Seaworthiness

Question:  What type of things make a sailboat capable of long sea voyages? I’d like to have the option one day of sailing to Europe or perhaps beyond (this dream is YEARS away). What things should I look for NOW in a boat so that when I am ready, my boat will be, too?

Doug Abbott wrote:

The answer to that is two words: blue-water. A blue-water designed or constructed sailboat is many things. Most of all it is strong and conservatively rigged. No carbon fiber masts. No paper thin hull. No water ballast. No trick rigging. A blue water boat will seldom sail as fast as a weekend or coastal cruiser. Look for a sail plan and control that makes it easy to trim and control the boat. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Did I mention simplify? The more the masts, the more the rigging and the more sails you have to carry. The thinner the hull, the poorer the deck to hull joining, the cheaper the hatches and ports, the more *stuff* that isn’t necessary, the less reliable the boat is. Fact: The greater the number of systems you have on a boat, the greater the chance (exponentially) of something important breaking.

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Time to cruise the docks, attend boating/sailing meetings, join SSCA, talk to boaters, and do some homework. You’ll get an idea pretty quickly as to what is considered a blue water boat. Fact: The overwhelming number of boats you’ll look at are not blue water designed and make no pretense of being so.

Tracy Watkins wrote:

Modern construction techniques and materials make for boats that are extremely seaworthy. This is and always will be a controversial subject. All of the new boats we sell meet the European Certification Standards for unlimited offshore cruising. This subject is complex and something that is better discussed in person or on the phone, as I am sure you will have a number of questions.

Stuart L. Jantzen wrote:

A well built boat is like a well built car. It will serve you for years if properly maintained. I suggest you read magazines like “Cruising” and “Sail”. Read what others have to say about what makes a good boat. The more information you gather the better decision you will make when the time comes. “Jantzen’s Joy” is a Dickerson. Dickerson is rated as one of the world finest sailboats in a book titled “World Finest Sailboats”.

What I decided (1998):

I think that Stuart is quite right; boats are built like cars. If you want to purchase a Rolls-Royce boat, buy a Hinkley. It’s built like a tank! The shrouds, for example, are solid steel–rather than the braided type found on most sailboats. Not unlike Rolls-Royce automobiles, Hinkleys are very, very expensive. It is not uncommon for used ones, built in the early 1980’s, to fetch a quarter of a million dollars.

So Hinkley is not for me. Yet at the same time, I want a boat that is well made and is as beautiful as a well-designed car. The fist time I laid eyes on the Hans Christian, I knew I had found my boat!

I suppose that the Hans Christian could be equated to a Mercedes. She’s solidly built, proud of her engineering, and has a certain regal, classic design (think “Marilyn Monroe;” a bit overweight by today’s standards, but a true classic beauty!). The deck of the boat is “dipped” in the middle–rather than having straight lines that are found on other boats. It is my understanding that this design encourages large waves to wash over the deck. The decks, by the way, are all teak–difficult to properly maintain, but they provide sure footing on a rough sea. The portals are solid brass, and the glass is three plates thick. The hull is exceptionally thick—from under the waterline to the top of the deck. She displaces 26,500 pounds with a 38’ LOA and 12’6″ beam. Quite heavy for a boat of her size. She’s equipped with RADAR and GPS. I wouldn’t be surprised to find SONAR somewhere below! The point is, this boat is made to sail anywhere in the world I might wish to go—and she’ll look damn sexy doing it!

The Hans Christian also has a teak deck. Not only does it look really cool, but it also provides unparalleled traction (much better than a fiberglass deck). This is important for me…as I will be sailing alone quite a bit and would like to remain ON the boat.

The Hans Christian doesn’t have a lot of room in the interior, which will take a bit of adjustment on my part. She does have an average amount of hanging closet space and tons of drawers. Unfortunately, the head and shower area is very small.


Thoughts from 2000: 

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living aboard for nearly two years. I wrote “What I Decided” when I had first purchased the vessel and was used to large living spaces. When I re-read what I originally wrote, I had to laugh that I actually thought, “doesn’t have a lot of room in the interior.”

Quite frankly, I am the envy of many liveaboards at my marina. I have TONS of space on Candide! Sure, there’s no room for a 52″ television, walk-in refrigerator, or Jacuzzi. But, my God! I’m not living in a house! I live on a sailboat!

To quote Hamlet, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count my self a King of infinite space.” Quite frankly, I still have drawer space that is completely…now get this…completely EMPTY! I just don’t have enough stuff to put in them!

