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Your First Sailboat: How to Find and Sail the Right Boat for You

Your First Sailboat: How to Find and Sail the Right Boat for You

by Daniel Spurr

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The Comprehensive Sailing Start-Up Resource

  • Can a keelboat tip over?
  • Can I take a centerboard boat onto open water?
  • How can I determine what boat I want?
  • Once I do, what’s a fair price to pay for it?
  • Should I buy it new or used?
  • How can I tell the difference between a used boat and one


The Comprehensive Sailing Start-Up Resource

  • Can a keelboat tip over?
  • Can I take a centerboard boat onto open water?
  • How can I determine what boat I want?
  • Once I do, what’s a fair price to pay for it?
  • Should I buy it new or used?
  • How can I tell the difference between a used boat and one that’s used up?
  • Now that I have it, how can I start sailing quickly and safely?

Your First Sailboat is the first book to answer all your questions about selecting, buying, maintaining, and using your first boat. This user-friendly guide covers issues that other books ignore, including how to choose between a trailer sailer, daysailer, raceboat, cruiser, or multihull; what hull material is best for your first boat; whether to buy new or used; where to shop; how to judge quality and condition; where to keep your new boat; and what to do about gear, loans, insurance, and annual maintenance. Special features of this all-in-one handbook include:

  • A descriptive buying guide to 75 recommended sailboats of all types and sizes, from daysailers to racers, cruisers, and multihulls
  • A decision tree to guide you to your ideal starter boat
  • Complete instructions on how to care for and sail your boat as well as how to acquire it

Straightforward and fun, Your First Sailboat gives you just what you need to stop asking questions and start sailing. Everything else is optional. Save time. Save money. This book omits everything you don’t need to know.

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How to Find and Sail the Right Boat for You


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Daniel Spurr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-142216-1



What Kind of Boat Should I Buy?

At the heart of the mysterious allure of sailing lies the boat, what philosophers call "the thing in itself." To build a boat and sail out of sight across unknown waters to strange lands is one of man's most primal and mythic adventures. In the twelfth century BC, Odysseus sailed across the Mediterranean to wage war against Troy and then sailed 10 years home to Ithaca. St. Brendan purportedly sailed a goatskin boat across the North Atlantic from Ireland to Iceland in the thirteenth century AD. Polynesians navigated giant proas hundreds of miles between island groups of the Pacific. And in the early 1960s, a 14- year-old boy from Ann Arbor, Michigan, threw a sleeping bag and a can of Spam into a wooden Rhodes Bantam, sailed out into the vast waters of Barton Pond, beached the boat on the island at its center, and almost spent the night. Though that was 40 years ago, I still savor the memory. On any scale, the lure today remains unchanged from what it was 3,000 years ago.

There are at least three components to this fascination: the call of an exotic destination (the other side of the lake counts, as any reader of Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" series knows well); the thrill of steering and handling the boat, even in circles; and the boat as an object of adoration.

Just as a carpenter has affection for a favorite saw or chisel, the golfer his favorite wood, and the hunter a handsome rifle, the sailor admires his boat for its many attributes—graceful lines, stout structure, and the fact that it is his (or hers). Ownership breeds pride.

OK. That all sounds good, but you ask, "What boat should I buy?"

The answer depends on what you plan to do with it. You could, of course, build your own boat, but most people will find it simpler to buy one new or used. Answer the following questions and we'll begin to work through the choices.

Where will you sail?

a. Small lake or bay, or close to harbor and home? Call these protected waters.

b. Big bays and sounds (San Francisco Bay, the Chesapeake Bay, Albemarle Sound, Puget Sound)? These are known as semiprotected waters.

c. The Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario, Erie) or near-coastal ocean waters? We'll call these inshore waters.

d. On the open ocean more than 20 miles from shore (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Caribbean, Mediterranean)? These are unprotected waters, mate.

Will you

a. Daysail only?

b. Sleep on the boat overnight?

c. Take weeklong cruises?

d. Voyage across large bodies of water?

e. Groove on going as fast as you can?

f. Take large groups sailing?

