How to Choose the Right Boat

There are many factors to consider when buying a sailboat. The experienced sailor and previous boat owner would have more hands on experience to draw on, and therefore would lean towards certain designs they are familiar with, but for the novice sailor the decision is difficult and needs to be a calculated and informed decision based on the individuals intended use of the vessel, lifestyle, budget, competence of the owner, number of crew to be employed, personal construction material preference which in itself relies on the degree of the owners intention and capacity to do maintenance work and his forbearance and patience in seeing this work to completion. There is a common failing in boat owners to acknowledge the kind of sustained effort a boat requires; many give up for whatever reasons they might give, but few will admit that they are simply too lazy, and often use euphemisms such as ‘I don’t have the time, the wife doesn’t like sailing, I cant afford it, etc. There is often a lot of truth in these statements, and you have to consider that this might be you one day trying to justify to your friendly broker your reasons for selling.

Be careful in your decision. Beside the considerations above there are several qualities to be sought in a boat, and a balance of these qualities is what most sensible sailors try to achieve. These are: speed, aesthetics, safety, strength, durability, comfort, space and resale value. Often finding a boat that exhibits one of these qualities in its extreme means sacrificing the degree of another. Say for example, you’re a speed junky and decide to convert a racing yacht into a cruising yacht; you will then be sacrificing safety, comfort and space. It is necessary to find a middle ground, a best of all worlds if possible.

Ok, let’s break it up a bit. You would like to buy a boat and don’t know where to start.
Let’s begin with your intended use of the vessel. If you are a completely novice sailor recounting the carefree adventures you had in an optimist as a sea scout many years ago and are looking to rekindle a sense of freedom, and at this point are not sure what your future in sailing will hold then start small with a trailer sailer. This is a small sailing vessel with either a retractable keel or non retractable keel between 14 and 20ft that is relatively easily to tow around to the dam or from one coast to the other depending on where your seaside or lakeside vacation will take you. Maintenance costs are low, and mooring costs are generally by length (if you do decide to keep it a marina); of course you could just store it in your yard for free.

If you are thinking of doing slightly longer coastal trips and taking more mates and even more beers on board then consider the next step up – a daysailer. This could have any type of keel and would be between 21 and 26ft. Here your concern begins with having a small asset constantly at the mercy of the elements while lying at dock or swing mooring. You will have to budget for higher maintenance costs and mooring fees, but if you are just looking for something to pot around in on the weekends with the option to drop anchor and stay the night on the boat then this would be the best option. I must add here also, that if you have a problematic wife or husband then having a daysailor makes for the perfect escape, and it might offer a better nights’ sleep than the couch.

If your horizons extend further and you have always dreamed of cruising the world, and discovering hidden coves and far off destinations; if you have considered the futility of 9 to 5 drudgery and are fed up with the stress and predictability of life on terra firma then you need a cruising boat. This begins at around 26ft and upwards. Cruisers come in all shapes, sizes and designs, and this is where the real difficulty in choosing comes in and we are presented with the age old question of ‘to mono-hull or not to mono-hull?’ If sailors could be divided into any two major groups it would be the mono-hull sailors and the multi-hull sailors. Choosing either comes with the stigma surrounding that type of sailor. Both have there advantages. A traditionalist will advocate the ‘real sailing feeling’ found in a mono-hull and will claim that a catamaran is more stable upside down than the right way up. Catamarans have in fact proven their safety in heavy weather and are completely safe for long distance voyages which would explain their popularity. To capsize a catamaran is extremely difficult, and normally is a result of poor and irresponsible seamanship, and over canvassing.

There definitely is something momentous in sitting a cup of coffee on the saloon table and having it remain there as the cat pounds through swell. The obvious advantage of a cat is the space it offers, particularly the large cabin housing, saloon and galley. For people who suffer severe cabin fever they have large deck space, and cockpit and provide more spacious outside living an for this reason are more pleasurable at anchor.
If you plan on spending a lot of time in tropical conditions and will be island hopping and anchoring often then the comfort of a catamaran surpasses that of a monohull.

