January 16, 2011

Size and seaworthiness

The Cal 20
IF I REMEMBER RIGHTLY it was the late Eric Hiscock who defined the ideal ocean-going sailboat for a singlehander as the biggest boat he or she could comfortably manage alone. And by “manage” Hiscock meant reef and hand the biggest sail, and safely manhandle the biggest anchor on board.

Hiscock, like C. A. Marchaj and other experts, believed in the dictum that the larger the boat, the more seaworthy — all else being equal. On other words, a good big boat should be safer than a good small boat.

I believe that, too, but the fly in the ointment here is that all else is never equal, including, most importantly, the experience and skill of the skipper. Furthermore, if the definition of seaworthiness is the ability to stay afloat and undamaged no matter how severe the weather, then the cork stopper from your last bottle of wine would win the prize, followed closely by a burned-out light bulb.

There are indeed very valid reasons why a smaller boat may be more seaworthy than a larger boat — but let me set some limits here to make more sense of this argument. By “smaller,” in regard to ocean voyaging, I mean about 20 feet on deck, and by “larger” I mean anything between 38 and 50 feet.

In 2008, Californian Robert Crawford raced from San Francisco to Kauai, Hawaii, in a 20-foot, ballast-keel, day-sailer, a Cal 20 named Black Feathers. She wasn’t the first of Bill Lapworth’s Cal 20s to make that crossing, but she was the smallest boat in the 2,200-mile 2008 Singlehanded TransPac and placed 8th on corrected time. Crawford and his wife Jeanne wrote a book entitled Black Feathers[1], which details how he changed his $1,000 Cal 20, with its huge cockpit and tiny cabin, into a seagoing racer. This is a very valuable book for anyone intending to cruise or race across an ocean in a micro-cruiser, singlehanded or crewed.

Crawford lists the advantages and disadvantages of small boats:

► Cost, of course. Everything to do with small boats costs less than everything to do with big boats.
► Maintenance is easier and cheaper.
► You can more easily handle sails, winches, spinnaker poles, anchors, etc.
► Smaller spinnakers make dealing with snafus a lot less traumatic.
► Boat handling under normal conditions is easier and more forgiving because the boat is smaller and lighter.
► Small boats are more responsive and more maneuverable in confined spaces.
► Small boats can be rowed, paddled, or sculled.
► In a singlehanded race, the skipper of a small boat has a better chance of sailing a boat to its potential, thus improving his chances of winning on handicap.
► Smaller boats are less intimidating and easier to understand.
► Because smaller boats respond more quickly to change, you can more readily learn better sailing techniques.
► Because they’re less expensive to start with, you can experiment with gear changes that make holes everywhere, without destroying the value of an expensive boat.
► You have the feeling of being more at one with the water you’re sailing in.
► Because small boats generate small forces, breakage of equipment is not so common.
► If your boat develops a leak, it’s easier to trace and fix in a small boat that has fewer areas of the hull inaccessible.
► You can’t hoard too much heavy “stuff” on a small boat because there’s nowhere to put it.
► Emergency repairs to spars and rudders are more manageable. (Crawford himself had to ship a spare rudder at sea.)
► Erecting a jury mast is much simpler on a small boat.

► Small boats give you a rougher ride in heavy weather.
► You need to reef earlier and discontinue sailing to windward sooner.
► You may have to beef up a small day-sailer for ocean work.
► Small boats often lack headroom and interior space. They won’t offer luxuries such as a full galley with fridge, or a shower, or even a fixed head. (Crawford had a bucket for a head, and ate all his food unheated.)
► Small boats are usually wetter inside and often have no sump for bilge water, which is then free to wash across the cabin and under the bunks.
► They’re not as fast as larger boats — but, let’s face facts: even larger boats are slow, very slow, compared with other forms of transport.

It’s like everything else in life. You have to make compromises, and you pay for everything one way or another. But if you have a sense of adventure and are willing to suffer a little discomfort for a week or two at a time, there is no valid reason concerning seaworthiness why you shouldn’t cross oceans and discover the joys of sailing into exotic harbors in a boat costing less than a used automobile. Quite a lot less, in some cases.

[1]Black Feathers: A Pocket Racer Sails the Singlehanded TransPac, by Robert and Jeanne Crawford, iUniverse, Inc., New York. ISBN 978-1-4401-9196-1.

Today’s Thought
Size is a matter of opinion.
— George Meredith, Richard Feverel

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #147
If you’re thinking of designing a boat, or just changing one, bear in mind that the minimum width for passages and doorways down below is 19 inches. Below the waist you can get away with a cutout 14 inches wide. The waist is taken to be 30 inches above the floor.

More books you won’t find on the library shelves:
The Philanderer, by Rex Holmes
Happy Punter, by Ida Wynne
Postscript, by Adeline Moore
Saving Bus Fares, by Rider Muill
The Spinster, by I. Wanda Mann
The Prevaricator, by Eliza Lott
Cheap French Sandals, by Phillipe Phillope

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...

My big worry would be that crew misery can cause a huge decrease in seaworthiness. A lot of the boats abandoned during the Fastnet disaster were abandoned because the crew had become just too dang miserable. (And, if I recall correctly, none of those boats were under 30 feet.)

Not saying small boats should be automatically disqualified, just that a sailor will have to contemplate his or her crew's capacity for misery before embarking.

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

This is a message for the webmaster/admin here at johnvigor.blogspot.com.

Can I use part of the information from this blog post above if I provide a link back to this site?


John Vigor said...

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John Vigor

Mike said...

John, how many Cal 20's are you aware of that have crossed oceans? I know about Black Feathers. Wasn't there a Japanese guy that sailed a Cal 20 from Japan to Hawaii or the mainland? Any others that you can think of? Just curious. I believe in go small go now. But then, I never made it myself. I succumbed to footitis.
Mike Matthews

John Vigor said...

Mike, As you said, there was Black Feathers, of course, which was raced in the Singlehanded Transpac from San Francisco to Hawaii, a voyage described thoroughly in the splendid book called Black Feathers.
Before that, there was K. P. Chin, who sailed his Cal 20 Chalupa singlehanded over the same route in 1980. His voyage was described in Cruising World magazine.
I have also read somewhere that two men sailed a Cal 20 from the U.S. East Coast to Europe, but I don't can't remember where I saw it and can't recall any details except there were no major problems.
There may be others, too.


John V.

Anonymous said...

hello sir. good article. i recently bought a 1971 cal 27. it's a the first of the three, completely different, cal 27s. i was wondering what your thoughts are about the seaworthiness/safety of that boat. thank you.

vince from the chesapeake bay

John Vigor said...

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the Cal 27, but if, as I suspect, Bill Lapworth had a lot do with it, you can be sure you have a pedigreed boat that is designed to be as safe and seaworthy as possible.

John V.

Mark Sut said...

Hi Sir, I recently bought Cal 25, do you think is it seaworthy to sail along USA west coast from canada to mexico?


John Vigor said...

Hi Mark:
The Cal 25 wasn't specifically designed for deepsea work. She is a club racer and daysailer/weekender. That said, she was designed by one of America's most eminent naval architects and is about as seaworthy as any boat of her size can be. You might want to fill in some space in the cockpit, with plastic foam or bags of sails, and you'll either need a crewmember who can competently stand four-hour watches on his/her own, or a reliable self-steering wind vane such as an Aries, Windpilot, or Monitor. A large portion of seaworthiness resides in the skipper and crew, so it depends on your experience and abilities, too. But if Cal 20s can sail from San Francisco to Hawaii, I see no reason why a cautiously handled Cal 25 can't sail down to Mexico during the summer months. Go for it! And good luck.