Small Is Beautiful by Larry Brown
Opinion:The use a sailboat gets is in inverse proportion to its size.
When I was aboy, my father and I used to drive down to the Jersey shore to look at sailboats. We had no boat of our own, but it was fun even in winter, to look and to dream.
One late afternoon in November, snowflakes were in the air and it was almost dark when Dad spotted a Tahiti Ketch at the end of an empty pier. This was my father's ultimate fantasy boat: double-ended, rugged, salty. . . even the name suggested its ability to deliver us to far-off places.
We knocked on the cabin top but no one was home. Carefully, we slid open the hatch for just a peek. The inside was deep and cavernous and a coal-fired stove bathed the interior in a warm orange glow. We closed the hatch and my father looked at me with an almost inexpressible longing. The idea of owning such a boat seemed almost as distant as the surface of Mars.
Many years later, after several boats, much physical labor and many thousands of dollars, we owned our own Tahiti Ketch. I was on the threshold of college. At last we had our own dream ship, our own passport to adventure. What did we do next? We continued to day sail, cruise weekends and take out friends for the afternoon, returning stuffed with beer and baloney sandwiches. My brother and I met girls and suddenly crew was hard to find. My parents continued to work at their same jobs, live at the same place.
What had changed? Before, we had not owned a Tahiti Ketch and now we did. When I went to college, my father underwent spinal surgery and the boat was sold. We had christened it Panacea- the cure-all. You needn't study literature to understand. Irony.
So there you are reading Cruising World. Perhaps you, like we, love boats and dream of really going somewhere in one. If I could share only one insight with you it would be this: Don't believe for one minute that the limitation on what you can do lies with the boat you do or do not own. That's not it. The limitations lie within ourselves. The oceans of the world have been crossed over and over again in small craft of all kinds, many clearly unsuitable to the task. Meanwhile we have jobs and schedules and weekends and friends and social obligations and children in school. We want cooked meals and cold drinks and showers and private places to go to the bathroom. In other words, boat or no boat, we are not yet on our way to Tahiti.
Maybe it's time we rethought the whole matter. What good is it to own a 36-foot yacht with decks as thick as a sidewalk when the realities of our lives confine us to mostly weekend sailing? How far can we get in two days at a hull speed of seven knots? Fortunately, there is another way to do it; it works and it's fun.
Furthermore, it's comparatively cheap. Get a small trailerable sailboat. Cruise down the nation's highways at 55 knots and sail in places you've never been,sleep on board, cook on board or ashore, bath in the water you swim in. Enjoy. Then come home again. Someday you may be prepared to chuck it all, buy a bigboat and sail away for good, but meanwhile, think smaller and go now. Thinking small has been our route- by financial necessity as well as by choice
If we're not broke, we're the next thing to it. Yet last summer we sailed on Saginaw Bay in northern Michigan, the Saint Lawrence River, Lake Champlain twice, the Connecticut River and on Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts, as well as on several local lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont. Favorite spots will lure us back, but meanwhile we've got new places we can't wait to try: Casco Bay, Maine; Nantucket, Massachusetts, maybe a trip down the Hudson or the Delaware River. Our boat, Fearless is only 15 feet long but we've figured out ways to make it work.
First, we do have a cabin with two berths and space for storage. We've hung the cabin sides with satchels and monkey hammocks to keep the bunks clear of junk. At night, a shelter encloses the cockpit, turning it into a little dormitory for our daughters when they're along or a lounging area when they're not. Boom tents, Bimini tops and awnings are all especially invaluable on smaller boats where space is so critical. A well-conceived cockpit shelter is a highly economical alternative to a bigger boat. In more remote places, you can also pitch tents ashore. On the road, we often pull in for the night behind the turnpike gas and food stops. Snuggled in with the big trucks out back, we crawl into the cabin and into our sleeping bags. In the morning, we're ready for breakfast and a wash-up, then we're on our way again.
For economy and self-sufficiency, we cook most of our own meals en route and under sail. Propane camp stoves provide good reliable heat and take up little space. There's no liquid fuel to spill or worry about. Although we have a small cooler for milk and cheese, we mostly do without refrigeration. On the water, stuff kept in the bilge stays cool enough. Canned goods live happily in the bilges; rice and all sorts of dried foods are stowed in boxes under the cockpit seats. On a small boat, the cooking is best done out in the cockpit. Our West Wight Potter has a hatch slide that folds out into a cockpit table. For safety's sake, we move the outboard's gas can to the foredeck or hang it off the transom on a line. In nice weather, we spend most of our time in the cockpit anyway. A portable galley also can be set up on a beach or on a roadside picnic table. Simple and flexible are the operative words.
