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Let's Get Small
March 5, 2011 12:30 AM   Subscribe

Suppose you love to sail. Suppose, further, that you would like to do some cruising (travelling by sailboat) but can't afford the cost of an offshore-capable yacht. Or suppose you're reluctant to become dependent upon the many complicated systems that a modern cruising sailboat relies on. Or suppose the whole luxury RV aesthetic of modern cruising sailboats turns you off. What then? Well, maybe you should think smaller.

Assuming you aren't interested in going the sponsored record attempt route (previ-ously), spending two years refurbishing a fixer-upper, or funding your voyage via Kickstarter. . .

. . .you might start thinking about smaller boats. You could build your own 750 lb, 21' minimalist catamaran and sail it around the world in leisurely fashion. Why not race it across the Atlantic, too? (Of course, not every sailing minimalist likes catamarans or eschews sponsorship funds.)

But maybe 21 feet still seems too big and complicated. And who has time to sail around the entire globe, anyway? Well, perhaps you're interested in "microcruising" - that is, shorter voyages in ocean-going, sub-20' sailboats. While there are some examples of seaworthy production boats in this size range, there are other folks pushing the limits a bit further. For example, this couple regularly cruises from Florida to the Bahamas in their 15' Matt Layden-designed sharpie. (Sharpies were popular workboats in the past; the late, great, unconventional boat designer Phil Bolger is credited with popularizing the style for recreational sailing more recently.)

Perhaps 15' is still too big? Well, you could try something closer to 12' or 13', as Layden and Swedish sailor Sven Yrvind have. (Of course, in a boat this size, you'll need to have the most compact gear available.)

None of this is new, really. Boats similar to this outrigger sailing canoe design have been used by the peoples of the Pacific in the open ocean since the time of legend.

But all of this might be really dangerous, so if you find yourself inspired, be sure to consider how seaworthy your diminutive vessel really is before venturing out.
posted by richyoung (37 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've built a couple of boats by Paul Fisher before and they've been excellent. So I'd trust his 8' and 10' mini-yachts (scroll down till you get to them)
posted by dowcrag at 1:07 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, I've sailed boats from 48' (someone else's) down to 11' (mine) and I swear there's an inverse relation between length and fun. The smaller boats that I could explore the smallest creeks and estuaries with (with plenty of mooring / beaching for a nap and a read) were much more fun than slogging about offshore in another bloody gale.

Although some of this lot appear to like combining the two.

Phil Bolder, in the US, designed the Micro, an 18' brick of a boat. His finctional description of a couple cruising it in the mediterranean, in Boats with an open mind, is a wonderful evocation of simplicity afloat.

One day I'll get round to building one of Paul Fisher's micro cruisers, or a Bolger Micro, if I can get away with turning part of the garden into a boatyard.
posted by dowcrag at 3:05 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was reading about a rather large sailboat tied up in Boston harbor and realized that my little 25 footer could fit in that boats wheel house! On reflection the famous Father's Day at 5' 4", the smallest sailboat to cross the Atlantic, could sit in my little boats cockpit.


But why? It's not a boat, it's a bottle with a weight (keel) on one side and a small sail on the other. A small performance sailboat is huge fun but for long distance cruising a boat with a small kitchen that you can stand up in is very affordable theses days. Think used toyota affordable.
posted by sammyo at 4:00 AM on March 5, 2011


This may seem like a stupid question to sailing geeks, but maybe I'll get a real answer. Recently in the news, some people were killed by Somali pirates. They were sailing around the world. A news article I read said that because they were sailing around the world, they eventually had to sail through "pirate alley". I want to sail around the world some day. Is it true that to do so I have to sail through pirate alley?
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:04 AM on March 5, 2011


Great post btw, I wonder if a mifi raft-up would ever be possible?
posted by sammyo at 4:04 AM on March 5, 2011


...do so I have to sail through pirate alley?

Two options, sail around Africa or have the boat shipped from the Med to India (or reverse). Getting it trucked across Saudi Arabia is also theoretically possible.