Do you

a. Want to keep your sailing simple?

b. Want to avoid yard fees?

c. Want this to be a family affair?

d. Have visions of tropical islands?

e. Have a strong competitive streak?

f. Have a pathological fear of tipping over?

How long can you tread water? (Just kidding. That's an old Bill Cosby line from his comedy piece, "Noah's Ark.")

If you answered one or more a's to the earlier questions, see the following Daysailers section. If you answered one or more b's or c's, jump to Trailer Sailers and General-Purpose Boats. If you answered one or more d's, scroll down to Cruisers. If your answers included e's, check out the Racers category. The smaller keel racers are typically campaigned on bays and inshore; the larger ones, such as the Farr 40 and Santa Cruz 52, sail offshore. Answers that included f's direct you to the Multihulls section, which includes daysailers for both pleasure and racing (Hobie 16 and Tornado), coastal cruisers (F-27 and Gemini 105), and offshore cruisers (PDQ 36).

Choosing a Sailboat. Below is a flowchart to help you organize your thoughts about sailboat choices. Use it in conjunction with this chapter and the Sailboat Guide at the back of the book, but bear in mind that any such overview of categories has to make an arbitrary judgment here and there. For example, while it's true that Ensigns are less often raced than other daysailers, in some places they are. And so on.


If what you want to do is spend a Saturday sailing around a small lake, maybe picnicking and then going home, you don't need a big boat with a cabin and complicated electrical and plumbing systems. There are few pleasures in life more satisfying than sitting on the deep seat of a well-behaved family boat such as the O'Day Day Sailer, your back rested against the curved coaming, skimming across a lake.

Some daysailers are intended purely for relaxed sailing; others for spirited racing. Most small racing sailboats are called one-designs, which simply means that they are essentially identical, and compete without handicap—the first to finish wins.

If you want more thrills than the rather staid O'Day Day Sailer, try leaning out horizontally over the water, feet planted on the side of a 420 racing dinghy, your body held up by a trapeze wired between a chest harness and the masthead; or hiking out while flying a hull on a Hobie 16 catamaran. These are international designs: the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) has accepted them for event sponsorship. Some such classes are used in Olympic competition. (See the ISAF Classes sidebar for a complete list.)

Daysailers generally don't have cabins, though some have a partial shelter forward called a cuddy cabin. Sometimes these cabins have enough room for a portable toilet, which is much appreciated if you'll be away from shore for a few hours or longer. Otherwise, you have to lean over the side to relieve yourself, which is potentially dangerous and most times embarrassing; or use a bucket; or jump over the side.

Small boats are the best way to learn to sail. Unlike a big boat, your mistakes provide instant feedback. Everything happens faster on a lightweight daysailer than on a heavy keelboat, which seems sluggish by comparison, its tendencies camouflaged by its weight.

People who learn to sail on large boats miss many fundamental experiences like, well, capsizing. It's no big deal on a small centerboard boat. You stand on the centerboard, grab a halyard (the line that hoists the sail), lean back and pull the boat upright, climb in, bail, and get going again. No fears, right? R-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght! OK, I know the thought of being dumped into the water with all your clothes on might be intimidating, but just think of it as taking a swim without your suit. So you got wet? Live a little!

Daysailers can have nonballasted center-boards that pivot, or daggerboards that lift straight up, or fixed keels with ballast inside—like the Ensign and Sonar. Fixed keels are not practical to launch at a ramp; boats with keels usually are put in the water at the beginning of the season and left at a dock or mooring until fall. This way, you help support the marina owner, who is trying hard not to have to sell his valuable waterfront property to condominium developers. So, although it may seem like the money you're handing him is a lot for just being able to tie up your boat to a bunch of old boards, it's nothing compared to what Donald Developer is waggling in front of his tired old eyes.

Fixed-keel daysailers are probably best owned where there are active fleets for club racing, or perhaps by people with homes on the water who desire a "gentleman's" boat and have no real desire to sleep aboard. Their lack of portability and accommodations, and the absence of self-bailing cockpits, restrict their utility.

Centerboard and daggerboard boats can be dry sailed; that is, stored on a trailer in a driveway or backyard and launched every time you go sailing. The shallower the draft with the board up, the easier the boat is to launch and haul out. The resulting cost savings and the flexibility of sailing on a lake one day and on a bay the next are somewhat offset by the hassle of rigging and unrigging the boat each time you go out.