When you buy a small boat, economies become possible at almost every turn. A small cruiser can be rowed, successfully eliminating the cost of a motor and, in many states, registration fees. Even a bigger boat can be rowed with a single oar, provided someone minds the tiller to compensate for the off-center thrust.If you do want a motor, you won't need a very big one. We powered our one ton Venture 22 successfully with a four horsepower Evinrude. A one horsepower Elliot powers our 15-footer in most situations, although a three-horsepower Tanaka is better for running inlets and bucking river currents.
If you need new sails or wish to add to your present inventory, costs for small boat sails will be low. If your boat lives on its trailer in your garage or backyard, you save both money and the worry associated with a slip or mooring. Should you leave your boat in the water and need bottom paint, you won't need much. At a guest dock, you may pay by the foot; you buy insurance that way, too. Buy the minimum boat possible.
If you can afford more, so what? Save it for vacations and really go somewhere. Remember, it's not ownership of the object that counts, it's sailing-the activity of moving through the bright water, swimming, snuggling in your bunks and seeing the stars through the hatch. If you wait until you can go in style I promise you that, in the end, the style will become more important than the going. So you won't go anywhere and that is the greatest shame of all. Go into any popular haven for sailing yachts, even on the finest summer afternoon, and most of the boats are still at the dock. Never will you see the place really empty- polka-dotted with vacant mooring balls. You will see lots of people zoomingaround the place in small boats though, having the time of their lives.
The use a boat gets is in inverse proportion to its size. Never forget that. In the most ironic way possible, the old saw about getting what you pay for does not apply to yachting. Ask the owner of a large yacht to compute his annual costs per hour of sailing pleasure and he'll change the subject. Ask him that in front of his wife and he may begin to hate you.
Finally, while you are out in your small boat sailing, you and your family will be actually learning about what you 're doing. Should you later purchase a bigger yacht, you'll have the skills to use it well and the prudent instincts to stay out of harm's way.
At this year's Small Boat Show in Newport, Rhode Island, I asked a U.S. Coast Guard officer what kinds of rescues are most common. "It's not you guys," he said, gesturing at all the small craft around him. "It's them,he said, waving a hand at all the yachts bobbing on their moorings in the harbor.These guys strike it rich and go buy a big boat. Then something goes wrong and they don't know what to do.You'll know what to do, though. You'll have learned.
The last time we sailed into the harbor at West Falmouth, Massachusetts, our camera was on the fritz and so we missed taking an odd and informative picture. Let me paint it for you.
In the center of the frame, you see our little sailboat, Fearless, floating in a sea of crystal blue. In the background, slightly out of focus, is the stone breakwater that shelters West Falmouth from Buzzard's Bay. Two children appear to be walking across the surface of the water towards the boat, one carrying a horseshoe crab the size of a dinner plate, the other gesticulating wildly with her arms. Those are our daughters, Julie and Amber.
How have we trained our children to walk on water? you ask. We haven't. They're standing on the bottom. That sailboat, our floating home for the weekend, draws only seven inches! You'll notice ours is the only boat in the picture. That's because there isn't another cruising boat in West Falmouth that would dare come in here-or that wouldn't run aground long before it got here.
