is reprinted with kind permission from Small
Craft Advisor Magazine. Read the article below,
including the side bars and then take the interactive
test to help you assess your own boat.
Anyone who sails a small boat for any length of time
will almost certainly be overtaken by bad weather
at some stage. With the wind howling and the waves
building, we often wonder: “How seaworthy is
my boat?” There is no question that some boats
survive bad weather better than others, even allowing
for various degrees of experience among their crews.
But what makes one boat more seaworthy than another?
We can’t answer that question, of course,
until we define the word “seaworthy.”
Experts agree it’s a nebulous term that does
not lend itself to absolute definition.
It’s almost easier to define seaworthiness
for sailboats intended to cross oceans than it is
for boats designed to sail on rivers, lakes, and coastal
waters. Seaworthiness for world cruisers means the
ability to stay afloat, remain watertight, and keep
crew safe in the worst conditions of wave and weather.
It includes the ability to beat off a dangerous lee
shore in heavy weather.
The Heavily Ballasted Skipper
Displacement and Inertia
You may wonder why a whopping
25 bonus points is awarded to the heaviest boats
in our seaworthiness quiz. Here’s why:
Capsize is often as much the result of wave
impact as the effect of a sudden gust of wind.
Either way, the heavier a boat, the less likely
it is to capsize, because of what’s called
Inertia is the resistance
of a body at rest to being moved. It is also
the resistance of a moving body to being stopped.
It’s difficult to make a heavy boat with
a tall mast heel suddenly. The mass of the hull
and the leverage of the mast resist sudden changes
The deeper, heavier, and longer
a boat, the more inertia she carries. Heavy-displacement
boats are about five times as resistant to capsize
as ultra-light-displacement boats of the same
length, according to famed research scientist
and naval architect Tony Marchaj.—JV
Cockpits are often disproportionately
large on small boats. There is thus more need
than ever for quick drainage. But very few production
trailerables have adequate cockpit drains. Some
have open transoms or outboard wells, but it’s
a very rare boat that has better than two 1
1/2-inch scuppers. Two 2-inch scuppers would
be a great improvement.—JV
Seaworthiness for boats that do not stray so far
from land is a little different because they can often
run for safety and reach land before wave conditions
become too dangerous and before fatigue sets in among
Naval architect Ted Brewer says in his book Understanding
Boat Design (International Marine):
“Obviously it is unfair to compare the seaworthiness
of a family daysailer with that of an ocean racer,
and an outboard fishing boat does not need the seagoing
ability of a bluewater motoryacht. However, all boats
must meet a certain level of seaworthiness to suit
their particular purpose, and they can and should
be compared with others of their type.”
Designer Warren Jordanís 15-foot Footloose Skiff favors
simplicity. John Kohnen and his Pickle pictured.
The smaller the boat, the greater
the need for simplicity. Complex systems all
too often become liabilities when the weather
gets rough. How often do we hear of a small-boat
sailor caught out singlehanded in a sudden blow
who can’t reef or start the outboard because
he’s too scared to let go of the tiller
and stop actively sailing?
Too many of us succumb to the
blandishments of the purveyors of shiny marine
equipment. We unwittingly follow the follies
of fashion. We bolt on fancy fittings of expensive,
hightech material where a good old-fashioned
cleat or fairlead would do. Beware of the tendency
to “improve” the piece of lanyard
that’s doing an honest job. Sail safer
by thinking simple.—JV
Vigorís Black Box Theory
Some boats seem to be more
seaworthy than others. They survive storms unscathed
where others get into serious trouble. Is this
just luck? No, it’s work.
Every boat has an invisible
black box that stores good-luck points. You
earn a point every time you check the rigging
before setting sail. You earn points for taking
a shore bearing after you’ve anchored.
Points pile up when you change the engine oil
on time and buy new batteries for the GPS. In
short, every seamanlike precaution you take,
every little bit of maintenance or checking
you do, especially on dark rainy nights when
you’d rather be in your bunk, every bit
of pre-planning on the chart, earns another
In times of stress, when you’re
caught in a storm and you’ve done all
you physically can, the points are cashed in
as protection. You can’t control their
withdrawal. They withdraw themselves as needed.
Boats that have no points
in the black box will later be described as
“unlucky” and “unfortunate.”
But those with points to expend will survive
the same conditions. The black box will take
care of you. All you need to do is keep it topped
The type we’re concerned with here is sailboats
displacing no more than 3,500 pounds that are regularly
trailered for afternoon daysails or weekends afloat.
