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.
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.
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.