It's a delightful spot and we have it all to ourselves. Now let me turn my back on my family and on our little sailboat and take another picture, this one of West Falmouth Harbor. I'll need a telephoto lens because we are, as I've explained, rather far from it. West Falmouth, with some fine old homes ranging along the shoreline, is a lovely corner of Buzzard's Bay. In its sheltered harbor you'll see, from our vantage point, a small forest of masts. These masts are connected to a small fleet of some beautiful and expensive cruising boats that rest peacefully at their moorings. You'd think that these boats would be a hubbub of joyful activity: kids swimming and splashing and sails rattling up the masts ... but no. There isn't a soul around. All is strangely tranquil. From time to time you'll see some kids slide a Beetle Cat off the sand and go sailing, still it's odd that there's so much here and so little going on. What's even stranger is that, at this moment, similar fleets lie idle across the bay in Marion, in Mattapoisett, at Onset- millions of dollars worth of yachts just sitting at their moorings. Don't he alarmed. Nothing's wrong; nothing has happened. This is normal. Most of these boats are rarely used. Surely they're enjoyed when they are used. But the rest of the time they are simply floating symbols- distant Tarzan yells- announcing the financial potency of their owners. Well, I'll make a confession. I don't have any financial potency. I'm a teacher and my income is modest to an embarrassing extreme. If you can afford to buy this book, you probably make more money than I do. But I've got a boat. We make voyages. We're out sailing and the millionaires are not. What's our secret? I'll tell you. The answer is the subject of this book. Basically it's this: We're out here sailing and swimming because we didn't spend a lot of money on our boat. We couldn't afford to buy a yacht so we didn't. We have a little affordable boat with a cabin and a boom tent over the cockpit and we make do. And we have fun. Let me share with you a fairly well-kept secret. It's so often true we could almost call it a law: The use a boat gets is in inverse proportion to its size and cost.
If you are not wealthy and you want to go sailing and cruising, you can. My boat cost a little less than four thousand dollars, trailer and everything, brand new. Used boats cost less. Don't assume that the family with the $40,000 yacht is going to have 10 times the fun you will. They won't. You may actually do more sailing, and have more fun, than they- with far fewer worries. Real "riches" are measured not in what you own, but in what you can do.
What can you do with a small sailboat? If hardship, discomfort and solitude turn you on, you can cross an ocean in a small boat. It's been done dozens of times now. If you don't mind roughing it a bit you can cruise along thousands of miles of coastlines, exploring hidden waterways out of the reach of larger craft.
With thorough and realistic planning, you can bring your family. Here's a chance for real adventure without the solitude. You can easily haul your lightweight boat overland and put it where you actually want to be, leaving the extended (and often tiresome) passagemaking for boats too heavy to follow suit. Whereas the deeper and heavier yacht has to lie offshore, you can sail right up to a beach and go exploring. Often you can set up tents and camp ashore overnight, adding a whole new dimension to your cruising.
If you're a cruising couple, you can enjoy a degree of privacy unavailable to large coastal cruising yachts. You can sneak into tiny coves and inlets too shallow for deeper boats and have them all to yourselves. Here's your chance for a naked moonlight plunge without entertaining a whole fleet of nosy neighbors. You can trailer your boat to places off the beaten path and away from the crowds, find an unoccupied island and play Adam and Eve for an afternoon- or a weekend. If you're young and money comes hard, you're in luck. You won't need too much and you can do it now while you have energy and freedom of movement to take best advantage of what small boat cruising has to offer.
A working family, a professional man, two newlyweds, a retired couple, three college students . . . all of them can enjoy most of the same pleasures as an affluent yachtsman:
Freedom: An escape from the ordinary world, the opportunity to follow the wind and leave your wristwatch at home.
Adventure: The thrill of exploring new places, experiencing the unexpected and taking as many personal risks as you are willing to take.
Romance: The visceral joy of a tanned body, warm water, sunsets, waves lapping against the hull . . .
Luxury: Here you and the yachtsman part company. For him, boating means pressurized water, electric lights&emdash;maybe even a shower on board - and a mortgage as hefty as the one on your home. For you, it means a warm place to lie down, a camp stove, a bath in the water you sail in, new cruising waters every time if you want, minimum financial investment, little risk and no worry.
Freedom, adventure, romance, these can all be 5 ours if you can do without the luxury, once you stop thinking of your boat as a status symbol and start thinking of it instead as a ticket to freedom.
who owns what ?
In a meadow in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, lies the hull of a 27 foot sailboat. It's one of those kit jobs you can buy with the fiberglass hull already completed. All its owner had to do was build the plywood interior, rig mast and sails and go. It's half-finished and the man is exhausted, sick of it. He's put much more time and money into the job than he expected and he can't go on. He also can't get out. If he sells the boat as is, he'll lose his shirt. If he hires someone else to finish it, he'll have to ask more than it'll be worth. He doesn't have the boat, the boat has him.
A boyhood chum of mine and his wife went sailing on my 14-foot West Wight Potter. They loved it. A year later I had moved up to a 22 footer and after a weekend aboard that boat, they were hooked. They bought a 33-foot Hunter, convinced they could defray the boat's expenses by chartering it. My friend is an astute businessman and so he's off to a good start.
