Pocket Cruisers Unite!

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 12:53PM - Comments: (9)

I've always been a sucker for pocket cruisers, so when Ken Lange, the owner of International Marine, offered the chance to sail the builder’s newest micro-adventurer, the Voyager 20, it didn’t take much arm twisting. Ken and I spent an afternoon putting the boat through its paces in near-perfect conditions for the boat, 8 to 11-knot wind breeze on Sarasota Bay. Along with us were two perspective customers who were downsizing from an Endeavour 40. As often happens, the vagaries of life had conspired to interrupt their cruising dream, but they still had a zest for sailing and exploring, and the Voyager 20 seemed like the perfect platform for more modest adventures closer to home.

Boats like these, opening a door to more manageable, affordable escapes, are enjoying a bit of a resurgance today. Just as the fascination with loveable micro-homes is growing, cute micro-cruisers continue to attract new followers here. (Although an interest of micro-cruisers have waxed and waned in the U.S., it never really subsided in the U.K., where pint-sized sailboats have been, and remain ubiquitous in the boatyards, harbors, and marinas.) While new sailboat sales are still sluggish, builders like Lange are targeting a niche too small for high-volume production builders to bother with—the niche between performance-oriented daysailers and entry level cruisers.

Anytime you talk about pocket cruisers you have to clarify what you mean, for the term is loosely applied to a wide range of small boats, some with very little in common besides displacement. Size is certainly a factor, but size is relative. I’ve seen 26-feet length overall (LOA) being a commonly cited as the upper limit for the “pocket” appellation, and that seems about right, although a few decades ago a 26-foot sailboat was called something else—a yacht.

Winds were so light a the ramp we didn't bother to drop the sail after rigging it; once we were on the water the breeze picked up. From road to water took two people about one hour to rig, load up and set off sailing.

While there are a few thoroughbreds among the breed, pocket cruisers generally fall to the lower end of the performance spectrum, the inevitable result of trying to cram the comforts of home into 20 feet of waterline. Comfort—at sea and at anchor—take precedence over tacking angles, so you generally don’t see blistering speeds around the buoys. In my view, there are at least four main types of pocket cruisers.

  • Estuarine Elves—These are the maritime equivalent of the pop-top camper. They are easy to tow, suprisingly roomy, and generally forgiving sailboats. The poster childs are the popular West Wight Potters. The Victoria 18, the Sanibel 18, the ComPac Eclipse and any of the small catboats with any kind of cabin fall into this category. (International Marine also makes the West Wights and the Sanibel.) These are boats that can creep up the lakes, creeks, and rivers of North America and still manage bay chop. They have enough cockpit space for family daysailing, but also offer a place to duck out of the weather, sleep, eat and be cozy. New sailors and families are quite happy to putter along in them, but few offer wind-in-your-hair thrills with the wind forward of the beam.
  • Trailer Sailers - These are small cruiser/racers like the Rhodes 22, San Juan 21, Catalina 22, Tanzer 22, that can be Friday-night raced around the cans with other vintage boats, but also cruised. Like the Estuarine Elves, they are easy to trailer fairly quick to rig and launch, but with longer waterlines, more sail area and more efficient hull shapes, they generally perform better. This is probably the largest field of boats that could fit the pocket cruiser name; there are too many boats to list.
  • Auxiliary Pocket Cruisers - These boats can be trailered, but they require vehicles with big towing capacity and take much longer to rig. They usually have more ballast, built-in tanks, and can be equipped with inboard auxiliary engines—something you rarely find in the two smaller categories. Trailerability, in this case, means hauling the boat down to the Keys or Mexico for the winter, not down to the local ramp on a Sunday. These can be fixed-keel boats like the Contessa 26, the Pearson Ariel, and Cape Dory 25 (both Carl Alberg designs); or swing keels like the Paceship 26 (also available with fixed keel), Yankee Dolphin 24, the Nimble 24, and the Lyle Hess-designed Balboa 26. Although some boats in this category have circumnavigated, doing far offshore work in these boats requires a special breed of sailor—and Posiedon’s blessing.
  • Bahama-Mamacitas - Multihulls like the Corsair F-24, the Wharram Tiki 21, and the semi-custom trimarans like PS contributing editor Skip Allen’s new custom Wildflower probably could be shoehorned into the above group, but that would surely incite the wrath of Allen and the rest the multihull crowd, so I’ll give them their own group here.
  • Microships - Generally these are fixed-keel boats with hefty ballast- displacement ratios that make them capable of cruising offshore. They are trailerable, but with displacement pushing 10,000 pounds, they require a powerful tow vehicle. Some, like the "Bill" W.I.B. Crealock’s Dana 24, have circumnavigated. Bruce Bingham’s Pacific Seacraft Flicka 20, or Hess's Falmouth Cutter 22 are other examples of small boats that pop up in far flung ports.

