The Complete Trailer Sailor: How to Buy, Equip, and Handle Small Cruising Sailboats by Brian Gilbert | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
The Complete Trailer Sailor: How to Buy, Equip, and Handle Small Cruising Sailboats

The Complete Trailer Sailor: How to Buy, Equip, and Handle Small Cruising Sailboats

by Brian Gilbert

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A soup-to-nuts introduction to small, economical sailing craft

Trailer sailers--the smallest, most economical sailboats with sleeping accommodations--are a popular platform for learning the basics of sailing and are often considered to be the entry level to cruising under sail. Author Brian Gilbert shows how trailer sailers can be the ideal craft for


A soup-to-nuts introduction to small, economical sailing craft

Trailer sailers--the smallest, most economical sailboats with sleeping accommodations--are a popular platform for learning the basics of sailing and are often considered to be the entry level to cruising under sail. Author Brian Gilbert shows how trailer sailers can be the ideal craft for a lifetime of enjoyment, including serious, long-distance cruising. This book covers all the bases, including how to inspect, buy, and equip a boat; how to trailer, sail, navigate, and cruise in small boats; how to use communications and navigation equipment; and more.

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The Complete Trailer Sailor

How to Buy, Equip, and Handle Small Cruising Sailboats


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 International Marine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-159360-1



Thinking about Your Boat

There are lots of questions to ask yourself when you start to think about buying a boat. Whether you can afford it is certainly one of the most important, but you must also consider how you would move it, where you would store it, and whether you truly have the time to devote to this pastime. But let's start with a question that may help you answer some of the others: How big a boat do you need?


Trailerable sailboats with cabins range from a minimum of about 15 feet to a maximum of about 25 feet. The natural tendency for most folks is to covet the biggest boat they can get. Not so fast, Popeye—the biggest boat isn't always the best. To see why, let's use an extreme example—the Lancer 28.

The Lancer 28 was introduced in 1977, when trailer sailers were quite popular. This was about the most boat that would fit on a trailer. To haul a boat on the highway without a special permit, the beam must be no wider than 8 feet (though some states have increased this limit to 8 feet 6 inches). But an 8-foot beam is considered narrow for a boat this size; it was a compromise the designer made to fit the boat on the trailer.

Another compromise was a fairly shallow, wide keel. In order to keep the loaded height down, the designer used a shallow keel, which doesn't add much stability. And since the keel is so shallow, the ballast is up high, where it doesn't do nearly as much good. Compare this to a conventional 28-footer, where the draft averages around 4 feet. The keels on these conventional boats are commonly solid—not hollow—chunks of lead or iron. With that much weight so deep in the water, the nontrailerable boat has a lot of stability compared to the Lancer. The reason for the Lancer's wide keel also has nothing to do with performance—the designer wanted a boat with lots of headroom, so he dropped the cabin sole down into the keel. The result is sort of a fiberglass trench that you stand in, and the keel is wider than it should be for best sailing performance. If you stand in the trench, the boat has 6 feet 2 inches of headroom—an unheard-of space on most trailerables. This feature may enhance sales, but it does little to improve sailing.

But the real drawback to the Lancer 28 is out of the water. Once on the trailer, this boat is a monster. It weighs almost 5,000 pounds. You can forget pulling this rig with anything less than a large vehicle with a dedicated tow package. And a panic stop at 55 miles per hour might turn you into something like a pressed turkey sandwich. I talk more about tow vehicles and road safety in Chapter 6, but this illustrates some of the problems with taking a large object like a boat out of its natural element and hauling it over the road.

It must be said that while a Lancer 28 isn't my particular cup of tea, many other folks are quite happy with it. There's an active owners' website at If you'll be sailing in relatively sheltered conditions, and if you don't plan on hauling the boat overland very often, the Lancer 28 might be a good choice for you.

As I noted at the outset, the Lancer 28 is an extreme example of the trailerable category. At about 26 feet, trailerable boats stop making sense. If you really want a large boat, then you would do well to consider a model that is not trailerable. But be ready for a significantly larger commitment of time and money. Boat design always involves a series of trade-offs and compromises; if you set your sights a little smaller, the trade-offs required to make a boat trailerable become less severe. Nearly all sailboats around 20 feet long can be launched, transported, and stored on a trailer. Some are designed for easy launching and trailering. Others are optimized for sailing ability, and are more difficult to launch and haul. Most are somewhere in between.

