The right size boat?

When choosing Lady Jo as mine and Claire’s first boat last summer, we weren’t sure exactly what we wanted,  but one particular thing we were unsure of was size – how big did we need her to be so that she  could work well for us and what were the compromises that came along with going for a boat of a certain size?

We knew there were couple of things that we didn’t need her to be which helped  –

  1. We had no desire to race our boat, so absolute performance, a size, layout and/or features suited to this didn’t come into our decision.
  2. We weren’t going to cross oceans in this, our first boat together – this boat was going to help us learn about sailing and explore the South Devon coast, maybe a little beyond, but no Atlantic crossings for us (just yet).

The other factor was budget, in boat terms a very limited budget, which meant we couldn’t really afford anything suitable for the above two tasks in any case. This also meant that newer, larger boats were completely out of the question – so big would have to mean old. This left us with a range of boats in sizes from 26 to about 39 feet in length for us to consider.

So where did we end up? Well, Lady Jo is a Hunter Legend 306, almost exactly 30 feet in length. She’s a relatively modern design, so in terms of internal volume she is probably closer to older (1980’s era) 32-33 footers and her cleaver cockpit design makes this particular bit of her as large as many contemporary  36 footers (excluding some of the newest wide transom twin wheel designs). It also means that she’s able to accommodate wheel steering with a good sized wheel and fixed table, making her cockpit more sociable than many smaller boats. Finally because her main sheet is on an arch, it moves a lot of the parafinalia associated with this out of the cockpit. So a few of the potential down-sides to ending up at the smaller end of our spectrum were cleverly designed out of our eventual choice of boat. Many of these things were obvious from just stepping aboard her – but how about actually living with the boat, what have we found to be good and bad about her particular size?

The good – 

  1. First, and this is a big one! Mooring fees – if you want your boat to be somewhere you can walk up to it, climb on board and go sailing then mooring is going to be expensive, period. How expensive can vary wildly depending on the size of boat and the quirks of your chosen port. In our case the inner harbour at Torquay, where Lady Jo currently resides, provides marina finger pontoons for boats up to 9.14 meters – Lady Jo measures 9.12 meters (that was close!). Had Lady Jo measured above 9.14 meters our only option would have been the local MDL marina which provides good facilities, but at over three times the price! We got lucky on this one, and it’s likely your local situation will vary, but there are important break points in terms of the size of boats that local facilities will accommodate, which you should pay close attention to if running costs are an issue and you want to avoid two hours fiddling with a dingy every time you have the urge to go sailing.
  2. We’ve found so far that day sailing (sometimes only a couple of hours sailing) is something we do more than we expected. Therefore being able to easily and confidently handle Lady Jo when leaving and returning to the marina is more important to us than we though it would be. Lady Jo’s Yanmar Saildrive, single rudder and twin bilge keels handle very well under power, both ahead and astern. But her relatively small size brings a few added benefits – The first is that verbal communication between crew on the bow and in the cockpit is possible (and not too shouty!) which is less the case on a 40 footer with the engine on. The second is that the stern mooring lines are in easy reach from the wheel (unlike some larger centre cockpit boats we considered), but thirdly, finally and of most reassurance is that the momentum of Lady Jo’s 3.2 tons (as opposed to the 6 tonnes plus of larger older yachts) drains the whole experience of the sense of dread at the damage that could be about to be done if something were to go wrong.
  3. Lady Jo’s size has proven about right in several ways in terms of her accommodation – She has two separate sleeping cabins (with doors) which allow us to have one or two friends aboard for an evening, staying overnight and retaining some privacy (something a smaller boat would not provide). Those two cabins also mean that when we want time alone, moored or at anchor, then it’s possible – something that makes long weekends for a introvert like me more pleasurable.
  4. Her fuel capacity of 75 litres isn’t going to run out on us – we’ve estimated she could run constantly for over 3 days and nights and we’ve struggled to use a tank in a season. Her water capacity is enough for a few showers and several days worth of washing the dishes.
  5. And yes, she has hot water and and a shower that you can stand up in, something a smaller boat wouldn’t be able to provide. She’s also fitted with a sea toilet with holding tank and macerator – again something a smaller boat might lack. There are some systems that could be fitted to Lady Jo that we don’t have – the two obvious ones are diesel heating and a fridge. We thought this would be the other way around, but we miss the heating and not the fridge – a large bag of ice in the cooler seems fine for a long weekend. However there are a few systems a larger boat would actually need that Lady Jo  also doesn’t have – She doesn’t have a windlass for the anchor for example, but she also don’t really need one – the knowledge that the anchor can be handled by a single person with a certain amount of sweat, is comforting and it’s one less thing to break (things on boats break all the time).

The Bad –

  1. So in the ‘good’ section I mentioned that her accommodation was up to the task of accommodating Claire, myself and friends for a night away on the boat with privacy provided by the cabins.  On the downside, neither cabin provides enough space to stand and dress, one has to contort oneself at various angles in order to get the job done and the lack of full standing space makes the cabins feel like places to sleep, maybe to lie and read, but really little else. Neither cabin provides sufficient storage for clothes, even the ones you were just wearing – overnight bags tend to live on the smaller saloon sofa, and dressing tends to happen there too when it’s just the two of us.
  2. The galley is in many ways good – the cold storage is large and the cupboard space is well thought out, with additional food storage in the centre of the saloon table. However the overall size of the boat is a limiting factor to how good things can be here – the sink, fridge and hob comprise the whole counter top – there is no other space, which leads to a sometimes irritating juggling of tasks when one needs to chop something, but also get something out of the fridge for example – on the plus side it makes us tidy! Washing-up has to be done and put away after dinner or else there’s no way to access a cold beer in the fridge below the drying space.
  3. Deck space and stowage is quite limited too, there’s no locker space for a deflated dingy so this has to live on the cabin top leaving no obvious place to stow a liferaft if we had one. There’s no room for addional sails or cockpit cussions without resorting to using cabin space below and storage space down there is at a premium. Fenders cannot be stowed easily causing obstructions on the already slightly too narrow side decks.

Yet to be seen –

  1. Performance is something that it’s going to take us a little longer to judge – Lady Jo is not a high performance boat and absolute speed is not what we’re after,  but passage times on a boat with a waterline length of 27 feet (in simple terms more feet equals more speed) may be an issue, particularly when thinking about doing anything cross channel. Performance in heavy conditions is also something to consider – so far we’ve been pleased – an unwelcome trip from Dartmouth to Torquay running in the aftermath of a force 8 gale with the winds still gusting above 30 knots gave us confidence in her, but a bigger boat might make us feel safer. One thing we can say for sure is that there have been no occasions in this regard that made us feel  we’d like a smaller boat!
  2. We have ambitions to do more and more sailing in the future and eventually live aboard and travel, so will our ambitions outgrow Lady Jo too quickly? Or will they change and mean that Lady Jo is all the boat we ever need?

We’ll have to see.


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