Among monohulls, check out the 11-foot Escape, 14-foot Laser, 15-foot Snipe, 17- foot O'Day Day Sailer, 19-foot Lightning, 19-foot Flying Scot, and Rhodes 19. There is more information on each of these boats in the Sailboat Guide appendix. Of course, there are a lot of other designs to choose from, but this selection includes tried-and-true boats that also are affordable and widely available used.

The overriding advantages of daysailers are simplicity and economy. You'll have less hassle getting under way, spend less time on maintenance, and save money over larger boats. On the other hand, your destinations are more limited, as is the weather the boat can handle.

Trailer Sailers

Bigger, heavier boats, usually with cabins, require more sail area to make them move. The more sail area, the stronger the need to counterbalance the tendency to tip or heel. Multihulls counter the force of the wind with very wide beams that resist heeling. Monohulls counter wind forces by adding ballasted keels below the hull. The deeper the ballast, the greater the righting force to resist heeling. But there's a trade-off because boats with deep keels are more limited as to where they can go without running aground.

Designers have developed several compromise solutions. One is the swing keel, which is basically a weighted centerboard that pivots up into a trunk when in shallow water or hauling out at a ramp. Because all its weight is placed on a single pivot pin, the pin must be very strong, and a winch might be necessary to lift and lower the swing keel. Several popular models of the past 25 years, now out of production, include the Chrysler 22, Venture 22, and Southcoast 22. The best-selling Catalina 22 continues in production as an updated MKII version of the original. The motivation behind all these models is not only stability, but trailerability as well.

The so-called "trailer sailer movement" originated in the late 1960s. An early proponent was Roger MacGregor, who designed and built the line of Venture swing-keel sloops. As of this writing, he is building the water-ballasted MacGregor 26, equipped with a 50 hp outboard motor that provides double-digit speeds under power. Water ballast, which is a fairly recent development, involves having a sealed tank in the bottom of the boat that is allowed to fill with water. As the boat is hauled onto a trailer, a plug is removed, and the water is drained. The advantage of this arrangement is that you don't have to lug all that weight down the highway. The disadvantage is that water is not nearly as dense as lead (the usual ballast material) and its location inside the hull doesn't provide much righting arm (leverage).

Keel-centerboard boats are part keelboat and part centerboarder. Generally, a shallow stub keel contains the majority of the ballast; a slot in its bottom allows a centerboard to be fitted that drops down in deep water to improve windward performance (as we'll see later, sailboats can indeed sail into the wind, not directly, but usually to within 40 to 45 degrees). The centerboard also reduces leeway, which is the tendency of a boat to be shoved sideways by the wind.

The trailerable O'Day 23, PY 23, and PY 26, also no longer made, are small keel- center-boarders still found on the used-boat market.

General-Purpose Boats

By far, the largest category of keelboats between 25 and 45 feet are so-called cruiser/racers. These are purported to be dual-purpose boats that can be competitive in club races and equally adept at a summer's cruise with the entire family aboard.

Designed and built for average weather conditions and use, general-purpose boats have moderate displacement, a decent turn of speed, and comfortable interiors. They are neither light enough nor powerful enough to be grand prix racers, nor are they built strong enough to cross an ocean. But because most boats are used only on summer weekends and are never taken too far from home port, the cruiser/racer can be built for a more affordable price than either the full-on racer or the offshore cruiser. You'll find descriptions of some of my favorites in the Sailboat Guide appendix.

Most general-purpose boats have a fixed keel, and these days that means a fin keel, although lengths (from front to back) and depths vary.

Large keel-centerboard boats, which were once popular for shallow-water cruising, have lost favor to the simpler wing keel in recent years. There are several reasons: First, at anchor, centerboards tend to "slat" inside their trunks, making an annoying noise; second, there is always the risk of the pivot pin failing or the board jamming; and third, a keel-center-board configuration does not get the ballast as low as with a fixed keel, thereby reducing stability unless more weight is added to compensate for the shallow draft. Wing keels, though not as deep as ordinary fin keels, often have bulbs at the bottom to concentrate additional weight, and their horizontal "winglet" appendages provide some lift, like an airplane wing, to help the boat point closer to the wind ("higher") than it otherwise would.