Another option is a rally, a group of boats that sail closely together. The Vasco Da Gamma rally seems to have been successful so far. The boat in the news, the Quest had been in that rally but had chosen to separate and take a different course.
posted by sammyo at 4:13 AM on March 5, 2011


Two options, sail around Africa or have the boat shipped from the Med to India (or reverse).... Another option is a rally, a group of boats that sail closely together.

So it's really true then? If I want to take my wife and young children (and maybe the family dog) on a once-in-a-lifetime sailing adventure around the world, I really do have to adjust my plans for Somali pirates?

Excuse my ignorance. I've had this dream for a while, but haven't thought it through very much.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:21 AM on March 5, 2011


You kids and your newfangled boat technology. Back in my day, when we wanted to cross the Atlantic, we swam! And we liked it!
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:39 AM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Swimming between continents
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:53 AM on March 5, 2011


Here's one way not to do it:

I'm working with a group who is in the third year of recreating a 18th century Bermuda sloop. The base was a 1970's ketch that was thoroughly ignored for many years.

The progress has been amazing and the cost has been astounding. It's gonna be so cool when it's finished, but the dedication needed to do it (and then maintain it) is almost superhuman.

Boats are not for the faint-hearted.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:56 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Top Gear VW and seaworthy! (not; it sank).
posted by buzzman at 5:08 AM on March 5, 2011


So it's really true then? If I want to take my wife and young children (and maybe the family dog) on a once-in-a-lifetime sailing adventure around the world, I really do have to adjust my plans for Somali pirates?

You've only to look at a map of the world to see the options. I'm probably going to inherit a sailboat some day, and in my imagined future cruise around the world, I'm going to Europe first, then Brasil, then assuming I haven't given up by that point, straight over to Australia, going nowhere near Somalia due in large part to paranoia about pirates.
posted by sfenders at 5:09 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You've only to look at a map of the world to see the options.

What looks easy on the map might be insanely impossible on the sea. There are storms and currents and other things besides pirates.

I'd really love to sail around the world. How easily can this be done? Can I get a small boat (one that won't cost me a fortune) and sail with my closest friends and family for a year or two and make it around the world without risking our lives? Is that really possible? I really do want to know, because it's been a dream of mine for some time.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:16 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


What looks easy on the map might be insanely impossible on the sea.

True, though what I suggested isn't. My alternate fantasy of sailing through the north-west passage might be a little more complicated.
posted by sfenders at 5:20 AM on March 5, 2011


A year or so ago, Greg Kolodziejzyk decided he wanted to make a human-powered crossing of the Pacific and built a boat called WiTHiN. It's pretty amazing—a little dagger of carbon fiber, like the product of a Navy stealth vessel experiment.

After a few trials in open water, he realized he wasn't cut out for it, and now he's selling it.
posted by adamrice at 6:27 AM on March 5, 2011


twoleftfeet,

Things may change in the future. When friends of mine sailed into the red sea only 6 years ago there were very few pirates, and they mostly boarded ships to steal radios and cash. The pirates operated very close to shore only, now they're stealing massive cargo vessels that are closer to India than Africa. Maybe in ten years that area will be much safer.
posted by atrazine at 6:57 AM on March 5, 2011


Also, check out the Mini-Transat class, designed for solo racing across the Atlantic and limited to 21' in length.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:10 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll just put out here that one of the more enjoyable books in this genre is _Tinkerbelle_ by Robert Manry. I wouldn't take it as a how-to guide but more of a fun "There I was, an average Joe, in an unusual situation" sort of book. Recommended.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2011


pirate alley?

Well if you've got the time, courage, and know-how for long distance trans-oceanic cruising in a small vessel, I'm sure you can take on a side project before you leave.

