Choosing a Cruising Sailboat

Just how do you go about choosing a cruising sailboat? Unless you apply some logical process to it it's all too easy to end up with the wrong boat. Allowing your heart to rule your head with these beguiling machines can get you in a lot of trouble!

So before you start poring over all the advertisements for cruising sailboats you need to have a pretty good idea of what you're looking for - or more importantly, what you're not looking for...

A Valiant 40 cutter under full sailMany sailor's idea of what a cruising sailboat should look like. But would it be the right one for you?

The trick when choosing a cruising sailboat is to narrow your search criteria down by eliminating those boats that would not meet your requirements, before honing in on those that might.

It's rather like making a sculpture of an elephant - you start with a lump of rock and knock off all the bits that don't look anything like an elephant. Easy really...

But before we start this 2 Stage process, we must get some basic criteria established - and you might want to print this page and find a red pen...

Stage 1: Primary Considerations

The next four questions A, B, C and D are essential to the process of choosing a cruising sailboat that is right for you. But don't tick the ones that apply - cross out the ones that don't.

This whole process is one of elimination. If you tackle it the other way around you're likely to very quickly paint yourself into a corner.

A. What will you use the boat for?

  1. Coastal cruising? 
  2. Offshore Cruising?
  3. Ocean Cruising?
  4. Living aboard?
  5. Occasional club racing & regattas?
  6. Occasional chartering to offset costs?

Once you've decided what you definitely won't be using the boat for, write down those that you might use it for under 'A'.

Suggested reading:


B. Where will you be doing most of your sailing?

  1. In the Tropics?
  2. Temperate regions?
  3. High latitudes?

Similarly you'll want to discard two of these, unless you migrate from one zone to another.

A singlehander I know voyages from the south of England to the Caribbean and back every year! He would only discard item 3 - probably.

Suggested reading:


C. Who will use it?

  1. Singlehander?
  2. Skipper plus mate (and occasional guests)?
  3. Full crew?

Even singlehanders have occasional guests, and some competitive cruising couples may need additional crew for club racing and regattas - so be careful what you eliminate here.

D. Where will you keep the boat when you're not using it?

  1. Laid-up ashore?
  2. In a marina?
  3. Deep water mooring?
  4. Drying or 'Half Tide' Mooring?

Item 4 will only apply to those harbours and estuaries that experience a considerable tidal range, where such 50% moorings are available for a fraction of the cost of any other place to park your boat. 

A Macwester 27 Bilge Keel SailboatBilge Keel yachts are great for drying-out in tidal harbours, but there's little else in their favour


Stage 2: Honing in on Suitable Sailboats...

Eliminate the undesirable; then keep your options open...

1. Hull Material

  • GRP?
  • Steel?
  • Aluminium?
  • Wood Epoxy?
  • Ferro-Cement?

If you eliminated all but 'High Latitudes' in 'B', then you'll be clearly aware of the risks of bouncing off icebergs and are likely to eliminate all but steel or aluminium hulls.

And few sailors in the process of choosing a cruising boat are likely to leave ferro-cement as an acceptable option.

Suggested reading:


2. Number of Berths

Largely based on your response to items 'A' and 'C'.

If Offshore and Ocean Sailing remain as options, then you need to consider the number of sea berths you'll need for off-watch crew.

Suggested reading:


3. Type of Boat

  • Monohull?
  • Catamaran?
  • Trimaran?

Most of us have a personal leaning towards either monohulls or multihulls and no amount of persuasion from the other camp will get us to change our minds.

Marinas ('D' above) and multihulls are not natural bedfellows - expect to pay at least one-and-a-half times as much as you would to pay for a monohull of similar length.

But multihulls, particularly catamarans, can make a deal of sense in places like the Caribbean where anchorages abound - and where you might want to charter your cat when you're not using it.

Suggested reading:


4. Boat Length

  • Under 30'?
  • 30' - 35'?
  • 35' - 40'?
  • 40' - 45'?
  • 45' - 50'?
  • 50' - 55'?
  • over 55'?

At this point you should be able to eliminate all those size ranges that are too small to meet your requirements.

Now eliminate those that are just too big.

You should be left with one - or at the most, two - size ranges.

Suggested reading:


5. Type of Rig

  • Sloop?
  • Cutter?
  • Ketch?
  • Staysail ketch?
  • Freedom Rig?
  • Junk Rig?

Eliminate any rigs here that are unlikely to satisfy your remaining options in Section 'A'.

Suggested reading:


6. Displacement

  • Heavy?
  • Moderate?
  • Light?

As a general rule for monohulls, heavy means comfortable and slow, light means a livelier motion but quicker.

If you eliminated monohulls in Section 3 you have no choice here. All multihulls are by design, light displacement.

Suggested reading:


7. Keel/Rudder Configuration

  • Long (full) keel?
  • Fin & Skeg-hung Rudder?
  • Fin & Spade Rudder?
  • Lifting Keel?
  • Bilge Keel?

If your boat is going to spend much of its time in a marina, then be aware that a long-keeler - with manouverabilty characteristics akin to those of a shopping trolley - can be an embarrassment.

Bilge keelers are a peculiar British thing. There is only one reason for having one, and that's to take advantage of the lower cost of half-tide moorings as in D4.

If D4 was eliminated, you should eliminate bilge keelers too.

Suggested reading:


8. Sail Handling

  • Hanked-on headsails?
  • Roller Furling Headsails?
  • In-Boom Mainsail reefing/furling?
  • In-Mast Mainsail reefing/furling?
  • Slab reefing main and lazy-jacks?

Few of us would choose hanked on headsails for anything other than a staysail, but furling mainsails are another matter.

Suggested reading:


9. Cockpit Location

  • Centre Cockpit?
  • Aft Cockpit?

In my opinion, centre cockpits are seldom a success on boats smaller than 40 feet or so. The sensation is one of sitting on the boat rather than in it, and the access to the aft cabin is often somewhat tortuous.

Larger centre cockpit boats usually sport a sumptuous aft cabin.

Suggested reading:


10. Steering

  • Wheel Steering?
  • Tiller Steering?

The fashion these days is for a wheel - sometimes two of them - but on a well-balanced, aft cockpit boat smaller than 45 feet or so, a tiller can be a joy to use.

But think carefully about eliminating a wheel, as you'll be eliminating a lot of good cruising boats with it.

And if you've also eliminated an aft cockpit in 9, then you'll be left with no boat to choose from at all!

Suggested reading:



The Next Step...

Depending on how ruthless you've been in deleting undesired options, you should now have a broad specification for the sort of cruising boats that would meet your requirements. If you think you've still got too many options left, get your red pen to hand and run through it again.

Now go back to Section 4, where you'll be left with one or two size ranges. Then take a look at pics below which link to cruising boats within your specified size ranges. Click on the appropriate range and scroll through these - you might find some that meet your requirements in terms of sections 1 to 10.

OK, there's only a relatively small selection of sailboats there, but you should by now have a pretty good idea of the cruising boat that will be the right one for you.


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