Skip Allen's custom-built Wildflower served as a perfect platform for exploring the Puget Sound last summer.

So where does the Voyager 20, a more sophisticated cousin of the Potter 19, belong? It’s 17.5-foot waterline and light displacement (1,750 pounds) puts it in the Estuarine Elves category, although it has several of construction features that you see in the Microships: heavy-duty Lewmar hatch and portlights and an encapsulated lead keel. It also has a fair amount of storage.

The layout below (featured in last week's blog post) is nearly identical to the Potter 19, with a small sink a port-a-potty, and v-berth. The biggest improvement over the Potter is the keel.

Lange borrowed the foil-keel design of the Montgomery 17, a fun little pocket cruiser designed by Hess. Lange then added a centerboard to give it better performance to windward (the bugaboo of some shallow fixed-keel pocket cruisers in the 15 to 18-foot category). We saw more lift with the centerboard down, although the boat managed fine to windward with the board up.

With four adults and a cockapoo on board for our sail, the Voyager 20 was surprisingly stable and well balanced. The conservative ballast-displacement ratio, and hard chine held her upright, and the high freeboard and coamings kept the cockpit dry. With a relatively flat bottom, the boat tended to pound through chop when working to windward, but that is a trade-off for a short-waterline vessel that emphasizes high initial stability. The boat tacked through 90-degrees true on a GPS recorded track (accounting for any leeway), so it will get you where you want to go.

Built in California, the Voyager 20 is sold direct to customers. The fully equipped boat I sailed (complete with trailer, AC and 12-volt DC systems, galley, canvas, etc.) was listed at $38,000, more than three times anyone can expect to pay for a used entry-level trailer sailor on the used boat market with similar amenities. But the price is not out of line with the market for new boats, and it is hard to find other new boats in the 20-foot range that are not strictly daysailors. About the closest comparison that comes to mind in the new boat market is the Compac Eclipse (which also tops $30,000 when similarly equipped), and the Norseboat 21.5 ($35,000-plus depending on options). I’d love to hear about some other pocket cruisers we should check out, and where you think they fall in the above categories.

For those who are boat shopping for a pocket cruiser you'll find reviews of many of the boats I mention under "sailboat reviews" on the Practical Sailor website (some reviews are public, but many are for subscribers only). For those looking for something just a little bit roomier, our ebook Entry-Level Sailboats Volume 1 and Entry-Level Sailboats Volume 2 cover 25 popular boats between 26 and 31 feet that are readily available on the used boat market.

Comments (9)

I can add some words of praise/clarification for several of these small boats, based on personal ownership.
Victoria 18 - not too common; nice sailor; low and fairly cramped interior with room for two; good-sized cockpit; long, fixed keek with attached rudder. Nice, traditional look.
Sanibel 18 - pretty big, open interior; lots of storage below; light and easy swing keel and rudder; swing keel is off-centre and hidden in a berth wall, so you never notice it. Very shoal, with motor tilted or running downwind. Loved it as a Gulf Coast marsh gunkholer.
WWPotter 19 - pretty good sailer; roomy below, but dagger board trunk is a nuisance; a FG liner contains sink and stove flat, storage lockers, and two large bumps at the head of each quarterberth that inhibit entry into the berths (very annoying unless you are very small and flexible.) The daggerboard is 300 lb. or so, and raised by tackle cranked from the cockpit, below the tiller. It's hard to work, noisy and creaky, and with the board up the cabin is pretty much unusable. I would never use it board-up. On reflection, years later, I think I should have stayed with her and removed the bumps and replaced cable in the tackle with high-tech rope. She was good in the Southern Gulf Islands of BC, would be in the San Juans, too.
Nimble 24 - pretty rare, lovely, salty sharpie-style boat that can be run as a yawl. Good interior, smallish cockpit because the OB is in a well. She was pretty big to tow, because LOA was 28 feet with the anchor platform and boomkin included. I loved the look and character of her, but she could not sail out of her own way. Nimble made a very similar twenty-footer, and a couple of iterations in 24-foot pilot-house motor sailers.
A couple of Com-pacs omitted above are the older 16 and 19 foot sloops; I've had both. The 16 is fairly common on the used market; fair sailer, good cockpit and an interior in between the Victoria and Sanibel, space-wise. She has a shoal, fixed keel but is easy to launch and rig single-handed. The 19 is much roomier, with room to stow the portapotti, and a portable galley (if you can find one.) In these sizes, my rule of thumb is that, an increase of 3 feet gives you twice the boat. The 16 was great as a daysailer with the grandchildren playing in Lake Norman. Years later, the 19 was a real joy on the Gulf Coast. I'd have kept her except for moving away.
Upon getting older, I have found it easier to use motors, and have had three different small pilot-house OB boats to cruise or fish - 16 and 22 ft C-Dory's are terrific; 19 Nimble Vagabond, not so much, but a lovely, salty design.