You may, however, run afoul of local not-being-an-asshole laws.
posted by condour75 at 9:24 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, twoleftfeet, I'm not a sailor, but I'm pretty sure you can't sail around the world in a small vessel without risking your life. I'm pretty sure weather kills more people than pirates.
posted by 256 at 9:43 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Indonesia has a ton of pirates too, and has for decades. They just don't seem get the press, though National Geographic had a good article on them a few years ago.
posted by Xoebe at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a great post.
posted by mendel at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2011


If you really, really don't want to do the work to have your own boat, there's another option.
posted by cabingirl at 9:55 AM on March 5, 2011


The book Tinkerbelle is available for free online. I really enjoyed it but this diagram really gave me second thoughts. I don't think I could sleep curled up in a ball in a foot locker sized space for three months.
posted by ChrisHartley at 12:20 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dowcrag, I had heard of Selway/Fisher but never looked because the name sounds like some big conglomerate. You're right, Paul Fisher should definitely have been included in the post.

And 256 has it right - pirates are scary, but weather, inferior equipment, and operator error are probably a lot more deadly when you look at the big picture. Still, were I to undertake a circumnavigation, I doubt I'd take a chance on Pirate Alley myself, just like I wouldn't sail through a hurricane on purpose. One of the more contentious issues on the Cruising World forums is whether or not to carry firearms for defense.

I toned it down in the post because I didn't want it to seem like one big advertisement, but I'm a big fan of James Wharram's designs. I'm thinking about building that 16' outrigger canoe to play around with; in the long term, I'd love to have a Tahiti Wayfarer for beach camping and coastal cruising with the family.
posted by richyoung at 1:29 PM on March 5, 2011


twoleftfeet:

I don't want to spoil your dream but I think you're possibly insane, if not vastly underestimating the ocean. Underestimate the ocean at your mortal peril.

I've been in fairly high seas and winds in small powered boats and it's fucking terrifying, and we still weren't even really on the open Pacific Ocean yet as we were still shielded by the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. We were just dealing with 8-12 foot swells in things like open-cockpit foam-filled fiberglass power boats (which float even when swamped or capsized), or aluminum skiffs and dories, all craft designed to deal with coastal Pacific conditions, all boats in the 20 foot range.

The sea is not a predictable thing. Ever get annoyed by the lack of accuracy in weather prediction? Well, it's one thing to forget your umbrella. It's entirely an entirely different thing to misread a grainy radio-faxed weather chart and blithely sail into 20-30 foot seas in a boat that's technically a third or two-thirds the size of the wave-trough height backed up by the insanity of 40-60 mph (or much, much more) winds.

I don't know what the state of the art is today with regards to autopilots or stabilizers, but when I was a kid open seas meant one or more persons had to man the wheel or till 24/7. And even with modern technology, you probably want someone on watch at all times. You cannot let a small craft (or any craft, really) get sideways to the swell direction and/or wind. That's asking to be rolled, swamped or completely capsized.

Open ocean sailing is not by any stretch of the imagination leisurely. The sea is not a soothing place unless you're on a nice sunny beach with a margarita in your hand. It requires constant navigational and situational awareness. You don't get to simply let the ship go for a few hours and go take a nap. Not until you find safe harbor, and even then it's iffy unless you're in a protected, managed harbor. To be on the open ocean in any craft, especially a small one, is to dance with the very real chaotic and dynamic forces of the ocean. Climbing Everest is less dangerous and more predictable.

Seriously, if you underestimate the ocean it will eat you and then immediately ask what's for dessert. Rogue waves exist. You can go from a manageable 10 foot swell to a 50 foot monster breaking over the top of your mast in the space of one to two waves. You don't see it coming from the horizon as you would on shore because it's not that kind of wave, a rogue wave is the constructive interference of two or more regular waves colliding at the same time to form a superpeak. One second everything is normal and the next you're looking at a monster wall of water.

Then there's pirates. They exist, and not just in "pirate alley" near Africa. When you're in international waters you're pretty much on your own. My dad's boat captain buddies told tales of dealing with pirates even off the coast of Mexico and Central America. There's no international ocean police to call for rescue or security. Yes, this means you should probably bring guns and know how to use them, and be ready to use them to defend your life and craft. And then you have to be aware of the gun control laws in whatever country you may land in. My Dad's friends talked very seriously about never going into international waters unless they were fairly heavily armed, which generally meant several shotguns and hopefully a small machine gun or two. Everyone on board should have at least one well-cared for weapon and know how to use it.

