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How to Buy a Sailboat - Part II

Aug 17, 2007
Once you know exactly how, where and when you will use your dream boat, the next question to answer is "what are the characteristics of a boat best suited for how I will sail the boat?" I believe this question is best answered across five dimensions: Rig type, sail plan, keel type, interior accommodations and overall hull design. Many great books are available to discuss these considerations in any level of detail you would like. Here is a quick overview.

Rig type and sail plan go hand-in-hand. Typically, there is a trade off between ease of sail handling and safety/flexibility. For example, a cat rigged boat with one large mainsail and no headsail (think Laser) is very easy to handle by one person, since there is only one sail. If you are day sailing in a small lake or close to shore where you can take cover if things heat up, this is a great rig -- simple, easy to handle, quick to set up. However, it is not a very flexible design, since the sail can't be reefed in big blows. A standard Marconi sloop is one step above in flexibility since it adds a second (head) sail that can be changed in size to accommodate wind velocity changes. In addition, these rigs today almost invariably offer roller-furling of at least the headsail, if not both sails, making on-the-fly adjustments simple and easy. This is certainly a rig with enough flexibility for stronger wind.

The tradeoff is that you have now added a second sail to handle, change, and furl. Moreover, the sloop is still pretty limited in terms of the changes you can make to sail plans. The cutter rig is the next step up in flexibility with 2 headsails and typically a much smaller mainsail. This configuration allows for significantly greater variations in sail configuration and a much wider spectrum on wind ranges within which the boat can comfortably be sailed. The tradeoff is a third sail to manage. Finally, the double-masted designs -- ketchs and yawls -- provide the greatest level of flexibility and therefore the greatest range of wind velocities to comfortably sail through. The obvious disadvantage is complication -- 2 masts, 4-6 sails. For my money, the sloop wins for Bay, Great Lakes and Coastal sailing, while I would want at least a cutter rig for ocean passages, with the ketch and yawl being that much better.

Keels are the next consideration with two primary questions -- how deep and what kind. Deep keels allow for more stability (less heel) and greater angles to weather (into the wind), but limit the places you can safely sail without running aground. For me, the depth question is easy -- racers should opt for the deepest keel practical for their sailing area, the difference on windward legs can be dramatic. I would recommend deep keels to anyone else who spends a lot of time beating to windward (whoever that may be). For everyone else, the shallower the better -- more cruising grounds, more safe anchorages and less chance of hitting something as you go. As for type, if you are doing offshore passages or even long coastal passages, I recommend a full keel -- the boat tracks better and gets much better "holding" than a shallow keel. Alternatively, if you do a lot of close quarters maneuvering, I would NOT get a full keel and instead opt for the fin keel.

Interior accommodations range from practically nothing in race shells, to full blown luxury (microwave ovens, flat panel TV's, DVD players). The simple rule is to match the sailing type to the interior type. My guess is for all but the hard core racer, budget will dictate here (more on this in Part III).

Finally, consider the overall hull type. I examine two dimensions: SA/D (sail area to displacement ratio) for overall speed estimate and D/L (displacement to length ratio) for overall stability and maneuverability. Neither is a perfect measure and manufacturers have a tendency to fudge the numbers (but that is a different article), but they are a good general reference point.

In summary, the first step in buying a sailboat that will make you happy is to know exactly and in great detail how you will use the boat. The second step is to identify the characteristics of a boat that will best match your usage and start looking for boats with those characteristics.
About the Author
Capt Dave Bello is President of Fair Wind Sailing School, an ASA affiliate sailing school. This article is a continuation of How to Buy a Sailboat - Part I.
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