They are also much more stable at anchor. They are generally faster, but cannot point up wind as well as monohulls (although as cat designs are being perfected this margin is decreasing). You’re probably asking yourself, ‘why on earth would I want a monohull if a cat has so much to offer? Well, the answer is simple – a monohull is traditional and has that keeled over traditional sailing feeling. Nothing compares to the feeling of point your nose into the wind, finding that sweet spot and piercing through the swell. Could you imagine Vasco Da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope on a catamaran? Monohulls own the archetype of ancient sailing.

Besides traditionalism, monohulls have other advantages; If you are unfortunate or foolish enough to find yourself sailing in hurricane force winds or running down 40ft swells, you will feel safer having the ballast of a keel to right the boat should it capsize or pitch pole. Monohulls do not slap or pound against the waves as they have a deep v hull instead of the flat bridgedeck joining the 2 sponsons. In some cats this is worse than others and it is a design aspect that many forward thinking catamaran manufacturers strive to improve on. Schionning performance cruising catamarans for example incorporate higher bridge decks to reduce slamming.

We will return to a more detailed account of catamarans shortly. Let’s look at factors worth considering when purchasing a monohull:

Construction material: The main construction materials of monohulls are Fibreglass, Steel, wood, Ferro Cement and Aluminium.

Fibreglass: This is the most common construction material and generally the most sought after. It is low maintenance, has great strength to wait ratio, easy to repair, very durable and is cheaper than Aluminium. On the down side it is not as strong as steel or Aluminium and is subject to osmosis over time.

Steel: Steel boats are cheaper than other materials except Ferro and wood. Steel is the strongest building material, but very high in maintenance, subject to rusting, heavy and therefore slower than Aluminium and Fibreglass boats. Poor resale value.

Wood: In the form of plywood, planking or cold moulded. Traditional, good strength to wait ratio, easy and cost effective to repair, but porous over time, subject to rot and wood worm, high in maintenance and poor resale value (unless a classic and well restored)

Ferro Cement: Cheapest boats available, strong, and cheap and easy to repair, but heavy, slow and have poor resale value

Aluminium: The most expensive material, but offers the best of all qualities. It is light, strong, durable, does not rust or rot and low maintenance, but extra measures have to be taken to prevent electrolysis.

Considering the pros and cons mentioned above you might want to discuss it further with a broker or friend in the know. Fibreglass is normally the safer bet, but it also depends on personal preference. If you have a soft spot for classic wooden boats and manage to find one that has a professionally restored and maintained hull then go ahead, or if safety and strength is your priority and don’t mind chipping away at rust while other cruisers are soaking up the rays on the beach then go for steel, but be sure to inspect the hull and decks closely and enquire about the manufacturer and the quality, grade and origin of the steel used. Beware home builds, paying attention to the quality of welding.

If your pocket goes a little deeper then consider an aluminium boat. They are not too common in South Africa so you will have to look around.

Ok, let’s say you have decided on a monohull and have chosen your construction material. Let’s discuss size, accommodation and layout.

How many people will you have on board? Are you going to brave the oceans on your lonesome or take the wife and kids with? Do you intend on chartering or picking up friends on the way?

Your budget of course will be the main determinant of the size of boat you will be able to afford. Aft cockpit or centre cockpit? Personally I prefer an aft cockpit since it does not compartmentalise the boat and enables a continuous uninterrupted space. I also like to view and goof gawk at the entire length of my boat in one frame of vision, but for privacy’s sake a centre cockpit boat normally offers an aft cabin which is secluded and makes a large storage space for diving equipment, surfboards and gear.

If you are a solo sailor or intend sailing with a partner then a vessel from 30ft to 40ft is perfect. 30ft to 34ft boats offer a large enough forepeak to accommodate 2 people and may have 1,2 or no quarter berths extending under the cockpit seats, a saloon with 2 straight seats or one settee with an opposite u shaped settee. A vessel over 40ft will become difficult for a single hander and though manageable for 2 people it does mean more effort to sail. You will need to take into account the strength and competence of yourself and partner – remember, the larger the a vessel is, the larger and heavier are the rig and sails and the stronger is the force of wind on the sails and the greater the force on your mainsheet and jib sheets. Also the cost of new deck gear and maintenance, and docking fees increase with the size of the boat.

If you are planning on having kids on board, do charters or cruise with friends, or just enjoy your space, a vessel over 34ft with an enclosed aft cabin would be optimal or a boat 40ft upwards offering 2 enclosed aft cabins and larger galley and living area.

