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A Framework For Purchasing a Yacht

Aug 18, 2007
Unlike most boat purchase advice, written by manufacturers and designed to persuade to one brand or another, the suggestions in this article are written from the perspective of a sailboat buyer and are drawn from the collective wisdom of my dozen or so sailboat purchases as well as conversations with many, many other sailboat buyers.

This article will focus on the buying process and vessel characteristics. The process described applies to both new and used sailboat purchases. Subsequent articles will apply the suggestions presented here to specific sailing areas and boat types.

The Buying Process
Buying a sailboat is a multi-step process that involves answering three questions. Successfully answering these questions will lead you to the vessel that can provide years of joy, while failure to accurately or honestly answer the questions may steer you to the wrong boat, little usage and no fun.

The three questions are:
1. How will I use this sailboat?
2. What characteristics of a sailboat are best for this type of use?
3. What sailboats have those characteristics?

The most important question is "How will I use this sailboat?" and getting this question right goes a long way toward buying the right boat. The answer to this question, however, must be detailed. It can't be a general answer like "to race" or "daysail" or "to cruise." If you only answer the use question generally, you are not yet ready to buy a boat and run a high probability of making a large and expensive mistake.

Answering properly means knowing the details of where you will sail, the weather conditions in those areas, the length of the trip you will take, number on board and how far you will be from assistance. Table one provides some examples of the detail you should know BEFORE you consider buying a sailboat:

Primary Sailing Desired Normal Trip Length Cruising Grounds Expected Wave Conditions Expected
Conditions No. on
Board Distance
From Help
Example One Daysail 2-4 Hrs. Local Bay 1-3 ft 5-15
Knts 2 1-3 Mi.
Example Two Extended
Cruising Months Ocean Any 5-50+ Knts. 4 100+
Example Three Weekend
Racer 8 Hrs Lake and
River 1-6 ft. 5-30 Knts. 8 1-6 Mi

Vessel Characteristics
Once we know on how we will use our new boat, we can determine the vessel characteristics best for our use. Vessel characteristics can be divided into three categories: sailing, safety, living. Sailing characteristics include speed, stability (tendency to heel), ability to point, ease of steering (tendency to sail straight), balance. A racer, for example, will want a fast boat that can point close to the wind and may be willing to sacrifice some stability and ease to get it. A long distance cruiser on the other hand may be willing sail a little further off the wind to get more stability and balance. Sailing characteristics will be determined by the boat design, specifically: sail plan, keel type and depth, sail area to weight ratio, and displacement (Table Two).

Vessel Characteristic Impact
Keel Design Fin Keel - Easier to maneuver, more difficult to steer straight
Full Keel - More difficult to turn and wider relative turning radius, easier to steer straight
Keel Depth Deep Keel More stable (more resistance to heel), greater ability to point (sail close to the wind) but less access to shallow water
Shoal Draft Keel - Less stable with access to more shallow water, less ability to point upwind
Sail Plan Sloop Rig - Bigger sails, better upwind ability
Cutter Rig- More flexibility in sail options, smaller sails (easier to handle), reduced ability to point
Multiple Masts (Ketch, Yawl) - More flexibility in sail plan and good reaching performance with even less ability to point
Sail Area High (SA/D) - More speed with less stability
Displacement Increased displacement delivers more stability while sacrificing speed.

Our next consideration is safety equipment. The need for safety equipment is primarily dictated by the conditions we will face and how far away help might be. If we will carry life rafts, EPIRBs, offshore first aid gear and emergency water and rations, we will need places to securely store these items when not in use. In addition, other safety gear may include advanced communications devices (SSB radio, satellite phone, email or fax) power generation (wind generator, genset, and/or solar panels) and items like sea anchors and drogues, radar and navigational gear. Again, the safety equipment list can be generated based on distance away from help and likely weather conditions we will face. The key vessel consideration is to assure any boat purchased will have a place to safely store everything.

Next, we must consider living space. Again, based on our usage we should know the number of people and length of time of our voyages. This information is then used to determine the required living conditions and space. For example, a boat cruised away from shore for weeks would need to have a much different energy management system, provisioning ability, and cooking equipment than a boat sailed for weeks, but doing short hops between ports. This seemingly small change in sailing usage can mean large differences in vessel necessities. Consider power generation for example. Extended cruising means high output alternators, larger battery banks, external voltage regulation, and potentially alternative energy generating -- all things avoided when short hops between marinas are the plan.


Sailboats are the stuff dreams are made of, but buying the wrong boat can be a nightmare -- expensive, unpleasant and dangerous. The most important way to avoid making a mistake is to know exactly how you will use the boat in great detail before you begin shopping for your dream boat
About the Author
Capt Dave Bello is President of Fair Wind Sailing School, an ASA affiliate sailing school offering monohull and catamaran sailing charters and sailing lessons, in the Virgin Islands Chesapeake Bay and on Lake Erie.
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