You can learn to evaluate a trailerable sailboat design by looking at a few key factors, such as the specifications, the hull outline, and the sail plan. While you can't predict everything from such information, it will allow you to make educated guesses about performance on the water, ease of launching, ease of hauling, and other factors. It's not my intention to make anyone into a naval architect—I'm far from one myself—but we can infer, for example, that a boat with a tiny swing keel is going to make more leeway than a boat with a larger keel. And don't worry if you don't know that leeway means the way that a sailboat gets pushed slightly downwind as she sails; I cover this in detail in upcoming sections.

So if a Lancer 28 is too big, what's the best size for a trailerable sailboat? Of course, there's no single answer that fits everyone. Instead, consider this question: What kind of sailing do you want to do, and where do you want to do it?


The sport of sailing can be generally divided into racing or cruising. Some boats are specifically designed for racing only—every feature is built for speed, and all other considerations are secondary. Other boats are specifically designed to be cruisers, where strength and load-carrying capacity are paramount. Many are called cruiser-racers, and are marketed to do both well, but in reality that's a difficult balancing act. Because trailerables are limited by length, weight, and beam, you won't find many that are said to be purely cruising boats.

Presumably you live within a reasonable distance to a body of water that's big enough to sail in. Even this isn't an absolute requirement—many sailboat owners live far from their regular sailing grounds. But chances are you live near a lake, large river, or, if you're lucky, the coast. On average, what's the weather like there? Some places, like San Francisco Bay, are known for consistently strong winds. In that region, heavier boats with shorter masts and smaller sail areas are the norm. On the other hand, the winds at many inland lakes (like Chickamauga Lake in Tennessee, where I often sail) are light and variable. Boats with tall masts have the advantage, and large, lightweight sails are almost a necessity.

The prevailing weather where you'll sail has a direct correlation to appropriate boat size—or more accurately, boat displacement. A boat's displacement is, for our purposes, equal to the weight of the boat and all its gear. (Actually, it's the weight of the water the boat displaces while at rest.) In a nutshell, lightweight boats perform best in light winds, while heavy boats are better for stronger winds (and the rougher seas that accompany them). This is, of course, a broad generality and not a hard-and-fast rule. My current boat, a Montgomery 17, is considered a medium-displacement boat, yet its light-air performance is better than the numbers would indicate. I discuss displacement in more detail in Chapter 2.

Another factor to consider is who will be sailing the boat. Let's assume that you will, since you're bothering to read this. But is anyone else planning on coming along on a regular basis?

While most people are familiar with the captain-crew relationship, I like to think of sailing participation in different terms: solo sailing, couples (or partner) sailing, group sailing (a captain with two or more crew), and, finally, family sailing. (See the sidebar "Sailing Relationships.")


The Lancer discussion touches on yet another consideration relating to boat size: can you pull the boat you're thinking of buying with your current automobile?

I've had quite a struggle with this subject myself. Several years ago, before I owned a trailerable sailboat, I bought a used 6-cylinder van, thinking it would be just the ticket for towing a sailboat. Six cylinders and an automatic transmission should provide plenty of power, right? Unfortunately, I didn't check the manual, which said this van shouldn't pull anything over 2,000 pounds. No sweat, I thought—a MacGregor 222 weighs 2,000 pounds. But add the weight of the trailer, motor, and basic gear, and we're looking at something like 2,800 pounds. OK, so I'll talk to a transmission shop about adding a fluid cooler. Well, I did talk to a transmission specialist, and he informed me that my van was particularly unsuited for towing anything. According to the technician I spoke with, burned-out transmissions are a common repair with vans similar to mine.

So, back to the drawing board. The next vehicle I bought was a Nissan Frontier pickup. My truck is a 4-cylinder, manual transmission model for fuel economy. The manual says that this model can tow 3,500 pounds, so my 2,800-pound MacGregor should be no problem, right?