No…I have PLENTY of room on Candide. Lots of cabin space to put things. Lots of overhead space so that I don’t bang my head on the ceiling. A big salon that can comfortably accommodate 4-6 friends. Enough food locker room to store 4-5 weeks’ worth of groceries. What more do I need?

Thoughts from 2003:

Well, now that I’ve got over four years’ experience playing around on boats, I’ve come to learn what separates a well-founded ocean-going sailboat from a coastal-cruising weekend boat.  Besides a difference in habitat amenities (as described on the Types of Boats page), there are some things that any true blue-water sailing vessel should have as standard equipment and features that will typically be lacking on a coastal cruiser.   Some of these include:

Candide is a heavy displacement vessel at nearly 30,000 lbs with a 33′ waterline.
bullet Heavy Displacement.  The “displacement” of a vessel is a fancy way to refer to her “weight.”  It has been my experience that blue-water cruisers are generally much, much heavier than their coastal counter-parts.  Consider that most coastal boats at my marina that are actually longer than Candide often have less than half of the weight my boat has.   What difference does this make?  Well, in rough weather (like on my recent trip to Cuba), Candide managed to stay relatively comfortable compared to some acquaintances who found religion in making the same crossing aboard their 40′ Hunter.  The crew actually said, “We thought we were going to die!  Everybody except the captain was seasick, and we could feel the hull flexing in the waves!”  Basically, they bobbed around like a cork for over twenty hours, while Candide remained relatively more stable.  In general, heavier is better for an ocean-going boat.
This is a fin keel.  It is a little, tiny bit of metal that doesn’t provide enough weight for an ocean-crossing vessel.
bullet Full Keel.  The keel is the part of a sailboat that is filled with ballast (weight, usually from iron or lead) to counteract the forces on the sails.  Some boats have keels that are more or less bolted onto the bottom of the hull.  This is fine for coastal cruisers, but not the safest arrangement for heavy-weather sailing.  These keels have been known to literally fall off after striking floating objects at sea or getting caught in very rough weather.  A better alternative for off-shore cruising is a “full keel.”  These keels are built into the hull of the boat.  In fact, on Candide, it’s difficult to determine where the hull ends and the keel begins…as both are constructed from the same continuous mass of fiberglass.  The downsides of having a full keel are that the boat will generally be a bit slower, and the boat may not sail as well into the wind.  A huge advantage is that full keel boats will generally be much more stable at sea.  
 
bullet Thick Skin.  The amount of fiberglass used to form the hull greatly affects its strength.  Generally, the thicker the glass, the stronger the boat.  Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, engineers weren’t quite sure how much fiberglass would be required to keep a hull together.  Boats from this era are often way overbuilt (a good thing!) as a result.  If I had a limited budget, and wanted a blue-water cruiser, I would seriously consider buying an older boat built during this time rather than a more modern one.  Because, eventually, you see, those engineers got “smart.”  As time went on, they were able to figure out exactly how much fiberglass was needed to keep a boat somewhat safe.  This resulted in boat manufacturers using a lot less of the stuff to make their vessels.  So, a lot of modern coastal cruisers have a minimum hull thickness…which is not good if you should run aground on rocks or coral.  Nor is it good if you don’t want to “feel the hull flexing in the waves” as described by our friends above when experiencing rough weather.  
The standing rigging on Candide is 5/8″ stainless steel.  My God!  I’m developing a David Letterman hairstyle!  Ughhh!
bullet Oversized Rigging.  Imaging being at sea in 40 knots of wind.  By this point, you should have already “reefed the sails” by making them smaller.  This reduces pressure on the mast and the rigging.  Nonetheless, there will still be tons and tons of pressure on this vital equipment.  One of the last things you want to happen in these conditions is to break a shroud (i.e., one of the cables supporting the mast).  Should one break, then the pressure on the others will increase.  If another breaks, then you have a potentially life-threatening situation on your hands as you are in great danger of being dismasted.  Blue-water sailing boats will often have extra-thick shrouds (Candide’s are 5/8″ thick), while coastal cruisers will often have considerably thinner shrouds (Hunters often use 3/8″ on boats considerably larger than Candide).
 