We went sailing the first summer on their new acquisition. The big boat absorbed five
adults and a child with ease. Here was a boat you could really live on!
But the previous charter customer had left the pressure on in the alcohol stove and when my friend leaned against it, it swung on its gimbals and dumped an astonishing quantity of explosive fuel onto the cabin sole. Then the first mate forgot to turn the pressure off on the head and soon water was flooding the toilet compartment. Finally we got under way and, with our enormous draft, had to motor up the channel for the best part of an hour while all around us smaller sailboats zoomed around wherever they liked.
This year my friend is tired. His wife is getting sick of hearing about boats and he's sick
of not being able to sail. Suddenly his pride and joy has become a trap.
If he lowered his boat into one of the local Pennsylvania lakes, the water level would probably rise three inches. If he just sailed the boat and forgot the charter business, he'd go broke. If he chartered it all season long, he'd turn a small profit and he'd also go nuts. He doesn't have the boat any more, it has him.
What's going on here? My friend himself summed it up: " I forgot what it was I really wanted. I really wanted to go sailing, to be on the water, to go to sleep hearing the waves lap against the hull. But I got distracted. I started comparing boats and got involved in all the features these boats had. I started falling in love with boats instead of with sailing . "
There's a funny paradox here. Certainly you can't go sailing without a boat, yet if you start thinking more about the object than you do about the activity, something starts to go wrong. You become a materialist. Your spouse, with an unerring nose for trouble, begins to hate the boat and its intrusion into your heart. "How can anyone be jealous of a thing?" you ask. "Easily," I reply, as one who knows. We fall very easily into love with things. It's not good for us.
Here's my advice; it's the underlying premise of this book: Think minimum. Buy something that costs less than you can afford. Accept the challenge. Find ways to make do. Don't borrow money for it. Don't get anxious about it. Keep it fun. J P Morgan was correct when he said, "If you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it." Arrogant, but right. By all means go sailing. Escape to the thousands of rivers and lakes and bays and estuaries and ocean beaches this country and its neighbors have to offer. Swim, sail, let your boat drift and feel the sun on your body, camp aboard or ashore and sleep under the stars. Explore a different waterway every time you go out. But keep it simple. Don't overinvest. Mountain climbers carry all their needs on their backs. Why should you need more? Go sailing. Then, when you return, park your boat in your garage or in the back yard and forget it until you're ready to go somewhere in it again. Being able to forget your boat is important. That's how you'll know it's your property, that it belongs to you, not you to it. I love sailing but I have only recently learned wisdom.
A final thought
What does sailing really cost? Look at it this way. Divide the cost of your boat per year by the days of sailing you get in. That's what it costs.
There are two ways you can improve on this picture: spend less; sail more. If you want to do both of those things, get a small boat. You'll obviously spend less. Less obviously but equally important, you'll use the boat more. Taking off spontaneously on a breezy afternoon to a nearby river or lake will seem less intimidating, more worth doing. You'll do more daysailing. If you're driving somewhere interesting, you can drag your boat along without much bother and even use it as a trailer overnight should you decide to linger. And should a pretty lake appear along your route...
One final advantage of a small boat: you will spend less time trying to figure out what it costs when you're absolutely certain you can afford it
It's a snowy Sunday afternoon. Bored with football, I turn off the set and wander to the window. The storm continues unabated; snow sifts through the trees, rumbles from the roofs, blankets the ground.
Bundled in my coat and boots, I clomp through the kitchen on my way outdoors. A pot steams; my wife looks up. "Going to visit the boat?" I'm continually stunned by how well she knows me.
Outdoors I don't notice the cold so much as the silence. I plow twin furrows to the garage and feel the satisfying crunch under my feet. I pound back a wedge of snow with the garage door and slip inside. All around the edges of the open door, snowflakes flutter and catch the silver light. Inside the garage, sound is muffled. There is Fearless, blocked up on the earth floor. Her white decks are dusty and pigeons have spattered her here and there. I slide a gloved hand along her bow. Oddly, when I try to remember summertime voyages, no images come. I peer into the smoked plastic windows but see nothing.
A gust of wind buffets the building; snow swirls in through the shaft of light. I let myself out. It's bright. I fasten the latch and tramp squinting back to the kitchen door.