Shoal keels like the keel-centerboard arrangement allow sailing in shallow water, as in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, but offshore in deep water, a deep keel with the ballast low provides greater stability and safety.

General-purpose boats also have moderate amounts of sail area. This means they won't be the fastest boats around in light air, but they also won't have to be reefed as soon as a raceboat with a tall mast and acres of expensive Spectra and Kevlar threads.

The sail area/displacement (SA/D) ratio is a convenient way to compare the relative amounts of sail area on different boats. This number, coupled with the displacement/length (D/L) ratio, gives a fairly accurate picture of a boat's performance. A general-purpose boat will have a D/L ratio between about 200 and 300 and a SA/D ratio between about 15 and 17. See the illustrations on page 15 for the actual formulas.

To get the D/L ratio, multiply the waterline length in feet by 0.01, raise the result to the third power, and divide that number into the displacement in long tons (2,240 lbs.).


As noted previously, fixed keels provide superior stability and are favored for use in open water. The keel may extend from near the bow all the way to the stern, in which case it is called a full keel. More modern are fin keels, which are shorter from front to back, but deeper. Some have bulbs on the bottom to locate the ballast as low as possible. There are pros and cons to each (see the sidebars). Traditional cruising boats have full keels, but in the past 25 years, they have given way to fin keels, albeit longer than those found on modern raceboats.

But there's more to designing and building a safe offshore boat than just its keel. The windows and portlights must be strong and not too large. The cockpit must not hold too much water if flooded by a breaking wave. Hatches must be strong and not leak. The rig must be well stayed and offer convenient ways to reduce sail in a storm. All hardware must be of good quality and well-fastened. The rudder must be well made, and an emergency steering system should be provided as backup.

The sloop rig is the most common, mainly because it is the simplest and least expensive. The cutter rig has two headsails, so reducing sail is easy. Ketches and yawls have mizzenmasts, which add complexity and cost; their mizzensails add nothing in terms of speed upwind, but they balance the boat better when sailing on a reach.

The suitability of a given boat for deepwater cruising—or offshore racing, for that matter—depends on its design, the quality of its construction, and the crew's experience and skill. The cruisers in the Sailboat Guide appendix are as good a starting place as any.


By nature, racing sailboats are lighter than cruising sailboats, usually with deeper fixed keels and taller masts for carrying more sail area. They may be one-designs, like the J/24 and Melges 24, or designed for favorable ratings under one of the various handicap rules, such as the International Measurement System (IMS).

Racers usually have fairly spartan interiors and, despite frequent claims to the contrary, they are less-than-ideal as off-duty cruisers.

Modern racers have become so light that they depend on human ballast (so-called "rail meat," which are crew sitting on the "high side"—feet overboard) to prevent excessive heel.

Nevertheless, campaigning a boat can be wonderfully rewarding. You quickly learn how to trim sails for maximum speed, how to determine and plot the fastest course between two points, and how to steer effectively. Equally important, you learn teamwork and the pleasures of camaraderie. And some sailors are simply more temperamentally inclined to the competitive excitement and goal attainment of racing than the Zen of leisurely sailing.

The cost of equipping and maintaining a raceboat can be considerable, so it's best to consult with other owners. To be competitive, new sails usually have to be purchased every year or two or three. The bottom must be sanded and polished smooth—sometimes more than once a season. Worn lines must be replaced. Boats campaigned on a national circuit must be trucked from one event to the next. It's the cost of racing that no doubt has led many young sailors to cry out the acronym "OPB!" when asked how they manage. (OPB means "other people's boats.")

Excerpted from YOUR FIRST SAILBOAT by DANIEL SPURR. Copyright © 2004 by Daniel Spurr. 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

Daniel Spurr is the editor-at-large of Professional Boatbuilder magazine and the author of seven sailing books. He has been senior editor of Cruising World magazine and for twelve years was the editor of Practical Sailor, the consumer report of the sailing world, for whom he has edited a book-length collection of sailboat reviews. He has owned and upgraded eight sailboats.

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