bullet Lifeboat.  It surprises me how many coastal cruisers are willing to go to sea, even for just a few miles, with no lifeboat on board.  If you’re thinking of blue-water sailing, a lifeboat should be mandatory!  
The Icom 706MKIIG.  This is the ham radio that I chose to install aboard Candide. 
bullet Ham Radio.  VFH radios (similar to C.B. radios used by truckers), are a fantastic communications tool.  Unfortunately, they only work “in line of sight.”  This means that if you have an antenna at the top of your mast, you’ll only be able to broadcast for several miles away from your intended audience.  Ham radio, which I installed aboard Candide (Icom 706 MK II) can extend your communication range world-wide.  It also allows a lot of functionality not possible with VHF radios.  For example, it’s possible to be several hundred miles off shore (or on some desert island in the Caribbean), and yet be able to make phone calls to the United States for free!  This is possible if you’re able to find a fellow ham operator who is willing to make a telephone patch for you.  This is a LOT cheaper than using satellite phones or calling directly from the islands!  Ham radios also allow you to receive marine weather faxes…which can be downloaded to your laptop or printed directly to paper.  Having access to current weather faxes away from shore can help the captain make critical navigation decisions.  Modern ham technology also allows boats to send and receive e-mail; from virtually anywhere in the world!  Last, but certainly not least, ham radios allow you to talk to folks from all walks of life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  So let’s say you take the missus to sea and the two of you have a big falling out.  She’s not talking to you.  That’s OK, though!  You can get on that ham radio and have conversations with sympathetic guys from all over the globe!  Of course, using a ham radio requires a license.  You can learn all about the legal requirements, available equipment, etc., by visiting The National Association for Amateur Radio.  Oh, and before any of you send me an e-mail asking the question…no, I do not yet have a call sign.  I only recently got my equipment installed, and I’d be tinkering around with it right now if I weren’t busy updating this website.  Give me a couple of months!
bullet Radar.  Radar is one of the coolest technologies to emerge from WWII.  It tracks Japanese Zero’s, German Focke Wolf’s, as well as destroyers and aircraft carriers.  On a cruising boat, it’s generally used for less exciting activities…like “seeing” though the fog while navigating an unfamiliar channel.  There are few things scarier aboard a boat than trying to enter an unfamiliar inlet in heavy fog at night.  With a radar, though, it becomes somewhat easier as the device will “show” you where the channel markers and shore are located relative to your boat.  It can definitely make you feel more comfortable with the situation!  Plus, you’ll be able to see any pesky Messerschmitt’s before he’s able to see you (that is, assuming he doesn’t have radar).
A passive radar reflector.
bullet Radar Reflector.  Perhaps even more important than having a radar is owning a properly-configured radar reflector.  Radar reflectors help other radar operators to see you more clearly on their screens.  These devices are specifically designed to make your vessel look larger (or at least show up more clearly) on a radar scan!  A standard sailboat mast might appear as a pin-prick on the radar screen of a large ship.  The helmsman of that ship might not pay any attention to just a “blip” on the radar.  But if that blip is big enough (or bright enough), it might get his attention so he can change course or slow down before running you over in the middle of the night!  Most radar reflectors are simple passive devices.  Some are merely aluminum “balls” that are hung from a shroud or halyard.  More expensive “active” reflectors use electronics to sense incoming radar waves.  Through pure magic, they’re able to send that radar an amplified signal…perhaps making that helmsman think he’s about to run into the Saratoga.  In any case, Candide uses a passive reflector and I know it works because I’ve been contacted by ships at sea who were about to run me down.  😉
Candide has small portals by design.  They’re made to withstand violent seas.
bullet Small Portals.  I know I’ve mentioned this in other places on this site, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to have solidly build (preferably small) portals if you plan on extensive ocean cruising.  Huge “windows” that are glued to the hull on weekend cruisers are not acceptable in rough weather at sea.  Small portals good; big portals bad.  If a boat has large portals, there’s a greater chance of them breaking and letting in water during rough weather.  Understand, though, that this is a big trade-off for a liveaboard person.  One thing I don’t like about Candide as a liveaboard boat is that she’s dark on the inside (my friends call her “The Cave.”).  Nonetheless, I can buy extra interior lights and bask in the knowledge that my portals will remain safe in most sea conditions.
A sea anchor may or may not make bad weather more endurable.
bullet Sea Anchors.  A “sea anchor” is a device used to slow down and stabilize your vessel in rough weather.  Most of them look like WWII parachutes made from thick nylon webbing.  Generally, they’re deployed over the bow of the boat when conditions are very rough.  They help keep the bow (the strongest point of the boat) facing into the waves.  This produces a more comfortable, and safer, ride for the crew.  At least, that’s what I’ve heard.  A lot of experienced sailors claim that sea anchors are more trouble (and indeed, more dangerous) than other methods (like heaving to) employed during storms at sea.  Candide doesn’t have a sea anchor, and probably never will.  Nonetheless, you may form the opinion that this is vital survival gear for your boat.  This is one of those things that everybody has an opinion about.
This is Candide’s sextant.  I bought it before I bought the boat as a type of motivation.  It sat on my bookcase for six months before I moved aboard.  It took Charlie Bengal (two time circumnavigator and New Jersey curmudgeon) three weeks to teach me how to use the thing! 
bullet Sextant.  I expect to get some e-mails about listing this as vital blue-water cruising gear!  😉  A sextant is a mechanical navigation device that allows the navigator to use celestial bodies to compute his position.  The sextant has been around for hundreds of years and allowed Columbus to discover the New World (or, to be politically correct, allowed Columbus to spread the evils of Western Civilization to the hapless, go-lucky, peaceful, virtuous and innocent natives who occupied what we now call North and South America).  In this age of the Global Positioning System (GPS), I’m sure that many of my readers are wondering why this old optical device should be considered important equipment.  Well, GPS works only because of electronics.  We all know that electronics are prone to failure (ever had your computer crash?  Spilled salt water on your cell phone?).  A single lightening strike can do a lot towards destroying electrical devices like GPS’s.  Even hand-held GPS’s are subject to battery failure, salt water, being dropped, etc.  To arm myself with as much navigation knowledge as possible, I bought an Astrolab IIIb sextant…and found an old salt who taught me how to use it!  By taking two sun sights (I’m not good enough yet to take star sights on a pitching and rolling deck), I can determine my position to within one nautical mile.  I simply feel better knowing that if GPS should fail while I’m far out to sea, I can grab my sextant and have an idea as to where I’m located.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun to learn the math and cosmology behind the sextant.  Finally, should I ever need to use my life raft, you can bet that I’ll try to grab my Astrolab and sight reduction tables before I abandon ship!
 
