As a would-be world cruiser, I’d say I “talk a good fight.” What I mean by that is that as much as I talk about it, I haven’t done a whole lot about it … yet. I’ve taken a few “baby steps,” weekend cruises and mid-week overnighters (one has that option when one is retired), plus a couple of big expensive steps:
I’ve bought two boats that were the wrong boat for sailing beyond the sunset.
The first one was quite intentional, because I was new to sailing and I needed something small and handy to teach myself past the rudiments. I’d gotten englamoured with the idea of sailing, after a vacation in Uruguay and a studio-apartment room with a view of the Punta Del Este yacht-harbor opened my mind to the possibility. (In fact, it was the day I took the photo in my banner that really lit the fire.) When I got back to the States, I started web-browsing about sailboats and visiting some local marinas; then I took a small-boat sailing course on the Potomac River, near Reagan National Airport, in a Flying Scot – a sturdy little open sailing dinghy that carried five of us through tack, gybe, man-overboard recovery (with a throw cushion), docking without a motor – all the basics. By the end, I was well and thoroughly hooked, and I was gonna get me a boat.
But how much boat was I ready to handle? I wanted one with a cabin, because that sunset was beckoning in my mind. However, anything much more than that Flying Scot would certainly be too much for me to handle. I got quite infatuated with a West Wight Potter – a 19-foot pocket cruiser with enough cabin to sleep in, a butane hot-plate stove, and a pocket under the settees for a porta-potty – but I couldn’t find one to buy. Searching in its size range, though, I found a likely substitute in a MacGregor 19 motor-sailer … my original Beija-Flor.
The Mac 19 is a chubby little thing, the same length as the Flying Scot but a foot broader abeam. It had a tiller for steering, a swing-down centerboard, and a cabin that the manufacturers claimed would sleep four. Well, there were four usable beds belowdecks – Roger MacGregor has a reputation for building boats that are “bigger on the inside than they are on the outside” – but there was not standing room. Nor was there a place I’d trust to put a camp stove. And even if it had a dedicated broom-closet for the porta-potty, there was not room in there for me to haul up my pants; I had to sit side-saddle, with my feet out in the main cabin, to do what’s needed. On the plus side, it trailered decently behind my Subaru Outback, and I was able to get dock-space for it at a marina five minutes from my office.
I spent two summers, sailing Beija-Flor out on the river. I even spent a couple dozen nights aboard, in the slip at the marina, carrying a change of clothes for the next day at the office. But it only took two years to “outgrow” Beija-Flor – a boat I described as “an obese Flying Scot with indoor plumbing” – and want something bigger and more comfortable. This would be my retirement boat, and I had plans to use it as a “funny-shaped travel trailer” and travel around the United States, for a year or two anyways. I liked the MacGregors, though – they’re simple, inexpensive and cheap-to-keep – so the Mac 19′s “big sister,” the MacGregor 26X, was an obvious choice. After a couple of weeks searching, and a couple of visits to “candidate” boats in my neighborhood, I found one offered for a very reasonable price – residing at an inland lake 250 miles from home. After a long drive to Smith Mountain Lake, and a meeting on board with the owner, I made a low-ball offer and he said “How about we split the difference?” I pulled out my checkbook and that was that. After the check cleared, I went back with my 4-Runner and took the boat home; the next week, I invited my colleagues down to the marina, for a champagne toast while I christened her “Bossa Nova” and hosed down the foredeck with a bottle of bubbly. (No breaking the bottle over the rail for me. I did that with Beija-Flor, and had a mess of glass shards to clear off the boat ramp.)
Bossa Nova is a lot more boat than Beija-Flor – well, seven feet longer, and tall enough to have stand-up headroom at the galley. She has the same water-ballast system and centerboard hull, but her size and weight make her more stable and solid under a person. She also has wheel steering, and I was able to install an autopilot to make it easier for me to “work the foredeck.” She’s enough boat to take several friends out for a day on the water. And she’s a great boat for light winds.
She also has pressurized-water plumbing to the sink, a head large enough for me to use, and a nice roomy layout that could accommodate a young family in comfort. And she can live on her trailer; yes, it’s more trouble to launch and retrieve a boat than to keep her in a slip, but between voyages she is safe on dry land. When I want to take her off the marina, it’s about an hour’s task to lower the mast and fasten it in trailering position; in two days’ drive from home, I can be sailing in sunny Florida.
However, Bossa Nova is not the boat to “sail away.” The features that make her a great “trailer yacht” make her unsuitable as a long-term, long-distance cruiser. She is very light, for one thing, and very “tender” – the water-ballast system is great for trailering (just pull the plug and the boat loses 1400 lbs ballast), but it’s not enough weight to keep her stable in heavy winds and heavy seas. Her underbody – which is more “powerboat” than “sailboat,” with only a skinny fin of a centerboard instead of the long heavy lead-weighted keel of a cruising sailboat – “gives up leeway” when you try to sail upwind. And she just doesn’t have enough space or capacity for the stuff you’d need for more than a couple of weeks’ vacation.
This was brought home to me in a week’s vacation to Florida, a bit more than a year ago. Sailing upwind in a pretty fresh breeze, Bossa Nova was laid over pretty far, bouncing on every wake and over-sized ripple of the water, and the “bread-crumb trail” on my GPS navigator looked like the teeth of a cheap saw. I just wasn’t making any headway. The day went from “exciting” to “frustrating,” and I finally motored back to the marina where I was spending the week. Oh well.
All boats are compromises. The obvious compromise is sail vs power. Then there’s light weight vs heavy weight, and ‘most all successful cruising boats are heavyweights for their size. The “beam” of a boat, its width, has a tremendous effect on its living space; its construction, its furnishings, make a difference in its livability. Bossa Nova was designed to be the first boat for a family that wants to get out on the water, wants to do it “on the cheap,” and haven’t decided whether they prefer sailing or power-boating. She’s a great boat within those limits; I’ve enjoyed her a lot, and I still plan to take her on more “trailer-sailer” travels; I have friends who have made some remarkable trips on MacGregor 26X boats like Bossa Nova, but I don’t know anyone who would consider making one into his full-time home.
It’s actually a misnomer to refer to either Beija-Flor or Bossa-Nova as ‘the wrong boat.” Each of them was very suitable, maybe even “perfect,” for the boating I was doing at the time. But if I want to follow my dreams offshore, neither of them is quite up to that task.