April 3, 2016   Rich Johnson


Making the Leap from a Trailerable Sailboat to a Mid-Sized Keelboat

Here’s a new online-only article from frequent 48°N contributor, Rich Johnson. Rich and his wife, Becky, recently made the choice to upsize their cruising vessel and expand their horizons. This is the first in a series on that process, their learning experiences with the new boat, and some longer-distance cruising this season!

Cruising the Pacific Northwest is nothing is arguably the best vacation to a paradise without palm trees. With more than 20,000 miles of coastline to explore between Seattle and Alaska, much of it sheltered from the open ocean by off-shore islands, there is no place like this… unless you’re willing to go all the way to Patagonia.

This is the realm of eagles and whales, bears and sea lions, salmon and halibut, old-growth forest and seemingly endless wilderness. As you explore northward, there are fjords filled with waterfalls that tumble out of the sky, blue glaciers, and wildlife galore. At anchor in this peaceful wonderland, it’s easy to imagine that this was what it was like the first day after the earth was created.

For those who don’t want total wilderness, there are modern cities, native villages, totem parks, and marine resorts that range from rustic to luxury. There are museums and galleries, cultural events and festivals. Whatever you want, you can find it in our extended back yard.

For the past 16 years, my wife, Becky, and I have been poised on the edge of this cruiser’s nirvana, but unable to take full advantage of it. That’s kind of like living across the street from Disneyland, but never going through the gate.

What was stopping us? As happens with many of us, it’s usually more than one thing. A too-busy life sometimes gets in the way of living. But when the over-crowded schedule finally relented, we cleared the calendar for long-term cruising … and that’s when the second obstacle raised its head. We needed a more suitable boat.

For nearly 20 years, we had been small-boat cruisers. The first four years, we trailered our MacGregor 26X around the country wherever water could be found. After moving to the Pacific Northwest 16 years ago, we happily sailed Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, but never felt like our boat was quite right for us to explore further afield for long periods of time. When it came to more distant cruising grounds, we stared across the water at “Disneyland” but never went through the gate.

We needed a plan.

First, we needed to identify the pros and cons of the boat we already owned. The MacGregor served us well for 19 years. We bought it new from the factory and never regretted the purchase. It carried us through all kinds of conditions, some of which we never want to repeat, but the boat did just fine. We added a full cockpit enclosure to give us more livable space, comfort and protection during inclement weather. We installed radar, chartplotter, and autopilot systems. We upgraded to a pressure water system in the galley and a composting head. I brought all lines to the cockpit, so there was no need to go forward for any sail handling operations – a good thing because the MacGregor has no side decks. All of these things enhanced the livability and safe operation of our pocket cruiser.

Rich and “Three Eagles” ready for a cruise

They say the two happiest days in a sailor’s life are the day he buys a boat, and the day he sells it. But selling our MacGregor was actually a day of torn emotions. After 19 years, she was part of our family. She had been in our home longer than any of our kids. We named her Three Eagles in honor of our three sons who each earned the Eagle rank in the Boy Scouts. For many years, she had carried our family safely to exciting adventures, making precious memories. We loved her. And when she departed to another family, we had a serious lump in our throat.

But we both knew it was time to step up. Becky and I wanted to cross the street and head into Disneyland. Granted, we have friends who have gone all the way to Alaska in their MacGregor, so we knew it was possible. But we decided to move up for what we perceived as greater safety and comfort for long voyages.

So, what more did we need or want? Well, for one thing, I couldn’t stand up inside Three Eagles, except directly beneath the companionway hatch when it was open. Standing at the galley, I was always hunched over and that gave me a back ache. Becky routinely bonked her noggin going forward to the forepeak where she slept because we had no place suitable for us to sleep together. The head was so cramped for me that I used it only as a last resort. And it was a lightweight, water-ballasted boat that was extremely active on storm-tossed seas.

Our homeport looks directly out on the widest part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which opens to the west all the way to Japan. So when westerlies get their mojo working and the tide is ebbing, crossing the Strait can be a daunting voyage. When currents fight with winds, it can create vertical wave patterns that literally make you want to be anywhere but on a small sailboat.

Because of that, we often delayed our crossing of the Strait until a better weather window opened. Taking advantage of a good weather window is always a good idea, no matter what boat you own. But our version of a suitable weather window was extremely restricted, because we didn’t like spending 5 hours getting brutalized on our way across. We knew that a larger, heavier boat with a ballasted keel would expand the definition of a suitable weather window, allowing us to go when we would otherwise be stuck in port.

The boat of our dreams would be bigger inside, with full standing headroom (and head room). It would be heavier and would have a deep keel, so it could handle the sometimes-rough conditions with more grace. We wanted wide side decks for security going forward, a windlass to aid in anchoring, a fully operational galley with stove/oven and refrigerator, some form of interior heating (because this ain’t the Caribbean), a cockpit enclosure so we could live outside even on rainy days, and a full complement of up-to-date navigation electronics.

And let’s not forget overall good condition and affordable price. We couldn’t afford to buy a fully-equipped new boat, but didn’t want to have to rebuild a “project” boat either. So, we needed to find a nice solid boat that filled all our needs at a price we could afford on a fixed retirement income.

I hear some of you chuckling and saying, “Good luck!”

Well, stick around and we’ll take you through the process with us as we move up in size. We’ll talk honestly about the pros and cons of making this kind of shift. We’ll discuss the learning curve for sailing a bigger boat, and we’ll talk about stuff like the extra equipment we discovered that makes it easier to handle the heavier gear, bigger sails and anchors.

Then, we’ll invite you along as we cast off the docklines to go in search of adventure, making new memories in a boat named Dream Catcher.


Becky aboard the Johnson’s new-to-them Catalina 34, “Dream Catcher”


Rich-and-Becky-smallRich Johnson is a frequent contributor to 48° North. He is a writer, sailor, and survival expert. Rich and Becky live in Sequim, WA.