"How was it?" my wife asks. My boots are already making puddles on the floor. I step in one, feel the wet cold soaking through my stocking and pull my foot back in annoyance My glasses fog up. "It's OK." Without knowing why, I'm confused. Not knowing why I went out, it's hard to say how it was. Why exactly did I go out?
I guess I really wanted to "visit" with my boat, as my wife put it. When we trust our lives to a product of our own hands, maybe we still have that ancient need to believe that the thing has a soul- so we can trust it, talk to it when we get scared, thank it for safe passages. In the age of fiberglass, maybe we need that old superstition more than ever.
It's getting dark out. The street light illuminates a cone of falling snow. I tic down and take a nap. As I close my eyes, I imagine it's summer and I'm aboard. In my mind's eye I visualize the cabin. I know where everything is. I know exactly where I can reach out and touch Bettina's shoulder. If I slide open the hatch, I'll have a patch of stars that swing in lazy arcs in and out of view until I'm tranced into sleep. What more could ayone want?
It's possible, if you're reading this, that you don't own a sailboat but wish you
did. There you are, reading about someone's trip to Bora Bora and thinking,
"Someday . . . someday I'm going to chuck it all and get me a big boat and just go." The sailing magazine settles to your lap; your eyes close and you see yourself bronzed and free at last- Bora Bora bound. A sailboat is one of the few powerful symbols of escape left to modern men and women.
Here's the rub. Ironically the problem with this fantasy is the main ingredient in its
powerful appeal. To make it work, most of us would have to choose the fantasy
over what we're currently doing. We'd have to give up a lot. Our families would
have to really want to do this passionately or it wouldn't work either.
Personally, I'm finding that my daughters, entering their teenage years, want stability more than anything else - a fixed point of reference while they,
themselves, are changing so rapidly. It's happened more than once that a man, restless at his place in life, dreams of offering his family Bora Bora but they decline in favor of the old neighborhood. It's at around this point that he buys the family a 27- to 34-foot sailboat.
This boat, likely as not, will take its place among the rows and rows of floating monuments that crowd the nation's yachting harbors. Most of them just sit, making me wonder whether their owners want to own a boat more passionately than they want to go sailing in it. I doubt whether the new boats, many equipped with microwave ovens and VCRs, will actually encourage their owners to use them more. After all, the comforts of home are most conveniently enjoyed at home. Then too, when you sail out of your harbor on Saturday and come back on Sunday, you can only see so much.
My family and I, partially out of financial necessity, partially out of choice, went a radically different route. If we could not go to Bora Bora, we decided we could go to the Chesapeake Bay, the Tennessee Valley lakes, Lake Powell in Arizona, the Pacific at Los Angeles, the San Juan Islands in Washington, the Canadian Rocky lakes, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, Thunder Bay on Superior, the North Channel of Huron, the St. Lawrence River. In New England we could sail on Lake Champlain, the Connecticut River out to Mystic Seaport, and our own Cape Cod. There was always Maine and the Hudson River to think about, and the Florida Keys and the long beautiful stretch of southern Atlantic coast. We could go sailing America. Some trips we did over a span of years, then one summer we covered 10,000 miles sailing as we went. We did all this with our family van and a 15-foot boat.
If you can't quit your job and chuck it all for global cruising, stay put; keep your family roots sunk down deep, and begin your adventure next summer. Get a portable sailboat; get out your road atlas and see what looks good to you. Here's the paradox of trailer sailing: The more modest your vessel, the more spectacular your travel possibilities. If the object is ownership, then a trailerable sailboat may seem unsatisfying and inadequate. If the object is adventuring (within the confines of your jobs and domestic schedules) there is no better way to do it. Less is more. What it takes is a completely fresh look at your approach to sailing. Here's how our own thinking went: HOW TO GO
If we were to go sailing America, we'd need to solve two very different kinds of problems. We'd need an automotive solution and a nautical solution: a caravan combination to sleep the whole family while motoring down the road, and a boat that would be easy to launch, seaworthy, and capable of sleeping everybody aboard. We solved the boat problem first. After years of sailing a West Wight Potter 15, we trusted the boat and felt we had learned how to cruise in a boat that small. Filler boards and a boom tent could convert the cockpit into a second cabin for our daughters, if need be. We also carried a pup tent for camping ashore. Monkey hammocks and knapsacks hung from the cabin walls would keep our clothes off the bunks. We knew it worked.