I have been on a lot of boats, and I don't mean just a quick peak inside when walking the docks at boat shows. So I know there are many things that you won’t notice about a boat until you spend time on it. Once at sea, or on a cruise, you start to find things that you question. After spending a couple of days on a boat, everyone finding a routine, I find myself asking, “What were they thinking?”
I would like to share some random observations from my notes over the years. This is by no means a complete list.
We can all agree that boats are a series of compromises. Space used for accommodations in one place robs another of that extra bit of elbow room, such as a pilot berth that is just a tad short or narrow.
My intent here is to help develop an awareness of certain details when you go looking at boats. Perhaps these comments will help you avoid making purchase decisions that turn out to put you on the wrong side of those compromises.
While we could make fun of some of these boats, I think it best to not name names. I don't want to pick on a specific boat, as many of the things I mention are found on other boats as well. By not being specific there is also less chance of missing the forest for the trees. My goal is to have you walk away with a greater general awareness rather than a distain for certain boats or brands.
As Julie Andrews sings in the Sound of Music: These are a few of my favorite things…
Engine Room Access
On some boats, even large, very expensive yachts, engine room access is downright ridiculous. The hatch is poorly placed, or not big enough for most of us to get through without effort. Sometimes the door or hatch into the engine space started out large enough, but once the builder adds several inches of insulation on the inside of the door or hatch, the access portal is seriously reduced to just wiggle room.
Entrance into the engine space needs to be easy without gymnastics, whether it is a door or floor hatch, under way or at the dock. And I can’t imagine a valid reason for some of these hatches and doors that are small and difficult to get through when, once inside the engine room, there is almost full standing headroom? I don’t get that.
I’ve seen engine room doors in the shower of the master stateroom, in the companionway of a narrow passageway where one must step down and duck as they turn to fit the short and narrow opening. I’ve seen access doors on the side deck of the boat, in the aft cockpit, as well as hidden under structures in the cockpit.
And there was one new trawler model introduced just prior to a show, where access was through a hinged hatch in saloon sole. But its location forced one to climb down a vertical set of steps directly in front of the engine. In fact, when I went down this ladder, my back slid along the front of the engine and all the belts for the alternator and pumps. With the engine running, even sitting at the dock, it was so dangerous we refused to write about this boat.
Much like where to put the dinghy, engine room access seems an afterthought, which is wrong. Ideally, entry into an engine room involves a good-sized door or hatch that allows one to step onto a landing or flat space (rather than the slope of the hull), with secure grab rails to walk into the space and get oriented, safely, and securely. This is so important I would gladly give up space that would otherwise be used for accommodations.
On many boats, unfortunately, the compromise goes the other way.
And one thing that really irritates me are ladders down into the engine space that are not foot friendly. Tubular stainless-steel rungs on a ladder are not so nice on bare feet. A flat teak step is better is all respects.
The killer of them all was the engine room ladder on a big trawler built in Turkey that I toured with Steve Seaton.
The steps down into the engine room from the side deck were tubular rungs as found on other boats. But someone had drilled dozens of holes in the rungs from the bottom so that the top surface of the step was covered with splayed out holes similar to exit holes from a gunshot. This stairway was made for work boots. Boat shoes would not survive very long on these steps.
The bottom of pilothouse doors on some yachts are way too low, some even flush with the side decks. While these doors seem great at a boat show or while living in a marina, this is a spectacular design flaw for any boat that is going to leave the dock.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the following scenario: A couple of us are in the pilothouse during heavy weather, a thunderous rainstorm, or in seas that have the yacht rolling from side to side, even with stabilizers. Nothing ugly or dangerous, just the conditions sometimes encountered at sea or along a coast.
Here we are in the pilothouse, with several bath towels piled at the bottom of the pilothouse doors, our feeble attempt to keep the water (seawater or rainwater) that is seeping under the door across the teak and holly sole. A yacht that costs two or three million dollars and we can’t keep the water on the outside of the boat.
Raising the door frame up several inches off the side deck would eliminate standing water coming in from the side decks. The compromise of needing to step up and over a door frame is far better than the wet pile of towels at the base of the door to stem the trickle of water coming in from a side deck. The tripping hazard is minimal in my opinion.
And I ask you, once this flaw is discovered, why wouldn’t a boat builder fix this? This is one of life’s mysteries, as all fiberglass tooling can be modified. Phil Friedman will be doing just that at the MMG facility in Painesville, Ohio to improve the performance and sea keeping characteristics of the SeaPiper 35, which was recently moved from China to Ohio.
(Seen below: The new SeaPiper 35.)
Stainless Steel Handholds/Grab Rails
I always like to have a sturdy grab rail on the interior by each pilothouse door. I make it a practice when standing watch to look outside and behind the boat. I have confidence doing this at night while holding onto the boat. Without these handholds, one hand on the ship is hard to do when stepping out or poking one’s head out of the pilothouse doors. The thick door frame and trim are usually too thick to hold onto when the seas are rough, or at night. These handholds make lots of sense and look great. Why not make it easy…and safer?
