Small Sailboat Buyer's Primer
Written by S.W. - Sailsport Marine Revised 2/13
Have you dreamt about daysailing leisurely on the water with friends or about experiencing the exhilarating speed of a catamaran on a strong windy day? Maybe you remember sailing as a child and would like a refresher on what to look for in a small sailboat. To understand the attributes of different small sailboats, read on.
For the sake of simplicity, we'll categorize small sailboats as either daysailers or performance boats. Daysailers are normally described as boats that are comfortable and easy to sail for a fun and relaxing day on the water. Performance boats are usually faster and more responsive, but they are also more complex, more sensitive to every move, and less comfortable.
If you're just starting out, you'll probably want to start with a recreational daysailer. Daysailers are simple and stable boats designed for easy leisurely afternoon sails. They are good trainers and family boats that are dryer and safer than performance racing boats.
If you're more into speed and thrills you'll definitely want to look at performance boats. The thrill of hanging off a trapeze wire at speed is second to none. Performance boats have light and efficient hulls making them sensitive to crew weight (tender). They also have sophisticated rigs for power in a wide range of conditions. You'll need to match the boat's complexity to your skill level.
There are basically two hull configurations of small sailboats. Most sailboats are monohulls, which means they have a single hull floating the boat. Multihulls, boats with two or three hulls, are also very popular as beach boats. Small sailboat hulls vary in size and shape depending on what is expected of a boat. The main variables are weight, length, width, and hull cross section.
Weight is one of the biggest factors to determine a small boat's performance. A light boat is generally a fast and responsive boat. Light boats plane easier because they have a smaller bow wave to climb and it is easier to lift a light hull up on top of the waves. Light weight also means less lateral area in the water which amounts to more maneuverability. The drawback to having a light boat is that it is usually a less stable (eg. more tender) boat. Heavier boats are typically more comfortable in bigger winds and waves.
Length is a capacity and speed determinant to most designs. Longer boats generally have more buoyancy, translating to more capacity. Maximum hull speed of any displacement boat is determined by length. Small sailboats are displacement boats up to the point where the boat starts planing. So, until there is enough wind to get a boat planing, a longer boat will be faster. If you want a boat to sail solo you probably want something shorter than 15 feet so that it is not too big to maneuver by yourself and you can reach all the sail controls. Boats for two or more people are generally 14 feet or longer.
Width determines stability more than anything, although more boats are using greater width toward the stern to help get the boat planing. All other things the same, a wider boat is going to be more stable than a narrow boat. Wider boats also have more surface area, causing more drag, slowing the boat down.
Cross-section of the hull form and it's center of gravity determines it's stability. Additionally, a planing boat needs to use it's hull form and crew location for maximum stability. A wider flatter hull (figure a) gives both a stable hull form and allows crew weight to counteract the force of a large sail plan. A boat that is not designed to plane should have a more rounded or V shaped cross section (figure b) so that it has less wetted area and uses a weighted centerboard or ballast for a low center of gravity.
Since most small boat buyers have some interest in speed, lets talk a bit about displacement speed and planing speed. Most modern small monohulls are designed to plane. All boats at slower speeds are considered displacement boats, which means that they are displacing, or pushing, a wave of water out of their way as they move. Maximum hull speed of any displacement boat is determined by the length of the wave that they are pushing, which is determined by the length of the boat's waterline. At the maximum displacement speed the boat is sitting in the trough of this wave (figure c). There needs to be quite a bit of power to get a boat up over the crest and out of the trough to break through and plane on top of the water (figure d). Once planing, even the shortest of boats can be extremely fast.
Multihulls are designed to have less wetted surface area and can carry large sail plans with less weight because of their increased beam. Hulls spaced widely apart create stability - there is no need for ballast and the hulls don't need to be shaped for stability. You can have the hulls designed for efficiency. The most efficient hull is long, sharp, and round bottomed.
Because of their efficient hulls, light weight, and large sail plans, multihulls are typically faster than monohulls. Some can go 25 knots or more. That's a whole different ball game compared to monohulls. They are a bit wetter and can take more skill to keep under control, but if you're into speed and thrills, multihulls are the way to go.