bullet Metal Through-hulls.  Most boats have several holes in the hull.  These holes allow the engine to suck up cool ocean water, the toilet to draw in water to flush the bowl clean, and the air conditioner to cool itself.  I’ve noticed that on most modern coastal-cruisers, the through-hulls are made from plastic (oh, I’m sure they’re made from some high-tech polymer with a fancy name, but they’re still basically…plastic).  Candide’s through-hulls are made of either brass or bronze (I’ve never been able to tell the difference).  In any case, they’re metal.  Plastic through-hulls, after exposure to time and the elements, can fail relatively quickly compared to their metal counterparts.  If the through-hull fails, water may enter the boat at an alarming rate…perhaps more so than can be forced over the side by the bilge pumps.  This can result in a sinking feeling, to say the least!  It is my opinion that any through-hull below the water line should be made of metal.  Others may disagree, but that’s OK.  I’m writing about what I personally find safe at sea.   
bullet Spare Sails.  On Candide’s second major trip to sea (Jacksonville to the Bahamas), I was raising the main without first having removed the ties holding the sail to the boom.  I must have really put my back into the job, because I ripped my main in half with the force of the winch!  Well, OK, not in half exactly.  But there was a 12′ hole in the middle of the sail.  This caused us to motor into the next available inlet to hunt down a sail maker who could fix the damage.  Had I had an extra main, I could have deployed it and kept on sailing.  Should I ever cross the Great Pond, you can safely bet that I’ll carry a complete set of extra sails (plus a sewing machine and extra sail cloth to make my own repairs).  The picture to the left shows a typical sailbag.
 