I'm pretty adventurous but I wouldn't even consider a crossing a single ocean or even cruising to Hawaii from California in a craft less than 60-80 feet that was fully powered and not an actual sail-powered craft - much less trying to navigate around the world, and I also wouldn't even consider getting on the boat if it wasn't also fairly heavily armed. This is assuming it's also fitted with good marine radios, satphone, emergency radio beacons, a fully equipped life raft and a skilled captain and crew and all the attendant bells and whistles.

And we still haven't even started talking about the challenges of packing two or more people into a small cabin for a year or more, eating bad food from cans and trying to not go totally stir crazy after reading the same book for the tenth time. Much less an entire family. Man, I've been on family vacations in a car, and those maybe lasted a week or two. The thought of being trapped on a small boat as a child or young adult with all my siblings for a year or two sounds like an emotional and logistical nightmare. Are you sure your family has the same vision you do? Because if they don't it's not going to end well at all. Unless they're fully into it as an adventure, the lack of motivation and drive to be out there on the sea will break things. Spirits, relationships, sanity or actual bodies are all at risk.

Then there's the extremely profound psychological effects of isolation and not seeing land for weeks on end. That can be crippling. It's like the opposite of claustrophobia. You're this tiny little mote of dust being tossed around by an unfeeling sea.

And then there's illness or medical emergencies. Boats are dangerous. Getting sick or injured at sea is a big deal. You can slip and break a limb, or sustain a serious head injury. Ropes break with enough force to break bones and deeply lacerate flesh. Cleats tear off and get fired off like very large bullets. You could even slip making dinner in a calm harbor and cut yourself badly. Do you know how to stitch up a wound or severed artery? Can you set and splint a broken bone? Can you deal with pneumonia or worse, diarrhea or dehydration? This is why actual surgeons and experienced doctors are so valuable on a ship. You can't just dial 911 on the satphone and expect to be whisked away to a modern hospital. It could take weeks to get to help.

Trying to circumnavigate the globe in a small craft is probably only second to trying to start your own manned spaceflight program, or something like crossing Antarctica on foot or skis. It's basically impossible to overestimate or overstate the danger. There is absolutely no way to consider even the first five miles as "risk free", much less navigating the entire globe. You're risking your life the moment you step on a boat floating in harbor. It could sink or catch fire right there at the dock, which happens.

Sure, life is dangerous. By all means, take risks. Go on adventures. But don't be lulled into thinking that going sailing around the world is going to be a nice leisurely vacation, family or otherwise.

It's going to be hard work and challenges the entire way. It's being seasick. It's being cold and wet and tired of being cold and wet with no escape from it - even worse you have to go out in it and work to keep the ship going, especially when you really would rather not. It's not being able to shower or wash clothes in fresh water for weeks on end because you need it for cooking and drinking. It's having a bed that moves all the time. It's not having any escape from your crewmates unless you throw them overboard or vice versa.

It is not for the casual or faint of heart. It would be logistically and psychologically less challenging to walk or bicycle around the world. If the thought of biking all the way across North America with your family sounds daunting, sailing around the world would be 10x-100x more challenging.
posted by loquacious at 1:44 PM on March 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was just going to say, twoleftfeet, you can't even sail the ICW and not be in mortal peril, but loquacious said it all and then some.

There's always the Picton Castle, but even then you're still at sea, and the ocean knows no mercy.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:50 PM on March 5, 2011


No offense loquacious but I've spent a good chunk of my life living and working on boats and you have no idea what you're talking about.

