And my answer to that has always been: "Necessary for what? Your question is not complete."
As is the case with most things to do with boats, it all depends. It depends on what you want the boat for. At least, it mostly depends on that. If you're looking for a boat to live on, and entertain your friends, then of course you need headroom. What would your glittering dinner parties be without full standing headroom? How could anyone pass the Grey Poupon without dipping his tie in the pâté de foie gras?
But if you're wanting a daysailer for pottering around the bay, and picnics ashore, you don't need headroom. Unfortunately, these answers are often too simplistic because normally sane sailors sometimes fall prey to ambitious thoughts. "What if . . .?" thinks the man with the 22-foot daysailer. "What if I wanted to sail her to Hawaii?"
When I owned my first Santana 22, one of Gary Mull's sweet little club-racing one-designs. I tarted her up and fitted her out for cruising, and told anyone who cared to listen that she was now a sport cruiser, with a bow roller for the anchor, reef points in the jib, and a proper oak Samson post on the foredeck. Her sleek lines allowed only sitting headroom down below, of course, and then not even that when I made the mistake of replacing the old 3-inch foam settee cushions with 4-in ones. But we went exploring in her quite happily for weeks at a time for several years. (Quite happily being a comparative statement, you understand. We were younger then.)
The younger you are, the less need you feel for headroom. But even then, I have to admit, it was tedious down below at anchor in bad weather. There was a lot of crab-like shuffling when you wanted to move from one settee to the other. Cooking sitting down, facing sideways, was difficult and trying to put your jeans on required some rather ungraceful calisthenics. On many small sailboats there is also an overhead problem in the head itself. Several manufacturers provide opening hatches above the toilet, so that when you ascend the throne to attend to your business you may stick your head up through the open hatch and survey the foredeck and the far horizon. This becomes interesting in crowded anchorages in the early morning, when heads pop up all over, trying to look inscrutable, avoiding each others' eyes and feigning interest in some far-off bird or animal. A few coarse old hands will inevitably have the nerve to wave and say hello to friends straining nearby, but they always seem to be men. I've never seen a woman with her head out of the hatch pretending to be checking the weather or looking for lost children.
People will tell you that headroom isn't important at sea. They say there isn't any headroom anyway when the boat's heeled over and you are stretched out sideways. But I don't believe it. I find it even more difficult to move around in a heeled boat without headroom. You have to scrabble around like a spider in a capsized bathtub.
Headroom is not needed for seaworthiness, nor for speed, of course. And it's questionable whether it's necessary for safety. But it's certainly needed for comfort, and the lack of it can limit the duration of your marriage. So my advice is to put up with lack of headroom in small boats that perform well under sail. Go ahead and sacrifice headroom for looks and sailing thrills. Above all, don't buy a small boat with an ugly, unseaworthy hump of a cabintop added simply to gain standing headroom.
But if you really must have headroom because you feel life just isn't worthwhile without it, the answer comes down to money. Buy a bigger boat. Something around 25 or 27 feet will do it, unless you make your money by playing basketball, in which case you might need to start at 35 feet and work upward.
If you need to stand up, go on deck.
— Uffa Fox
“Doc, my stomach hurts.”
“Let’s see ... hmmm, yes, you’ll have to diet.”
“What color, doc?”(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)