“A tank that sails well; that I can stand up in”
As I said that to my broker I was proud having distilled my sailboat requirements into a dozen words. To be fair, these were not the easiest requirements to fulfill; there aren’t many tanks that sail well and I’m 6’4″; I’ve been aboard 55′ cruising boats where I can only stand up in a few places. Plus I had two other above the fold requirements:
- To stay below 50′ Length Overall (LOA) to make single handed docking and long passages more practical
- A boat that was a reasonable value
I will talk more about “reasonable value” later but I suspect concrete numbers will let some readers know if they want to continue reading: my limit was $300,000 all in (purchase + estimated refit) for the boat. I wound up paying $75,000 for the boat and will probably at least double that number refitting.
I want to take this opportunity to state that this is not an effort to choose the best nor most affordable Bluewater sailboat; my search and this article are both very specific to my circumstances and requirements. One such circumstance limits this article to boat models that were on the market on the US East coast when I was looking (2018 – mid 2019).
Another big caveat you should be aware of is that this boat search is also my first boat search; I’ve sailed and captained plenty of boats, many in blue water, but this is my search for the first boat I’ll own.
I was looking for a boat capable of taking me south for the winter (New England to the Caribbean), to Europe for a summer or two and someday perhaps as far as a coconut milk run.
I expect to do offshore passages usually short-handed and occasionally single-handed.
Being able to move my home seasonally would mean I could choose my locales to avoid winter. I also fully intend to avoid regions/seasons with floating ice so fiberglass was an entirely appropriate construction material.
If I get to do all the sailing I hope to do in the coming decade I’ll be spending a lot of time aboard. I didn’t want to spend all that time aboard in my customary “belowdecks slouch”. My slouch belowdecks had become so innate that I had to cue myself to stand up straight frequently even while aboard for the express purpose of evaluating the headroom of a boat.
I was entirely unsuccessful using online research to determine whether a boat would have standing headroom which meant I’d have to do the legwork myself. I traveled all over New England (and Maryland) for some of the shortest boat viewings imaginable (walk down companionway, hit head, walk up companionway…).
My broker, Francis with Bluenose Yacht Sales, started walking around belowdecks with his hand making the shaka sign atop his head. If his pinky hit the ceiling he knew I’d have a hard time standing up and I could probably take that model off my list.
Checking out a Swan 53, Francis descended the companionway and declared “nope, turn around” before I even set foot on a step. After patiently carting me to dozens of showings he knew the Swan’s companionway needed another step if I was going to stand up below.
Hopefully other taller sailors can benefit from these notes I took during my search:
Legend – Color Coding:
- Green: Models that made the short list
- Red: Models that were eliminated from the running
- Blue: Boat’s for reference: models I’ve spent significant time on for relative comparison
- Forward Cabin
- Aft Cabin
- Forward Head
- Aft Head
- N: No, can’t stand up in this room
- S: can stand up Somewhere in this room
- M: can stand up Most of this room
- B: Barely. I can mostly stand in this room, but my hair touches the ceiling
- Y: Yes, can stand up everywhere in this room
A Word about Design Ratios
This spreadsheet includes many design ratios and I’m about to go into how I used them during my boat search. While these ratios are better than nothing for comparing the designs of similarly sized boats they’re a quantitative proxy for approximating an answer to qualitative questions.
“A Tank” is a heavily built boat with a thick solid fiberglass hull. More than an inch thick in some areas. It’s a boat that feels solid underfoot beating into a seaway or working downwind in following seas.
“That sails well” encompasses so many qualitative judgements that it boggles the mind.
The design ratios I’m about to discuss were ratios I used as a starting point for comparing different boat models on my list. I always did further research finding qualitative assessments of sailing characteristics of the models on the list while trying to determine if they were actual contenders. I spent a lot of time googling, unraveling snarled threads on sailing forums and following broken links to get a real sense of how a potential boat model behaves underway. This was time well spent.
For the boats on the short list I went so far as to seek out other owners online and go out sailing with them. There is no substitute for firsthand experience.