There is a big range of multihulls available too. Some are simpler daysailer types, others are extreme speed machines and there are many models in between. Catamarans have two hulls and trimarans have three hulls. Catamarans usually carry enough sail area to lift one of the hulls out of the water, giving them very little drag, and making them very fast. Trimarans have a larger center hull and two small outside hulls, or amas. Since the large center hull is always in the water along with at least one ama, trimarans don't quite have the speed potential of a catamaran, but they don't have the potential to be capsized as easily, either.
Some recreational multihulls are made with hulls that are either asymmetrical or they have built in skegs so that they don't need centerboards or daggerboards. This allows them to be run right up on a beach without worrying about damaging boards or board trunks. These boats usually don't go upwind as well as those with boards, but they are much more practical beach boats.
There are many different sail plans on small sailboats, but we'll talk about the three most common: Lanteen rig, Cat rig, or Sloop rig.
Lanteen rigs consist of a sail held between two booms and lifted up on a short mast. They are common on the smallest of boats because they are easy to handle and can be held up without any wire shrouds. The popular Sunfish is an example of a lanteen rig.
Cat rigs are single sail rigs with the mast far forward on the deck. They are common on small boats because they are simple and they allow plenty of cockpit space behind the mast. The small cat rigs can be rigged without side stays.
Sloop rigs are two sailed rigs with one large sail rigged on the mast and one smaller sail rigged forward of the mast. They are most common on larger boats because they consist of two smaller, easier to handle sails, and they require wire rigging to hold up the mast. They allow more total sail area to be rigged for more power.
There are a variety of construction types being manufactured. The most common type being fiberglass with newer high tech plastic composites that are starting to become more prominent.
Fiberglass boats have been the most popular construction for the past few decades because they allow a very strong, light and durable boat to be built. The are also very labor intensive. They need to be laid up by hand in two parts, hull and deck. Then they have a hull-to-deck joint that could cause problems over time. Fiberglass construction also creates many hazardous material issues.
The past few years rotomolded plastic sailboats have also been brought to the market. Rotomolded polyethylene boats are very durable and impact resistant. They are a one piece construction so there is no hull-to-deck joint to worry about. Minimal labor and material costs make it very inexpensive compared to fiberglass. The big costs are in the molds, so the volume of boats made needs to justify the mold costs. Rotomolding has been very prominent in kayak manufacturing for a while, but sailboat hulls are under a whole different set of stresses. Rotomolding seems to be well suited to multihulls because the hulls themselves are not highly stressed. Hobie Cat has introduced very successful small rotomolded catamarans and Wind-rider makes rotomolded trimarans that have aluminum frames inside to handle rig loads. There are many problems with trying to build a monohull out of plastic using the same design that you could for fiberglass, but with innovative new designs like the Laser Pico it could prove to be the material of the future for small sailboats.
The Right Boat For You
Now that we know a bit about different boat designs and construction, we can talk about what type of boat you should buy.
When deciding on a small sailboat, there are many factors to consider, but your main decisions are going to reflect how skilled you are, how many people you plan on sailing with, set up and storage circumstances both on and off the water, and whether or not you want to get into racing.
Your sailing skills are an important consideration. You don't want to get a boat that is way too complicated or tender if you are just learning, but you do want to be able to learn new techniques and skills if you have mastered the basics. Be sure to get a boat that you can feel comfortable sailing.
Capacity and comfort are big factors. If you want to take the whole family out for an afternoon, you'll need a fairly big boat. However, if you are going to be spending most of the time sailing solo, you'll want something easy to handle.
If you have access to a beach you can consider a boat that you can either drag up the beach or move up with a dolly.
Some boats can be set up and ready to go off a trailer in a matter of minutes, others may take an hour or more. If you need to set your boat up each time you sail, the quicker the boat set up, the more it will be used. If you plan on keeping your boat rigged for a long period of time, you need not worry as much about set-up time.
If you think you would like to get into racing the best thing to do is find out what classes of boats have active fleets in your area. Racing in a One Design class with every boat the same design and the outcome decided more by the skill of the crew is the way to go for small boats. You can also race using a handicap system that makes time allowances for slower boats, but it's hard to tell who's winning during the race.
If you still have questions, consult your local Dealer - that's what we're here for.