Also in the pilothouse, it is nice if there are beefy grab rails next to the settee that is usually located behind the helm chair. When sliding off the settee one naturally reaches for something to grab. It seems such a natural thing to have and would add to the safety, utility, and general appearance of a competent sea boat. Can you have too many handholds on a boat? I think not.
I also really think it is important to have solid grab rails on the side of the cabin (or under the overhead boat deck covering the side decks) near where one boards the boat. When stepping through a side gate, especially if the side deck or cockpit is not level with the dock and a foot or so away from the dock. This is a very unsettling with nothing to hold to steady oneself in the boarding process.
These grab rails are even more important when there is no side gate, and one must climb over lifelines some distance from the dock. Being able to hold onto something solid and secure before stepping over to the boat makes all the difference in the world, especially for older people where balance and flexibility are not what they used to be.
I also suggest additional grab rails in a companionway leading to the accommodations. I have often had to make my way forward by sliding with a lean, like a drunken sailor, against one side of the passageway, but I would prefer to hold onto something.
(Seen below: This Nordic Tugs boat has handrails right inside the salon door for safety while underway.)
There never seems enough room in the pilothouse for both helm chair(s) and the inevitable table behind it. Most people must squeeze between them to get to the other side. I’ve often wondered about that. And why do we accept such a silly situation as part of life aboard a modern trawler yacht?
Come on, didn't the designer and builder know that a helm chair would be part of the overall design? I suppose using a CAD picture of a helm chair doesn’t consider that most helm seats adjust forward and backward as well as up and down. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for this.
If there is just one helm chair, which is typical, that means the second person on watch (or hanging out) sits on the settee behind the helm chair, not always the best place for keeping an eye on the surroundings. And if the layout is such that one can only sit behind the helm chair, all conversation take place without eye contact. We humans like eye contact when we spend an afternoon cruising along the waterway. Every boat is different, of course, but it is best if people in the pilothouse can maintain eye contact, as well as enjoy visibility on the same level.
(That is why I always seem to stand next to the helm so I can converse with the person sitting in the helm chair, driving the boat. I occasionally sit on the settee to take a break.)
The placement of gauges, switches, engine instrumentation, radios and navigation electronics vary widely from boat to boat, from builder to builder. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in brand-new pilothouse trawlers, fresh from the factory, and the prime real estate in front of the helm chair is where the builder put the panel of engine gauges and controls.
The rare builder connects the various wires and cables for the engine instrument panel to be operational but puts the panel and its harness in a plastic bag and places it nearby, such as in the chart table next to the helm. This allows the commissioning team and owners to design the helm with a fresh console with no holes or cutouts. That is the way it should be done.
Unfortunately, this often forces radios and some navigation electronics to be installed out of easy reach of the person in the helm chair.
Two boats come to mind that reflect pilothouse instrumentation gone wild. One yacht had a wide span of overhead that stretched across the entire pilothouse. The installers obviously had no experience with boats at sea, as they placed all auxiliary electrical gear, such as stabilizer controls, VHF and SSB radios, sensors, alarms, hailer, and windshield wiper controls spread across the entire pilothouse overhead, all neatly spaced a perfect distance apart. To turn on the wipers one had to get out of the helm chair to reach the switches. Even worse, the radar was off to the left side of the helm, and anyone wanting to use it had to stand over by the port side of the pilothouse, as it was not visible from the helm.
The other boat was a 45-foot trawler from a semi-custom builder. The owner was very specific as to how he wanted his instrumentation laid out in the pilothouse. He had flown B-25 Mitchell bombers in WWII and was most comfortable with all switches and some gauges installed overhead.
What was so funny about this was that when we went on sea trials on the new boat, those of us wearing progressive reading glasses had to wear our glasses upside down to read the labels on the bank of switches or view the gauges that were close but above eye level in the pilothouse.
We all got a big chuckle from that, and I recall taking a picture of three silly-looking gentlemen.
Heads Positioned to Separate Staterooms
This one is cringeworthy. The visual separation of living spaces to provide privacy is usually an illusion. On many layouts, the master stateroom is situated with its ensuite head located between the master and a guest stateroom. And what usually separates the spaces is a bulkhead of wood-veneered plywood.
Having been a guest on many dozens of trawlers, I often found what is on the other side of that plywood bulkhead from my pillow is a toilet and sink. Let’s leave it at that, although the “tap tap” of the toothbrush against the side of the sink appears to be a universal habit. Of course, the owners have no idea, and I have never felt comfortable bringing this up in conversation.
(This reminds me that I could write a hugely entertaining book of all the things I have seen and experienced that never made it to print in the magazine.)
At the very least, there should be some attempt at sound deadening between living spaces. Take a closer look at layouts and these kinds of details when you go boat shopping.