I have lots of friends who sail and live on boats, alone, as couples or with their families and many of them have sailed around the world and none of them are dead. Some of them even did it without engines, mostly due to poverty, but it's certainly possible. 8-12 foot swell is not a big deal in a blue water sail boat, even a smaller one (30' or so), you'd barely feel it in a 48 foot catamaran. You don't sail "blithely" into 30 foot seas, it just doesn't happen with a minimum of research and today's weather tech. Kids do fine on boats (dogs not so much), technology is pretty amazing these days, auto pilots and self steering vanes work and if you go the right direction you're sailing downwind pretty much the entire way. You can even pay (a lot) to be escorted past Pirate Alley by warships these days.

Sailing around the world is not some crazy dream. It's hard work and you need to be handy and adaptable but sailing in the tropics is a pretty goddamn awesome way to spend a few years. Three quarters of the blue water cruisers out there are retirees for Pete's sake. If you're still able to climb a mast and haul an anchor by hand you're waaayyyy ahead of them.
posted by fshgrl at 5:45 PM on March 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Well this is one of the best PostScript Everest and a great discussion between fshgrl and loquatious. Sailing around the world is for people who know what they are doing. It sure isn't for me!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:37 PM on March 5, 2011


Sailing around the world is not some crazy dream. It's hard work and you need to be handy and adaptable but sailing in the tropics is a pretty goddamn awesome way to spend a few years.

I agree with this entirely. I don't think it's a crazy dream at all.

But when you're starting off your questions with "Excuse my ignorance. I've had this dream for a while, but haven't thought it through very much." and "Can I get a small boat (one that won't cost me a fortune) and sail with my closest friends and family for a year or two and make it around the world without risking our lives?"

...then they probably haven't actually thought it through very much. There are very real and mortal risks involved, especially if someone starts relying too heavily on new technology instead of plain old know how. It's one thing to grow up around and on boats and be comfortable with them, it's entirely another thing to tell someone inexperienced that everything is going to be just fine and they should just go for it. They could probably use some contrary and scary information. Heck, some people never develop sea legs. Motion sickness can set in after days or weeks at sea and never leave until they reach dry land again. Some people aren't really prepared for the intense amount of physical labor it is just to be at sea, much less piloting a small boat themselves.

I don't think that someone who doesn't have many hours of formal or informal training and at least some years of experience actively sailing should or could survive a global circumnavigation without the most favorable of luck. Which certainly does happen, but to count and rely on it rather than being prepared is hubris and begging for trouble.

And all of this illustrates why long distance small craft are so interesting. They have to survive an incredible array of ocean conditions. They can go places that larger yachts can't, yet they still need to survive the full force of the open sea. They can be beached and launched by one or two people. They can navigate littoral areas that you may not be able to access with a powered craft.
posted by loquacious at 8:54 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Loquacious, blue water sailing is not as uncommon or as dangerous or even as uncomfortable as you make it out to be. Yes, you can sail to places that will kill you dead - the Bearing Sea in winter for instance - but most of the places worth sailing to aren't that rough. There are statistical outliers, but there's gonna be a chance a city bus wipes out your Winnebago on your way to the lake, too.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:02 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


It requires constant navigational and situational awareness. You don't get to simply let the ship go for a few hours and go take a nap.

Well you don't on the boat I sometimes sail on. But if we had radar, reliable self-steering, and alarms set to go off when the wind changes, in a low-traffic area with a safe weather forecast I'm not so sure it wouldn't be fine to go take a nap on occasion. Really it is not quite so demanding as climbing to the moon on cross-country skiis. It's fine to overstate the danger, it's a venerable nautical tradition and is better than understating it I suppose.