Ask yourself what sort of equipment, gear and facilities you require on board a vessel. This will also determine the size and volume of the boat you should buy. Boats offer limited space, both packing and living, and after several months at sea you would have mastered the art of efficient packing and stowage.
Ask yourself what creature comforts you can and cannot live without out. Do you want a fridge/freezer (This is a must have especially in warmer climates), water maker, generator, T.V etc. Is there enough space to install these if they are not present already?

If you plan on doing day charters, weekend or long charters consider a monohull 40ft and upwards. You will need as many cabins as possible so try find a boat with 2 aft cabins and enclosed fore cabin. A large cockpit is also a must since a lot of time will be spent here relaxing and entertaining. A boat with spacious, flush and uncluttered decks would also be preferable. A fridge/freezer for keeping drinks cold is necessary, at least one shower, preferably one on deck too to rinse of salty bodies, a good battery bank, an auxiliary battery charging system such as solar panels, wind generators and perhaps a generator.

If you have a large family, intend on accommodating many guests, or just enjoy your space and having many toys and gear such as surfboards, windsurfers, fold up bicycles, diving gear, hammocks etc. then something over 40ft would be preferable.

There are other lesser factors you might want to consider when looking for the ideal monohull such as the draft of the boat and keel type. If you enjoy anchoring right off the beach and squeezing into tight coves then maybe a multihull is for you. A long keel is what you will find on traditional older boats and are generally more solid and securely fixed to the hull of the boat, but tend to be less responsive and manoeuvrable than a fin keel, and also tend to rock a lot at anchor. A fin keel is the most popular choice with or without the bulb at the bottom. Also try find a vessel with a skeg before the rudder. This protects the rudder from being damaged by passing debris.
Hull colour and insulation will play an important part in the temperature inside your vessel. Obviously the darker colours such as black and dark blue will create more heat inside the boat, but with correct insulation this wont be a problem.

It is important to consider the resale value of your boat since you will probably not be sailing until the end of time. I will not go into what designs have a good resale value and what boats don’t that would require another article altogether. What I will say is beware homemade boats. Rather go for a factory boat built by professionals, unless it is obvious that the private builder has done an exceptional job; you will probably know when he hasn’t. Look for tell tales, like the flow of the hull – make sure it has even, uniform lines and curvature, particularly if it is a steel boat; check the welds, keel hull joint and keel bolts and deck to hull joints. You can learn a lot about the type of workmanship a builder is capable of, and his level of perfectionism and conscientiousness, by looking at the attention paid to detail, and the interior finishing’s. Make sure he has used quality materials. If he has done a scrappy and careless job of the interior then one needs to question the level of care he has afforded the more important components of the vessel.

For any cruising boat I would recommend having it surveyed before buying it if it has not been done in the last 6 months to a year. This is to check for problems such as osmosis, obvious damage, keel separation from the hull, delaminating, wood worm, wood rot, rust, welds etc. If the vessel is due for a bottom paint, anode replacement, cutlass bearing replacement, engine overhaul etc, then you might as well do these while she is out the water.

Let’s have a look at catamarans again. There are some great used catamarans for sale in South Africa and we should expect nothing less from the catamaran manufacturing capital of the world. Other countries that produce a lot of fine cruising and performance catamarans are Australia, the states and France, but ours are probably the most sought after and cheaper than anywhere else.

Again your budget will determine whether you buy a new cat our second hand catamaran. A new cat will set you back 3 million rand and upwards, and if you have access to this kind of money then I would suggest going for a new build. The best designs in terms of quality, design, strength, durability and value for money are the Schionning designs such as the Wilderness models and G-force 1400, Simonis designs, Knysna cats, St. Francis cats, Admiral cats and Voyage cats; and if you can afford the high end and very high-tech catamarans then have a look at the Nexus catamarans, Matrix yachts or Gunboats.

Avoid companies that mass produce catamarans, look for manufacturers that spend time building their boats and only build a few at a time which ensures that they give the conscientious attention your boat deserves. If you are told that it will take only 3 months to build your boat then stay away, this is a rush job. A good cat should take between 6 – 8 months to build and it will be well worth the wait.