And what we’re looking at is their ability to
perform safely in the sea areas and weather conditions
for which they were designed. They should be able
to cope with the conditions found in the protected
and semi-protected waters typically frequented by
The accompanying quiz can’t give you a definite
verification of your boat’s seaworthiness but
it will certainly indicate its relative fitness for
its designed purpose by comparison with other types
of boats. And remember, it’s up to you to find
out what your boat’s designed purpose is, and
to sail it within those parameters.
Capsize and Swamping
Two of the accidents most feared
by small-boat sailors are capsize and swamping.
You’ll sail with less angst if you’ve
thought out in advance what you’d do if
either of these things happened to you.
Dinghy sailors with wetsuits
or drysuits can practice righting their craft
by holding them head to wind and then standing
on the centerboard, but what do you do about
larger trailersailers? Luckily, the act of capsize
in larger craft is slower, and if you haven’t
cleated the mainsheet you’ll have a chance
to spill wind before the mast hits the water.
Further, a bigger boat’s metal centerboard
will act as righting ballast. The quickest recovery
will be made by boats with deep ballast keels.
Incidentally, many trailerables
with fixed shoal keels or keel-plus-centerboard
combinations are considered more seaworthy than
boats with only a centerboard or daggerboard.
There have been a number of reports of keel-plus-centerboard
boats losing their boards, but still being able
to sail to their destinations. And there are
many instances of centerboard-only boats turning
turtle and experiencing the board crashing back
into the trunk, sometimes with great structural
Swamping, that is the filling
of the cockpit by a wave washing over the transom
or side deck, is an ever-present hazard in heavy
weather. You must give thought to the problem
of getting rid of the water quickly, before
another wave or swell comes along and swamps
your heavily loaded boat even more. —JV
Elements of Seaworthiness
Seaworthiness is notoriously
difficult to define, but we can reasonably expect
the following characteristics in a seaworthy
trailerable sailboat being operated in conditions
for which she was designed:
• The ability to recover
from a 90-degree knockdown without serious
damage and without shipping a dangerous amount
of water; or, in the case of open dinghies,
the ability to recover and resume sailing after
a knockdown and swamping.
• The ability to look
after herself hove-to in sudden storms
for at least short periods while you gather
your wits, reef the sails, and/or start the
• The ability to beat
to windward in strong winds but reasonably
calm waters toward a nearby weather shore. Alternatively,
the ability to run safely downwind and beach
herself on a nearby lee shore.
• The ability to keep
her crew safe in all conditions. To achieve
these desirable traits, you must be able to
reduce sail area and still retain the good balance
and helm docility that makes for a safe and
efficient boat in heavy weather. —JV
How Seaworthy is
your Trailerable Sailboat?
The quiz (click image at left)
will give you an indication of the seaworthiness
of your trailerable sailboat of not more than
3,500 pounds displacement, used in areas and
weather conditions for which it was designed.
In general, that means the conditions found
in the protected and semi-protected waters typically
frequented by trailersailors.
We take it for granted that
you have a conventional rig such as a sloop,
a ketch, or a yawl. If you sail a small cutter,
a schooner, a junk, or something more exotic,
you’ll have to play this game by ear.
We also assume a reasonably normal ratio of
displacement to waterline length and overall
length. In awarding points to various characteristics,
simplicity of design and operation has always
won out over other considerations.
Choose one answer from each
section, except where otherwise
jump off a cliff if your boat doesn’t
come up to your expectations. There are certain
to be seaworthy designs that fall through the
cracks in our quiz.
What we hope is that taking
the quiz will make you think more deeply about
the many factors that constitute seaworthiness
in a small sailboat, and pursue them diligently.
Try to figure out why certain aspects of boat
design earn more points than others, and discuss
them with fellow boaters. Finally, we hope a
good score will bring you improved confidence
in your choice of boat and greater pleasure
in sailing her.—John Vigor
There are a number
of variables in our seaworthiness test, but
here is an example of how three small boats
with seaworthy reputations might score. For
the sake of comparison, we’ve given each
boat full credit for safety gear and reefing
options and assumed their skippers were thoroughly
experienced. Put your boat to the test and see
how it compares. —Eds
Drascombe Lugger: 134
Cape Dory Typhoon Weekender: 170
Santana 22: 182