Choosing a sailboat

How to find the right sailboat for you

By David HarrisDavid Harris


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The flag snaps in the breeze, bright sunshine sparkles on the newly textured surface of the bay, and the fresh 12-knot northwesterly promises more of the same all day.

Darn, wish we had a sailboat.

Sailing adds a huge dimension to the meaning of fun on the water. Fun in the sense of exhilarating, competitive, relaxing, challenging and, okay, occasionally wet.

The first challenge: finding the right boat for your cottage. An ideal boat for cruising the unobstructed water off Lake Erie’s beaches, for example, could be the wrong one for twisting and turning through the shoal-infested waters around Georgian Bay, and quite a different dinghy may best suit a family of novice sailors in the Kawarthas. You’ll have to balance how you want to use the boat, your local sailing environment, your budget, and your experience, as well as intangibles such as the boat’s image and your own. Practical factors, such as how the boat is stored between cottage visits, how much preparation, including rigging and launching, is required to get sailing each time, and conditions on your waterfront come into play, too.

Still drowning in a sea of options? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve assembled a fleet of 10 great sailing dinghies for cottage use that vary in basic design, capacity, cost, and performance. But before we go down to the dock for a look, we need to ask you a few questions.

Where will you keep your boat?

Will the boat be tethered to a mooring, tied up to the dock, pulled up on the beach, or overturned on the shore (as opposed to overturned in the water, which is another problem altogether)? Do you want to car-top it? These decisions will determine how much work is involved in making your boat ready to sail and the ease of getting underway.

None of the sailboats listed here should be left in the lake for long periods of time. “Leaving a boat in the water quadruples the wear and tear on it,” says Morten Fogh of Fogh Marine in Toronto. On top of that, gelcoat and resin used in the hull can be porous and absorb water. But if a boat has to be mostly assembled and disassembled at every use anyway, as do the Laser, Byte, and Sunfish, the mast can be taken out and the hull pulled up on the dock or shore and flipped over. In a perfect world, Fogh says, boats whose masts don’t come out between uses should be dry-sailed — hauled out of the water on a dolly or trailer with a cover over the cockpit.

Though manufacturers don’t recommend it, some cottagers find it more practical to leave the boat floating out on a mooring, particularly if it is heavy or if space at the dock is at a premium. It’s also more convenient: Simply hop on board, set the sails, and go. Boats with self-bailing cockpits (the cockpit floor is above the waterline, enabling water to drain) will happily sit out rainstorms. So will designs such as the Hobie catamaran, whose trampoline between the hulls doesn’t collect water. Others will need a cockpit cover to prevent flooding from accumulated water. Small, light, high-performance boats such as the Vago can capsize in high winds and waves while on a mooring and are best left tied up to a dock or, better still, dry-sailed. If beachfront sailing is in the cards, be sure the rudder and centreboard can be easily and quickly raised and lowered and that the boat is light enough to launch and retrieve without having to recruit the neighbourhood weightlifter. Still not sure where you’ll keep her? Heed Fogh’s advice: “You have to balance ease of use with the cost of your investment.”

How’s the wind over there?

Most breezes are predictable if you pay attention to the weather patterns in your area. In Ontario cottage country, for example, pleasant summer breezes typically result from high-pressure systems that bring bright blue skies and west winds building through midday and dying down near sunset. When low-pressure fronts come through, they’re usually accompanied by gusty winds from the east, grey skies, and rain. Why does this matter? Let’s assume that you don’t want to sail with rain dripping down your neck, and that your dock faces the sunset. In fair weather, you may find it challenging to get offshore against the prevailing westerly without being blown back into the dock. Look for a boat with good upwind sailing ability, such as the Albacore or Laser. Smaller lakes typically see lighter, flukier winds. In these conditions, light, nimble boats such as the Byte or Vago will be more responsive. On the flip side, heavier boats have more momentum and so are not as affected by gusts, a benefit for less agile folks who may have difficulty moving around in the boat to keep it balanced.

What does that black pulley on the blue rope do?

Some boats are easier to sail than others. If you aspire to go beyond the basics, however, be careful not to limit your growth potential by choosing an oversimplified craft. Look for a relatively uncomplicated boat that can be retrofit with performance-oriented upgrades, or one that can be simplified. The Hobie 16, for example, is offered with an optional furling jib for recreational use, which makes the boat easier to sail. The Laser sail comes in three sizes. “You can scale the size of the sail to the size of the sailor,” Fogh explains. Both the Flying Scot and CL 16 can be equipped with a spinnaker, which provides exhilarating performance when sailing downwind and plenty of action to keep the crew busy. Generally, as performance increases, so does the level of finesse and skill required. Cottagers who already have sailing experience may be happier with a more complex boat — such as the Vago or CL 16 — from the get-go.

Maybe you have visions of yourself in a fresh breeze, leading the fleet across the waves to the finish line. Racing can be a whole lot more fun if you compete “boat for boat” against other similar designs. Take a close look at the popular sailboats on your lake, especially if there is already organized racing in your area. Try to get out sailing with an owner before buying. Most cottage sailing regattas are casually organized, and regulars likely will be pleased to take you out in the hope of attracting another racer to their fold. (Crewing is also a good way for novices to gain some racing experience.)

Hey Dad, can we go sailing now?

Sailboat design has changed through the decades in response to how people use their boats. Sixty or 70 years ago, for example, sailing craft served well as basic transportation and fishing vessels. Ask some of the old-timers on Georgian Bay and they’ll likely reminisce about the big, stable Mackinaws and Grew dinghies. And you can’t talk sailing in the Thousand Islands without mentioning the St. Lawrence Sailing Skiff, which originated as a fishing guide’s workboat in the 1860s. Cottagers typically had a large power launch for transporting people and supplies to their islands, and sailboats, rowboats, and canoes for day-to-day getting around.

These days, sailboats are primarily for recreation, but there are still significant differences in the way they can be used. The one-man Olympic-class Laser, for example, is a speedy little performance-oriented singlehander (also fun for two coordinated people with good balance), but it will never be a stable family boat like the venerable Flying Scot, which is roomy, comfortable, and — bonus — pretty quick, too.

Kids who want to learn to sail will find the pint-sized Optimist well suited to their size and strength. Its stable, pram-shaped hull is less than 8 feet long. If you want your kids to learn confidence and control in a sailboat early in the game, this is a good choice, and is an ideal singlehander for kids younger than 15 who want to get into racing.

The bottom line? Consider your abilities and aspirations (and those of other people at your cottage who will sail the boat) and balance those with the practical limitations of your waterfront and your lake. Then, get ready to be blown away.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2007

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