What Kind of Boat do I Need?

It’s a nice, balmy 29 degrees as I write this. That’s too cold for me to be outside working on the projects I need to finish, so I’m thinking about my recently resurfaced boat obsession, instead. Recently, I’ve written about travel and boats, here and here. I did some searching on iboats.com and discovered something amazing. It is possible to buy a used sailboat, equipped and ready for living aboard and cruising the Great Loop, for $10-15K. That’s amazing! Since I’ve written about houseboats, before, I thought I’d try to list the relative advantages and disadvantages of houseboats vs sailboats. Of course, these are written from my perspective, so there is almost certainly some degree of bias.

HOUSEBOAT ADVANTAGES
  • Space. Lots of space. Tons of space, especially for a boat, where space is typically at a premium. Depending on the size of the boat, a houseboat can have in excess of 1000 square feet of interior living space.
  • Stable ride. While some designs can pound a bit in water that’s a little rough, the boats are designed for comfort. This “stable” ride comes at a cost (more on that, later)
  • Shallow draft. Many, perhaps even most, houseboats are designed to let you go into the shallows. Some are even designed to be “nosed” into shore so you can hop off and continue your fun, ashore.
HOUSEBOAT DISADVANTAGES
  • Most are not designed for living aboard, full time. While there are exceptions, my admittedly limited experience has been that the furniture and finish is more along RV than home lines. This means that with constant use the furnishings show wear and tear pretty quickly.
  • Not seaworthy in any kind of significant sea state. The hulls aren’t designed to withstand the rather significant stresses of being underway in truly harsh weather. The same seems typically true of the “superstructure” of houseboat. I’ve been offshore in nasty weather in a variety of vessels designed for it. Taking green water over the bow was not a huge deal. The boats were solidly built and had a number of water tight compartments. That’s not the case with most houseboats and idea of taking a significant amount of water over the bow of a houseboat is the stuff of nightmares. Those expansive sliding glass or french doors that give such a beautiful view of your surroundings would shatter, letting all that water fill the inside. We call that NOT GOOD.
  • Poor stability. Wait a minute. Didn’t I just say houseboats have a stable ride? I did, indeed. Here’s that cost I mentioned. All boats have their own unique stability characteristics, and it’s important to understand stability if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on boats. Without going into a lot of detail, some boats are more stable in their initial resistance to rolling or even capsizing. This initial stability can be seen when we compare a round-bottomed canoe with a pontoon boat. The canoe tends to roll quite a bit with very little movement by the person in it. A pontoon vessel, on the other hand, doesn’t move much at all. Secondary stability is the resistance it has to rolling even further and potentially capsizing (turning upside down). Many canoes have great secondary stability. Pontoon vessels that roll beyond a certain point have very little (not all houseboats are pontoon boats). While there is more to stability than this, the point is that the hulls of most houseboats, whether pontoon or barge hulls, are not suited to windy weather and the larger swells and waves the wind can produce. Every boat has a point beyond which any further rolling will cause it to capsize. Boats on pontoon and barge hulls reach that point much sooner than some other designs.
  • Difficult to maneuver in the wind. The amount of boat, including hull and superstructure, above the waterline provides something for the wind to blow and is sometimes called the “sail area” because it catches the wind much like a sail. The greater the sail area, the more difficult it can be to maneuver the vessel, especially in tight quarters.
SAILBOAT ADVANTAGES
  • Most economical under engine power. Think about this: the hull of a sailboat is designed so the boat will move simply from wind power. When under engine power, this means it takes less power (and less fuel) to move the vessel. Whereas some motor vessels may drink fuel at the rate of 5 or 6 gallons per hour (gph), it is possible for some sailboats to move and consume only 0.4-0.8 gph.
  • Able to move without engines (duh). When solely under sail, the boat uses no fuel at all.
  • Very stable when the wind blows. The design and function of sailboats is such that when sailing, the wind will often tend to make the boat roll less, rather than more, especially if it is a relatively heavy boat for its size.
SAILBOAT DISADVANTAGES
  • Limited space. Very limited space. Because of their design, space is at more of a premium than on other types of boats.
  • Slow. Unless you’re sailing a racing boat in the right wind, sailboats don’t go very fast. Of course, if you’re a “take your time” and “it’s about the journey, not the destination” kind of person this might be an advantage.

What I’m thinking is that despite all the creature comforts offered by houseboats, a sailboat may be the way to go for a person who wants to do more than simply motor about a bit in protected waters. Certainly, if one desires to complete the Great Loop, or journey to the Bahamas by boat, a houseboat is simply not an option. Now, to find the sailboat for the purpose. Oh, and I should probably learn to sail…

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  1. Pingback: Of Life Postponed | The Transient Mustang

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