Well—after spending three years of parttime work restoring my Mac (for the whole story, read Fix It and Sail), I hauled it to the lake. Even though it was a big load for my little truck, the Nissan towed and launched it OK. The trouble came when I went to haul it home again in the fall—my Frontier could barely pull the loaded boat and trailer up the steep launch ramp. I had to slip the clutch to get it out, and the smell of burning clutch plates reminded me of smoldering hundred-dollar bills. It was clear that the MacGregor and my current tow vehicle were a poor match.

Rather than sell the truck, I decided to sell the boat in favor of a smaller, slightly lighter boat. My Montgomery 17 weighs about 1,550 pounds, and the trailer another 400. The motor is lighter than the Mac's, and the Montgomery, being a good bit smaller, carries less cruising equipment. Even though it's still a sizable towing package, I'm just able to pull this boat up the ramp—it's a much better fit. (I do wish I had gotten the automatic transmission, though.)

Towing is such an important part of owning a trailer sailer that I devote an entire section to the subject (see Chapter 4). But when evaluating a boat, pay close attention to your tow vehicle's rated capacity. It wouldn't hurt to talk to your mechanic about what you're planning to pull, and get some professional advice about the best way to haul your boat.


Unless you are fortunate enough to live in an area with year-round sailing weather, you'll need a place to keep your boat when not in use. This is where the smaller sailboat shines, as it has more affordable storage options than larger boats.

The most obvious place is at home, if you have the space. Winter repairs are just a few steps away, and you are immediately aware of developing problems like leaks or trailer rust and can take quick action, preventing larger and more costly repairs later. Some boats will even fit in a standard garage. But do check with your homeowner's coverage to be certain a trailerstored boat will be covered in case it is damaged in any way. The best setting is on level ground, preferably on a concrete driveway. Some homeowners' associations won't allow this, so read carefully any agreements you may have signed.

Another storage option is a rental facility, where your boat will fit right in with the rows of camper vans. These can be expensive, though, and it's hard to maneuver a trailered boat through the other parked vehicles.

Marina storage is another possibility, and it's where I keep my boat. Keeping the boat at a marina dock is usually the most expensive option, but hard to beat in terms of convenience. You'll do a lot more sailing if your boat is easy to use, and there's nothing easier than untying the boat and raising the sails. However, keeping the boat in a slip all year long accelerates wear and increases the chance of osmotic blisters, which form when the hull is subject to constant moisture. Keeping the boat on a trailer in the winter gives the hull a chance to dry out. Perhaps your marina offers the option of storing the boat near a boat ramp. Stored on the trailer, but fully rigged, it can be launched in much less time than it would take to raise and lower the mast. These arrangements are often much cheaper than keeping the boat in a slip.

An important consideration, too, is weatherproofing and protecting your boat during storage. Boats are designed to withstand direct exposure to the elements and can do this admirably, but any boat will look better far longer if it is in some way protected from the sun and rain. Sunlight—specifically UV radiation—is probably the single biggest aging factor for boats. If you keep the sun off the decks, the gelcoat lasts much longer—just look at a gelcoated interior liner for an example.

Rainwater can also cause problems if leaks develop, and all boats develop leaks in time. Keeping your boat covered will prevent rain damage as well, but of course you'll discover leaks when they're least welcome—while you're using your boat. Whenever you see evidence of leaks, make proper repairs as quickly as possible, since damage can quickly elevate from a minor annoyance to a major repair.

A portable canvas carport is a fairly inexpensive way to pamper your boat. Plan on it lasting about three years, unless you buy a budget model. If you keep your boat at home, you can invest in an aluminum version, which is of course more expensive and less portable but can last far longer. Very small boats may even be stored in a garage. Their loaded height on the trailer is often the limiting factor, apart from the availability of garage space.

A tight-fitting off-season cover is often the most practical solution. A good one is expensive, since they are often hand-built and use pricey fabrics. Stock covers are available for powerboats, but sailboats aren't often on the list. Still, it might be possible to modify a stock cover to accommodate an existing mast. Even if all you do is throw a cheap poly tarp over the boat, it's better than leaving your investment to fend for itself all winter.


I'd love to toss aside this concern with a salesman's catchphrase, like, "There's a sailboat for every budget!" It's just not that easy. Sailboats are discretionary items, plain and simple. Owning one requires that you have enough income to pay for it—both the initial purchase price and the annual maintenance costs.