Design ratios are widely published tools available to compare the relative performance of similarly sized boats. They are an approximation at best and should only be used as a rough starting point for comparing boat’s characteristics. Caveat Empor.
The list above is grouped and roughly sorted by the Displacement to Length ratio (D/L). That ratio is the best widely published metric that tells you whether a boat is relatively heavy or light. This was my primary metric for comparing tank-ey-ness.
Of course it’s not a perfect measure: that Baltic 55 (D/L 162) is a straight-up tank offshore in big seas while the smaller J/37 (D/L 189) feels light by comparison. Because the J/37 is quite light by comparison – absolute weight absolutely matters.
But since the smallest boat I could stand up in was the Catalina 42 and the biggest boat that ever made an appearance on the short list was the Catalina 470 the ratio would be largely comparable for the boats I was considering.
Another thing astute observers will have noticed is that my table shows I don’t have significant time aboard many sailing tanks. I did some racing and deliveries on the Lafitte 44 and accumulated a week cruising on the Bristol 41.1 but that is the extent of my time aboard similar boats. Given my inexperience aboard sailing tanks I didn’t limit my search exclusively to sailing tanks but I did get aboard quite a few.
Ballast to Displacement (B/D)
I used this as another metric for tank-ey-ness. Boats that get more of their stability from heavy keels have a softer motion in a seaway. They also tend to be able to carry extra gear weight for the extended cruising I’m hoping to do.
D/L was the primary metric but I kept an eye on B/D as well.
That Sails Well
I used PHRF rating and Sail Area to Displacement (SA/D) to compare relative sailing performance. Again, two metrics weren’t going to tell the whole performance story, not by a long shot, but they’re better than nothing.
Sail Area to Displacement (SA/D):
SA/D is exactly what it says on the tin: the square feet of sail area per pound of displacement (multiplied by some factor). The sail area used here is supposed to be based on the rig dimensions, not the actual sail dimensions. The sail area for this ratio should be the foretriangle added to the sail area of the main-triangle. This measure of sail area ignores the overlap in overlapping headsails, large roach mainsails and other such tricks.
And the displacement used ought to, at least, be the half loaded displacement for the purposes of evaluating a cruising boat. But often SA/D uses whatever number the manufacturer readily provides. Which is usually the light ship displacement.
15 or 16 I would suspect to be under canvassed and I’d require lots of evidence to support claims of good sailing performance. SA/D of 17 or 18 I’d tend to believe claims of good sailing performance but I’d look for examples of this design with performance enhancing features (tall mast, fully battened mainsail, deep keel). 19 and up and I wouldn’t worry about being underpowered and wouldn’t mind a slower setup (roller furling mainsail, shoal draft, ICW rig).
The PHRF rating is not, strictly speaking, a design ratio. It’s a handicap number based on and adjusted for observed performance in regional sailing races where a lower number is a faster boat. Per Wikipedia:
Handicaps are assigned to a given production class considering predominant local conditions and the handicapper’s experience in handicapping similar boats. These ratings are based on observed performance and any requisite adjustments generally become evident after 5-10 races have been sailed.
Because of the regionality of PHRF ratings one should use PHRF ratings from the same authority to compare boats. Fortunately for me PHRF New England makes many handicaps available online. Being based in New England it was very convenient that the largest source of PHRF handicaps I could find was produced for my local sailing area.
I also had some pertinent local knowledge: I’ve sailed many races in PHRF New England’s region and I know that the predominant conditions are light. A majority of the PHRF races I’ve done in New England were done sans whitecaps; let’s call that under 12 knots sustained. Basically that meant the PHRF handicap only has a bearing on boat models relative performance in light air.
Still, light air performance is important to me in a boat I want to cover thousands of miles aboard. I wanted to keep ticking off miles under sail when less performant boats would have cranked on the iron wind.
For coastal cruising in New England I knew boats over 90 were on the slow side but to get a tank I knew I’d be looking at boats with higher ratings than that.