bullet Autopilot.  Does your car have cruise control?  Isn’t that a wonderful invention?  Once you engage cruise control, all you have to do is steer.  It makes long road trips a lot more enjoyable, doesn’t it?  Well, boats can be equipped with the equivalent of cruise control by installing a device called an “autopilot.”  An autopilot does one thing…it steers the boat.  The helmsman tells that autopilot a certain heading, and the device (either belt-driven, hydraulic, or mechanical) moves the ship’s wheel back and forth to make the boat head in that direction.  This means that the helmsman doesn’t have to manually steer the boat for hours on end.  Instead, he or she can sit in the cockpit and read a book while on occasion scanning the horizon for possible danger (e.g., other boats, the shoreline, etc.).  Unlike a car, it’s not possible to “pull over” a boat at sea to take a siesta.  Once the boat is underway, it’s a 24-hour, non-stop commitment.  Even if there are extra crew on board, somebody must steer that boat at all times.  It can be an exhausting experience…unless you install an autopilot.  A year ago, I had a Brooks and Gatehouse hydraulic autopilot installed on Candide (only because my crew threatened mutiny on the way to Cuba if I didn’t).  Until then, I thought that steering the boat was part of the fun…a challenge…traditional, even.  Well, I was an idiot!  It’s a hell of a lot of work to constantly man the helm for days and days on end!  Now, the helmsman aboard Candide simply presses a few buttons and the boat steers herself!  This frees up the crew to read books, cook elaborate meals, and actually get some rest while on watch!  The autopilot is worth its weight in gold!  
Candide has a hard-shelled sailing dinghy which stores very nicely on top of the butterfly hatch, beneath the mainsail boom (along with oars and mast).  Generally, my crew hates this dinghy because she’s so “tender” (i.e., she wobbles around a lot in the water).  Fortunately, I have good balance!  Plus, this dinghy is very easy to row or sail (try doing either one of those in an inflatable dinghy)!
bullet Dinghy.  A “dinghy” is a small boat (often inflatable) that is carried around on a bigger boat.  It is used when the big boat is at anchor, and the crew would like to go ashore.  As Candide is a very traditional boat, I decided on a very traditional dinghy.  No inflatable for me!  I wanted a hard-body dinghy (with matching paint job) that could be sailed or rowed back and forth between the dock and Candide at anchor.  My crew (who somehow wound up doing most of the rowing), eventually convinced me to invest in a small gasoline-powered outboard engine for the “dink.”  My God!  What a difference that little 2.5 h.p. Mercury makes!  I can anchor out a mile or two away from shore.  The crew and I simply hop aboard the dinghy and can be ashore in a matter of minutes!  Because we’re anchored out, I’m not paying any dock fees for the evening when we’re cruising (which, in Florida, would cost between $60 – $90 per night).  The dinghy allows tremendous freedom.  Anchor out, dinghy in.  It’s free!  I tell you, this crew of mine definitely has good ideas every now and then.  Personally, I think that a “tender” is required equipment for any cruising boat.  The cost-savings alone (by not having to stay at a marina) will quickly justify the price of the dinghy and the motor.  As to the hard-dinghy vs. inflatable debate (and there certainly is one), all I can say is that my dinghy is very tender (i.e., if you move around too much, you’ll fill the dink with water).  On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about holes in the hull like I would if I owned an inflatable.  Plus, my dinghy rows very, very easily compared to an inflatable (which is a consideration, if the engine should quit).  
bullet Handrails.  At sea, even in calm weather, Candide moves around a lot.  In rougher weather, she moves around so much that it’s impossible to walk down below without having something to grab a hold on to stabilize your movements (unless, of course, you’re fond of big bruises and/or broken bones).  Secure handrails down below (and above) make movement around the cabin at sea a lot easier.  In my opinion, the more handrails…the better.  In the picture on the left, I can find at least seven handrails.  How many can you spot?  Hint: Click on the picture to enlarge.
Plastic wine “glasses” hold the elixir of the gods just as well as their evil glass counterparts!
bullet Plastic Tableware.  When I first moved aboard Candide, I took my prized ceramic dishes and crystal wine glasses with me.  This mistake wound up costing me dearly.  One evening, some newlywed friends came over, and I poured them some Champaign into my leaded flute glasses.  And then I poured a bit more Champaign…followed by another round.  Eventually, one of the flute glasses fell onto the cabin sole and shattered into a gazillion pieces.  Oh, sure, I pulled out the vacuum cleaner and thought that every last piece was removed from the floor.  The next morning, I rose from my berth and walked towards the campanionway when suddenly, I felt the most excruciating pain in the sole of my right foot.  I couldn’t walk anywhere!  I had stepped on a small piece of broken glass. Every time I tried to dig out the glass with a pair of tweezers, I winced in the most painful expression ever to beset a sailor!  I couldn’t get anywhere near the glass, as the shard had gone clear to the bone and wedged itself directly against a major nerve in the bottom of my foot!  I managed to get help in stepping off the boat, and drove myself (barefoot) to a podiatrist.  Two hours later, and $600 poorer, the glass shard was removed.  Today, there’s a simply policy aboard Candide…NO GLASS, NO CERAMIC.  Period.  I drink my wine from plastic cups.  And you know what?  I really can’t tell the difference in the taste.  Glass is evil on board a cruising boat!