger boats just sitting in their slips week after week?

A smaller boat is usually easier to get in and out of a slip, and often easier to get ready to sail. Bending on the sails on a smaller boat can be done by a single person, where the sails on a larger boat may require assistance.

Second, a smaller boat is more affordable, and often can be purchased far sooner than a larger boat. This means a sailor can often own one longer, and know the boat better through familiarity. A sailor can buy a relatively small sailboat, say 25-30′ LOA, pretty easily if they’re serious about doing it, by saving for only a couple of years.

A fairly seaworthy small boat, like those used by the typical “” sailor, can be purchased for less than $10,000. Also, the maintenance and on-going costs of owning a larger boat are often out of reach for the younger sailor, while the costs for a 25-30′ boat are far lower and more reasonable. Many smaller boats can be stored on a trailer during the off-season, reducing the costs of ownership even further when compared to larger boats—which are generally not trailerable.

Third, the lack of crew means that a small boat sailor has to be more skilled as they can not specialize in any one area of knowledge. Most smaller sailboats can’t have a dedicated engineer or navigator. The small boat sailor needs to know how to repair most, if not all, of the systems on their boat, as well as handle all the navigation and sailing tasks. They need to know how to plan a voyage, steer a course, provision the boat, check the rigging, maintain the engine and most of all, sail the boat.

Of course, one of my favorite quotes is by Robert Heinlein, who said:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

However, I think that sailors in small boats making longer passages also require better seamanship skills. A larger boat is inherently more seaworthy, given similar construction quality and design. A smaller boat will generally have to reef earlier and resort to storm tactics sooner than a larger boat. Without a wider range of storm tactics, smaller boats are at far greater risk of capsize than larger boats.

Small boat sailors who plan on making longer passages need to learn as many storm tactics as possible. They need to work their way up to sailing in heavy weather conditions, and practice as many tactics, like reefing the sails, heaving-to, lying ahull and using safety devices, like the Jordan Series Drogue. I wrote about the Jordan Series Drogue previously and think it is probably the best storm survival device for a small sailing craft.

They should do so over a period of time—through a progression starting with daysails, weekending, coastal cruises, and short blue water passages—prior to making any more difficult pr extended passages. They also need to sail in progressively more difficult conditions. Unfortunately, some sailors fail to do this and pay the penalty for being unprepared.

1 Comment for 'Seamanship and the Small Craft Sailor'

    April 4, 2011 | 8:29 pm

    We live in Brazil, where the average boat size is increasing and seaman skills are decreasing. About 90 % of the cruising sailing boats are rotting in the marinas and sail during 10 days per year, at most.
    In addition, the Brazilian Navy, responsible for the Amateur Capitain licenses, doesn’t require the astronavigation questions any more. Therefore, if a long cruise sailor relies only on his GPS, he might be in trouble, when he runs out of electricity, unless he learns the stuff by himself.
    Fortunately I have been sailing for some decades, first with a wooden 14-footer, I made when I was 16 years old, and later with a 20-footer, I build when I was 25. As you say they were obviously much cheaper than a big boat.
    Both boats are in top condition an are sailed routinely. I never thought about having a heavy ocean vessel, because I would need to sail alone.

    Smooth sailing for all of you.
    Greetings from the sunny Brazil

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