Privacy in General
While we are on the subject of privacy (which is seldom discussed), notice how many staterooms have louvered doors for ventilation. Trust me, any ventilation they provide comes at the expense of privacy. A couple of boats immediately come to mind. It was as if the owners were in my cabin with me.
Hands down the weirdest privacy experience I’ve ever had was cruising on a production power cat. One would think that with the two staterooms located in separate hulls, it would be the ultimate in privacy. As it turned out, the berths in the boat were in the stern of the boat athwartship, with the pillows up against each inboard bulkhead. The two inboard bulkheads were a foot or two from each other.
This would seem ideal for privacy, except the builder decided it was a dandy place to install the inverter, and of course they needed vents in the two bulkheads to keep it cool.
We could hear each other breathing.
Space, The Final Frontier
Guest berths are sometimes too short, as are the saloon settees. They fit the space rather than the other way around.
All cruisers know that on a small, lighter boat going into head seas on an overnight passage or across a gnarly sound, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to sleep in the forward berth, as the motion is just too uncomfortable.
As a result, what often happens is the off-watch crew move to the saloon settees to sleep. Or on the saloon sole, where the motion is often the least.
(This is one downside of those U-shaped settees, by the way. Neither leg of the L-shape is long enough to lay straight. And sleeping as an L-shaped person is not particularly restful.)
The guest staterooms on many boats are nowhere near large enough for adult people to share comfortably for any period of time beyond a weekend, forgetting clothes and personal gear. There is just nowhere to put anything. And having to say “Excuse me” to move around a tight stateroom gets old.
On one much-loved cruising motoryacht, we used one guest stateroom for sleeping and a third stateroom for changing clothes and storing our bags, clothes, and personal gear.
And how silly are upper and lower bunk berths in a skinny guest cabin where one can’t even read a paperback laying in the top bunk—as one’s forehead is close to the overhead? I was stunned to find this on a bluewater trawler.
If you are looking at a boat with such accommodations, get into both bunks and see if it will work for the people you intend to invite aboard.
I said I wasn't going to name boat brands, but I did ask a very well-known designer/builder about such skimpy guest accommodations.
He smiled and said he didn’t design his yachts for guests.
Some Other Points to Consider
The refrigerator and freezer doors need the provision to be properly secured shut. One night well offshore (the weather was fine but there was a swell) I noticed a pool of white liquid next to the main engine during an engine room check. It didn’t feel like oil, but I was not curious enough to taste it. I tried to track the liquid to its source, as the noise and heat of the running engine, and the fact that it was the middle of night, contributed to my sense of urgency that something might be amiss. Perhaps an emulsified lubricant that from a pump about to fail? Looking around the engine space, I ultimately found the liquid seeping from the overhead insulation and running down teak trim where it dripped down by the engine.
Back in the galley, I saw the fridge door ajar and a milk carton on its side. Whole milk had dribbled down to the bottom shelf of the fridge and onto the galley sole, eventually finding its way into the engine room. For years builders have tried all sorts of ways to secure the doors of the domestic appliances so common these days, and it is important.
Every boat should be equipped with a mixing valve, which blends cold water into the extremely hot water coming out of the engine-heated hot water tank. Keeping the hot water temperature below 125 degrees is a critical safety issue when taking a shower under way. And it is not a big project to tackle.
The same hot water/mixing valve issue goes for the galley and head faucets. You may be used to it to avoid scalding yourself, but what about your guests?
Install a mixing valve on your boat’s water heater!
In the engine room, I recommend owners do their own markings on sight gauges. The fancy plaques done at the builder's yard may not always be accurate, as there are many variables in boat building to ensure everything is the same from boat to boat. Buy a label maker and do it right so you have confidence in your fuel system. If you are lucky, you’ll at least validate the builder’s signage.
I always wonder if all the fuel in a tank will be available for the engine(s). Ideally, the builder made it a priority to ensure the fuel system, tanks included, is down right. But I have reason for concern. On our power cat, the owner of Hull #1 told me he would lose an engine in rough seas if the fuel tank level for that engine was down to 50 percent. That red flag always bothered me, although I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
After All, It’s a Boat
I have been lucky to spend quality time on many, many boats around the world. And I loved how one builder found a solution to an issue on a boat, often in ways that could be added or modified to fit other boats with the same issue. It was a luxury for me to see how different builders tackle the inevitable problems. Builders with commercial experience typically give me confidence. They tend to leave everything in plain sight rather than covering things up. Plumbing, wiring, fuel lines, stabilizer and other hydraulic lines are all exposed so the ship’s engineer can inspect everything and have ready access if they spot a hydraulic leak, for example.
Another point to consider is that most pleasure boat builders only have experience and time on the water on their own boats, so they don’t get the same opportunity as I did to see there may be better ways of doing things.
I hope these observations will help you next time you tour a boat. There’s a lot more to see than those pretty pillows and fancy interiors.
I promise it will be well worth the effort.