How to Choose the Right Cruising Sailboat. A Process Guide

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The right boat is the one you own, but if you don’t own one, which one is right? I have owned and cruised extensively on a budget monohull cruiser and two cruising catamarans and all have been the right boat. Luckily, my first boat purchase occurred when I was young and impetuous and it helped me understand what features I really valued for the later family cruises. For the first time buyer, however, weighing the various tradeoffs is difficult and understandably so. It’s a large purchase and buyers are often moving their families on board and preparing to go long term cruising. Add the limited supply of used boats spread out geographically and I say you need a process.

Boat buying is much more of a psychological exercise that most buyers anticipate. I always recommend digging deep on the assessment (and reassessment) of your experience, personality, and criteria. I always start with a questionnaire to help identify where they are in the process and to determine the most effective next steps. Key Considerations:

  1. What models have you been on and/or sailed on in the past? What were your initial reactions and favorites to date?
    If you have not seen many models, there is no substitute to hitting the road and viewing as many models as possible. In addition to traveling to view specific models, walk local marinas and be outgoing to current owners. You will be amazed at how willing an owner will be to show off his boat. Look at boats that you may not think you like.
  2. What is your tolerance for repair and refit?
    It is critical to understand the difference between a structural repair and new gear. We all want the perfect boat , fully equipped , and read to go, but that is not common. Replacing gear , ie. rigging, sails,. watermaker, electronics, etc, is relatively simple and I believe beneficial as you will limit future maintenance, have full confidence in condition, and gain very useful knowledge in the process. Repairing soft decks or delaminated bulkheads is not simple.
  3. What is your ideal and max budget with refit included? What is your expected overall spend (after re-sale) on the boat? Have you included cost of travel , potentially multiple surveys, and all transaction costs? What is your tolerance for multiple surveys?
    If you have a solid budget for a particular model ,but are highly concerned about potential resale hit, boat age is most important. Depreciation slows as boats age. However, the tradeoff is higher potential maintenance costs so set realistic expectations on additional projects. If you have little tolerance for projects and/or survey surprises ,then a newer privately owned boat is a better fit than an ex-charter. There is truth in “You get what you pay for”.
  4. What is your schedule and usage plans?
    Do you have time to refit? Do you have time to be selective and limit your search to only one model?
  5. How important is Geographic Location?
    Many buyers have preconceived notions of where they should purchase and start their trip. Understandable particularly when children are involved, but it’s a small world and generally boats are located where cruisers are and there are ample services. I encourage you to never limit location. Boats are made to move!
  6. Any specific built in features that you consider a must have, i.e. owners version/cabin, daggerboards, forward nav station, separate shower stall, etc.
    If you are certain of certain features , I.E. daggerboards, then only a few models , ie. Catana, Outremer, Dolphin, Balance will fit your needs simplifying the process. However, how certain are you in wanting these features? Be aware of your personal bias and the resulting required tradeoffs.
  7. Rank the various tradeoffs: Performance/ Livability, Price/Location, Price/Level of refit, Price/Schedule
    Again assess not only your current rankings ,but your level of certainty as well. Frequently , how buyers rank specific characteristics will change dramatically as they see more boats and gain more knowledge.

Perhaps you are the lucky buyer who knows exactly what model they want , it’s available on the market, and you have the budget. Unfortunately, most are not in that boat. Taking the time to carefully assess your personality and rank the key criteria will save you time and money during the boat buying process. Have fun with it, check off the right boxes, and you will make the right decision. Making it the right boat is then up to you!

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