Obviously many of the factors to consider when buying a cat will be the same as for as for a monohull, although we are talking chalk and cheese here so there will be other things to look out for. Cats are built in all shapes and sizes from the 26ft Dean catamaran to the 90ft Gunboat or 76ft Silhouette. The 26ft Dean cat is a lovely little cruising catamaran and a very popular boat, but I find it is a bit expensive for its size, but this can be attributed to the quality of the build. If you would like to be able to stand up in your saloon and galley then go for something 30ft and upwards. Catamarans are generally much faster than monohulls, but this is not the case in some horrific designs that have come out in the past. The boxy, square, caravan type cats sails terribly, are hard to tack, do not point upwind and sluggish. Aim for something built from 1990 and later that has an aero/water dynamic and sleek design to it.
As I mentioned earlier, the height of the bridgedeck is proportional to the amount of slamming you will feel. This can be quite nerve racking in medium seas, so try find a designer that has made provision for this. Jeff Schionning has incorporated some interesting design features in their Wilderness designs – each hull has a lip running along its inner side and midway up the freeboard that displaces water sideways instead of upwards when the hull dips into the water or is struck by a swell.

A boxy cabin housing such as that of the Lagoon creates a lot of windage and reduces your ability to point close to the wind (other than this design feature the Lagoon is a remarkable cat); it is also aesthetically displeasing, so aim for a cat with a more flush coach roof.

Cats are mostly built with composite hulls and decks, meaning it is not simply one layer or many layers of a single material, but a filler material such as balsa or high density foam sandwiched between layers of Polyester resin or Epoxy.

The superiority of epoxy over polyester is a clear cut fact. Most builders can build the same designs using either material. Epoxy is obviously pricier, but is stronger, bonds to the core/filler material better and therefore reducing the chance of delamination. It is also more durable and weather resistant and has a longer lifespan.
The question of which between foam and balsa is the better option is very controversial as they both have their advantages.

Balsa, particularly end grain balsa, is stronger in compression and sheer than any type of foam. To achieve similar rigidity to a balsa core in a foam core panel will require a thicker core, and/or thicker glass laminates. The result is that a balsa cored panel can be lighter for a given stiffness than a foam cored panel.
In an area that bears a lot of stress it is important to keep the laminates apart, for rigidity. In an impact situation it depends on how great the impact is – Balsa resists damage from small impacts better than foam. It will support the outer laminate better than foam will. In large impacts foam will convey less of the force to the inner laminate, but the core and outer laminate will suffer more damage.

The reason a core is used in the hull construction is to increase stiffness without adding weight. The desired stiffness of a panel could also be achieved by a solid
lay up, but at the expense of much greater weight. So what we are looking for from a core material is the best possible panel stiffness to weight ratio. It is important that the hull of a catamaran is able to resist compression from impact and sheer, and in these properties Balsa is superior. However, foam is more durable and with Balsa particular attention has to be paid to any exposure of the core to water, and all through-hull and deck fittings must be very well sealed and maintained.

Galley up or galley down? This refers to whether the galley lies in one of the hulls or next to the saloon on the bridgedeck. Most cats nowadays are built with the more desirable galley up. This permits more open plan living and allows whomever is slaving in the galley to converse with whomever is lounging in the saloon. Sort of akin to having an open plan kitchen to an enclosed kitchen where you are excluded from the activity in the lounge.

A large catamaran will have four cabins, 2 fore and 2 aft, and in some cases each will have an en suite heads with shower. This is a great bonus for those of you who are planning to do charters or have a larger family as it enables each person or couple to have their own private ‘bedroom’ and a place where they can retire to do some reading or in the words of Shakespeare, ‘make the beast with 2 backs’
Consider also that you will be able to carry more gear on board and will have more locker space to store it. Catamarans built in South Africa are very sought after and popular overseas so when the time comes to settle down on your tropical island paradise you won’t have a problem selling her.

If you have been toying with the idea of packing up, selling the house and buying a boat to cruise the world while there is still something left to see then do it, and do it now! Do not fear the unknown, but fear the regret you will live with if you don’t take the helm and steer yourself into a world of adventure. Cruising the world on your own self sufficient floating universe is an unforgettable experience filled with the tastes and flavours of all this world and life have to offer.

The market is down, and boats prices have fallen so now is the time to buy!

Bon Voyage and don’t forget to write!

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