The LaFitte 44 that I’ve raced and cruised aboard was based in Buzzards Bay. She was well suited to those windier conditions and had the sail inventory (and owner patience) to keep moving in the lighter stuff. I set 126 as my upper bound.
I didn’t have a lower bound but I would be skeptical 40-something foot boats with ratings below 60. I would suspect, and have experienced, that quick of a boat to be a white knuckle ride offshore in moderately strong conditions. Don’t get me wrong, fast is fun if you’re racing or on a fast delivery with a strong crew. But single or short-handed I’d be much happier aboard a slower boat that could tend herself most of the time.
- Solid fiberglass hull
- The potential for trouble with cored hull sections, especially below the waterline, isn’t worth the weight savings. Especially when one is in the market for a “tank that sails well”
- No teak
- Teak decks are hotter than fiberglass when it’s hot and, in my opinion, more trouble to maintain than they’re worth
- Strong Rudder
- Generally rudders with a full or partial skeg can withstand more abuse than spade rudders. But spade rudders make a boat more maneuverable under power in tight quarters.
- Ideally I’d find a boat with an absolutely overbuilt spade rudders for the best of both worlds
- Functional toe rail
- Aluminum toe rails designed to be strong enough to handle heavy deck hardware and also self draining
- Stern boarding step/platform
- Easy boarding from the Stern is helpful in Marina’s, anchored out and especially when moored stern-to
- Anodized Mast (no paint)
- Especially in old boats all a painted mast gets you is extra maintenance and more potential for hidden corrosion
A Good Value
My criteria put me squarely in the neighborhood of a few premium offshore boat brands. Hylas, Hallberg-Rassy, Najad and Outbound come to mind. On one hand that’s a good neighborhood to be in. On the other hand it’s a very pricey zipcode.
I definitely didn’t need a “name brand” boat. The tank that sails well with as many of the design features that I could find was what I was looking for.
Still, if there was a tank that sails well, with standing headroom, among these name brands I might bite the bullet and get a boat loan.
Hylas was a brand that I trusted having done thousands of miles offshore on a Hylas 54. I looked at the 47 and the 48 which start at $300k. But I didn’t have standing headroom in the Hylas 47, the new 48 and 54. Sure I could stand up most places in the Hylas 54 but the galley, the place where you have to spend the most time standing aboard was not tall enough for me to stand in. Offshore on the 54 I swapped my galley shifts to when we were heeled over enough that I wasn’t hitting my head. The other crew were quite confused…
I looked at Hallberg-Rassy as European Hylas’ – more expensive to buy and harder to find in the US. They also generally had teak decks and were missing aluminum toe rails. But I could overlook those flaws if it checked enough of the other boxes. But I didn’t find any Hallberg-Rassy’s in my size range that had standing headroom for me below; at least in the few I happened to step aboard.
An Outbound 46 was the dream boat. They checked most every box. And, I recall I could stand up most places aboard when I went aboard at a boat show years ago. But the cheapest one I saw listed was $400k. That number cemented the “dream” in “dream boat”. It was a price point where I’d have to save up for a few more years while talking myself into it. Realistically there were some excellent 50-55 foot yachts in the $400k neighborhood that the Outbound would be competing against. Including a few Hylas 54 on the market while I figured out the feasibility of squeezing an inch or two of headroom out of the galley.
That’s the crux of what meant when I said I wanted a boat that was a good value: I wanted a boat that would cost (purchase + refit) what a reasonable boat it’s size would list for. I didn’t want to end up spending 50 footer money for a 40 footer.
Not an amazing deal but a good value; hopefully with good enough margins to cancel out refit cost overruns.
So which boat did I choose?
And what did it actually cost? If you’ve gotten this far I’m sure you’d like to know – SV Counterpoint is a 1982 Bristol 45.5 that I paid $75,000 for:
If you want to learn more about Counterpoint, more about why I chose her, her condition when I bought her, how much the first year of ownership cost and what improvements I spent time and money making right out of the gate you should click here to subscribe for updates in future articles! (Subscribing also comes with our free Smartphone Navigation guide as well; check it out!)
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you out there!