Anyway I just want to say that's my favourite part about cruising around on a boat: The changes to my brain brought on by standing on watch for long hours with a hand on the wheel doing nothing but being aware of the sea, the sky, and the boat, steering through waves and occasionally adjusting the sails. For the first couple of days perhaps it's tedious. By the time we're coming home it's joyous. There's nothing like sitting quietly all night and then watching the sun rise over the water.
posted by sfenders at 3:17 AM on March 6, 2011


Great post, but no mention of Matt Leyden is complete without reference to the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile small boat race from Tampa Bay to Key Largo in small sail and paddle-powered boats which Matt (aka Wizard) has finished 12 times and won in more than one class. This year's race started yesterday, and as I type, the lead competitors are nearing checkpoint 2, just over halfway to the finish. I don't have much interest in sailing around the world, but someday I would like to do the Everglades Challenge. The waiver (scroll down past the rules) is a classic, warning that YOU MAY DIE as a result of a number of dangers, ranging from the deadly Manchineel tree to fatal blood loss due to mosquito bites.
posted by fogovonslack at 5:16 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


fogo, you're right of course. I left it out because the post was already getting pretty long, but Matt's performances in the Watertribe races are pretty convincing.

As an aside, I think I may have met the reclusive Matt Layden once. I was a college kid working on Solomons Island, Maryland, around 1990ish. A 20-something fellow came through with a unique, tiny, home-built boat that he'd rigged to sail or row. He said that he was an engineer; he'd work for a couple years, saving money, then travel on his little boat for a couple years on the savings. I stumbled across the microcruising.com web site ~15 years later, and the descriptions of boat, designer and itinerary matched the guy I'd met. Fascinating dude.
posted by richyoung at 7:34 AM on March 6, 2011


It's one thing to grow up around and on boats and be comfortable with them, it's entirely another thing to tell someone inexperienced that everything is going to be just fine and they should just go for it. They could probably use some contrary and scary information.

Yeah but from someone who's actually done it would be better. There are literally thousands of cruisers who didn't know jack about sailing until they started pursuing it. That's the norm.

As far as mortal danger goes I'm pretty sure I'm in more danger biking to work every day than sailing in the tropics during cruising season.

And yeah, of course you can nap, otherwise you'd die of sleep deprivation.
posted by fshgrl at 8:51 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


No offense loquacious but I've spent a good chunk of my life living and working on boats and you have no idea what you're talking about.
I wouldn't quite go this far, but the challenge is not as arduous as he made it out to be. Still an enormous one, to be sure and not to be taken lightly but not something that the average person can't achieve if they put their mind to it and are prepared to learn some lessons on shorter voyages first. The biggest risk, to my mind, is people who see someone like Jessica Watson sail around the world 'single-handed' at 16 and figure that, if she can do it, so can they. The reality is that she did nothing of the sort, because she had all sorts of support behind her that the average cruiser will never have access to.

Almost all those who do such trips are not out to break records or make the circumnavigation unassisted or without breaks so, as far as keeping the vessel in seaworthy condition, carrying sufficient food and water etc, there are multitudes of places where yachts can stop and refresh mind, body and vessel. For the vast majority of cruisers, a 'round the world' trip is really a series of shorter voyages broken up by periods of being a tourist who happens to bring their home with them.

Having said that, when twoleftfeet says 'Can I get a small boat (one that won't cost me a fortune) and sail with my closest friends and family for a year or two and make it around the world without risking our lives?', the answer is no. Without knowing how many people 'closest friends and family' involves, it's impossible to say what size vessel would be needed but you need to spend some time on a small vessel to appreciate how confining it is and how much you will get on each other's nerves. Add the inevitable seasickness, injury, hunger, wet/cold/heat/general discomfort for long periods of time, extreme tiredness etc and you have a recipe for disaster even among the closest of friends/family. You can't even walk across the street without risking your life, so heading out into the open ocean increases that risk by some orders of magnitude. Only if you are prepared to take that risk should you even consider such a trip. If you are aware of the risks though and still want to do it, you should. Even if you never make the entire trip, the experiences you will have in preparing will be worth the effort.
posted by dg at 7:47 PM on March 6, 2011


Experience. You need lots of experience to sail a boat around the world. Book-reading, classroom experience and years of hands-on experience. Talking with others who've sailed the blue waters and learn from them. Make smaller trips. Make bigger trips. Then try crossing the Atlantic. Finally, after all that, ask yourself if you still dream about sailing around the world.

This is not something you can just watch a couple of YouTube videos and jump in the boat.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:26 PM on March 6, 2011


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