Jimmy Cornell gives his expert analysis of the essential features that any offshore cruising yacht should have
No matter what your budget, there is a bewildering array of choice and a number of important decisions to make, any one of which could severely impact the enjoyment and eventual success of your voyage. What follows may serve as a checklist for first-timers as well as seasoned ocean sailors in helping to decide the essential elements concerning safety, comfort, performance and functionality, looking at the hull, deck, rig and interior.
Hull, keel and rudder
Deciding on the size of a boat is not only the most important choice, but also the most difficult, and it is here that most serious mistakes are made. Some people choose a boat that is too large for their requirements, too difficult to handle short-handed and more expensive to run and maintain. Electric winches, furlers and bow-thrusters have made larger boats much easier to handle, but ask yourself this: ‘Can I sail this boat with just my partner or, in an emergency, on my own?’
But having said all that, my research shows that more owners complain about their boat being too small. It is a well-known fact that lack of space or privacy can have a negative effect on morale and lead to friction among crew on a long passage.
Monohull versus multihull
Deciding whether to go for one hull or two is perhaps an even more difficult choice than that of size. With regards to three hulls – I am yet to be persuaded that trimarans are suitable to be sailed on offshore passages by a small family crew.
In the early days there were similar doubts about the suitability of catamarans for offshore sailing, but their design has greatly improved, architects have put a lot of thought into their safety, while builders have done their best to produce strong, seaworthy craft. Their ever-increasing popularity among long-distance cruisers is the best proof of that. As they have many advantages over a monohull of the same length, I have an open mind on the subject of one hull or two.
However, those who plan to set off in a catamaran on a long voyage must choose their route carefully to minimise the risk of encountering dangerous weather. Always observe the safe seasons, and be aware of a catamaran’s weak points. Catamarans are much less forgiving than monohulls when weather conditions deteriorate. A catamaran needs to be helped to overcome extreme conditions, whereas a well-found monohull can be battened down and left to its own devices.
According to various search and rescue authorities and figures compiled by the ARC and other offshore rallies, more cruising boats have been abandoned in the last 30 years because of rudder failure than for any other reason.
A recent example is that of the yacht Dove II, which lost its rudder 400 miles east of Barbados while on passage to the Caribbean in December 2016. The crew, a couple with their children and another crewmember, were unable to improvise an emergency steering system and had to be rescued, abandoning the boat.
Rudders are an essential design feature that should dictate the choice of boat. Suspended rudders have gradually migrated from racing to cruising boats and, unprotected by at least a partial skeg, are extremely vulnerable.
If you cannot avoid a boat with this kind of rudder, at least insist that the lower half of the rudder is sacrificial, as this is where it is most likely to be hit by debris. Regardless of the type of rudder, there must be an adequate emergency backup steering system that is easy to set up and known to all members of the crew.
On my Garcia Exploration 45, Aventura IV, a boat that I helped to design to my exact specifications, the two aluminium rudders are supported by skegs. As an added protection, the upper section of the rudder blades is made of light composite material that will crumple and compress without causing any damage to the hull itself. This is exactly what happened in a collision with a large lump of ice in the Arctic and the rudder continued to function normally for several thousand miles until repairs could be made.
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Keel, draught and displacement
In all my research on the subject of ideal draught and keel type, there was a consensus that a fixed keel may be better suited for ocean passages, whereas shallow draught, whether with a shorter keel and bulb or a centreboard arrangement, was preferable when cruising. My two last boats had a centreboard and I can state unequivocally that both from the safety and convenience point of view, a centreboard works perfectly, both when exploring shallow areas and on passage.
Displacement should be a serious consideration for those interested in sailing performance, as I know too well from personal experience. At nine tons for her 36ft, my first Aventura was on the heavy side and an indifferent sailer in light winds.
I was determined to get a boat with a lighter displacement for my third Aventura. Indeed Aventura III’s designed displacement of 9.5 tons for a beamy 43-footer was as close to perfect as possible and I always made sure to keep her weight down to a reasonable level.
As in the case of displacement, unless hull material is put at the top of the list of priorities, or you order a one-off, this is another decision that may be taken out of your hands. In most cases boats are built in the most suitable material the architect and builder have agreed upon. For a long voyage the builder might be persuaded to put some additional strength in critical areas, so it is worth discussing this as early as possible in the process so that such modifications can be done during the initial building stages.
Metal hulls, whether steel or aluminium, are attractive for their intrinsic strength, but there are disadvantages to both materials as well. Steel hulls and decks need good initial preparation for painting, and then careful maintenance throughout the boat’s lifetime. In the case of aluminium hulls, some people may be concerned about the risk of electrolytic reaction. This is quite unjustified: modern alloys as well as building methods have taken care of that.