Posted by: Roger M | March 5, 2015 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Not word about the British made VIVACITY 24....I BOUGHT A USED 1970 AND HAVE HAD CATALINAS,HUNTERS AND A 37 Bruce Roberts sloop...the Vivacity form its size is a great solid made pocket cruiser....you ought to do a story on them..........jerry e.

Posted by: Jerry E | January 2, 2015 1:06 AM    Report this comment

I became interested in cruising sort of by accident. I started out with beach cats, and then moved up to a Stiletto 27, because it was fast and because it was a better all-day boat for the family. When my daughter became old enough--about 9--on a whim we took it out on a 2-week trip, exploring the Virginia Inside passage (something like the ICW, but too shallow for most boats) and all of the uninhabitied islands it boarders. Great father-daughter times. A pocket cruiser? Not really. There are 2 pipe berths and you use a camp stove. But it draws on 12" boards up, motors at 12 knots, sails at 20 knots, and can be pulled by a mid-size. Since then I moved up to a real cruising boat, but some days I sure miss her.

Posted by: Drew Frye | December 23, 2014 1:37 PM    Report this comment

I'd like to put a good word in for the Quickstep 21 which was built in the early 90's. Not as many built as the Quickstep 24 (could be trailed with a 2-axle trailer). We sailed it for 10 years out of Marblehead, and had memorable times towing it to Rockland, ME, Cape Breton and Narragansett Bay for more distant cruising. Very easy to rig and launch/recover, with a swing keel. We could always squeeze into any anchorage, dropping the hook where the bigger boats couldn't get to. Good looking boat with a nice large cockpit and most people always thought it was larger than 21 feet. Good day family day sailor, besides "cruising" for a week or two.

Posted by: BRIAN S | December 17, 2014 4:18 PM    Report this comment

Precision 23 (my current boat) is trailerable with a good-sized but not huge pickup truck. Shallow draft with board up, performs nicely with board down, has a small galley, open cabin (no keel trunk), long enough berths that a tall person
can sleep. Rigging and derigging with the proper trailer is a 2 person job in
about an hour. I owned and raced a San Juan 21 for a long time - wonderful boats
for performance and over-nighting but oddly enough rigging and derigging my fully race-equipped one required well over an hour for launch or retrieve. Modern boats (e.g. Hunger 240) are much simpler in that regard. If you are looking at a San Juan 21 be careful of moisture in the balsa-cored deck.

Posted by: Sam T | December 17, 2014 1:16 PM    Report this comment

I think Cruising World meant to say "Best Deep Pocket Cruiser".

Posted by: J. KENT C | December 17, 2014 12:26 PM    Report this comment

The Montgomery 17 mentioned in the post is a terrific boat--Lyle Hess designed, well-built, and a joy to sail (I owned one in the 90's). Jerry Montgomery is no longer the builder, but he recently designed the Sage 17, a 2013 Sail Magazine Best Boat winner (sagemarine.us).

Posted by: Michael T | December 17, 2014 11:04 AM    Report this comment

I never see anything in print about a Bristol/Sailstar 26. This is a Herreshoff designed yacht, 6200# GW, She has a trailer. a dandy cabin, inc.a head W/shower,crusing galley, headroom to stand about. The yacht works nicely to windward, a fixed fin keel develops ample lift, still allowing manuverability & can be backed up to a jetty or dock! This is a fine old yacht, 1966 vintage. So she is of CCA design school. I've seen 6.2- 6.5 on lazy afternoons! Why does no one write of them?

Posted by: dlblandjr | December 17, 2014 10:47 AM    Report this comment

According to Cruising World, the their "2014 Boat of the Year" in the "Best Pocket Cruiser" category is the new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 349. Starting at $125K it is almost there, price wise. I always enjoyed my Venture 21 but finally moved up to a Cal 27 Mark 3 which weighs in at 5,200#. I did trailer that for several years as well.

Posted by: Raymond S | December 16, 2014 9:38 PM    Report this comment

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