Small boats, big cruising
Practical Boat Owner|September 2021
Rupert Holmes describes a selection of very capable small boats for cruising on a budget
Rupert Holmes

Today’s boats are, on average, significantly larger than in the past, so it’s easy to assume open water passages aren’t safe for craft under a certain size or for those without an inboard diesel engine.

But two or three decades ago many boats of less than 25ft crossed the English Channel, southern North Sea, and the Irish Sea on a regular basis.

For instance, in a post on the Corribee Owners Association website Roy Way, who owned a fin keel Mk2 in the early 1970s, says his boat: ‘regularly made the trip from Poole Harbour to Cherbourg and never gave us any cause for alarm. Basically, she was a terrific little boat, easy to handle and confidence-inspiring.’

Equally in the 1970s the Quarter Ton Cup, the then de facto world championship for offshore race boats of around 23-26ft, included an offshore race of up to 200 miles. On occasion, bad weather was encountered, including winds gusting well over 30 knots.

A smaller number of intrepid small-boat owners have ventured even further afield. Webb Chiles, for instance, sailed round the world on two 18ft open Drascombe Luggers. More recently Chiles completed his sixth circumnavigation sailing a Moore 24, an early 1970s race boat that weighs less than a tonne. Equally, in 2002 Alessandro di Benedetto successfully completed a solo transatlantic crossing in a 20ft open sport catamaran.

The progress of technology has arguably made many 24-48 hour passages on smaller boats safer than a few decades ago. For a start, weather forecasting has improved to the extent that today’s forecasts are as accurate on day six as the 48-hour forecast was 40 years ago. The advent of relatively inexpensive AIS receivers and transmitters means we can see shipping at a far greater range and identify a potentially dangerous situation at a very early stage. In addition, LED bulbs allow for brighter navigation lights without drawing much power, and the advent of affordable solar power helps keep batteries topped up for longer.

On the other hand, climate change increases the likelihood of encountering extreme weather on any voyage beyond a weather forecast horizon of a few days. We now also know rogue waves are much more common than was previously thought.

One important aspect of voyaging in a small boat has not changed with the passage of time: the basic physics that means it’s easier for a breaking wave to turn a small boat upside down than a larger one (see panel, above). Stability broadly varies with the cube of hull length, so very small boats are at a disadvantage, even compared to those only a couple of metres longer.

Most of the boats on these pages are older models. If you have a bigger budget, then a larger boat makes sense, but home builders who want a vessel that incorporates the many recent positive developments in yacht design could consider the Aviateur 5.70 or Don McIntyre’s Globe 5.80.

If sailing a smaller boat it’s often important to adjust your expectations. This is doubly important because bouncy weather in a small boat can quickly become very tiring.

In 2006, Pete Hill, one of the most experienced skippers in the first Jester Atlantic Challenge (from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island) for instance, took an extreme southerly route. This avoided the worst of the conditions in a succession of depressions that crossed the north Atlantic that summer.

Hill’s 22ft junk-rigged bilge keel Kingfisher 20+ was one of only two Jester boats to reach Newport that year. He arrived after 44 days, giving an average of fewer than 70 miles made good each day. Nevertheless, he completed a challenge that many sailors with ostensibly more suitable boats were not able to finish.

Shanti’s trip across to Newport was very pleasant and surprisingly fast,’ he wrote afterward. ‘I chose the Azores route to try and avoid the gales and fog of the northern passage, and in this I was successful. The strongest winds experienced were Force 7, but for most of the passage, the winds were moderate or light. I passed close west of San Miguel Island in the Azores and then down as far as 33°N 45°W, before heading towards Newport.’

Lack of space is also a drawback of small vessels that, understandably, will be offputting to many. After adding watertight bulkheads to the 21ft Corribee Guy Waites sailed from Scarborough to Newport, RI, and back. There was not even enough length to stretch out on the cabin floor. Few of the boats listed here have more than 5ft of headroom and for most all aspects of living are entirely open plan.

Ultimate stability

There’s a school of thought that says, providing it has a sufficiently high angle of vanishing stability to right itself immediately, it probably doesn’t matter if a small yacht is inverted by a breaking wave.

However, there are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is the risk to the rig, as the forces on it when under water are immense. It’s not feasible to add sufficient strength to mitigate this risk without adding so much weight aloft that stability is further compromised. The second is the danger to the crew, either from being thrown around the cabin or being on deck when the boat inverts.

Shortly after his return Atlantic crossing Guy Waites told me he was on deck when his Corribee was knocked down to 90° in big seas while crossing the Gulf Stream. He was able to step over the windward side, to stand on the keel dinghy style, and help the boat get back on its feet. Arguably this wouldn’t have been feasible in a larger boat, but the danger must not be underestimated.

Roger Taylor, who has sailed huge distances in a much modified Corribee and Achilles 24 is an ardent proponent of using series drogues in heavy weather. These keep the boat stern to the waves, reducing the risk of being capsized by a beam sea, and exert a restraining force that makes a potentially catastrophic pitchpole unlikely.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many who sail such boats do so single-handed, but that’s by no means universally the case. Sven Arvind has made many long-distance voyages in small boats, including an east to west Atlantic crossing in 1989 on the 15ft Bris with his wife, Olga.

Equally, Shane Acton lived full time onboard his 18ft Caprice Shrimpy during an extended circumnavigation, accompanied for many years by his girlfriend, Iris Derungs.

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