How much does it cost? Well, how much have you got to spend? My MacGregor cost $500. And then I spent approximately $3,600 in parts and equipment to restore the boat to better-than-new condition. Oh, and I almost forgot about the three years of part-time work that I spent restoring it. When I sold the boat, I had owned it for approximately five years. The final selling price was $3,400—which, for a 1972 MacGregor Venture 222, is pretty good. My boat was in excellent condition, but still wasn't perfect.

So it cost me roughly $600 for five years of use, not including insurance or taxes. The initial cash outlay was quite small—$500 for a 22-foot boat is about as low as you can get. But I paid more in ongoing costs for replacement equipment and upgrades, and I "paid" a lot in time spent working on the boat.

My second trailer sailer, a 1979 Montgomery 17, cost $3,400. It was in much better condition than my first boat, but it still had plenty of maintenance issues, and I wanted to make some upgrades. So far, I've owned it for about two years and spent around $1,000 in equipment. Montgomery sailboats are high- quality boats, and used ones rarely come onto the market. New M-17s cost around $18,000, and I'm fairly confident that I'll get around $5,000 when it comes time to sell. We'll look more closely at sailboat equipment, as well as the "new versus used" argument, in upcoming sections.

Book Value

One research method for finding a good boat is to look at the book value of boats that you're considering. Two major companies publish price guides—BUC International and NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association). Their pricing varies in accuracy; of the two, NADA is reported to be a touch higher. Remember that these prices do not include motors or trailers, and the data is gathered from asking prices, not actual selling prices.

When you begin your search for the perfect boat, it helps to look through these books. The BUC book is quite expensive, but you might be able to find a copy through your local library, and some BUC values are available online.

The first thing you'll notice when you examine these books is the price range for trailer sailers. Some will be in your budget, and some won't. If you're interested in a used boat, pick a model year and compare the prices for several boats from that year. You'll note that some boats are at rock-bottom prices. Several factors affect the market price of any used boat—how many are on the market, the number originally built, the original purchase price, and so on, but it's safe to say that the most desirable boats aren't going to be the cheapest. They aren't necessarily the most expensive, either. My point is, unless lack of available cash is your number one concern, think carefully about considering the bottom of the range.

Since you will most likely sell your boat at some point, it makes sense to buy a boat that is in demand. This costs you more initially, but your investment is preserved when it comes time to sell. Improvements to a well-made boat will most likely mean a higher selling price, whereas improvements made to an unpopular boat will bring little additional revenue when it comes time to sell.

You should also look at the rate of depreciation of a particular model over the years. A boat that holds its value can be an indication of quality, whereas a boat that rapidly declines in value could mean that problems are common. This is good to know if you're thinking of buying a new boat as well.

The book value shouldn't be considered as gospel, but you should be aware of the book value for any boat you're thinking of buying. You'll soon discover that the market value of a sailboat is often less than the sum of its parts, so a boat well-equipped with extra gear can represent a good value, while a boat with lots of broken or missing parts can be a fiscally poor choice.

Financing a Sailboat

Should you want to get a boat loan, your own bank is the best place to start, since your banker knows the most about your current financial situation. Explain that you'd like to buy a boat, and ask what the best way is to go about it. He or she will tell you what the options are, what the costs and interest rates might be, and how much of a down payment you'll need. Since boats are considered luxury items, most banks will require 20 percent of the total price as a down payment. Don't pull every penny out of your account for the down, either—there will be fees and miscellaneous costs.

Excerpted from The Complete Trailer Sailor by BRIAN GILBERT. Copyright © 2009 by International Marine. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian Gilbert (Chattanooga, TN) is a lifelong sailor who lived aboard a Catalina 27 for four years. His total restoration of a basket-case trailer-sailer is documented in International Marine's forthcoming title Fix It and Sail (January, 2006). He recently sold Fluke, the MacGregor Venture 222 sailboat that was the subject of that book, and purchased another used trailer-sailer, a Montgomery 17. He is a frequent contributor of how-to articles for magazines such as Good Old Boat, Small Craft Advisor, and DIY Boatowner, and he writes and edits a newsletter for blacksmiths.

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